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?”


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!

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.

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.

QuickThing10: secret life of clothes

Your brain will generate closed loops all through this video.

When I taught Northwest Rhythms, a course about resources and systems of the Pacific Northwest, my favorite question on the final exam was this:  describe how your purchase of a loaf of bread impacts three important systems:  transportation, resources, and economics. It’s the kind of question that splits open a teenager’s understanding of the world they inhabit and influence.

This ten minute video details a similar event path – buying a pair of jeans.  When you plunk down a couple of twenties for a fresh pair of 501’s, the tendrils of that buy reach mighty far and are, at least to now, largely unsustainable.

The Secret Lives of Our Clothes – YouTube.

OneThing28: sustainably fit for our times

Sustainability – living within Earth’s natural rhythms

Holding Earth

Cascadia - the great rivers of the Northwest and their watersheds flowing to the Pacific

The variety and beauty of the Pacific Northwest

The best way for us to talk about this was to use the elements of systems thinking to focus on sustainability.

  • What are the primary STOCKS of the Pacific Northwest we want to preserve? What (rising/declining) STOCKS threaten the Pacific Northwest?
  • What are the annual/decadal/epochal FLOWS within the Pacific Northwest we need to reduce? Increase? Repair? Honor?
  • What are the relationships among these STOCKS and FLOWS?
  • What BEHAVIORS emerge over time from among these STOCKS and FLOWS?

And so we started looking at patterns of behavior of the stocks we were interested in:  dam building, logging and tree-planting, growth of roads, shifts in car purchases, population growth and shift throughout the region, sprawl, and others.  We saw logistic growth, overshoot and collapse, exponential growth still unchecked, and we noted some absolute declines.  The growth (or decline) of one stock impacted still other stocks. In some cases, the feedback was quite distant in time or space (e.g., loss of salmon runs due to small-scale but ubiquitous dam-building).

With care . . . and systems thinking, we can sustain our only planet

For God’s sake . . . how do we regain equilibrium?

That’s when we started looking carefully at interconnections among stocks and flows.  It was a lot to learn – students realized that they needed a really different, and a really disciplined way of thinking about things so that they might tell the story about sustaining it.

Camp Snowball participants will learn that “Education for Sustainability . . .is a transformative learning process.”  It’s a kind of apprenticeship for living responsibly.  Students in the “Northwest Rhythms” course had to acquire a different set of learning skills so that they might generate new questions and make sense of their complex world . . . and make sense of it in a new and compelling narrative.  The process transformed them, indeed.

When I was a child, we learned about things.  Barry Richmond called them “the nouns of a system,” just a bunch of parts of speech lying around.  In education for sustainability, students learn about the relationships among those things, the “verbs and conjunctions and prepositions” as Barry might say. With this, students can compose a new world view. Holistic rather than reductionist.

Can we not read the sign of the times . . .

What systems thinking offers sustainability education is an accessible and critical tool that imbues students with a radical story-telling ability.

Hold on, everyone . . . we

are on the slippery crest of a rising paradigm.  There is much to learn . . . let’s get our students learning . . . so they can help us!

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.