Grinspoon’s Sagan Lecture: The Urgency Paradox

I’ve been trying to spot AGU presentations of general public interest to pass along while there is open access.

The Carl Sagan lecture by David Grinspoon is a very nice example.

“Terra Sapiens. The Role of Science in Fostering a Wisely Managed Earth”

[UPDATE: The lecture has been posted to Youtube]

Very much worth watching. Grinspoon also offers a formulation of a point I’ve been trying to make.

Something I’ve been saying all along about the short term thinking of journalism and politics, especially in America, is nicely captured by Grinspoon in a meandering but wonderful run-on-sentence at about 49:00.

“We are in a crisis in our civilization right now. It’s a slowly unfolding crisis. One can argue that urgency even acts against us. I’ve made this argument, stating in fact that if we focus too much on the urgency, what’s happening with this storm, or the need to worry about whether this law is do or die, then in a way we fall into the same habit of thought that we’re trying to work against, because what we really need is a long term change in values, so it’s tricky and I do wish Carl was here to help us navigate it.”

There’s no doubt that we have to play the “winning the week” and “winning the country” games; we can’t afford to lose them constantly. But in the end it is a question of whether we win the world and the century. Both the fevered pace of life and the adamant inward-looking national insularity among the most influential, otherwise progressive, segments of American society are parts of the problem.

If we get through this mess it will surely be because a new global consensus will have emerged about how we, as a planetary civilization, are to live in the long future, and how we are to manage the planet that we suddenly, inadvertently, find ourselves dominating. As far as I can tell, for the most part we aren’t even having the conversation about how to do that. Grinspoon offers up an encouraging exception.

AGU videos can be accessed by nonmembers for free until the end of December. What one does is create an account, wait for the response, and use that and the promotional code to get the access. It’s a bit tedious but worth it.

“Create an account” is at the bottom of the first screen. You’ll get a link in an email. Then be sure to enter promo code:



  1. "what we really need is a long term change in values, so it’s tricky and I do wish Carl was here to help us navigate it."

    Being European, I haven't seen or read much of Carl Sagan. From the few glimpses I guess he wouldn't be much helpful: Forget Sagan's billions of stars, man. The universe is as boring as it is irrelevant compared to the dirt below your boots. Above all it's time to forget about space travel. Try Earth riding instead. And, no organisms aren't just fancy molecular machinery. A Dinosaur fight is not an action of molecules.

    Here's the necessary change in values: Life is more than just molecular machinery: It is history, which has value. It is creativity, which has value. (Oh, and besides, we are part of it, which makes Life especially valuable.)

    We need biologists and cyberneticists, not cosmologists, to elucidate this.

  2. The HuffPost piece brings us back to Epistemology: the skeptic undermining the status of knowledge by casting doubt on the validity of the justification. This has power because it is easy to do and hard to counter. It's been a part of the armory for a while, now. From a corporate point of view, what better way to avoid accusations of harm or impropriety than by casting doubt on the means by which the evidence is assessed? Going back to an earlier piece, perhaps we need to think a bit about what it is that doubters (of AGW) think that we don't know, and what it is that they don't know that they don't know. The loop begins...

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