Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Friday, May 31, 2013

Wagon trains and white water rafting


by Bill Everett

About four decades ago, an early member of the Club of Rome used "a 'wagon-train model' of pioneers moving into unknown illuminate the collective cybernetics of social goal-seeking and social change." [1] At that time, we discussed roles in an expanded version of the model: scouts fanning out ahead of the wagon train and exploring the "near-future" territory, pathfinders dispatched toward one or more desirable immediate objectives based on scouting reports, road-builders and pioneering engineers dispatched along the selected path to "smooth" the way and overcome obstacles, and so on.

We can suppose that the country of the "future" is not totally unknown. Explorers have reported the existence of very distant "valleys of sustainability" and also the dangerous (possibly uninhabitable) regions in the near vicinity. Further, let's suppose we have formed a wagon train and plan to try to reach one of the distant valleys of sustainability to settle there. We have a sort of model (simile or metaphor) to guide us in "organizing" the different specialists or roles that are needed for our wagon train to have some chance of getting there from here.

Projecting this model into the past, we can suppose that we found bodies of water and waterways and that we converted our wagons into rafts or boats, finding the water path easier. But the current in our river of history has been speeding up. I have a strong feeling that there are rapids ahead, quite likely with dangerous white water. The banks of the river now seem too high and steep, and the landing places where we could land our rafts and boats, converting them back into wagons, seem to have been left behind. We may already be committed to trying to make our way through the rapids and survive the white water.

If this is the case, then Platt's notion of an inertia period [1] is a dangerous simplification, and we must focus on a point made on slide 33 of Ian Dunlop's UN presentation [2]: "There is no alternative to an emergency war-footing approach to speed up the process." In other words, instead of scouts, pathfinders, road-builders and pioneering engineers, the necessary roles include bow-man/lookout, port paddlers, starboard paddlers, and stern oarman. Prompt and accurate warnings and instructions from the front of our craft, prompt vigorous appropriate actions by the paddlers on the left and right sides, and strong properly directed exertions at the stern might keep the longitudinal axis of our craft properly aligned to the current and the slope of the water surface to prevent capsizing (see the last minute or so of the video for a failure example). It may also be possible to shift into a part of the current that passes around destructive waterfalls.

In terms of the "emergency war-footing approach," in the very little time remaining before we hit the rapids, we need to develop, test, and practice the necessary rapid communication channels and the appropriate actions to have at least some control over the "attitude" of our carrier in the turbulent section.


1. John Platt, "How men can shape their future," Futures, March 1971, pp. 32-47,‎


  1. "the old ways of getting down the river just can’t accommodate. What’s needed is constant attention to details (aka REALITY), abandoning of status quos and concrete dogmas, most of all flexibility and resilience, in both leaders and their followers and the communities, organizations, and nations trying to stay afloat. There’s no guarantee that even these attributes will get the boat down the river to the next calmer patch safely, but they do promise much greater probabilities than lunk-headed insistence on prior privilege, the status quo, and 'this is how we do things here.'" -- Mike Connelly at

  2. That is a nice analogy of what is happening, and humanity is already entering the rapids.

    By other analogies, we are aboard the Titanic, he collision is underway, and most of the efforts are still about who will have which deck seating - even as the ship begins to sink. Oh, and those at the helm are still calling for the crew to accelerate the vessel.

    Me, I had glimmers this was happening but like most people I was too busy with everyday life/ bills and events to take time to research more thoroughly until I retired. Peace Corps in Africa during the 70s had taught me to consider well the difference between wants and needs, and I long had known I would retire to a low cost area. Internet allows idea exchange globally, and that is my solace, along with gardens with my wife and step-children. We grow most of our greens year round, and fruit trees of many varieties and seasons are maturing and becoming fruitful.