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?”


OneThing30: learn to love the feedback loop

When it comes to systems, shift happens

Michigan's Big House - a place with an actual carrying capacity

Jay Wright Forrester

Cornhusker Jay Forrester

Jay Forrester famously and emphatically stated once to a room of virgin system modelers that all flows are controlled by stocks. Period.  There is no such thing as a flow controlling a flow.  Really? I get it, and he is certainly many dozens of IQ point smarter than I . . . but come on . . . there’s probably somewhere in this universe where a flow controls a flow, right?

“It is the nature of systems that a flow is controlled by a stock.”

With football games starting up around the country . . . and my own beloved, though probably venal Oregon Ducks starting today against LSU . . . I thought about the carrying capacity of various stadiums around the US.  Yeah . . . we can show loop dominance and shifting loop dominance and a stock controlling a flow this.  Totally.

Reaching Carrying Capacity at your local, crazed college football stadium

In this quick-n-dirty model depicting the stock of fans at the Big House, I took some care to highlight the feedback loop:  as the crowd closes the gap between actual and capacity the pace of entering slows down and, of course, will stop.  (Of course, someone might pay off an usher or two, break fire marshal laws so more coeds could jam the aisles and stands. Different story.)

Just another Saturday in Ann Arbor

The size of the stock dictates the size of the flow.  Period.

This same model applies to the cars in the parking lot, the space available at the tailgating venues, the line into restrooms at halftime, the flow of students into classes on Monday mornings, and on the list goes.

In schools across the country, families will fill cars, students will climb onto buses as they return to classrooms, gymnasiums, cafeterias, hallways, lockerrooms, and auditoriums.  And it will operate in the same way – the size of a stock will control the size of the flow.

OneThing26: dude, be gentle with my aquifer

You’ll be surprised to know that it’s been raining in Portland, our second wettest spring on record .

Annual rain flow in Portland. We actually have a dry season.

Even so, there is only minimal deviation from the historical norms of annual precipitation, just a bit over five inches of rain in April.  Even the record extremes have limits:  if one plotted the extreme highs concurrent with extreme lows, you’d see a wide stream in winter (a variance of nearly a foot of rain) evaporate through spring to a trickle in July and August (about a three inch band only).

Even in extreme, the patterns mean something – our geography and climate can only generate so much rainfall.  The Northwest’s moderate latitude, coastal mountains and inland valleys have made for lush forests and sweet meadows – it’s a superb place to grow spearmint, hops, grass (both kinds), and berries of all sorts.

This slide shows clearly that extremes still fall with constraints - and tells us something about what we can use

The two graphs – annual rainfall and extremes – tell us nature’s water story in the Pacific Northwest.  It wasn’t until the newsletter from my local water district arrived, that another story emerged – what humans do when the water runs are low.

Pumping Rates from my local water district

In my local water district (Milwaukie, OR, just south of Portland – I’m literally three blocks from Portland), annual reports tell us about pumping and pollution.  Here, I include the pump rates from the previous four years.  Not much of a surprise there – we need the water in July and August.  What gets particularly hairy is if the snow pack is off a bit.  Couple that with our population taking off in the recent years, and there are multiple feedback loops impacting both our annual rainfall and the deep aquifer that we all rely on.

Amid all this, I started to imagine a model:  surface water to ground water to aquifer, and then the increasing demands emerging from our population increase.

Quick STELLA map of my mental model.

At this point, our aquifer is not in danger of being depleted . . . but there are a few that have been – some are just a local farmer’s well, others are quite large.

40 years of pumping for irrigation and general water supply in Cook County, GA, have led to a steady decline

In Georgia, you can see both the annual recharge as well as the steady water decline as urban dwellers suck more deeply on the big straw poking into their water table.

Here in the currently sopping Northwest, we don’t worry overmuch about this.  No surprise there . . . we won’t worry until some feedback comes our way:  higher water bills, government recommended flushing habits, a ban on car-washing or lawn watering in August, or  – God forbid – rationing.

Our record cloud cover and spring rainfall amounts are indeed a silver lining.

OneThing24: Br. Jack and La Salle science students to the rescue!

Restoring a salmon run in Yakima Valley

La Salle High School students wade into the Ahtanum Creek to assist with salmon restoration

About 140 miles east-by-north-east from Portland, the Yakima Valley of Washington state opens the high desert land to the traveler in a dramatic way:  crossing the Ahtanum Ridge, one sees an expanse of orchards and rivers and mountain peaks that dazzle anyone from a city.  It fulfills the epic imagination needed to comprehend the term “promised land.”

And then one drives into the cities – Toppenish, Union Gap, Yakima.  It’s an area slammed by lean times, and the deep source of prosperity – the land and water – has been used hard for decades.  At La Salle High School in Union Gap, the small school established on 40 acres abutting Ahtanum Creek, students and an iconic teacher decided it was time to swim with the fishes. Along the riparian zone edging the school’s property, Br. Jack Henderson, FSC, and his students have started plantings and, recently, received a grant to start a salmon hatchery.

It’s the kind of thing all schools ought to be doing – noting its special place amid its environs and putting the collective intellect and physical capacity at the service of the local community.

