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.


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.