OneThing50: remembering the commons in the Easter season

Sustainable growth is an oxymoron.”

Noted ecolate

Noted dour realist Garrett Hardin

Earth Day recedes from our memory.  This past Tuesday, we looked through a kaleidoscopic four decades of Earth Days . . . and I thought of Garrett Hardin and his micro-famous essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” in which he quotes A. N. Whitehead’s great line . . . that tragedy is not unhappiness but “resides in the remorseless working of things.”  Essentially this, the relentless pursuit of personal happiness within a growing population will result in competing interests; holding then to absolute freedom, as Hardin says, “will bring ruin to all.”

“In a competitive world of limited resources, total freedom of individual action is intolerable.”

STELLA diagram depicting two key STOCKS:  Population and Resources . . . and these are locked in a feedback loop

STELLA diagram depicting two key STOCKS: Population and Resources . . . and these are locked in a feedback loop, illustrating A.N. Whitehead’s “remorseless working of things.”

This much simplified STELLA model of a Resource impacted by a Population illustrates Hardin’s idea of the impact of population on all aspects of human society, including moral reasoning. For this lifelong Catholic, Hardin’s assertion about how one ascertains what is moral challenges my upbringing, but appeals deeply and implacably to reason. He says this: “The morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time it is performed.” Ah, squishy relativism.

So, for a moment, let’s consider this as it emerges within the system illustrated at right.  Early on, a small and disparate population allows for considerable personal freedom, especially as it pertains to family size.  However, as the population increases, the increasing density pinches local resources (and, later, global resources as well);  pressures mount on livability such that, at some point when “the state of the system” pushes through carrying capacity, the death rate necessarily increases to stabilize the system.  In short, my moral freedom to control my family’s size threatens that very freedom . . . the “remorseless working of things” will endanger not only my children, my wife, and myself but my community as well.

“Exponential growth is kept under control by misery.”

When Hardin wrote this essay, the world held about 3,000,000,000 souls.  Now, it harbors over 7,000,000,000, en route to a mid-century peak of about 9,500,000,000.  In the ecolate view, one must ask, “And then what?”


QuickThing17: sprawl happens

São Paulo from Space,

20140406-235941.jpgCompress time, and the changes wrought by time, and you’re mind will surely be boggled. When it comes to population surges through growth and migration, a few cities truly capture this phenomenon.

Not until the last few decades has the globe moved from being largely agrarian to a majority of urban centers. And this is how it happened in Paris, São Paulo, and Los Angeles.


QuickThing16: youth of today are the non-drivers of tomorrow

From Sightline – the bloggers and researchers of sustainability in the Pacific Northwest – comes this new item in their continuing series on fewer drivers.  Here, this blog speaks about three different long-term flows slowly impacting the American car craze . . . and, thereby, road construction and the car industry and gas prices and transit use . . . and who knows what else.

Young People Are Driving Less | Sightline Daily.

QuickThing15: dazzling wind map

Wind Map

The famed Columbia Gorge has seams of these turbines threading across its landscape.

Hasn’t our fascination with understanding and teaching about systems been connected to the dichotomy between the world we live in (a dynamic, always-moving ) and how we represent it to students (reduced, lineal, static)?

This map gives a sense of how winds move and behave as a single thing.

Here, then, from Google is a beautiful thing.  Click. Watch. Zoom in all you want.

Wind Map.

Click on OneThing39 to read about summer conferences.

OneThing39: a summer for Common Core, STEM & Sustainability

Stepping away to learn so that we can find our instructional stride

The Creative Learning Exchange (CLE) and the Sustainability Education Summer Institute (SESI) sponsor summer conferences and institutes that help us all do our jobs just a little bit better – reaching out to teachers to prepare them for teaching about systems and sustainability.

The CLE sponsors the national Systems Thinking & Dynamic Modeling Conference for K-12 Education in Wellesley, MA, June 30 – July 2.  This conference features teachers and systems practitioners in a three-day Chautauqua of best practices from around the United States. This year’s focus is on the Common Core and STEM Standards, two profound threads of educational reform that have swept through school districts bringing change and new conversations.  This 10th Biennial conference brings together the systems community’s preeminent voices – Peter Senge, George Richardson, and Dennis Meadows.

Over the last two decades, I have participated and presented at this conference as it has criss-crossed the United States: Arizona, New Hampshire, Washington, and Massachusetts.  It’s the kind of conference where neophytes and experts gather to learn and share.  There are many great things about this conference:  teachers share best instructional practices in systems education, and system practitioners share their expertise with teachers.  It’s akin to writing teachers attending a conference alongside the best novelists in the country.

