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)

Thoughts on Ferguson

I wrote this a year ago, and unfortunately it is still as relevant now as it was then. The racism I encounter every day is mind boggling. It has to end. Enough is enough.

I’ve never seen such a sense of common purpose. Such an outpouring of personal opinion and passionate pleas. If I had known before today what the people I know are capable of, I would have given them more credit than I have on their ability to share a common goal, a common opinion. Unfortunately, that common opinion is ignorant at best, socially harmful and destructive at worst. These people have united in reprimanding those protesting the Grand Jury decision in the shooting death of Michael Brown.

First of all, I want to be perfectly clear about something. I am only able to partially empathize with those in Ferguson who are suffering, because I don’t know their pain directly. I’m a white male living in Northern Vermont. In any demographically sectioned study, I fall into a fairly safe and secure group. That said, however, I can recognize a broken system. We have those up here, too. And it is this system that has failed a large group of citizens, Ferguson being the most recent example.

A successful system is not one that allows a trained police officer to use his gun as a primary mode of defense. Failing a proper training in unarmed self-defense, It is not one that allows that officer to fire five or six lethal shots into an unarmed man when one disabling shot to a shoulder or knee would have done the job. A successful system is not one that assumes a young black man is guilty of anything without probable cause. A successful system does not expect those who are made war against to sit back and calmly take it.

It is obvious to anyone paying attention that our system is broken. The people in Ferguson are reacting in the only way the system has allowed them, by protesting. Rioting. Breaking free of the systemic damage, working outside the system itself, and forcing a change. This is what happens to all systems that fail, and it’s going to get worse if something doesn’t change soon.

If the desire for peace is borne from the same space as a desire for true equality, then the system can be fixed. If, however, the desire for peace is borne from a place that wants to see groups of people take a kick to the face while lying down, the system must be replaced.

Photo details: “Ferguson Day 6, Picture 13” by Loavesofbread – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ferguson_Day_6,_Picture_13.png#/media/File:Ferguson_Day_6,_Picture_13.png

Response to fuel-efficient super trucks

(Image Source: February 2014 Truck report)

Energy conservation is a really, really good and absolutely necessary idea. And it’s an idea that Americans need to spend more time getting used to. That being said, it’s not an idea that can be brought about by focusing so heavily on its cost savings. The fact is that conserving energy is a change in lifestyle that will in the short-term raise costs in some cases, and require adjustments to ways of life.

The retrieval, transport, delivery, and consumption of energy is a very large and complex process involving thousands of interactions and touch points. Any change we make in one of these touch points will have an impact on the machinations in another. Adding to the complexity, it is a system that is not closed. That is, it is beholden to influences outside of itself. The diagram above oversimplifies this situation. In reality, the calculation of the depicted numbers involves multiple moving pieces: truck owners, shipping companies, fuel prices, fuel company profits, truck manufacturing profits, engine manufacturing, metals industry, just to name a few of the more obvious ones. Unfortunately, the associate report does not go into detail about how the numbers are derived.

Given the complexity, it is entirely possible that if all long-haul truckers drove these trucks, then profit margins for fuel companies would go down due to the reduction in fuel purchasing frequency. Dropping profit margins are anathema to publicly-traded companies, so fuel prices would likely rise to offset the change in the purchase frequency. Also, any savings would likely take years to materialize given the nature of ownership of these trucks and the initial costs to own them. It is entirely likely that private contractors would not be able to afford the short-term costs and be driven out of business (not dissimilar to smaller fishing concerns in Gloucester, MA have been due to increased restrictions and fuel costs), thus paving the way for larger conglomerate companies who can afford the short-term cost increase.

So yes, we will see a reduction in fuel use and an increase in distance between fill-ups, but at a cost that is perhaps not sustainable in our current system of business ownership and relationships.

A better long-term solution is to drastically alter our reliance on fuel of this kind. To take a look at those things outside this system and see how changes there could have an affect on what we do. Simply using less fuel in a more efficient way will not — in a long-term view — get us where we need to be. At least until our current concepts of business and profit get in the way of true, unadulterated, energy advances.

How about long-haul trucks that are powered by the same kind of solar technology that goes into the pan-Australian race? The fastest car (from the Netherlands) had an average speed of just over 55 MPH. With further research, this can only get better. With better advances in wind power technology, perhaps a solution could be offered that provides on-the-go reserve batter charging for when the sun is down or clouds are above. Perhaps more research into long-distance maglev trains for shipping.

My point is that no matter what solution we propose, there are countless impacts on the existing system that have to be accounted for. A simple poster does not provide an accurate view of what will happen if we enact such things.

This comparison chart from Consumer Reports shows the vast range of differences in cost of ownership across hybrid, standard-, and deisel-fueled models. It’s too long to show here, so I’ll wait. I’m not going anywhere.

As you — hopefully — have seen, the chart shows that the impact of fuel-type on cost is not always positive. There are definitely benefits that owners can realize (financial, environmental, etc.), but it’s disingenuous to say that there will always be a cost benefit. That being the case, I submit that it is just as disingenuous to say the same for owning a hybrid truck.

The argument for hybrid engines — regardless of vehicle type — needs to go beyond cost. There are too many variables to make clear predictions and the historical results are too varied to make a broad statement that it is cost-efficient to own and drive hybrid. Much better arguments are that we are looking to have cleaner air, increase distance between refueling, or use fewer fossil fuels in cars. And if we begin to use these arguments for reasons to own hybrids, it opens up the discussion for other alternative fuels and vehicles such as solar, or mass transit solutions.