After New Hampshire

Over the last week, there has been a lot of press generated about Bernie Sanders as an outcome of his win in New Hampshire. A good deal of that press has been positive. Which, of course, I really like. But I also don’t mind stand-up critiques of his policies. What I’ve been disturbed about is the kind of meta-conversation that’s been happening that attempts to describe the ways in which Sanders should be discussed or viewed.

“Hey Bernie, here are the issues this presidency is about. Anything else is off-message.” In the latest debate, Clinton worked to paint him as a single-issue candidate, which hearkens back to the message from the main stream media when Sanders first announced, calling him an inexperienced protest candidate. In New Hampshire last week, Rachel Maddow essentially dismissed that view as inaccurate.

Sanders, of course, is not a single-issue candidate. Racism, healthcare, environmental issues, reproductive rights, and human rights all have connective tissue in the idea that oppression is a tool used by the powerful on the disenfranchised. While he has policy ideas in place that address the issues of the day, he also understands that a complex system like our country is not just a list of single-focus-issues. Sanders understands that and is trying to help us understand it. In turn, we are reaching out to share his message.

As we do so, Sanders’ voice becomes larger and more expansive, and as that happens, we are being instructed on how to share the message.

“Hey, women, supporting Bernie is a betrayal to your gender.”

“Hey, men, you’re a sexist asshole if you support Bernie.”

“Hey, whites, by talking to black folks about why he’s a good candidate, you’re being racist.”

While most of the above examples have been redacted or spun back, or the utterers of them have apologized in the last week or so, the damage is done. Speech and the freedom to use it as we see fit has been harmed. By criticizing and calling out the conversations themselves rather than discussing the content of them, the ability to have conversation is diminished. By reducing the words available for viable conversation and by diminishing the value of those who use them, we reduce the potential for new thought and honest communication and practice the kind of oppression that his campaign is against.

No, this campaign season is not about a single issue, nor is Sanders a single-issue candidate, but this campaign season is necessarily aware of the vast inequities in this country and the power that this gives certain groups over others. The over-arching narrative of 2016 is going to be about  whether we finally begin to recognize the interconnectedness of everything that plagues the oppressed and marginalized people of the United States or continue to view the world through a myopic lens and reach for solving one symptom at a time without really understanding its impact or source.

 

 

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)

Matrices, Patterns, and Consciousness

The overriding joy of pursuing my master’s degree is the forays into matrices, patterns, and consciousness that I’ve been able to take while examining the idea of the lived experience of problem solving. These have been valuable adventures for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the foundation that patterns and consciousness have beneath the way each person lives.

In other words, the patterns of our experiences and our conscious understanding of those patterns allow us the ability to engage with and solve problems. In order for me to understand the process of living with and engaging problems, I need to understand the way consciousness is derived, how it adds to the matrices and patterns of life, and thus how that affects problem solving. There’s the added bonus of both consciousness and patterns being applicable to my work as a User Experience Designer, as well.

At any rate, here are two presentations I’ve given to my seminar on patterns (October, 2013), and consciousness (March, 2014).

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.