System thinking series: What is sustainability?

I had an encounter on Twitter the other day that woke me up to my use of words in conversation that some would consider jargon. I’m new to doing the tweets, and the 140 character limit strangles me somewhat. In this case, he was talking about the austerity in Greece. I commented that his solution for the problem in Greece — e.g. trickle-down economics spawned through tax breaks to lure the wealthy back to the country — was not sustainable. I talked about economic cycles and I talked about feedback loops and oscillations and he called me a clown, essentially, and muted me.

While I feel very strongly that my opinion of his solution is correct, I do feel kind of bad that I got jargony with him without ever taking the chance to explain what I meant by “sustainable,” and “feedback loops,” and “oscillations.” So, to rectify that, I’m going to take a few chunks of vertical pixel space to define these terms as I use them, because — let’s face it — I’m going to use them again.

To that end, today’s entry will be about sustainability.


It’s a simple word, to be honest, for which most people understand the meaning, but it’s the way in which it is used in reference to economics when it becomes new or unfamiliar. It does not show up in the lexicon of typical economic discussions regarding minimum wage, inflation, free-market, etc. Where it does show up is when systems-thinkers talk about the economy. Systems-thinking gives a perspective that takes into account not just cause and effect to, but that looks at causal loops, accounts for mitigating issues, and models a system to try and determine where to best apply a solution — e.g. find “Leverage” — that has the best possible outcome.

This definition of a sustainable society is the one I’m thinking of when I speak of sustainability: “A sustainable society is one that ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.'” (2012, Meadows). In other words, if a decision we make about the economy compromises future generations’ needs, it’s not a sustainable decision. If building more factories requires more resources that will deplete those same resources for the future, should we build? If drilling for oil in the arctic could further deplete oil reserves and cause pollution, should we drill?

System thinking says that the questions of whether to build or whether to drill are not adequately answered by looking at immediate needs, but by looking at the impact of the decisions on the future. This is the idea that you think seven generations ahead when you make decisions like this. In this way, economics from a systems perspective looks different than from a more standard perspective.

Most pointedly, standard economics systems all deal with a central issue of prosperity. Either prosperity for the individual, or prosperity for the state. Prosperity is either achieved through unlimited growth and earnings potential (capitalism, et al) or security of needs provided by the state (communism et al). None of those systems asks the necessary questions about what will happen in the future. If we spend resources now on a quest for unlimited growth and earnings, what will be left in 100 years, 200 years? If we spend resources now to ensure all members of society are taken care of now, will we have enough to take care of future members of society? These are questions about sustainability.

In 2002, Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers revisited their 1972 book Limits to Growth to see if any progress had been made. The results were, as you may have guessed, disappointing. However, in the penultimate chapter, the authors present a scenario that they ran through their computer model (WORLD3) that achieves sustainability. What it calls for will not be easy to come by.

The scenario requires an effort to curb population growth through birth control and greater equality in rights among men and women of all nations, an increase in land yield, and the protection of agricultural land from industrialization and over-farming. This scenario caps the world population at a steady 8 billion with sustainability achieved on or about the year 2020.

2002, Meadows et al. Output of a chart generated by the WORLD3 computer model showing sustainability achieved by the year 2020.

While this was encouraging news in 2002, we have probably already missed our deadline and now must work hard to achieve an economic plan that we can maintain in perpetuity, one that will leave resources available for future generations while also meeting our current humanitarian needs in this generation.

On a global scale, we must adopt a way of thinking that leaves behind the need for growth, competition, and unlimited prosperity and replace that thinking with ideas that lead to sustainability, equitability, and stability.



  1. Meadows, Donella H. (2012). Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. Chelsea Green Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  2. The Long Now Foundation (
  3. The Next Systems Project (
  4. Donella Meadows Institute (

Why I’m voting for Bernie Sanders (and maybe you should, too)

I want to take this space to be clear about why I’m voting for and defending Bernie Sanders. After reviewing his voting record and speeches, after knowing him for more than 20 years as a statesman from my home state of Vermont, I’m very confident that — while these are my interpretations — they are spot on.

