Friday, February 25, 2011

In place of certainty - learning

I've spent the past weeks deep in data and competing theories on the transition to clean energy.  So many people are so certain they know what is needed, but the more I learn, the more humble I feel.

Depending on which report you read, we need everything from technical brilliance and breakthroughs to new definitions of happiness. We need political reform and the removal of money from politics. We need  behavioral change or a massive build-out of a 'smart grid'.  We need to redesign cities, cut the price of renewable energy, or charge the full costs of polluting energy sources. Or maybe we need to electrify transportation, redesign the electric grid, change our habits, invest in clean energy R&D.

Some of the proposals make more sense to me than others, especially those that influence the core structures of systems - internalizing the price of greenhouse gas pollution for example or restoring health to democracies in order to produce better decisions for the long-term and the common good. But I find myself with less and less faith in any proposal or plan. For better or worse, in this interconnected world it begins to feel impossible to predict what will happen next, let alone try to direct events toward a specific end result. Technical breakthroughs in China ripple through to mix with political factors in the US, to combine with attitudes about mountaintop removal, to mix with revolution in the Middle East and the changing price of oil, to combine with falling costs of renewable energy, to mix with rising evidence of climate change to produce conditions never seen before in the world. Who, really, knows whats coming next?

In uncertain times it is so tempting to try to discern the right course of action and to denounce all the other possibilities. But, because of the very uncertainty of these times, I suspect we need to cultivate the opposite response. We need to pursue our piece of the puzzle with focus and determination,while  remaining aware of and grateful for all the other paths. When the activists change the political landscape the engineers need to stand ready with the clean technology. Or maybe its the other way around, when the engineers have their breakthrough, the activists need to be organized to take it to scale.

We also need, it seems to me, openness to possibility, willingness to experiment, willingness to be wrong, and wilingness to share what we are learning. We need tools to track how we are doing, tools that help us see the collective impact of all the little local changes that are happening, tools that play out the trends into future, illuminating not specific predictions but a general sense of direction.

I'm biased of course, because those are exactly the sort of tools our team has been producing for years, but, still, I feel grateful that my day's work doesn't ask me to pronounce what we should do, but rather asks me to help people look forward into all the futures that could emerge from this moment and connect those futures to the choices we have before us today. Step by step, if we take the next hundred years on that way, looking far forward and doing what we can with what we have at hand today, perhaps we will learn our way into a sustainable future and something that might even come close to wisdom.