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?”




You’re looking at the Pacific Northwest. The green diagonal slash is the Cascade Range, replete with Douglas Fir, composite volcanoes, and well-hidden marijuana farms. There’s the Oregon and Washington coastline (left), Puget Sound and the southern tip of Vancouver Island (top), and Columbia River Basin (bottom right). West of the Cascades are the cities: Eugene – Salem – Portland – Olympia – Tacoma – Seattle – Vancouver.  Approximately 10.3 million live here.  How’s that working out?  Even the best answer is . . . well . . . complicated.

Enter System Dynamics – a set of critical thinking skills developed by Jay Forrester at the MIT Sloan School of Management that helps one understand how disparate pieces work together in a system.  I first learned about System Dynamics at an NSF Summer Institute in Portland in 1993.  Whoever I was before 1993 vanished from the earth. Since that time, I’ve taught teachers and students about system dynamics, systems thinking, and the rhythms of everyday life . . . because it’s all OneThing.

In itsallonething, I turn my attention to two ideas:  sustainability and school change. Sustainability . . . because we all need to learn how to live within the natural rhythms of our watershed.  School change . . . because we’re living through the most exciting, rapidly changing times in education . . . ever!

Poke around, please . . . you’ll find cool things, quick things, and my systems thoughts about sustaining places and educating people. There’s a lot to say.  Hope you’ll find it interesting and maybe spread the word.

Thanks for reading,


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.

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.

OneThing31: geeks to the rescue . . . again!

Recycling and revenging all at the same time

Free Geek started in Portland in 2000 and now operates in over a dozen cities in the US and Canada

When Free Geek opened its doors in Portland in 2000, they did so to tackle a real problem that I mentioned in the last entry (SmallThing8: just exactly where is “away”?) . . . how to keep really cool, really geeky, and really toxic stuff out of landfills.  And what a success story it’s been.

Free Geek has been diverting obsolete computing equipment from landfills for over a decade and putting reusable computers in the hands of people who need them but who often cannot afford a system.  In fact, volunteers earn a free computer after 24 hours of volunteering(it’s called a FreekBox). Currently, over 700 volunteers per month work in the various stations in the Free Geek warehouse on SE 10th.

The Cathedral of e-cycling on SE 10th in Portland. Click me!

It’s remarkable that the enterprise is entirely self-sufficient:  donations, thrift store sales, and material sales keep 35 people gainfully employed and hundreds of volunteers occupied.

Free Geek collects all the computing waste of the city offices.  It provides free computers through a grant process throughout Oregon and Washington.  It holds classes for all computer recipients.

Free Geek is a deep systems solutions to an intransigent growth problem:  where do I put it the old one?

Described in a system dynamics model, computing waste used to look like this:

No exit for the Landfill stock.  Old PC’s by the millions were going into landfills.  To be sure, there was some resale thrift second-hand stores, family hand-me-downs, school donations, and the like.  Still, with the advent of the personal computer in the early 1980’s and then the explosion of cell-phones in the 2000’s, the amount of e-waste has simply dwarfed our society’s capacity to contend with it.

Now it looks like this:

Steel goes to Schnitzer Steel in Portland

Plastic is “pelletized” and the sent to Total Reclaim in Seattle in ingots

Motherboards are sold to Hallmark Refining in Seattle for any precious metals

Wires, cords, cables, printers, drives, et al are sold to Metro Metals in Portland

As those at Free Geek will tell you . . . they’ve been “helping the needy get nerdy since the beginning of the third millennium.”

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.

QuickThing7: Love the Loop and eat well

If you want to matter more in this world, read mattermore

Tap the heart for the full story

Click me to visit Greenopolis facebook

Mattermore blogs on sustainability, and recently posted a note on loving food (Ripe for Recycling) taps on the key ingredient of sustainability: knowing about feedback loops, and living inside them.

There’s a juicy treat of thoughtfulness here – healthy eating and thoughtful composting speeds up the organic cycle, reduces waste to landfills, and builds up the steamy and fecund nutrients on which our good food thrives.

Love the loop. And eat up!

QuickThing6: Sustainability + Thing

Just started a new page – SustainabilityThing – it will include information, models, data, and ideas on sustainability and systems thinking. The first item is a link the Earth Clock with a teaser about population growth . . . the momentum of a large population.  Give it a click.