Category Archives: Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking Tools: understanding hierarchy

This post examines the structure of human-constructed hierarchy using a systems thinking lens.  Like many of my friends who have a “problem with authority” – I always struggle with the concept of  hierarchy.  I think this is because the dominant form of hierarchy working in the human world is based on what peace and social justice activist Starhawk  calls power-over and is manifested as domination (at best) and oppression or abuse (at worst).

POWER-OVER HIERARCHY –  A HUMAN CONSTRUCT

Power-over hierarchy is most apparent in the military, but is also found in corporations, universities, and many religious organizations (that is, just about every major human organization ever known).  Power-over hierarchy, built upon “command and control” relationships is deeply rooted in human history.

One of the early records of  hierarchy is found in Exodus 18.   When Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, came to him “in the wilderness, where he was camped near the mountain of God,”  he found Moses sitting all day making decisions over disputes among his people.  He asked Moses “why do you sit alone as judge?”  He advised Moses to “select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain —and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.”  There it is!  One controls the 10, ten controls the 50, etc., etc….

Human hierarchy runs deep.  This mode of decision making is the standard way humans have organized for thousands of years.  It is so much part of our culture that it appears to be the ONLY way to understand hierarchy.  While efficient in one sense, it is inherently unjust.

But there is another way to think about hierarchy….

POWER-WITH HIERARCHY –  NATURE’S WAY

While its true that humans have had thousands of years of experience organizing as power-over (command and control) hierarchies, ecological systems have several billion years of experience operating as power-with hierarchies.  That is, rather than power being manifested as command and control (power-over), it is seen as participation and inclusion (power-with).  Perhaps there is something we can learn from Mother Nature?

References to nature’s hierarchy are almost as old as the story of Exodus.  The first time we find nature’s hierarchy in literature is associated with Aristotle and is called the Great Chain of Being, or scala naturae (literally the “ladder or stair-way of nature”).  This ancient understanding of all relationships in the universe began to provide us with a sense of order and meaning.  More recently modern systems thinkers have added to this model of the universe.

Today, we understand a natural hierarchy (or holarchy in systems jargon) as a nested set of “systems within systems” of increasing complexity.  An organism (like you and me) contain “lower” or less complex subsystems like the human heart, and likewise are contained within the “larger” more complex subsystem of the human population. This is how living systems are organized and might depicted like this.

Now, what can we learn from this understanding of hierarchy?   Well…… one of the most important lessons has to do with the relationship between the levels of complexity.  A basic truth about natural hierarchies is “we look up for purpose and down for function.”

WHAT?

That’s right….  we look to more complex subsystems for purpose.  For example, an individual cell finds purpose in serving an organ (like the heart).  The purpose of the human heart, in turn, is to serve the human body (organism).  And, the organism looks to the less complex subsystems for function.   The organism looks to the heart for function.  The heart looks to individual cells for function.

GET IT?

Well, if this makes sense to you we might then ask the question…. so what?

YIKES….. its a big “so what!”   In fact it helps me to understand who I am and why I am here.  If I am indeed “a part of nature rather than a part from nature” then my relationship with all that is living is clear.  I too “look up for purpose” – that is, I am a “child of the universe” and my purpose is to be useful to something larger than myself.  If we apply the principle of “look up for purpose” we might see ourselves as part of “larger” or more complex “selves.”

For example, I am certainly part of a “family-self” and a “community-self”, so why not think of myself as part of an “ecological-self”, “universal-self” or even a “divine-self”?  This helps me to see that my purpose is to serve something larger than my personal self.

In a society when so many people seem to lack purpose (and therefore may substitute amusements or worse addictions for a meaningful life), the recognition that you and I are necessary to the function of more complex systems can be empowering.  The system we serve may be our family, community, nation, Mother Earth, or perhaps a sense of the divine.

This understanding of hierarchy based on living systems theory, might allow us to organize more human endeavors based on power-with relationships.  In this case, power comes from working with others at the same level of the hierarchy in service to a larger or more complex level.  Working in local communities for example, we can take actions together that serve others in the nation or protect and nurture “Mother Nature” (the eco-self).  Unlike the human hierarchy, the natural hierarchy is less likely to be unjust.

IMPLICATIONS

Power-over hierarchy it is NOT the only way of organizing human activities.  Some  businesses have learned that as they add layers of organization between top management and customers they lose access to feedback and begin to make poor decisions.   Likewise political leaders lose touch with constituents when there are many layers of organizational hierarchy.  This also explains why “conquerors” throughout human history rarely retain power for very long.

Conservationist, Aldo Leopold, reminded readers in his classic essay The Land Ethic, that conquest is always self-defeating, as conquerors rarely know “what makes the community clock tick, and just what and who is valuable… in community life.”  Power-over conquest always fails, eventually.  The “command and control” hierarchy that represents the dominant mental model governing how humans choose to organize has certain deficiencies.

