Frontier Work

“We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.” – Carl Sagan

Some resist the natural human impulse to inquiry, but Carl Sagan understood that every one of us is already on this adventure with everyone else. What we do and don’t know affects everyone, so truth matters quite a lot. Science is our pursuit of evidence-based action insight; it is how we know that choices large and small carry discernible significance.

Katherine Johnson was a pioneering NASA mathematician. Her story was the focus of the movie Hidden Figures. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Her dedicated truth seeking made space travel safe for astronauts; we need to mobilize to do the same for life on Spaceship Earth. Photo credit: NASA Langley Research Center.

Exploration is service, in the interest of the improved safety and wellbeing of all. Politics, entrepreneurship, poetry, and innovation, all entail venturing out into the unknown, being a pioneer, earning the trust of people who maybe fear the frontier themselves, but who come to believe we will bring back nourishment, hope, and security for the future.

Frontier work is entrepreneurship—endeavoring to step outside the terrain where proven methods answer serious questions, to find both new questions and better answers. This kind of work brings the weight of meaning, of knowing you are involved in something significant, but it also brings the strain of carrying that weight. Loneliness, self-doubt, and the structural peer pressure of civilization’s urge to revert to conventional wisdom—these are all part of working at the frontier, just beyond what others already comfortably know.

When you dare to search for new answers, you learn well that the best friends are the ones that don’t need you to defend your difference, yet push you to be clear in your character and aims and don’t mind time spent unpacking what matters to you. Such friends always already love and understand. They model the truth that we are on this adventure into the unknown together. If you have them, hold onto them. Such human connections ground you more than conventional wisdom ever could.

We are living through a moment of unprecedented interconnection, and its corresponding fears and frictions. We are connected in a dense fabric of transcorporeal weathering. Instead of allowing everything to be too much, we must work to create new space for safe, secure, open-hearted human exploration of the universe.

  • Whether we like it or not, we are ethically entangled through the geophysics of Earth’s life-support systems.
  • We need to learn more than we ever thought possible about the life of our planet, including all of the relational connections that make us active planetary future-builders, enmeshed in a vast unseen but always active collaboration, hungry for and lamenting the boundaries we struggle against.
  • There is no pre-set standard for how we go about gathering all the knowledge we require to become good stewards of the planetary systems that give us life.
  • Science, inquiry, democracy, the inky fractious life-saving free press, the hard work of bringing people together to solve problems, field notes on the hyper-local, and the fire of the mind—these are all manifestations of the fundamental universal right to seek truth.
NASA’s Cassini probe acquired the images for this mosaic as the spacecraft drifted in the darkness of Saturn’s shadow for about 12 hours on Sept. 15, 2006, allowing a multitude of unique observations of the microscopic particles that compose Saturn’s faint rings. A remarkable bonus: on the left side just outside and above the bright main rings, Earth can be seen as a blue dot floating in space. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Nearly every day, I spend a little time with the image of Earth as a pale blue point of light, floating far in the distance under Saturn’s backlit rings. It reminds me that for all of our disagreements, we share this lucky, perfect, wild planet, and we have put ourselves in a position to lose its generosity toward us. It also reminds me of the prowess of our collaborative intelligence—which has allowed us to explore the Solar System.

So the questions stay fresh:

  • How can we rescue the generosity we have most taken for granted and abused?
  • How do we transcend built-in, time-tested tendencies that have put our future so much at risk?
  • What is the first step, each day, that brings us closer to a sustainable overall way of being?
  • Will any of us ever have done enough?

Everything depends on all of us being part of this, being of value to each other, learning and helping others to learn. We must renew ourselves, recognize where change is needed, and make it possible, without disrespecting the dignity inherent in our forerunning world-building choices.

On October 16, 2018, at The Hague, a new Global Commission on Adaptation was launched, with a high-level event and two days of stakeholder dialogues. As climate impacts worsen, the world is in a race against time. Macro-critical (economy-shaping) influences—like climate disruption, sustainable agriculture, access to education, and resilient infrastructure—must be understood and prioritized or trillions of dollars will be wasted and human civilization put at risk.

The size of the challenge we now face, the unprecedented speed, scope, and universality of pervasive deliberate change—which the science of the IPCC’s 1.5ºC report shows we must undertake—starts from recognizing that we are all, now, living on the frontier. That means we are more lonely and more at risk than we used to be, and that by sharing this struggle, we are closer to one another than expected. Despair is not allowed.

The work of rescuing the generosity of Earth starts with the deliberate choice to be generous with each other.

[ The Note for October 2018 ]


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