Category Archives: Global Sustainability

Digging for the root cause(s) of global crises

Last week my Sustainable Living class at the University of Massachusetts explored Mother Earth’s three ecological rules for living sustainably.  They are:

  1. Use current solar income
  2. Waste = food (cycle everything)
  3. Support biological diversity

During the class, I briefly mentioned what happens when humans violate these rules.  The result is “collapse” as presented so well by these two classic texts, Collapse and The Lorax (which are basically the same book – well, one has more pictures!).

Both Jared Diamond and Dr. Suess knew that when a society outstrips its natural resource base (what was that old onceler thinking when he cut down the last truffula tree because “everybody needs a thneed“) ….. well, things get bad – its  the “perfect storm”!

LeopoldThere are many ways to analyze the problems we face today.  In Sustainable Living class, we  look for root causes of the events that make it into the newspaper.  In his 1949 book of essays, A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold encouraged us to “Think Like a Mountain.”   I suspect a mountain would not notice the daily economic and political struggles of humans, but would focus on the underlying systemic patterns that result in social and environmental decay.

In class, I presented three global systemic patterns (“the perfect storm”) as the principle ecological crises that we must face – or collapse!  They are:

  1. Peak Oil
  2. Global Pandemic
  3. Climate Change

When we begin to look closely at these patterns, it is easy to become depressed and feel quite hopeless.  It is easy to blame others.  In Sustainable Living class we look for realistic and simple actions that students can take to begin to address these problems.  The first step is to try to understand the root cause of the patterns.

icebergpict1-250x239To begin to understand complex systems (like the entire planet and all of human civilization), we need some powerful tools.   I’ve been teaching courses related to systems thinking for some time and the most useful tool I teach is the “iceberg.”  This systems thinking tool helps us to “see below the surface” of daily events to begin to identify the root cause of systemic behavior.  Lets try it!

In the iceberg tool,  individual “events” are depicted as the tip of the iceberg, and visible to the naked eye.  But most of the iceberg is below the surface.

So we learn to look below the surface for the root cause of events.  Here is a simple example:

An Eventthere was a robbery in my neighborhood last week during which someone took a laptop computer and some loose cash from an empty house.  The break-in took place one evening while the homeowners were out to dinner.

The Patternthis has been happening regularly for several years!

Structure (these are physical things, organizations, policies and rituals that are relatively permanent and contribute to the pattern)

  1. Most homes in my town have been left unlocked day and night for years (ritual).
  2. It is easy to break a window (physical thing) and gain entry to most homes.
  3. Unemployment has risen dramatically over the past few years (a result of policies).
  4. The capacity of police departments (organizations) to patrol neighborhoods has been hampered by limited budgets (policy).
  5. Cuts in public support for education results in some people having less opportunity for good jobs (policy).
  6. Television and magazines depict “the good life” as one rich in material goods (policy).

Mental Models (these are the beliefs, worldviews, and assumptions that create the structures)

  1. “It won’t happen to me, so I won’t lock my doors at night” (homeowner).
  2. “People with homes can afford to loose a few luxury items” (robber).
  3. “Its probably just a few kids.  We’ll catch em soon.” (police).
  4. We can’t afford good public education or employment programs during this economic crisis” (conservatives).
  5. “You can have it all!” (the advertising industry).
  6. What else?  I”m sure there are many more.

This example describes how the iceberg model can be used to “dig deeper” into root cause of a social problem.  If all we do is “react to events” (such as an individual house break-in), the systemic problem (lack of education and employment, and material-rich expectations of “the good life”) will never be addressed.  Systems thinking helps us to uncover leverage points for the transformation of society necessary to deal with systemic problems.  Transformation must begin with a “mind change”…. that is, how we think.

Here is how we use the iceberg tool to “see below the surface.”

iceberg

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Gardening and living by three "ecological rules"

Spring semester is underway at the University of Massachusetts and I’m teaching a class called Sustainable Living with about 300 students.   My next several posts will share some of the lessons from this class.  My first lecture is called Ecology “Rules”.

The three ecological rules for living sustainably are:

  1. Use current solar income whenever possible.
  2. Recycle everything (waste = food).
  3. Encourage biological diversity.