People are not the means to profit

Bear with me, I’m going to start off sounding a bit Marxist, but then I’ll get to where I want to be. In a free-market, capitalist system, the people are the means to generate profit for those in power. If they happen to make a living at doing it, or if they are lucky enough to be in a position to claw their way to the top, that’s fine with the system, but it’s not necessary for the system to be happy.

For example, the idea of a minimum wage was created so that workers could make enough to stay healthy, but not quite enough to rise up from their station. This increases their profitability (a healthy worker is a profitable worker). A capitalist system requires at least three tiers of people: those at the bottom, those in the middle, those at the top. The free-market capitalism creates an illusion that anyone who is at the bottom could end up at the top, but it’s essentially a ponzi scheme where those who start in control gain more control through the efforts of those beneath them. The bottom line (or top line, if you will) is that this kind of system is designed to create profit, but profit that not everyone can partake in.

A government designed to protect this kind of system will necessarily pass laws that ensure the highest profitability for those at the top, while making sure that those at the bottom are passably cared for, but only to ensure prosperity for others. This is the government the United States currently has in place. It feels like a democracy, but it’s not really. It is, as Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Former President Jimmy Carter have said, an oligarchy.

If, however, the system takes the point of view that people are not simply profit centers, you start changing the problems that we need to solve. Instead of asking “What should minimum wage be?” you ask “What wage is required to ensure people can live?” Instead of asking “How do we ensure all people buy health insurance?” you ask “How do we ensure our citizens stay healthy?” Instead of asking “How do we secure constant economic growth?” we ask “How do we ensure all citizens are able to prosper?”

The system that Bernie advocates, the questions that he asks, the solutions he puts forward: these all point to the fact that he does not see people as sources of profit, but the raison-d’etre of government itself.

The government should be in service to the people

This is a sort of standard, bread-and-butter position that all United States politicians should have. It is, after all, a primary tenet of our founding documents. Most of them will say things that imply they believe that the government is “for the people and by the people,” but their actions speak otherwise.

If a politician gives more concessions to your lobbyists than your constituents, he does not believe the government is in service to the people. If a politician dismisses claims of racism or police brutality as one-off problems rather than systemic, she does not believe the government is in service to the people. If a politician refuses to admit the impact of humans on the environment, he does not believe the government is in service to the people. If a politician accepts money from corporations, panders to Super PACs, votes to protect her donors, and is out of touch with reality, she does not believe the government is in service to the people.

It is the people, 300 million very real, non-abstract entities — and not the ideal that politicians claim to follow — that government is meant to protect. If the mantra is only spoken, but the actions denote otherwise, the government is broken.

Sanders is a politician who has never wavered from his belief that by and for the people is more than a nice story to tell in school. His actions first as mayor of Burlington, VT, then as representative for the State of Vermont, then as Senator, and now as candidate for president show us that he is on our side. Free education, equitable taxes, universal health care (not just a rule forcing people to buy insurance from a third party), and accountability for those in power are all present in Sanders’ issues and talking points on the campaign trail.

Government should ensure justice, well-being, and freedom for all its citizens

Another very basic tenet of government, and another one that — theoretically — the United States is based on. There isn’t a politician currently in Washington who will tell you that the U.S. is not just and free and healthy. That is, no one other than Bernie.

Bernie knows that the systemic racism on display throughout the country, the poor access to health care, the over proliferation of non-whites in prison on trumped up charges, and the dwindling economic possibilities are evidence that the U.S. does not live up to its own rhetoric. He knows this so well, in fact, that his entire platform is built around these core beliefs.

Economic, criminal, and social justice, Sanders says, are on parallel paths. He understands that economics are one of the means by which oppression is enacted and that corruption in the criminal and social justice systems are another. He is looking to transform all three from weapons of the entrenched to vehicles for the disenfranchised.

