Do Better Better #18: Back to the Future

Quinn Emmett
May 26, 2021
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November 4th, 1955. A few minutes before 8 o’clock.

Outside a huge CLOCK TOWER, a frazzled SCIENTIST with a SHOCK of white hair climbs down a ladder, a heavy electric cord hanging from his hand.

On the ground, a nervous, preppy TEEN BOY reluctantly confronts him with bad news.

The scientist’s going to die.

Marty McFly:
Doc, about the future...

Doc Brown:
No! Marty! We’ve already agreed that having information about the future can be extremely dangerous. Even if your intentions are good, it can backfire drastically!

Doc won’t hear it. So Marty writes him a letter, from the past, with knowledge of the future. If Doc spends the next 30 years going about business as usual, it won’t end well.

It doesn’t have to be this way, not when he can act -- now.

In 2021, it’s relatively easy to time travel back to some of our planet’s most significant events, to try to understand what went down and how the natural world was affected.

We can look at tree rings to examine a particularly dry season for any given location.

We can look at ice cores to understand past temperature fluctuations, and even volcanic activity.

Shit, we can even look at a strip of rock in North Dakota and gather evidence for the exact moment in time 65 million years ago when a 7.5 mile asteroid slammed into the Gulf of Mexico, launching a trillion tons of lava and vaporized rocks into the atmosphere, across the planet, and killing our beloved dinosaur ancestors (show me the lie).

Of course, just because 2.5 billion T.rex got incinerated on a Tuesday forever ago doesn’t mean this coming Tuesday will bring the same result.

I’ve written extensively regarding this age of accelerating complexity, of great transformation, of living in a discontinuity -- where the past cannot predict the future; not for stock market crashes, and definitely not for asteroids.

And yet, once in a lifetime events do happen, and, very occasionally, to everyone all at once.

Sometimes it’s a big fucking rock. Sometimes it’s a pandemic.

An opportunity is available to us now -- in our future’s past -- to act with all the speed and vigor we have.

To do what?

To not only make sure this never happens again, but also to build a support infrastructure for frontline workers who stood most firmly against COVID, for those humans who will suffer long-COVID physical and mental symptoms for many years to come, and of course, for the families who lost a loved one.

But will we do it? And what role can you play?

The easy and most likely answer is no; we’ll all look back in 20 years, living in the same for-profit healthcare system that’s only available to a minority of wealthy citizens, and occasionally mutter to one another: “Goddamn, remember COVID?”

The hard answer is “Yes, we will do these things, because we have to. But also, jesus christ, wow, 2020 was a hellscape, huh?”

Let’s say we do the hard thing. What will have changed in 2040 because of the decisions we make today?

The beauty of second order thinking is not only asking “What the hell is happening?” but also “What happens next?” and, as much as we can, “What could happen after that?”

If SARS-CoV-2 and COVID and the way we experienced them were a ramification of all the decisions we’d made before March 15th, 2020 (yes, yes, it was here earlier, it was in the newsletter, stick with me), then the well-being of our society in 2040 is going to be a reflection of how we respond and build anew, today.

Don’t do shit? Then we’re going to get the same results we did before -- more pandemics, and more suffering, plus some other consequences that are neither unintended (if we actively choose to do nothing), nor even predictable.

Imaginable, if we’re lucky.

Again -- we are entering an era of vast complexity: a new, more volatile 21st century built on the same destructive and exploitative systems of the 20th.

While some of the macro societal and economic trends are clear and addressable (if flagrantly and often purposefully ignored to date), some are not, and may not be for a while.

The more intricate and outdated our systems, the more externalities we are all exposed to.

We have to skate to where the puck is going.

Beginning with projects like Global.health, we can assess macro insights from billions of records across a huge variety of genetic codes.

The virus and COVID will be with us for a long time, and it’s essential we understand how they truly work.

But we can’t only address our existing systemic weaknesses, including the vast and deep public health failures that doomed so many to die and suffer. We have to travel through time, dammit.

“If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits eighty-eight miles per hour, you’re gonna see some serious shit.”

We have an opportunity now, to do some serious shit.

When our wounds are still so raw, when we have momentum, to consider the second order effects of today’s decision making.

To look back from the future we’ve currently programmed in and ask “If we could go back, what would we do differently?”

Did we build entirely new efforts to recruit Black doctors and nurses? Did we enable, prioritize, and evangelize wellness, and telehealth? Did we stop sending everyone to the emergency room all the time?

Did we make healthcare available to everyone? Did we eliminate smoking, air pollution, and junk food, and so many of the pre-existing conditions that made COVID so dangerous?

Did we plant trees in redlined neighborhoods? Have we re-considered a just-in-time supply chain? Have we regulated the hell out of the meat supply chain, including worker safety? Is genetic sequencing free and anonymized in bulk?

Did we write a GI Bill for mental health providers, and a Marshall Plan for mental health services? Did we capitalize on our incredible mRNA innovations to make even better vaccines (and take on malaria)?

Did we make clean water a human right? Are workers guaranteed a living wage? Did we make childcare and paid leave mandatory? Did we learn to communicate with proportion -- to celebrate our accomplishments, the progress of science, while reporting transparently on the work that remains?

Have we made probabilistic thinking a 101 class in our newly free colleges and trade schools? Are prescriptions affordable for everyone? Did we improve Black maternal health?

Did we restore voting rights? What in the holy hell did we do about American sectarianism? Did we 10x our public science funding?

Have we made clear that science is a process, not a result?

Did we make the common good a bulwark against future threats? Come at me, but the United States (by design) may have the toughest time with this one.

Look at everything above. If we don’t do those things by 2040, we’re in for it.

So.

What stage of your career are you in? How can you start working on these important problems now, and where can it take you in the next ten years? From elected office, from the board room, the classroom?

What will you imagine?

“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

Where can you create a new market and save lives at the same time?

“Whatever you’ve got to tell me, I’ll find out through the natural course of time.”

I have no interest in just finding out what the hell happens through “the natural course of time.”

The natural course of time is what got us here!

”Please take whatever precautions are necessary to prevent this terrible disaster. Your friend, Marty.”

Pedal to the floor, let’s go back to the future -- where we can say we changed the past, forever.

-- Quinn

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