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?”


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!

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.

OneThing29: systems thinking tools give sustainability deep traction

US Partnership for Sustainable Development publishes education standards

In October 2009, the US Partnership for Sustainable Development published Version 3 of its National Education for Sustainability K-12 Student Learning Standards.  It is an attempt to codify what “students should know and be able to do to be sustainability literate.”   The Student Learning Standards are also called “Essential Understandings” by the US Partnership.

EfS Standard 2 focuses on understanding systems

The three pillars of sustainability. Click on ...

Three pillars of sustainability

Students recognize the concept of sustainability as a dynamic condition characterized by the interdependency among ecological, economic, and social systems and how these interconnected systems affect individual and societal well-being. They understand and experience their connection to interdependence with the natural world.

This deliberate call for a systems understanding of three complex aspects of our world requires a new way of thinking, something that is seldom taught in K-12 schools.  The “dynamic condition characterized by the interdependency” is not something readily understood through words, much less mathematics.  You need a picture to get it.

Here’s a systems tool used to provide at least some insight into the interconnectedness inherent in sustainability:

This is called a Causal Loop Diagram.  In this method, the systems thinker can draw specific connections among key elements and flows within a broad, interlaced system of interdependence.  This helps people follow a storyline, trace the feedback loops through a long causal chain.

One can begin to imagine that causality sometimes moves through an intricate, sometimes surprising path.

This diagram has the benefit of clarifying connections people are discussing.  Composing a diagram as a group exercise can be very beneficial – everyone’s thinking sharpens.

Sustainability e-Journal at Ohio State University . . . thanks!

The Stock and Flow Diagram (left, created by) shows the varied connections both within each system and between the two major systems. What’s truly valuable here is that this diagram is quantifiable and testable.  Each of these STOCKS has impacts throughout the lake biophysical system (Lake Erie) and the social systems dependent on that lake.  Imagine a sudden change in any one of these stocks and how that change might redound through the whole combined system.

Learning the tools of systems thinking provides students and teachers more leverage

In systems parlance, leverage is everything.  Knowing where the places of leverage are in a system gives leaders and societies power.  In this lake/city system, there are multiple leverage points . . . and one can push those levers in selfish, money-grubbing but unsustainable ways, in well-meaning, but wrong-headed ways, and, well, the list goes on.

It is a brave and difficult thing to keep the levers adjusted so that the whole system thrives . . . sometimes, parts of a system have to bend for the health of the whole system.  Still, there will be surprises!

Systems Thinking and System Dynamics possess the very thinking and conceptual tools required for a more pervasive and interdisciplinary approach to Sustainability education, from middle school social studies to senior high chemistry and ecology.  For all those headed to Camp Snowball in Tucson (July 21-25) where systems thinking and sustainability meet, you enter into new learning at a moment when the world so needs it.

Get your thinking caps on!