The Learning Tree at Islandwood on Bainbridge Island, WA

Across the country, near the northwest tip of the Pacific Northwest, SESI 2012 gets underway on Bainbridge Island, at a sustainability enclave called Islandwood.  This year’s event features three strands for sustainability educators:  start up teachers wanting to learn, best practices among current teachers, and a deep learning path for experienced teachers.  The first strand includes sessions in systems thinking.  And Fritjof Capra’s Center for EcoLiteracy is a one of the co-sponsors.

If you to step away from modern society and our urban landscape, then come here.  Islandwood will transport you into a sustainability dreamland where the rhetoric and hopes of environmentalism and sustainability are everyday practiced.  You can see what’s possible.  By the way, Washington state is one of the very states with requirements for sustainability education and systems thinking.  I grateful for the real honor to present and participate in SESI 2009.

Get out there!  Learn!  Teach!

QuickThing12: 40 Years since Limits to Growth

The Smithsonian and The Club of Rome commemorate the publication of Limits to Growth 40 years ago.

This book sparked a rabid debate on growth, on limits, on sustainability, and the environment.  At its heart was a system dynamics model that was the first computer model to go broadly public.  People really weren’t ready for it.

This link takes you to speeches.

Perspectives on Limits to Growth: Challenges to Building a Sustainable Planet | Consortia | Smithsonian.

Cover of "The Limits to growth: A report ...

Get the book Limits to Growth.

QuickThing11: carbon sources and sinks

Look what all that throughput gets us . . .

Both sides of THROUGHPUT - the pictures and numbers paint a very clear picture of SOURCES and SINKS

Modernization has catalyzed the release of carbon from its SOURCES – stored in the earth, for example, as coal or trees which we burn for fuel or to clear land for agriculture – and that release is currently overwhelming the Earth’s exquisite SINKS – our oceans, our forests, and our air.

So, let’s go back a single post to OneThing36, to that slightly geeky word throughput, what Donella Meadows describes as a kind of speed limit – the flow rates at which the Earth can meet our acquisitive demands.  At some point, the sources will run low or the sinks will overflow (or both) . . . and that will reduce the throughput either by “human choice or by . . . unpleasant natural feedbacks.”

Consider the Canadian tar sands and the Keystone Pipeline . . . an exceedingly clear illustration of SOURCE – THROUGHPUT – SINK.

OneThing36: knowing “throughput” fundamentally changes how you see

Let’s start teaching a systems lexicon

Throughput is a slightly geeky word that ought to live in the everyday language of our middle and high school students in the same way that multiplayer or sustainable do – both common and fairly well understood by any ten year old.  Just ask any of them how many pancakes they might eat at a sitting or how much of a history lecture they can listen to and remember.  They can get throughput. Totally, dude.

As the idea appears in Beyond The Limits

Here, Donella Meadows tells us that throughput is simply all the capacity a system has, first, to take stuff from sources, use it, and, second, to put it in sinks.  In other words, we use raw materials and then put them somewhere – toss it in a pile, bury it in a landfill, pour it in a stream or ocean, or put in the atmosphere.  It all goes somewhere.

In a system dynamics model using STELLA, throughput looks like this.

Using STELLA iconography, two CLOUDS identify the source and sink, an INFLOW and OUTFLOW identify the throughput, and a STOCK identifies the accumulated or level of stuff. Of course, one might use stocks to specify the source and the sink.

Certainly, there’s much more to this than what’s rather simply illustrated here, but the concept of throughput is key to everything relative to sustainability.  Can we keep taking stuff from the earth at the current rate, expecting that the earth can also absorb the rate of waste from that use?  Seems like an obvious “No,” doesn’t it?

Cover of "Beyond the Limits: Confronting ...

As Meadows clearly put it, “many crucial sources are declining and degrading and many sinks are overflowing. The throughput flows that maintain the human economy cannot be maintained at their current rates indefinitely, or even for very much longer.”

The Donella Meadows Institute

OneThing35: National Systems Thinking Weeks, 10/5 – 10/20

Finding the right lever and pushing it the right way . . . really hard

Our only home . . . we need to think differently if we want to keep it.

Let’s start preparing for the first ever National Systems Thinking Week – to be celebrated annually across the United States, commemorated by government decrees in core regions, feted by civic forums where a critical mass exists, and embraced by grade and high schools throughout the United States. Mark your calendars – October 5 – 20!

