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?”


OneThing47: model modeling

Barry Richmond on learning

Barry Richmond - creator of STELLA and systems citizen

Barry Richmond – creator of STELLA and systems citizen

The last few postings on my School Change model have generated some discussion over on the System Dynamics K-12 list-serve that focused less on the structure and more on some philosophy of education and specific pedagogies, things I am somewhat less interested in than the deep structure of change.  While there is a philosophical bent in my model – I am asserting something, after all – my intent of publishing is to focus on the structure to the extent it effectively narrates my ideas about school change.

And this brings me to Barry Richmond, the STELLA creator, who exuded a profound passion for education and learning.  He was an inspiration to me and many in the emerging community of teachers using system dynamics.

Barry's full model integrates all aspects of the learning process

Barry Richmond’s full model integrates all aspects of the learning process

And I want to reprise his Learning Model because I have leaned on it for some of my thoughts about change.  You would likely see the parallel to Barry’s “Constructing a Mental Model” section and my “Curriculum” section (OneThing45).

A few things about Barry the Model-Builder:

  • Simplicity – tell the story of your thinking as clearly and simply as one can.
  • Elegance – the iconography has a beauty in its connectedness, and the rounded links help with the mental model of feedback
  • Grammar – Barry was fond of saying that Stocks are the nouns of the system, and the Flows are the verbs.  This syntax helps the modeler compose.
  • Co-Flows exist in the world – two things happen simultaneously all the time; e.g., the act of simulating also generates decision-making
  • Coining icon titles – language is meant to bend to need and use; Barry coined new words all the time, exemplified here in the Conveyor Ramifying
  • Flows tell the story – in this, as in others of his models, the Richmond preference is to the actions within the bounded system.  There’s the story!

In my School Change model, I am using Barry’s models as a kind of style kind, as a journalist might use the Associated Press Style Guide or a writer Elements of Style.

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!

OneThing38: type of feedback matters

Feedback keeps coming until you learn

The policeman’s walk gives you a little time to rethink your actions – but it’s a VERY infrequent piece of feedback

When I drive, feedback keeps coming at me, especially as related to speed.

But back in the halcyon days of open teen life – I can drive my VW Bug like a sports car, not wear a seat belt, and yet live without a care! – speed had to do with how quickly I got to the make-out spot, or whether I got home before mom and dad freaked out.  These are not very good sources of feedback that determine behavior.  Safety? Public order?

Let me tell a different story of feedback for drivers.

I took this photo from the sidewalk, so this violation was not me!

On the way home from church on Sunday, we drove by a recently and temporarily installed electronic speed indicator suspended from the Speed Limit sign near our house.  It’s at the bottom of a hill, just before a park to the left of the sign.  What a thoughtful place for that sign!  In the ten minutes I stood there watching people fly by, most slowed down once their speed exceeded the posted 25 mph.  It’s highly effective, but also highly localized.  Most other signs are not like this.

You really don’t want to know how I took this picture

The most immediate source of continuous feedback relative to speed for a driver is the speedometer.  People consult it all the time.  How can you not?  In some models (my brothers Honda Civic, for example), the mph displays is two inch very bright teal numerals above the main dashboard.  Because it’s a digital display, the continuous movement of lighted segments keeps one’s eyes on the number.  Clever.

The closer to the mall, the worse the traffic. You’d think I’d get that feedback through my thick skull.

Still another feedback mode is sheer traffic volume.  Sometimes, the Speed Limit sign is flat out mockery.  Near the Clackamas Town Center, the Speed Limit is 40 mph.  I was stopped in this photo (I’m a good driver, really), but I rarely get over 20 mph on this road over the weekend.  Traffic feedback varies by city, by hour of day, by location within the driving grid, you name it.

God only knows the mystic feedback looping through this head.

There are invisible feedbacks, of course, all in my head – like the amount I pay for driver’s insurance or the cost of an accident. Of course, all the feedback works, if everything remains under current, ordinary circumstances.  Should something overrun the normal – an emergency, anger, late to work, daydreaming – the feedback loop reminding me to be safe, while still there, can not compete with such a shift in dominance.

In the end, all these feedback messages return to the same interpreter – me.  Inside my head, all these signals dip and dither.  I weigh all of it.  For a long time, my car also carried children, so the feedback about speed had still another element, causing me to act the very opposite of the childless, spouseless, witless high school Tim.  I was the epitome of a careful driver.

Continuous information flow, the threat of occasional traffic fine, the quasi-official shame of public real-time speed, the vagaries of moral and ethical judgment relative to speeding . . . all of these feedback loops in my brain keep me a pretty good driver.  Maybe I need them all.

OneThing37: Words to live by

Let the meaning choose the word

George Orwell

At a recent Republican Presidential Candidates Debate, the host asked each candidate to describe himself in a single word, and we got consistent, cheerful, to name a few.   Back in 2000, Saturday Night Live played off this very idea with fake Al Gore declaring “Lock box” and fake George Bush proclaiming “Strategery.”  To be sure, it’s a gimmicky kind of thing, but it can also be a good exercise in synthesis.

In his “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell famously called on writers and thinkers to practice the linguistic discipline of letting “the meaning choose the word.”  We do not need to think very broadly to cite examples of sloppy or exaggerated thinking where words seem to mean anything the writer or speaker wants.  I also recall Jay Forrester once proclaiming that a hallmark of system dynamics was that it made one’s thinking plain.

It’s what caused me to ask recently what are the ten most important systems words a middle or high school student should know.  So, over the last few weeks, I’ve read dozens of words people ascribe to Systems Thinking; and, while I disagree or am confounded by some of those words, I’ll leave it to others to check either the K-12 List Serve or Systems Thinking World to make their own judgments.

I thought here I’d go to renowned system dynamicist Donella Meadows (1941-2001).  In Thinking In Systems (2008, posthumous), she lists 18 words/phrases:

  • archetypes
  • balancing feedback loop
  • bounded rationality
  • dynamic equilibrium
  • dynamics
  • feedback loop
  • flow
  • hierarchy
  • limiting factor
  • linear relationship
  • nonlinear relationship
  • reinforcing feedback loop
  • resilience
  • self-organization
  • shifting dominance
  • stock
  • suboptimization
  • system

Eighteen words and phrases.  Learn them. Teach them.  And, in a few generations, we’ll all live a different world.

QuickThing13: it’s the closed systems that may ruin you

Some cities’ drains do things we’d rather not talk about

I’m happy to acknowledge this small metal sign that my city epoxied to the curb above the street drain in front of my house.  It tells me – and everyone in our neighborhood – that anything dumped here is part of a closed system.  Water, chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, lawn care products, detergents from car wash . . . all of it drains to the watershed.

And that’s not the only thing . . .

There are some cities that do not separate sewer from storm water;  it’s called a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO). Under usual conditions, runoff goes into the sewer system that flows to the treatment facilities.  This works OK when the city is small and there’s no rain, but it rains a bit in the Pacific Northwest.

Illustration of a combined sewer system

As Portland grew and when storms came calling, the runoff overwhelmed the CSO system, with the overflow running directly into the streams and the Willamette River.

Fortunately, Portland started working on this in 1991 and it’s finally done – Portland’s Big Pipe will help.  That little metal sign is all part of that grand vision from two decades ago.

I love that little sign.

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.