If you have to cross a desert with a “stiff-necked people” (Exodus 32:9), then perhaps a command and control hierarchy is needed.  Or if you are fighting a war, then perhaps power-over is the relationship of choice.  However if you are trying to create a sustainable society based on economic vitality, environmental quality AND social equity…..  the human hierarchy just isn’t adequate.  For example, (with apologies in advance to all of my fellow Roman Catholics who I may offend) I do not believe the Catholic Church will ever be fully successful sharing the message of peace, justice, forgiveness and love attributed to Jesus as long as it is organized as a command and control hierarchy.  As I stated at the beginning, If power-over is the dominant relationship in an organization, it will ALWAYS result in domination (at best) and oppression or abuse (at worst).

The only human examples I can think of that might at least partially model a natural hierarchy are the first century Christians and modern 12-step programs.  Do you know of any human organizations based on power-with?

Perhaps after thousands of years of trying to get the power-over human hierarchy to work, it is time to give the much older power-with natural hierarchy a try!

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Systems Thinking Tools: fixes that fail!

My last few posts focused on systems thinking as a necessary means of understanding complex, real-world problems.

  1. Learn to Think Like a Mountain introduced the need and value of systems thinking.
  2. Systems Thinking Tools: the Mind Map presented one of the simplest and most useful tools to help you get started.
  3. Systems Thinking Tools: Finding the Root Cause of BIG Problems presented a way of thinking about problems that “just won’t go away”

I’ve been thinking a lot about systems science lately as I prepare to teach a new course in Agricultural Systems Thinking at UMass.  This post on Fixes That Fail was triggered by a radio interview I participated in a few weeks ago on WBUR in Boston in which University of Toronto Professor Pierre Desrochers, co-author of The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000-mile Diet, claimed the growth of the local food system was a dangerous trend.  He said things like…

“If everything was so great when most food was sourced locally centuries ago, why did we go through the trouble of developing a globalized food supply chain?

And….

“If widely adopted, either voluntarily or through political mandates, locavorism can only result in higher costs and increased poverty, greater food insecurity, less food safety and much more significant environmental damage than is presently the case.”

According to Desrochers, we must globalize the entire food system to maximize economic efficiency, keep food prices as cheap as possible, and avoid the ecological disaster that he claims will be caused by local food.  He believes local food will only be accessible to rich people and that poor people benefit from the global food system.

My response on the radio proposed a balanced approach, in which there was room in the marketplace for local, regional, national and global food.  Desrochers claimed that a little bit of poison (referring to local food) is still poison.   Hmmmmmmm…. not much room for negotiation!

Lots of folks have punched holes in Desrochers’ academic thesis, so I won’t bother.  I’d prefer to use his theory to help understand how the Fixes That Fail tool can help us understand a complex system.  Specifically, we’ll examine the flaw in the argument that the corporately controlled global food system is necessary and beneficial to people with a limited income.

Fixes That Fail

Okay, so the reason some arguments make sense is that if you don’t consider the whole system… well, they make sense.  Desrochers argues that poor people benefit from the global food system because large corporations have produced lots of cheap food.  In systems language we would depict it like this:

We would read this systems model as follows… “as the problem symptom increases, the fix increases (S = moves in the same direction).  As the
“easy fix” increases, the problem symptom decreases (O = moves in the opposite direction).”   This is called a balancing feedback loop (labeled B).

Applying this balancing loop to Desroches thesis, we would say “as financial stress or poverty increases, people will buy more food from the global corporate food system (the fix).  And as the fix increases, financial stress will decrease.  And of course on an individual basis this is true.  People experiencing financial stress should surely buy food from the least expensive source, and that is generally a corporate food store (not always however).

Here is the problem.   When we look at the larger system we can see that the globalized corporate food system is NOT a solution but in fact part of the cause of the problem.  The corporate system drives down wages and moves jobs overseas, CREATING not preventing poverty.  In systems language this is called an “unintended consequence” of the system.

The Unintended Consequence

First some facts from a recent report on jobs in the global food system:

  1. About 20 million people in the U.S. work in some aspect of the food system.  This is about 1/6 of the total workforce.
  2. Most jobs in the food system offer low wages with little access to health benefits and opportunities for advancement. Only 13.5 percent of all U.S. food workers surveyed earned a livable wage.

So the global food system that provides lots of cheap food does so on the backs of poorly paid workers (and exploitation of the environment – but that is another story). Global food corporations represent a “Fix That Fails” and would be depicted in systems language like this:

Cheap food from the global food system (easy fix) does in fact alleviate poverty (problem symptom) in the short term.  It also increases poverty in the long run by reducing opportunities for people to earn a livable wage.  The problem is that there is a “delay” before the unintended consequence (fewer well-paid jobs) is experienced and it may not be obvious that the cause of the unintended consequence is in fact the “easy fix” itself.  This second loop is called a reinforcing feedback loop (Iabeled R).  This model reads “as the easy fix increases, the unintended consequence increases (moves in the same direction) and thus increases the problem symptom.  Hey, that’s not what we intended!