This post looks at how we try to “obey Mother Nature’s rules” in my own household and garden and makes suggestions for you to consider in your own life.

1. Use Current Solar Income

Well, the obvious use of solar income growing food in the garden.

We have a big garden, with two unheated hoop houses that allow us to grow food during three seasons in New England.  But if you live in an apartment, you can still grow some food in planters and window boxes.  Or check with your town hall and ask about access to a community garden.  Or join a CSA (many deliver directly into the city).  But if you have a big back yard, why not try “food not lawns”.  Lawns require too much fertilizer and water and produce nothing.

A simple way to use solar energy is dry your clothes outside.   I enjoy feeling like I’m somehow beating the oil companies this way.  And while it is a small thing, I like to feel the sun on my back while I’m hanging the laundry out.

And if you own your own home, there is no better investment than solar hot water! 

Although, both oil and wood are originally solar, wood heat is much more “current” than oil and can be regenerated in a lifetime.  So we burn wood for supplemental heat.  It also provides a back up when the power goes out in a winter storm!

I suspect there are lots of other actions we could take to obey Mother Nature’s first rule.  Why don’t you add your own below in comments box?

2. Waste=Food

So, here’s the second rule…..  everything cycles, or “waste=food.”  And of course the easiest way to obey this rule is to compost food wastes.  We collect all of the organic waste (except meat) in a small bucket on the kitchen counter.  It goes out to a compost pile to turn into organic matter, which goes on the garden to grow more food.  In Mother Nature, there is no waste!

Some of the food “waste,” like old tomatoes, go to our hens, which turn that “waste” into fresh eggs.  Have you ever had a fresh egg?  It tastes different than the industrial version.

There are other ways to turn waste into food.  The ashes from the wood stove (waste) go onto the garden to grow more food.   Wood ash has potassium (potash), an essential nutrient for plants.

And how about recycling old newspapers and cardboard by using it as a mulch on the garden?   Non-glossy newsprint is safe and prevents weed growth, builds organic matter, and provides a great home for worms that turn leaves and garden residues into fertilizer.

The newspaper is covered with hay and then watered down.  We do this every fall to get the garden ready for planting in the spring.  We try not to rototill at all, since this kills the worms which help feed the garden.

3. Support Biological Diversity

And the third rule…… well, the first two don’t work well without biological diversity.  A monoculture, either a 1000 acre corn farm or your front lawn violates Mother Nature’s rules.  And the best way to mix things up in the garden is to make sure you have both plants and animals!   Animals…… really?

Well, yes.  Animals in the garden are needed to recycle nutrients.  Here are our “meat chickens” feeding (and pooping) in the old strawberry patch. 

Chickens are one of the easiest animal to include in your garden.  We raise 25 broilers each summer.  They are around for about 8 weeks and then “into the freezer.”  Lots of communities are working to change their zoning rules to encourage backyard chickens and hens for food self-sufficiency.

There is one backyard animal that is even easier than chickens….. that’s bees.  We harvest about 8 quarts of honey each year from our bee hive.

Oh sure, you say…. I can’t do that!  Well, its not all that difficult and there are lots of your neighbors who have already joined the “homegrown revolution!”

But if you are not ready for chickens and bees….. well, then start with worms.  Yup, that’s right.  They can help recycle kitchen wastes all winter long.

This little “worm condominium” supports a few thousand worms that quietly eat food waste, producing lovely potting soil.  And the hens love to have a few worms as a snack during the winter when the ground is frozen and they can’t scratch up their own bugs.  Try it!

The food waste goes in and the worms do the rest.  Its called vermiculture farming (worm) and its simple!

How are you obeying Mother Nature’s rules?  Post your ideas in the comments box below!

But I don’t want to “obey” the rules

There is a part of me that rebels when I hear the word “obey” or “obedience”.   But lets look more closely at that word “obey.”  It comes from the Latin “obedire“, which is to hear or listen.  Perhaps that is what it means to “obey” Mother Nature’s rules, simply to listen deeply.

I remember my first Permaculture course, when we we told to go out and sit in a garden and observe quietly.  I was surprised by the difference between this garden brimming with biological diversity (birds, bees and bugs) and my own which was productive but sterile.