Br. Jack presides over the raceway with the Ahtanum Ridge and riparian zone in the background

Here in Union Gap, La Salle students under Br. Jack’s tutelage, ever so methodically, restore and recover the salmon runs of the Ahtanum watershed, however minute its spread within the broader Yakima Basin and Columbia River Watershed.   In the small-scale operation that is La Salle’s salmon hatchery, their two raceways house fewer than 25,000 alevins.  Each morning before school and, again, before they leave for the day, students walk from classrooms to the far end of the property to feed the flickering fry, soon to be released in the spring time Ahtanum flow.

More and more high schools near waterways are doing this.  It’s the perfect, engaging kind of academics that teenagers are naturally drawn to.  At Warrenton High School at the mouth of the Columbia River, students have established the Warrenton High Fisheries Inc. (, and it is succeeding.  (Over on the far right of this page, you’ll see Moving+Things – click on “Life Cycle of Salmon.”)

This direct work of managing some aspect of a complex system enables students to comprehend the precarious time-bound interplay of multiple forces . . . how all those disparate things are really one thing.

La Salle science students

Some parts of our ecosystem are – in fact – in terrible shape, but students can play a part in restoration.  It’s likely to take a few generations to right the ship. Fortunately, there are teachers like Br. Jack and students like those at La Salle High School in Union Gap who give us hope.

OneThing23: when you’ve heard one population explosion, you’ve heard them all

Spectacular eastern Oregon high plains - the Zumwalt Prairie

Sometimes, what happens in Oregon has already happened somewhere else.  We’re just slow on the uptake. What’s occurring in eastern Oregon should remind readers of another plateau experience.  Click on the pretty picture of the eastern Oregon herd for an endeering story.

The story is proof positive, as Thoreau put it,  that once you understand the principle of an event, all news like it is just gossip . . . this news item about Zumwalt Prairie ought to trigger thoughts about the Kaibab Plateau, a classic case of a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  Or the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Or knowing the right lever to press, but pressing in the wrong direction. Or . . .

Mostly, no one really understood how the Kaibab system operated as a natural organism – an undulating, multi-generational rhythm of vegetation, deer, and predators.  It’s the kind of exquisite relationships within a complex biota that takes centuries to find its balance. So, in the early 20th century, in an attempt to protect a dwindling herd, President Roosevelt and Congress created a preserve: protect deer, kill off predators. Dad gum, if it didn’t work. And work and work.  In about a decade or so, deer population soared from approximately 4,000 to 100,000. And then quickly, bitterly and pathetically, died off . . . seeking the natural set point for the region’s carrying capacity, about 30,000.

Basic Vensim model for the Kaibab Plateau

For systems modelers, the Kaibab Plateau problem is a prime problem for students to test their modeling mettle.  Once students have a rudimentary model, some truly wonderful learning can take place:  one can actually test out various policies on the habitat to see which is most effective.  What happens if one reduces/increase deer tags?  What happens if one allows predators to increase?  What happens if we want to protect the deer and kill off the predators? How long does it take for one policy to move through a complicated system?

For the last 20 years, various high school and college instructors have been creating computer models for students to think through the counter-intuitive qualities of the dynamic equilibrium of the Kaibab.  Here is the tale of carrying capacity, human intervention, and cuddly deer.

It’s a very rich model. Things move in the direction opposite from our passions and inclinations. And every high school student should know something about it.

Related articles

OneThing21: seeing structures, naturally

Click to go to a Donella Meadows essay archive

Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems asserts all systems have three characteristics:  elements, behaviors, and structures.

By elements she means a few things, among them are stocks or levels one might find in the world, such as trees or people or worms or water or cars or magma. These things usually occupy space – a forest or a city or a garden or lake  or a freeway or a cavern.

By behaviors she means the things we see or experience through time: forest will grow, burn, succumb in part to locusts, diversify, become more or less tropical as climate shifts, et cetera.  More broadly, then, all stocks fluctuate over a course of time – centuries or lifetimes or weeks  or seasons or rush hours or millennia. Within these time frames, various stocks will change – they’ll grow, they’ll decay; or they’ll do a little of both, oscillating through stretches of time.  For instance, people increase and multiply, cities grow and decay, garden productivity shifts, worm populations increase until they reach a carrying capacity – a limit imposed by natural surroundings – and then subside.

All that notwithstanding, the core lesson of system dynamics resides in recognizing structures. And by this she means that stocks, and their attendant flows, are arranged in particular relationships with other stocks . . . and there are surprisingly few of these primary structures. Within forests, there may be multiple systems at work; but when one hikes through the Mt. Hood National Forest, one immediately steps on the deep cushion of woody debris and decaying detritus sloughed from the enveloping trees which, in turn, generate vital nutrients for the seedling conifers to lay a root claim on the forest floor, where – in turn – their wood volume will increase for decades.

Coarse woody debris decomposes, creating a nutrient-rich loam for a forest’s succeeding generation of trees.

Within a city, thousands and millions throng. People are born and die, move in and move out, and each of these flow phenomena may depend on other variables in a broader system: economic forces, disease, education level of women, et cetera.

