Bill Braun suggests “Sign up for remedial English at your local community college. Get a library account. Skip all the classes, fail the course, and use the on-line access to the library's databases.” – Good advice. I will try something like this.
Eric Stiens, thanks for your suggestions.
Regarding John Gunkler’s thoughts:
To say that a system is sustainable, then, I would think we would need to define these things:
1. The time frames over which the system would be sustained. [Jack suggests "forever."]
2. What are the key stocks/levels/states of this system -- i.e., the things we wish to sustain. [This is a non-trivial issue!]
3. The limits of the key stocks/levels/states of the system -- either upper or lower or both, depending upon what is to be "sustained."
Yes. This agrees with the System Improvement Process’s
standard format for problem definition: Move system A under constraints B from present state C to goal state D by deadline E with confidence level F.
Perhaps we need, instead, to define what are acceptable and unacceptable levels of key states/levels/stocks and decree that any system is "sustainable" so long as these key variables stay within acceptable levels.
Derek Burrows offers a link
to “Overcoming systemic roadblocks to sustainability.” Thanks. I’d not seen this before. Reading it, I notice that right off it references Donella Meadow’s leverage points piece. I’ve recently done the same, so this perked up my ears.
Then I noticed “For example, if our goal is to improve quality of life
, we will develop institutions and technologies that promote that goal, whereas if our goal is endless economic growth
, we will develop a different set of institutions and technologies.” Again, the choice between these two goals is a theme I’ve also been writing about.
The authors see the challenge as “designing our way through the process of cultural evolution.” – Yes and no. Designers do not have omnipotent power to effect change in society. But this statement implies they kinda do. Let’s see where the piece goes.
“A crisis is often required to allow the addicted individual to see and to acknowledge the addiction, and the transition to a postaddiction state can be quite traumatic.” – This is the famous ‘wake up call catastrophe’ reactive approach to solution, which I’ve modeled in the “Change resistance as the crux” paper. The paper shows that’s what history has relied upon to solve most of the environmental sustainability problem so far.
This is pretty good reading, very congruent with my interests. Thanks again, Derek.
“Full World Scenario: A Regime Under Stress - Our current WITs [world views, institutions, and technologies] are failing to meet our needs in a changing world. Anthropogenic climate change, peak oil, biodiversity loss, rising food prices, pandemics, ozone depletion, pollution, and the loss of other life-sustaining ecosystem services all pose serious threats to civilization. These crises can be traced back to one, albeit complex problem: we have failed to adapt our current socioecological regime from an empty world to a full world.”
It took me years to develop a term to describe this pattern of failure: lack of proper coupling
. A system that has failed to adapt to exogenous forces (such as approaching environmental limits) is improperly coupled to one or more other systems. In the environmental sustainability problem, the human system is improper coupled to the greater system it lives within: the biosphere, aka the environment. The term is useful because it encourages asking why improper coupling has occurred. This is different from why “we have failed to adapt to…” because the viewpoint of improper coupling encourages a higher level of abstraction.
“The aspects of our regime that no longer serve us in a full world can be grouped under two interrelated themes: a belief in unlimited growth, and a growing and unsustainable complexity.” – Very interesting. The “Change resistance as the crux” paper also identifies two beliefs as the fundamental axioms behind the dominant paradigm of our time. The beliefs are corporations are good and growth is good. I disagree with the complexity diagnosis (maybe I don’t understand what it represents) because it has low productivity in root cause diagnosis and resolution. But, let’s see where their argument is going….
Hmmm, the authors then talk a lot about growth and none about complexity. Then they move into “Envisioning a New Regime - Regime shifts can be driven by collapse or by integrated worldview, institutional, and technological changes. New cultural variants can be developed to offer new goals, rules, and tools. These new variants provide the opportunity to transition away from unsustainable practices and to avoid social, economic, and ecological collapse. Below we provide a partial list of worldviews, institutions, and technologies to stimulate and seed this evolutionary change.”
This “partial list” is what I call proper practices. They are what the system needs to adopt to be properly coupled. Here is their list:
1. Redefine Well-Being Metrics
2. Ensure the Well-Being of Populations During the Transition
3. Reduce Complexity and Increase Resilience
4. Expand the ‘Commons Sector’
5. Remove Barriers to Improving Knowledge and Technology
Lurking in the list is a tautology. “Increase resilience” means the system needs more of the ability to cope correctly with problems. So to solve the sustainability problem the system needs to be more able to solve the problem. See the circular reasoning here? Jared Diamond did the same thing in Collapse. One of his five causes of a society’s failure to avoid collapse was making the wrong decisions. That’s not a cause. It’s a symptom that’s always present when a society sees collapse coming and fails to take appropriate action.
Note the lack of continuity in the piece. Early on it argues the causes are “a belief in unlimited growth and a growing and unsustainable complexity.” Unless I missed it, the list of what to do does not address the first cause at all. This is a sign of a very informal analysis.
The list contains good ideas, individually. But where is the analysis that shows anything in this “partial list” will work in this case? Where is the root cause analysis and a model showing something in the list would cause the social system to become sustainable? No formal structured analysis is presented. Thus I conclude this is an intuitively derived list. It offers some small insights, but does not deliver on its promise of “Overcoming systemic roadblocks to sustainability.” To me, the most systemic roadblocks of all would be the root causes of the problem. These were not identified.
I’ve encountered this pattern hundreds of times. It’s all over the environmental literature. Well intentioned people create lists of what to do, promote them, and… little happens. WHY IS THIS?
A clue lies in the last section: “Conclusions - Changes in our current interconnected worldviews, institutions, and technologies (our socio-ecological regime) are needed to achieve a lifestyle better adapted to current and future environmental realities.” But what will cause society to adopt the list of changes? The paper does not address that at all. It blithely assumes they will somehow eventually be adopted.
The clue is the word “change.” I’ve spent the last many months patiently building an academic argument in what will possibly become my first published paper
: “Change resistance as the crux of the environmental sustainability problem.” This explains why the “Overcoming systemic roadblocks to sustainability” piece, and thousands of others like it, have failed and will continue fail. It’s because they are ignoring systemic change resistance.
But not everybody is ignoring it. In fact, one of our very own recently tried to light the candle so others could see that change resistance is the crux: John Sterman. His observation was so keen I ended my paper with a quote from his:
A recent article in Science observed that “The civil rights movement provides a better analogy for the climate challenge. Then, as now, entrenched special interests vigorously opposed change.” The piece ended with:
“Of course, we need more research and technical innovation—money and genius are always in short supply. But there is no purely technical solution for climate change. For public policy to be grounded in the hard-won results of climate science, we must now turn our attention to the dynamics of social and political change.” (Sterman, 2008, italics added)
Could this be the next frontier of system dynamics?
Bob Eberlein writes “However right after that concise definition follows a statement about environmental sustainability. But environmental, with any ending you want to apply, is not behavior and so the example makes no sense.”
Thanks. I guess this indicates how far we have to go on terms that are so commonly accepted and understood that we no longer stumble on their use. Thomas Kuhn calls this the prescience stage of a new science. Here the science is human system sustainability. Or… is that the right term?