When I sit and listen to Mother Nature’s “voice” I seem to become part of something much bigger than myself.  I can feel the energy of the earth and I feel at peace.   And yes, I try to obey the rules.

After all, these ecological rules have evolved over 4.5 billion years of evolutionary trial and error (or perhaps divine intent) on this planet.  Our own human cleverness isn’t working so well and seems to have gotten us into quite a mess.  Maybe we can learn something by listening to Mother Nature!

How do you live by these three ecological rules?

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On creativity and the sources of "new ideas"

A few years ago, I ran a cross a little book called The Use of Lateral Thinking by Edward DeBono.  I’d like to share some of Professor DeBono’s thinking on creativity and the sources of “new ideas.”

DeBono was a Maltese educator and thinker.  He has a Ph.D. from Cambridge University and has had faculty appointments at Oxford, Harvard, and Cambridge. He has consulted for academic institutions, governments, and corporations worldwide on educational theory and learning.  He has written 25 books on cognition, which have been translated 20 languages.

DeBono is given credit for the concept of lateral thinking, a tool used to create fresh ideas.  He claims that most ideas come from vertical or logical thinking, which may produce “an answer” but is likely to be inadequate in the face of new and complex “real world” problems.  Really fresh “new ideas” won’t emerge from logical thinking.

DeBono uses the image of digging holes to describe the quest for new ideas.  He says you can’t find the answers to new problems by using old ideas. Sometimes you have to dig in a new place.

DeBono writes:

“It is not possible to dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.”

If we need new and creative solutions to emerging real world problems, it is unlikely that we will find them in our text books, classrooms, libraries, or even the scientific journal articles….. the ideas that we have “dug out of the old holes.”  An example of a new idea is the “communiversity” that I wrote about some years ago, and turned out to be just another new hole that was ignored by the university.  So why are new ideas so difficult to take seriously?

DeBono writes,

“…it is easier to go on digging in the same hole than to start all over again in a new place.”

University research and education programs are really good at digging in places that have proved successful in the past.  Institutions are designed to be conservative and giving up the old holes is difficult.  DeBono continues…

“The disinclination to abandon a half-dug hole is partly a reluctance to abandon the investment of effort that has already gone into the hole. It is far easier to go on doing the same thing rather than wonder what else to do.”

DeBono says that it is easier to follow along the path of current understanding, present knowledge, old ideas when he writes….

“…no sooner are two thoughts strung together than there is a direction, and it becomes easier to string further thoughts along in the same direction, than to change your thinking.”

DeBono paints the unglamourous picture of scientists digging away at old holes, exploring old ideas, when he writes…

“by far the greatest amount of scientific effort is directed towards the logical enlargement of some accepted hole. Many are the minds scratching feebly away or gouging out great chunks according to their capacity. Yet great new ideas and great scientific advances have often come about through people ignoring the hole that is in progress and starting a new one.”

DeBono explains that the process of education is designed to make people appreciate the holes that have been dug for them by their teachers, supervisors, or elders.  And enlarging the hole that has already been started, offers an opportunity for progress and the promise of rapid advancement within the academy.

Our education and evaluation systems encourage us to jump down into the hole with our teachers (the experts) and dig along side of them. This is how we achieve recognition and advancement, we join the experts.

DeBono offers the following observation about experts:

“An expert is an expert because he understands the present hole better than anyone else.”

and

“Experts are usually to be found happily at the bottom of the deepest holes.”

In our university system diggers are rewarded, even if they are at the bottom of out-dated holes, ones that were appropriate last year, or the last decade.

If college and university educators are to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world, we’ve got to climb out of the old holes and have a look around.   DeBono encourages us to dig new holes in more original places. He says we never will see a better hole from the bottom of the one we are currently in.

New ideas abound, but we  will need to look outside of our own professional organizations, our own academic departments, our university culture to see them.

We need to broaden our horizons, first by listening more carefully to what our students are talking about and then perhaps by reading an internet newspaper, or create a customized RSS feed for those topics that interest you.  If you are new to this, perhaps just follow World.edu on Twitter, or “like” us on Facebook.  We all need to open ourselves to creative thought from many places if we want to be relevant in the future.