He is for a single-payer health system so that people will no longer be forced to buy health insurance, but will have it covered with their taxes. He is for an extensive overhaul to family medical leave so families can be physically and emotionally healthy without need to worry about their jobs. He is pushing for vast criminal justice reform that removes racism from policing and puts an emphasis on community building instead of for-profit imprisonment. He is for free tuition for all public colleges and universities. He is against gerrymandering: — long used to divide and conquer minority neighborhoods — the process that ensures districts are populated with the constituents a politician wants and can easily pander to.

Oppression is unconscionable

I come to my culminating point, and the reason why I support Bernie Sanders for president. Bernie is a man who has shown that he will stand in the way of oppression, no matter the form. He has voted against war, but also voted to improve the care of veterans who go to war. He stands against armed violence while still supporting the spirit of the second amendment. He has stood up for the disenfranchised, the outcasts, the ostracized, the stepped-on, and the poor for all of his political life. There is no reason to believe he won’t continue to do so.

The issues he faces as president will sound different than the ones he’s stood against, but in reality they are shockingly similar. While this is evidence that our system is truly rigged to support oppression in all of its forms, it is a situation which which Bernie is not unfamiliar. Whether it’s the right for black, latino, and Native Americans to be truly free in their persons; the right for women to have control over their own bodies; the right for the workers to have control over their own lives; the right for students to have control over their own education: Bernie will stand on the correct side of each of those battles. He will unwaveringly defend and shout down the naysayers. He will be successful.

Why? Because history has shown us all that Bernie has always been right in his thinking. The more people get to know him, and the more his record is revealed, the more it will become clear to us, to the politicians, to the corporations, to the world that Bernie Sanders has always had this figured out.

Urge Patrick Leahy to support Bernie Sanders

Please sign my petition to get Senator Patrick Leahy to support Bernie Sanders

Just a quick plug for my survey over at

Senator Leahy currently supports Secretary Hillary Clinton for president based on a verbal agreement made to her seven years ago. I believe that given the voting records of Senators Leahy and Sanders, and Clinton, Leahy and Sanders are more closely aligned than Leahy believes. Additionally, I believe that Leahy owes it to the state of Vermont and its citizens to support their adopted son, Sanders, in his bid for president.

Compassion for victims, not for perpetrators

This banner helps me frame what I’ve been trying to say since Monday.

Boston bombings represent a sorrowful scene of what happens everyday in Syria. Do accept our condolences.
Syrian Revolution hold a banner in support of Boston.

I don’t have compassion for the perpetrators of vile acts.

My compassion extends to the victims of those acts and the environments in which both victims and perpetrators live. Given similar context, environment, and social structure, the only thing that separates a victim from a perpetrator is compassion: perpetrators do not have it.

In other words, responding to an act of terror by saying “we must have compassion and understanding” for the perpetrator doesn’t cut it for me. I have compassion for the situations (Syria, for instance) and for people in general (perhaps those holding the banner), but I will not waste my compassion on those who would turn their own victimization into an act of destruction. Why? Because out of the millions and millions of victims on this planet, only the most cowardly seek to perpetrate their problems on others.

I will not waste my compassion on current psychopaths, rather I will use my compassion and empathy to prevent societies from creating them in the future.

Gun control and ethical consciousness

When we talk about gun control and assault weapon bans, should we talk about controlling the weapons themselves, or should we talk about the ethical weight of having access to such weaponry and the implications of that weight? The national dialog certainly has been focused on the former, but I believe that the latter is far more important a thing to address.