We observe the behaviors of these multivariate systems and can usually articulate them, but we rarely understand the dynamics that underlie them.  However, once a person can at least identify the primary stocks in a system then the structure of that system – the dynamic relationships of that system – may begin to emerge from the fog and fray of daily living. And that is wondrous start indeed.

OneThing11: oey . . . me achin’ capacity

A non-shrugging Atlas

“We have some changes to make, and we need you to help.”

Tell that to 11 board members, 43 employees, 61 corporate partners, 281 students, and several hundred parents and guardians.  Each hears a slightly different thing:  why do we need to change? is something broken?  how much do I have to do? isn’t this your responsibility? you’re right, let’s get going! You mean, things are not OK?  will I get paid extra to work on that? you’re right, things need to change, but you’re way wrong on what to do.

I get it.  In the classic definition of carrying capacity, we focus on a population, its vital resource, and pressures for space. Here, among an cadre of teachers and staff at an urban high school, I am thinking about the stock of will to change, a sustaining spirit and camaraderie bolstering that will to change, and the pressures of moving things at the right pace.

In such a two-stock model, where ought my energies go?

How do we balance collective will and the pace of change?

To the camaraderie, yes?  The esprit de corps keeps a team believing it can tackle huge tasks and change the world.  And we are trying to do this – change destinies one student at a time.

And planning, so that the pace of change is appropriate:  not too fast so that large scale curricular changes remain just ahead of the annual and unit planning that teachers would normally do, but also fast enough so that sufficient change occurs to keep people engaged in change.

It’s a lot to carry.  Done right, I am sure, there are a lot of people who will do the lifting.

OneThing9: the thing that carries us

Just checked the World Population Clock.  We’re humming along at 6.8 billion and counting. And we’ve been adding a billion new souls to the planet at an alarming clip – this last time, in just 12 years.  Even though the adding-a-billion rate may be slowing, that’s a lot of mouths to feed and a lot of diapers to clean.  How much can our blue marble take?

In systems parlance, the term we’re looking for is “carrying capacity” – the number of organisms a habitat can support, to paraphrase John Sterman.  Occasionally and tragically, the growth of the organism can be fast, exhaust the resource, and then, well, trouble with a capital T.  Or capital O, as in overshoot.

Perhaps a model to start with looks like this:

Is there enough in this model for us to understand a carrying capacity?

We can trace the balancing feedback, can’t we?  We make babies; we eat and use things; less food, fewer things; death rate picks up; perhaps, also, the birth rate plummets (but that’s not in the model, of course).  There’s a balance point in there that nature tends to find, sometimes at great cost.

If we have this archetypal pattern in our heads and wonder, metaphorically, what other types of things might have carrying capacities – like organizations, for example – there’s much insight here.  Recently, I’ve been wondering about the carrying capacity of my faculty:  how much can I ask them to take on?  What resources do they need to sustain the change?  What other limits to growth and change mitigate our hopes?

I really don’t know, but I’m going to start thinking about it. A lot.

But, first things first.  Time to sleep on this for a night.


OneThing2: It’s getting crowded in Portland

Portland grows up in a century.

At the turn of the 20th century, Portland was an outpost in the still young state of Oregon.  Logging and fishing were king, and some business owners wanted to attract people to the Pacific Northwest.  They organized the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition held in 1903, and Portland was never the same.  Within a decade, population spiked, fell off a bit in the Great Depression, rose dramatically again during and shortly after World War II, and then sputtered with each boom and bust over the next 50 years.  Now, after the Bicentennial of the Corps of Discovery’s trek to the Pacific Coast, Portland finds itself at the forefront of sustainability and urban planning and green technologies.

There are 1.7 million people now living in the Greater Metropolitan Area of what is now called Portland-Vancouver. If you click on the map, it will flash through four slides depicting the change in population over time; take special note of the expansion between the 1940’s – 1980’s, before urban planning took hold of the area’s imagination.  Those four decades show a city boiling over, just as most cities in the United States had done during that time.  Different in Portland was a growing number of people set on changing the city dynamic from sprawl to density, from suburbs to neighborhoods.  Note the limited expansion from 1980 to 2000.

OK.  So what?  Another Portlander bragging on his rainy, self-important city.  Dude, like, who cares?

The deal is that people thought different thoughts, and it all changed.  This change means that we have a large number of young adults and children ripe for some formalized and eminently practical education about sustainability and systems.  At De La Salle North Catholic High School, students learned a bit about Urban Planning last spring.  About 20 students built small models that focused on population and crowding,  and the effect of crowding on population shifts.

This pretty crude model of a feedback loop helped my students understand something crucial about systems, and reminded me of something spoken by Jay Forrester’s mentor Gordon Brown: the feedback is always in the social sciences.

Take a look at this model.  One stock.  A simplified feedback loop that leaves out a lot, but which helped students grapple with a complex idea.  There’s a lot to argue about in there, but the model helped us keep our rhetoric tuned to a particular element of the problem.  It reminded me that education is much less about expanding content standards and much more about simplifying.