The social networking world seems intimidating (and foolish) at times, but it can really open our eyes if we are willing to wade in!   I believe this web portal is a wonderful way for global educators to stay linked to some of the freshest new ideas in sustainability and higher education.  I called for such linkage when I first wrote about the communiversity in 1997.  The updated version of my essay adds some specifics about the technologies predicted in the late 90’s.  But its not too late!  Why not “get linked?”

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.

What can you say to people who don’t want to talk about sustainability?

Most of my blog posts on World.edu have focused on sustainable agriculture, but lately I’ve been thinking about the idea of sustainability in general.  Last week I wrote about how to talk about sustainability with friends and family.  I stated that it is difficult to convince someone who just isn’t interested in thinking about sustainability to change their behavior.

Personally this doesn’t bother me, as I find myself busy enough working with people who are ready to try to change their lives to be more sustainable.  I choose not to worry about people who “just don’t get it.” Nevertheless, some of my students continue to ask me…..

“…what can we do about them?

For an answer, I return to the iceberg model from an earlier post.  Remember, mental models influence social structures, and societal and personal behavior.


When we take the iceberg model and rearrange the components into a causal loop diagram, we can see why it is so difficult to change behavior. In this model, non-sustainable events, patterns, structures and mental models are all part of a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

When we look for the cause of the loop, it is like asking which comes first – the chicken or the egg.  None and all of the components in the loop are cause and effect. They cause each other.  This is how reinforcing feedback loops work – like an addiction.

When we realize that our behavior is not in our best interest  – and we still don’t change that behavior – we are caught in an addiction cycle. A systems thinker might describe it like this;

  • as non-sustainable actions increase, non-sustainable patterns increase, and….
  • as non-sustainable patterns increase, non-sustainable structures increase, and…
  • as non-sustainable structures increase, non-sustainable mental models increase, and…
  • as non-sustainable mental models increase…..
  • the cycle goes on and on……

An addiction cycle is difficult to stop….. but it can be turned around!

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Lets look at what happens in addiction cycles….

When a person or society is caught in an addiction cycle, something bad always happens.  We’ll call it “something to learn. For someone addicted to substances, something to learn is often a very painful physical and emotional “bottom.”  For someone with a spending habit, something to learn might be maxing out a credit card.  For a society that is living or spending beyond its capacity, something to learn might be a financial crisis (sound familiar?).

In any case, “something to learn” is usually painful and confusing.  The good news is that pain can be a catalyst for changing our mental models…. in fact, a new vision only begins to make sense when it becomes clear that the old way of thinking is no longer working.

For someone who “just doesn’t get it” the pain-induced new vision (mental model) can begin to turn things around!

A new way of thinking might result in a person (or a society) trying something different….. like more responsible or sustainable behaviors…… and then the reinforcing feedback loop can take over – and watch out! Things that seemed impossible before can change fast as sustainable actions result in sustainable patterns, and new systemic structures.

For those of us already awake to our non-sustainable situation, I believe we have a responsibility to take action NOW.  For those who are not yet ready, pain will eventually help them wake up.  But I can’t spend a lot of energy talking to people who are not yet ready to change…. I’ve got too much work to do.  I believe that we are already well into the Great Turning (that is the inevitable  transition from an industrial growth society to a life sustaining society) and this is really exciting work.

Lets see….

THE GREAT TURNING HAS ALREADY BEGUN!

You are invited to join the Great Turning. We can begin now…  or we can wait.  Either way, we are guaranteed that “something to learn” will eventually convince us all to think and act in a more sustainable manner.  The longer we wait – the more pain we will experience.

So “what can we do about them?” If we are talking with people in which we already have a trusting relationship, we can speak from the heart as I described in an earlier post.  For the others……  well, I’ve got too much work to do to worry about that….

What about you?  Do you want to join the Great Turning?

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"Talking Sustainability" – to change how we think!

Last week I posted a blog claiming that “mental models” (our worldview, the stories we tell about ourselves, and core values) must change before we are likely to see a significant shift towards more sustainable human behavior.  That is, before we are able to change social policies or large scale behavior…. we must change how we think!

