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Friday, August 6, 2010

Reflections on intervening in systems

I wanted to share some reflections on an interesting reading I recently had for Sustainability Marketing at uni. The article is called 'Places to Intervene in a System' by Donnella H. Meadows (Whole Earth, Winter 1997).

The article discusses leverage points (places in a complex system where a small shift in one thing can create big changes in everything) and how we often tend to intuitively find them, but then push them in the wrong way (because complex systems are often counter-intuitive). For example:

"Asked by the Club of Rome to show how major global problems - poverty and hunger, environmental destruction, resource depletion, urban deterioration, unemployment - are related and how they might be solved, Forrester came out with a clear leverage point: Growth. Both population and economic growth.
Growth has costs - among which are poverty and hunger, environmental destruction - the whole list of problems we are trying to solve with growth!
The world's leaders are currently fixated on economic growth as the answer to virtually all problems, but they're pushing with all their might in the wrong direction."

The article then goes on to discuss 10 places to intervene in a system, in ascending order of importance:
9. Numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards)
8. Material stocks and flows
7. Regulating negative feedback loops
6. Driving positive feedback loops
5. Information flows
4. The rules of the system (incentives, punishment, constraints)
3. The power of self-organisation
2. The goals of the system
1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the goals, rules, feedback structure arise
0. The power to transcend paradigms

Here are some of the points I found interesting:

We put 95% of our attention into numbers, but they actually don't have a lot of power. Parameters are important, but they rarely change behaviour.

The most important numbers can be the length of the delay in a feedback loop. Delays in negative feedback loops cause oscillations. "If you're trying to adjust a system state to your goal, but you only receive delayed information about what the system state is, you will overshoot and undershoot." Hence, large central planning systems like General Motors or the Soviet Union function poorly. Too long delays can eventually cause overshoot and collapse.The tragedy of the commons is collapsing the world's commercial fisheries because there is no feedback between the state of the fish population and the decision to invest in fishing vessels. "Contrary to economic opinion, the price of fish doesn't provide that feedback. As the fish get more scarce and hence more expensive, it becomes all the more profitable to go out and catch them. That's a perverse feedback, a positive loop that leads to collapse."

Self-organisation is evolution within systems. It is the ability to change any of the aspects of a system lower on the list above.
 "Self-organization seems so wondrous that we tend to regard it as mysterious, miraculous. Economists often model technology as literal manna from heaven - coming from nowhere, costing nothing, increasing the productivity of an economy by some steady percent each year. For centuries people have regarded the spectacular variety of nature with the same awe. Only a divine creator could bring forth such a creation.

In fact the divine creator does not have to produce miracles. He, she, or it just has to write clever RULES FOR SELF-ORGANIZATION. These rules govern how, where, and what the system can add onto or subtract from itself under what conditions."

"When you understand the power of self-organization, you begin to understand why biologists worship biodiversity even more than economist worship technology. The widely varied stock of DNA, evolved and accumulated over billions of years, is the source of evolutionary potential, just as science libraries and labs and scientists are the source of technological potential. Allowing species to go extinct is a systems crime, just as randomly eliminating all copies of particular science journals, or particular types of scientists, would be."

Rules change behaviour, so power over them is real power.

"If you want to understand the deepest malfunctions of systems, pay attention to the rules, and to who has power over them.
That's why my systems intuition was sending off alarm bells as the new world trade system was explained to me. It is a system with rules designed by corporations, run by corporations, for the benefit of corporations. Its rules exclude almost any feedback from other sectors of society. Most of its meetings are closed to the press (no information, no feedback). It forces nations into positive loops, competing with each other to weaken environmental and social safeguards in order to attract corporate investment. It's a recipe for unleashing "success to the successful" loops.

"People within systems don't often recognize what whole-system goal they are serving. To make profits, most corporations would say, but that's just a rule, a necessary condition to stay in the game. What is the point of the game? to grow, to increase market share, to bring the world (customers, suppliers, regulators) more under the control of the corporation, so that its operations become ever more shielded from uncertainty. That's the goal of a cancer cell too and of every living population. It's only a bad one when it isn't countered by higher-level negative feedback loops with goals of keeping the system in balance. The goal of keeping the market competitive has to trump the goal of each corporation to eliminate its competitors. The goal of keeping populations in balance and evolving has to trump the goal of each population to commandeer all resources into its own metabolism."
Systems are sourced from paradigms. Paradigms create the information flows, goals, stocks, flows and feedbacks in a system.