English: Portrait of Fritjof Capra, physicist,...

One month before the national election, President Obama will proclaim October 5 – 20 National Systems Thinking Week, quoting Albert Einstein, “We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  He will recognize that systems thinking helps us understand the obvious interdependencies that govern our lives, that the United States should embark on a national goal to elevate systems thinking to a discipline equal in rank to mathematics within two decades.

Early in the school year, when students’ are most apt to invent and create with energy, the National Systems Thinking Week will provide students unprecedented opportunities to learn about the tightly bound web of life in which they live.  Materials from the Creative Learning Exchange and the Waters Foundation give K-12 teachers materials they can use right away, helping students understand the basic vocabulary and structure of a systems view of the world.  Schools in Boston, Tucson, and Portland will feature student displays and symposiums, allowing students to explore a systems approach to solving local issues.

Fritjof Capra, Founder and Director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, will appear on Public Broadcasting’s “Nova.”  He’ll talk about the web of life, the uncommon wisdom needed to understand our interconnected world.  He’ll talk about the flowering of systems theory, the environmental movement, the rise of sustainable development, and the current Green Movement – all of it necessarily supported and understood by systems thinking.

Booksellers will feature classics in systems theory:  Limits to Growth, The Tipping Point, Thinking in Systems, When a Butterfly Sneezes, World Dynamics, Beyond the Limits, Business Dynamics, and The Web of Life.

Universities throughout the United States will hold conferences on system failures and system success:  tragedy of the commons, the demise of Easter Island, predation on the Kaibab Plateau, Learning Organizations in businesses, and the rise of new urban designs.

Coffee shops in Portland will convene large scale simulations in forest management.  Boston area libraries will hold town hall simulations in fisheries, reviving FishBanks in a newly minted version.  On the campuses of great American institutions such as the University of Arizona, the Colorado School of Mines, and Cal Berkeley, student groups will discuss land use and water rights.

Systems jokes, systems t-shirts, systems bumper stickers, systems thinking “think-in’s” at city halls, software demonstrations in classrooms, leverage discussions in  boardrooms, students asking questions of political leaders and city planners.  Imagine it!

Help propel us to such a week by registering for the 10th Biennial National Systems Thinking and Dynamics Modeling Conference at the Babson Center in Wellesley, MA, June 30 to July 2, 2012.

OneThing34: trash talkin’

Moving effluence because of our affluence

The beautiful and beguiling garbage truck as we might romantically recall it

Come this October, we’ll all be celebrating 100 years of the garbage truck.  A century of moving trash from my yard to someone else’s far away yard.

We humans have been hauling trash for eons. And, well, that’s a good thing.  Right?

I’m starting to think that everyone ought to take a family Sunday drive to the local transfer station – where city locals bring some recycling and toss items too large for their street side can, where household remodeling waste is deposited by builders, and where commercial haulers unload their trucks.  It’s awesome.

Front Loader Magic

Huge front loaders push trash as fast as the machine can move while garbage truck after garbage truck unloads and unloads and unloads. Trash is pushed toward a compacter that creates “logs” or “slugs”- stackable, haulable blocks of compressed junk you and I have pitched into the “far away from my house” pile.  And, in fact, that’s where it goes!

So it is that we have been lying to ourselves.  So convenient. Just think of anytime you have backpacked into a wilderness for a few days – “pack it in, pack it out” goes the mantra.  From the get go, planning is about reducing waste.  It’s really hard to do.

There may be some value in our living with the mess and stench for a while so that we remember what we are doing.  Breaking that feedback loop means we just keep doing it. Sending it away only reinforces our poor behavior in this:  it goes away, so I never see it or smell it, and so I can it again and, certainly, do more of it.  It’s a vicious, sticky, gooey, smelly cycle.

Imagine if at schools across the country, we allowed all the trash to pile up in the cafeteria.  All the classrooms, all the offices, all the restrooms, all the cafeteria and courtyard trash bins – all of it tossed into the cafeteria – the school’s new transfer station.   The more in there, the less space for sitting and eating.  Just fill it up.  Let people see how much trash a school of 500 or 750 or 1000 actually can generate.  There’s a feedback loop for ya!

Oh . . . and would our hearts do long for the venerable and beneficent garbage truck.  For every day, we Americans toss out enough junk to fill 63,000 of them.  And, at some point, we have to throw the truck away, too.