Well, if that is true….. the next question might be….. “how do we change human minds?” I will use the same iceberg model to describe a process for creating a convincing argument for change.   Remember this?

iceberg
One of the core competencies of a successful human in our world is the ability to create a convincing argument for your perspective.  Another critical competency is the ability to listen and learn from others.  To convince someone they should change their behavior to be more sustainable, the first necessary condition is trust (which is built by learning to listen respectfully).   Without trust….  don’t even bother to present your case!  This is where “cor ad cor loquitur” becomes really important.

Of course, it can be pretty frustrating having to listen to folks who are not interested in learning, growing or changing.  I will deal with how to think about people who are “just not interested” in a future blog.  For now, lets focus on how to talk with the many people who already know “something is wrong” but aren’t quite willing to change their behavior (yet).

Know any of these folks?

Maybe you are a student, headed home to visit Mom and Dad.  Or perhaps you are just hanging out with good friends.  In either case, here is how to go about presenting an argument which might convince people who already trust you to change their behavior.

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First, turn the iceberg model upside down!

We begin by talking about mental models.  If you share what you truly care about with someone you trust, you set the “frame” for the discussion.

But remember, honesty is really important.   This is not “spin.”  Speak from the heart…..

If I am trying to encourage a friend to consider a new and more sustainable behavior, I might begin by getting their attention with some facts that seem inconsistent with their own mental models.  Like this…

“Did you know that the Walmart Corporation is the largest grocery retailer in the U.S.?  Yup, they seem to be ready to take over the world!”

Walmart?   A grocery store?  Hmmmmmm…..  Now, most people are overwhelmed with information today and are no longer surprised (or even interested) in facts.  If we spend too much time talking about facts, our listener is likely to get bored.  So we change the subject quickly (now that we have their attention) to an expression of our core values.  We talk mental models and speak from the heart…..

“You know, as corporations get more and more powerful, I keep wondering about what happens to ‘the little guy.’  I mean, do individuals even have a chance today to create a good live without being owned by these corporations? “

At this point, we hope our listener is engaged.  If so, we continue…..

“I’ve been thinking about the things I really care about…. like people having enough food to eat.  I care about clean air, water and a living soil.  I care about children having chance for a decent life.  I care about Mother Nature.  I care about the place that I live, my family, and my work.  These are the things I hold most dear.  I don’t think the corporation cares about these things.

What do you care about most deeply?”

Getting someone to talk about their own deeply held values begins to set the frame for the rest of the conversation.   So far, we are talking at the level of mental models.  As we work down the “upside down” iceberg, the next stage is systemic structures.  These are;

  1. physical things,
  2. organizations,
  3. policies, and
  4. rituals.

Changing structures has the power to change behavior.  But I would try to avoid talking about structures in the abstract. Rather, lets share a story about a particular structure that is consistent with our professed core values.  For me, it might be the North Amherst Community Farm.  This is what I’d say….

“Did you know there is a group of crazy people in my neighborhood who got together and bought a farm?  Yup, it seems that about 30 acres right in the middle of my suburban neighborhood was about to be sold for housing development.  My neighbors got together and raised enough money with help from the state and town governments to save the farm.

“We’ve still got a mortgage of course.  But this little neighborhood group saved this land from development and it is now being farmed by two terrific families who live right there on the property.  They have a 300 member CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) the world’s best vegetables, grass-fed beef, sheep, pigs, and chickens.  It is very cool….. and it is right in my backyard!”

NACF represents a real life structure that is consistent with my core values.  It represents a “reasonable” change option (because it is true), even though none of us ever thought we’d “own a farm.”

Now that I have my listeners attention, I talk about a pattern of behavior that emerges out of the structure I’ve just described.  And once again, I do it by telling a story…..

“One of the biggest surprises that grew out of  saving this farm was all of the people in town who got interested in raising egg laying chickens in their backyard!   The farm has about 200 laying hens as part of the CSA.  Once folks were introduced to fresh eggs, it was difficult to go back to industrial eggs.  And several of them are now raising their own!

This “hopeful story” represents a pattern of behavior that grew out of the structure and mental models we’ve been talking about.  We continue….

