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.

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.

LtG_scenario-9
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.

 

References

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

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 change.org.

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.