Seeing tomorrow's world today

By , Russell W. Peterson, chairman of the President's Council on Environmental Quality during the Nixon and Ford administrations, is president of the National Audubon society and chairs the board of directors of the Global Tomorrow Coalition.

In this day and age, it is inexcusable that the US federal government does not have an organized and coordinated ''foresight capability'' to aid policymakers in understanding the global population, resource, and environmental trends that shape the world in which we exist.

The United States and its leaders are beset by crises which cannot be understood, much less resolved, without an appreciation of their causes beyond our borders and their consequences beyond the next decade or even the next election. Yet, if anything, since the ''Global 2000 Report to the President'' two years ago first documented the federal government's lack of foresight capability, the situation has deteriorated.

In its simplest terms, foresight capability is a matter of sound data, coordinated projections of global trends, analysis of their interactions, and informed policymaking. Based on the work of the 13 federal agencies and departments which went into the preparation of ''Global 2000,'' the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the State Department concluded that ''the executive agencies of the US government are not now capable of presenting the President with internally consistent projections of world trends . . . for the next two decades.''

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Just what does this mean for US policymaking? Misinformation and misperception.

For example, the health of the economy, at home and abroad, is currently the most politically pressing problem in the US. Yet at a time when our economic interdependence with other countries is greater than ever (the third world alone accounts for more than 25 percent of our overseas investment, more than 35 percent of our exports, and more than 45 percent of our imports), ''Global 2000 '' found that the government's measure of worldwide economic heath - GNP - is based on questionable assumptions. Among other things, federally used projections assumed major expansion in agricultural production as a result of stepped up fertilizer use. But they didn't consider possible changes in climate or explicit environmental impacts. They did assume unlimited water availability at constant real prices and no deterioration of the land resulting from urbanizaiton.

I believe the government's lack of foresight capability exists at three levels - data analysis, projections coordination, and political commitment. And I am convinced that at every level we are witnessing serious setbacks. The quality of government data, particularly the already limited global data, is being undercut dramatically by budget reductions in federal resource agencies.

Efforts to ensure consistency of assumptions and data, which go into projections for different sectors, are almost impossible without clear coordination. The only existing mechanism for coordination, the Office of Management and Budget's Statistical Policy Branch, has been eliminated. Political commitment to calling attention to issues that look across jurisdictions and beyond elections is vital. But despite its theoretical potential, the administration's ''Interagency Global Issues Working Group'' chaired by CEQ has thus far failed to respond substantively to even the problems of technical coordination so basic to providing useful foresight capability. I know of no instance in which the President personally has used his office to call attention to this problem.

Such setbacks are totally out of sync with growing public interest, both at home and abroad. Since the publication of ''Global 2000,'' countries such as Japan, Canada and Mexico have begun their own Global 2000 inquiries. In the US, 56 separate organizations, including the National Audubon Society, the League of Women Voters, the Overseas Development Council, and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, have joined together in the new Global Tomorrow Coalition to call attention precisely to the need for understanding global interdependence. Their initial action supported unanimously has been to call out for the creation in the Executive Office of the President of ''an improved capacity to coordinate and analyze data collected by federal agencies and other pertinent sources on the long-term interactions of trends in population, resources, and environment - and their relationship to social and economic development.''

Clearly, this is not a question of government ''plannning for the world.'' It is the question of whether the right hand of the government knows what the left is doing. That requires central coordination and communication, backed up by commitments to improve agency resources and educate officials on a regular basis. Congress has begun to explore the issue of foresight capability - reports on government computer projections are being prepared; House hearings have examined the problem conceptually; and three bills touch upon it legislatively.

In the Senate, S. 1771 includes among its requirements an interagency Council on Global Resources, Environment, and Population, to be chaired by CEQ and funded by the member departments. It would coordinate agencies' biennial production of long-term projections of global population, resource, and environment trends; encourage their analysis, particularly in light of current policy; and report regularly to Congress on these efforts. The fact that this bill is authored by Sen. Mark Hatfield and cosponsored by such senators as Charles Mathias, Slade Gorton, Alan Cranston, and Bill Bradley is proof of serious congressional concern about foresight capability.

The time for action is now. S. 1771 is pending before the Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. William Roth whose experience with the problems and relations of federal, state and local governments should be helpful in focusing on the problems that permeate and plague the global community. The Governmental Affairs Committee should undertake during the summer the kind of critical debate this issue and this bill warrant.

Its goal should be Senate enactment of legislation on foresight capability in 1982, signaling to both the administration and the nation that we cannot afford even in an election year to lose sight of global population, resource, and environment trends and their impacts on social and economic factors.

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