“We organized this workshop around Mother’s Day last year, called ‘Homes for Hens’ and 50 people showed up.  Parents and grandparents and lots of kids came to learn how to have a few hens in their backyard.  We let them hold the hens and talked about how to take care of them.  It was really fun!  There were lots of good questions and stories being told by the teachers as well as the participants!”

“And now, we’ve got a half dozen or so families in the area raising hens and teaching others.  We are not changing the world of course, but it sure does show kids something valuable about where their food comes from!”

I’d keep the story short and let my listener ask questions.  At this point, we continue to move down the “upside down iceberg” and suggest an action, consistent with the pattern of behavior (raising chickens), the structure (the new farm), and the mental models we have been talking about.

The key to shifting mental models – is taking action. Unless we “make it real” – nothing changes.  So maybe  next I’d say…

“Hey, you want to run by the farm and help collect some eggs?  I’ll bet the farmers would appreciate some help, and maybe give you a few so you can try them out for breakfast tomorrow.  If you want a little exercise, we can pull some weeds while we are there too.  Anyway,  I’d like you to meet the farmers.  They are great folks!”

That’s it.  Simple but it can be effective.  To change how people think:

  1. we begin with an expression of common values (mental models),
  2. share a success story of a real life structural change,
  3. tell a story about how behavioral patterns have shifted, and
  4. conclude with a suggested action (consistent with those values).

Mental models don’t change when we tell someone they are doing something wrong.  Arguing with people who just don’t want to hear it will fail!

For example, we know that the world is full of cynicism, selfishness and irresponsible behavior.  Telling someone not to behave in this way will not result in systemic change.

When we see someone throwing a plastic water bottle in the trash for example, simply shouting “hey, don’t do that” will not shift mental models, but rather cause people to retrench and protect their own worldview.

To change an old mental model, it needs to be replaced with a new mental model that is more empowering.

“Out with the old and in with the new” is a tactic that can change mental models.  The new worldview must be compelling and honest.  It must be based in possibility and consistent with commonly held values.

This can work!

Or at least, it is worth a try.  Take the iceberg and “turn it upside down.”   To convince a friend or family member to shift toward more sustainable behaviors, why not try John Henry Newman’s motto:

“Cor ad Cor Loquitur”  – heart speaks to heart

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As an example, I’ll close with one of my favorite short videos.  Notice that Paul Hawken begins with an expression of values and a new compelling worldview (mental model) and then introduces thousands of structures (organizations) that are real (realistic).  He presents a pattern of behavior represented by these structures and closes by claiming that “human kind knows what to do.”  This is a clear call for action.   See if you are moved by the story……

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I believe the shift in mental models that Hawken is talking about is possible  – and in fact is happening now…….

Do you?

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.

Which comes first – sustainable policies or sustainable behavior? Neither – sustainable thinking must come first!

Last week one of my Sustainable Agriculture students declared “you’ve got to change government policies before you can expect people to change their behavior.”  Of course we know that policies such as tax incentives and regulations are effective in influencing human behavior.  But changing policies (particularly in the current divisive political climate) is a daunting task.  This blog post presents a framework for thinking about social change.  We’ll begin with an iceberg!

icebergpict1-250x239The “iceberg” model is used by systems thinkers to understand the root cause of human behaviors.  In this model, an “event” such as stopping your car at a red light, is influenced by the “pattern of behavior” of everyone stopping at the red light, which is caused by “systemic structures” such as the traffic light and state and federal motor vehicle regulations.  But the root cause of the entire systems is the “mental model” or the thought that safety matters and society has a right to regulate individual behavior.  Get it?

Lets apply the iceberg model to try to understand why so many of us participate in non-sustainable behaviors.  Another example…  An event might be something like putting a dollar in a vending machine and purchasing a bottle of water.  This simple action is part of a larger pattern of behavior in the industrialized world we might think of as “convenient lifestyle.”  It is so common that most of us don’t even think about it.  When we are thirsty, it is “common sense” to buy water delivered in a plastic bottle – so we do.

bottlesOf course environmental activists shudder when they think about this everyday act.  We buy millions of plastic water bottles daily, drink the water (it takes just a few minutes) and then……. we throw the bottle “away” (most plastic water bottles are NOT recycled in the U.S.).  We know that a plastic water bottle will not decompose in a landfill.  So for a few minutes use…… we toss out a product that will last a thousand years!   Yikes, not very sustainable, huh?

dasani

How can this be?   Well, lets look around and notice the systemic structures we have created to support this behavior.  I don’t know about you, but when I look around, I see Dasani vending machines EVERYWHERE. We buy plastic water bottles because we have created structures to make this kind of behavior easy.

