Coping with a warming planet and WikiLeakable world: Common challenges

Time is ticking away...but crises also mean opportunities

I like to think and speak in metaphors, especially visual metaphors. Sometimes I coin or design new ones. This illustration is the latest example.

Individual elements in this came from very different sources (thanks to them all). I just mixed them together to make two points during a talk I just gave at the Colombo University.

We live in a crisis-ridden world where we have to cope with multiple emergencies unfolding at the same time, impacting us on different fronts. This illustration captures three of them: crisis in biodiversity, man-made climate change, and the new reality of living in a rapidly WikiLeakable world — what I called the Global Glass House.

We don’t get to choose the timing, severity or duration of any challenge. But we do have some choice over how we respond: we can despair and grumble (blaming the Gods or karma if we believe in those); we can become really alarmist (a la Chicken Little); or we can be measured and smart in how we deal with the seemingly overwhelming situations.

Speaking at the Leaders in Environmental Advocacy Forum (LEAF) on Preserving the Past, Securing the Future on 22 January 2011 at the University of Colombo, I advocated this last option. I also pulled together a number of ideas mentioned on this blog over the past four years.

LEAF was a two-day summit held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, hosted by members of the Elon University’s Periclean Scholar Class of 2011, in partnership with the University of Colombo, the United States Embassy in Colombo, the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka and Rainforest Rescue International.

My illustrated talk was titled “Telling Stories to Save Ourselves: Communicating on a Warming Planet” — I revisited an idea originally featured on this blog in mid 2007 (about Arabian Nights and their modern day relevance) and coupled that with a more recent proposal of mine: consider education and communication the third track of plank in humanity’s response to climate change (alongside climate mitigation and adaptation).

In fact, some challenges of living on a warming planet are comparable to coping with a WikiLeakable world: both demand quick adaptation to a new reality. In both cases, governments and society have to change mindset and practices on the go — business as usual is no longer an option. Denialism, or demonising the messenger, won’t take us forward. We need more measured, sometimes even pragmatic responses.

In that process, all-or-nothing is not a viable approach. Waiting for full knowledge and understanding is not feasible either. As I once described it, responding to the planet’s climate and other ecological crisis with partial scientific understanding is akin to many pages of our planet’s ‘operations manual’ being still completely blank — and yet we have to manage the planet to the best of our knowledge, intuition and common sense.

Many of the same principles apply to living in the modern networked info society, where no secrets can be kept that way for too long. The sooner we come to terms with this new reality and adapt, the better.

I’m delighted to see others are addressing these parallels. In my talk, I mentioned a recent essay titled Could climate science become open source? by Brendan Barrett and Sulayman K. Sowe, published earlier this month on the UN University’s Our World 2.0 website.

In their perceptive piece, the authors ask whether climate science would benefit by being more firmly grounded in the principles of openness, perhaps along the lines of the free and open source software communities and open content movements. “The concept of openness behind free and open source software describes a mode of creative knowledge production and sharing in which individuals and communities freely generate and adapt or remix resources (content or software) without licensing restrictions.”

They add: “Proposing a move to a new model of climate science in no way suggests that climate change is not a real and present threat or that we cannot rely on the integrity of our contemporary climate science institutions and scientists. Rather, the argument here is that learning from the way free and open source software projects and communities work may be an important way forward in engendering more effective global, national and local responses to climate change.”

I have always worn multiple ‘hats’, and dabbled in multiple pursuits rather than follow narrow paths of enquiry. I see myself continuing to oscillate between the ‘geeks’ and greens, and where possible, bridging their worlds. It’s really encouraging to see some others straddling the two spheres.

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