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Seeing tomorrow's world today

By Russell W. PetersonRussell 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. / July 29, 1982

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.

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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.''

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.