Our right to bear arms has become a label we use for what should be called our desire to bear arms, and it is this desire that we need to discuss. It is this desire and the ethical consequences of it that have to be brought forward into the national dialog. It cannot be denied that the United States is deep in the throes of a passionate, sordid love affair with firepower. We are drenched in the post-coitus scent of black powder, molten lead, hot brass. Our language in the debate is not logical nor reasonable but passionate and fiery: the rhetoric of lovers afraid of losing each other, afraid of admitting what they have. Other countries can see the lust for weapons in our dialog, our media, our attitudes.

Before I go any further, I should say that I am not promoting a ban on anything. In fact, because my position is that we are not having the proper discussion about weapons, I am against the discussion on banning anything. I don’t think that’s going to solve the problem. We tried to ban alcohol: it didn’t work. We’re trying to ban drugs: that’s not working. My parents tried to tell me to not have sex with anyone in the house when I was a teenager: that certainly didn’t work. None of these things work because none of them address the issue at hand (hedonism, addiction, hormones). And the issue at hand in the gun debate should be around our responsibilities as they relate to owning weapons, the ethics implied by the second amendment.

For instance, I have a right to stand in a crowded plaza and say “Bomb!” because the first amendment grants me the right to free speech. However, it would be right for someone to hold me responsible for the damage that declaration might cause because my right to free speech also leaves me responsible for what I say and the results of those utterances. The same should hold true regarding the second amendment.

I have a right to purchase, own, and fire a weapon. However, I also have an ethical responsibility to ensure that my weapon is not used to harm others. I think most folks who are pro-gun would agree with this, and I’m glad of that. Responsible gun ownership is one of the hallmarks and cornerstones of the second amendment. Fine. Let’s not argue that here.

Looking back at the first amendment again. Imagine that I know or can deduce that someone is about to shout “Bomb” in a crowded plaza and cause an unmitigated panic in which surely a number of people will be trampled to death. Imagine I have the power to keep that from happening by simply taking away that person’s power of speech. Does my foreknowledge of that person’s action give me an ethical responsibility to stop him? Are that person’s first amendment rights being violated if I do so? These are the kinds of questions that are not easy but have to be asked of ourselves in terms of our “rights” as granted by the United States Constitution.

So how does this thought experiment apply to the second amendment? Surely we can recognize that the right to bear arms comes also with a responsibility to ensure that those arms are born in an ethical and safe manner. A manner in which violence does not come to those who are innocent. If you exercise your right to carry a weapon, then you tacitly agree to the ethical responsibility that comes with that weapon. It must be so, because otherwise we are giving ourselves over to the idea that the right to power also gives us the right to hold power over and disregard others, and surely that’s not what is meant by the second amendment.

While we debate about what is or is not an assault rifle or even if that’s a term that makes any legal sense; while we try to find “compromise” about how many bullets in a magazine is too many or few; while we spin our wheels trying to ban or not ban a variety of weapons, we are missing the point altogether. Banning a weapon does not free us of the shared ethical responsibility of how weapons are used any more than controlling the time manner and place of speech frees us from the responsibility we must bear if our speech causes harm. We are not able to see this clearly, however.

We are in love with firepower. Love has blinded us to the responsibility inherent in having access to that firepower. Blinded us so deeply and assuredly that the deaths of hundreds of people in either accidental or deliberate acts of gun violence has become nothing more to us than statistics we can compartmentalize for the sake of a pro or con stake in the national argument. We are so in love with firepower that the death of a child means less to us than the debate about how many bullets is too many or whether “assault rifle” is a real term.

Because as a nation we are granted the right to bear arms by the second amendment, we as a nation have also tacitly agreed to shoulder the ethical burden of that amendment. We know this because we live in a civilized society, not an anarchistic state. By exercising this right, we acknowledge our adherence to the laws and morality around that right. Just as in speech, driving a car, growing our own food, owning the rights to land, etc.

The debate about our love of firepower and our ethical responsibilities must begin and the argument over which component of what weapon will be regulated must stop. Only by acknowledging our responsibility for the safety of ourselves and each other can we begin to find a way to eliminate the innocent deaths caused by this love affair we have with weapons.