To change behavior, we MUST change systemic structures, such as:

  1. physical things – like vending machines, roads, traffic lights etc.
  2. organizations – like corporations, government, schools…
  3. policies – like laws, regulations, tax incentives….
  4. ritual – like habitual behaviors so ingrained, they are not conscious.

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The dominant structures in the industrial world encourage non-sustainable behavior. For example:

  • a national highway system that makes individual driving more convenient than mass transportation,
  • fast food restaurants on every corner,
  • subsidized fossil fuel,
  • tax incentives for factory farms,
  • weak regulations on off-shore drilling, and
  • plastic water bottle vending machines EVERYWHERE,

…..are all systemic structures that encourage non-sustainable behavior.  And why have we created physical things, and organizational and policy structures that support and encourage non-sustainable behavior?

Right – mental models!   Mental models support systemic structures that in turn influence social behavior (patterns) and individual behavior (events).

Mental models are powerful!

The iceberg helps us to understand why it is so difficult to change human behavior.  Unless we look well “below the waterline” of the iceberg, we will never understand the root cause of non-sustainable behaviors.

icebergpict1-250x239Non-sustainable actions and patterns dominate mainstream society.  We burn fossil fuels carelessly, we allow toxins to enter our air, water and bloodstream, we purchase products that are cheap (because someone in a developing country isn’t paid a living wage).  People frustrated by this behavior, try to change regulations (structures) and encourage more sustainable behaviors (patterns).  But change comes slowly  – primarily because of mental models.

As a faculty member at a major agricultural university in the late 1980’s, I spent a lot of time and energy trying to change patterns of behavior within the conventional farming community by flying around the U.S. giving speeches about sustainable agriculture.  As a university administrator, I spent much of the 1990’s trying to change the structure of university research and extension education programs to be supportive of a more sustainable agriculture.  Neither strategy proved effective, primarily because of rigid mental models.

Maybe we need to try another approach.  While activists are working to change policies and educators are trying to help change personal behavior, we also need to change the way we think.   Unless mental models (common sense) shifts, changes in behavior and patterns won’t last.

When mental models begin to shift, structures, patterns of behavior, and events will follow.

This is basic systems theory (which I will explore more in a future blog).  For now, lets just say this concept is represented by the reinforcing feedback loop pictured on the left.

Not convinced?   Lets look at how a powerful mental model prevents us from protecting human health.  Remember the salmonella outbreak and egg recall that struck the U.S. egg industry last summer?  The industrial system for producing eggs not only treats live hens as if they were part of a giant machine, but can’t adequately protect human health.  Of course, industrial egg production is part of a larger pattern of behavior many of us think of as factory farming.  These farms make sense in the context of the industrialized worldview that is our dominant mental model of agriculture today.  Many of us believe this must change.

However, as long as most humans continue to pursue busy, stressed and competitive lives focused money, power and prestige, we will not likely take the steps necessary to change the way we grow food.  The mental model of “industrialized living” not only results in human stress but also recalled eggs.   Lets have a look at an example….

Can you identify characteristics of the mental models that result in BOTH industrial eggs and industrial human lives?  What attributes drive both of these systems?  Well, perhaps……

  1. a desire to increase productivity (at all costs)
  2. systems which focus on efficiency (at all costs)
  3. the belief that success is defined by how much money you make
  4. the belief that humans are not subject to natures rules
  5. what else?
  6. please share your ideas in the comment box below.

Systems thinkers know that while mental models are difficult to change, this is where we will find the leverage needed to create a sustainable human society.

The next logical question ishow?

I will attempt to deal with this question in a future blog.

For now, please share your own thoughts in the comment box below.  Thank you…..

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