People who manage to intervene in systems at the level of paradigm hit a leverage point that totally transforms systems.

How do you change paradigms? Basically:
- you keep pointing out the failures and anomomolies of the old one
- you come from the new one (with assurance and loudly)
- you insert people with the new paradigm in positions of power and public visibility
- you ignore reactionaries
- you spend time with active change agents and the open minded middle-ground
- and/or model the system so you can see it as a whole

The highest leverage of all is to realise that NO paradigm is true. This frees you to simply chose one which suits your purpose. "If you have no idea where to get a purpose, you can listen to the universe (or put the name of your favorite deity here) and do his, her, its will, which is a lot better informed than your will."

"The higher the leverage point, the more the system resists changing it - that's why societies rub out truly enlightened beings."

Most of these it is pretty obvious why I found them interesting and thought you might too. I just want to say something quickly about paradigms. Basically, this is why a passionate conservationist and environmentalist like me, who wants to save the world, is interested in the development of Christian eco-theology and church greening. One of my concerns about the current movement towards sustainability and greening is that we are trying to find ways of reducing our environmental impact without changing the system or paradigm within which we are operating. Since this system and paradigm is flawed and ultimately unable to create a truly sustainable world, this becomes a problem. I am not promoting going back to living in caves or saying we should have a revolution and throw capitalism out the window, but we need to begin thinking more deeply about what we are doing. For example, one of the big fads at the moment is green products. For example, let's say a little figurine made from wood that is given out to people as a promotional product with the company's logo on it. It can be called 'green' because it is not made from plastic, wood is a renewable resource, and it is biodegradable. But think about this a little more. Just because it is a renewable resource doesn't mean it is sustainable. I didn't say anything about it being Forest Stewardship Council Certified, made from bamboo, or being from a non-rainforest source. It could be made from illegally traded rainforest hardwoods and have robbed animals of homes and the local people of income. It is also a promotional figurine - which means that it serves no practical purpose and many of the people who receive it will simply throw it in the bin (where it will go to landfill, release methane and contribute to climate change). While it is better than a plastic promotional figurine, it is still operating within the same wasteful and destructive system.
In addition, the company it is made to promote may be using it as part of a greenwashing campaign. If the figurine serves its purpose and makes the consumer purchase the company's products, they may then be contributing to another destructive cycle of production.

Some green products are great, but moving towards an eco-friendly future is not about switching to having more 'green' things, it is about shifting the paradigm to having less things, but perhaps more sharing and community and biodiversity instead.

I believe people of faith and eco-theology will have a large role in designing and promoting a new paradigm and new systems, systems that are ecologically redeemed and renewed and able to create a future for all of God's creation. Thus, this is where I am trying to intervene in the system. It's a lot more difficult than just shifting to a slightly greener version of the current system, so there will be more resistance, but the results will be worth it.

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Important Lessons from the Bible

Why Jesus came:
"that the world might be saved through him"
John 3:17

Who Jesus is going to use to save the world:
"For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God."
Romans 8:19

Our role on earth:
"The LORD God put the man in the Garden of Eden to take care of it and to look after it."
Genesis 2:15

The Five Pillars of A Christian Theology of Sustainability

1. God is the creator, sustainer and redeemer of creation.

2. Covenantal Stewardship (we have a covenant with God as stewards of the earth).

3. The creation-fall-redemption paradigm (God made a good world; human failure broke the relationships between god, man and creation; Christ provides hope for all creation).

4.Bodily resurrection(we will rise with bodies, not as spirits)

5.New Creation (a new Heaven and new Earth refers to a renewal and an earthing of heaven, not starting over).

Adapted from When Enough is Enough: A Christian Framework for Environmental Sustainability, Edited by R.J. Berry, Published by Inter-Varsity Press, 2007, Nottingham p43+