The lower prices generated by the corporate food system does so by driving down wages (ask anyone who works for a big box store or a fast food restaurant) and moving jobs overseas (where wages are lower and health and safety regulations are nonexistent).  Thus the so-called “fix” actually increases the original problem (financial stress).

We know that real job growth in the U.S. comes from small, local businesses not corporations.  Those businesses that are cooperatively managed have the additional advantage of providing a decent wage and participation in ownership for the workers.  The larger the corporation, the more likely it is to “outsource” jobs to overseas markets.  Corporations (and their rich owners and shareholders) do not create more good jobs in the U.S – it just the opposite!

Further, corporate retail sales drain money from the community to make financial investors more money.  When we shop locally, we support our neighbors.  When we shop at national food chains, we support people wealthy enough to make investments in the corporation (stockholders and upper level management).

Conclusion

The globalized, corporate food system is a CAUSE not the solution to poverty!

It is in fact a fix that has failed……

The Fixes That Fail model is called a systems archetype, that is, something that happens over and over again in human behavior.  There are lots of other examples, such as:

  1. Putting out small forest fires actually is the cause of big fires (because there is more flammable material when it does burn).
  2. Widening a road to prevent accidents actually causes more accidents (because people drive faster).
  3. Saving money by not repairing a roof on a house actually costs more money (eventually).
  4. Borrowing money to pay the interest cost on loans (bad idea).

These are all obvious when you understand the Fixes That Fail archetype, which we teach as part of systems thinking.  The solution is always advanced planning to avoid the situation in the first place.   Of course, this isn’t possible in the U.S. food system, as it has already been thoroughly globalized.  Estimates of the extent of local food purchases range from 1 to 4 percent of total agricultural sales nationally.  We are already a victim of the problem of almost total corporate control of our food supply and nobody in authority seems to have noticed!

The answer must be a shift in personal behavior AND public policy to help grow the local food system.  I’ve written about this in other blog posts:

  1. Just Food Now: Public Opportunities and Responsibilities presents policy alternatives for government, colleges and community groups.
  2. Just Food Now: Taking Personal Responsibility examines ways in which individuals may help.

I believe the policy and the personal approaches are both important.  Unless we make a personal commitment to local food, we will not have the political will to implement the necessary policy changes.  We must occupy the food system.  We must also maintain a social safety net for people with limited income while we shift the balance toward a more local economy which will provide more livable wage employment.

Personally, I don’t believe we face the many dangers Desroches describes in his book.  I don’t expect we will ever (nor should we) completely eliminate global food trade as he threatens.   I’d just like to see a little more balance.  But what about you?  What would you propose to address this fix that failed?

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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.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.  Or for more systems thinking posts, try this link.

 

Systems Thinking Tools: finding the root cause(s) of BIG problems

I’ve been thinking a lot about systems science lately as I prepare to teach a course in Agricultural Systems Thinking at UMass.  My last two posts focused on systems thinking as a necessary means of understanding and addressing complex, real-world problems.

Learn to Think Like a Mountain introduced the need and value of systems thinking.

Systems Thinking Tools: the Mind Map presents one of the simplest and most useful tools to help you get started.

This post examines how we can use systems thinking to understand the root cause(s) of complex problems (you know the BIG ones, like poverty, hunger, social inequity, environmental degradation, food safety……).  Lets see how this might work!

An Example

A while back, I got an email from one of my “foodie” listserves telling me that the Dole Food Company had recalled thousands of bags of pre-cut salad due to concerns about contamination by the bacteria listeria.

In fact, the Blomberg Businessweek Report stated:

“Dole Food Co.’s fresh vegetable unit has recalled more than 1,000 cases of bagged salads sold at Kroger and Wal-Mart stores in six states because of the possibility of listeria contamination.

“No illnesses have been reported.

“A representative for Dole could not be immediately reached for further comment.”

Okay, so that is interesting but might easily be overlooked (as long as you were not in one of the 6 states where the bagged salad had already been sold).   If you looked a little closer you might learn from the FDA statement that…

Listeria monocytogenes is an organism that can cause foodborne illness in a person who eats a food item contaminated with it. Symptoms of infection may include fever, muscle aches, gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea or diarrhea.

If we look at the frequency of food recalls, we might be surprised.  The Dole salad recall was NOT an isolated event, but part of a larger pattern that has become “the new normal” in the American food system.

The recall provides an opportunity to use a systems thinking tool to discover possible root causes for the recurrence of food contamination called “the iceberg”.

Here is a simple model depicting the relationship among events, patterns – and the structures (below the water line) that create an environment in which these patterns persist (even when they may not be in our best interest). If we apply the iceberg tool to this particular food recall, we can see that:

  1. The bagged salad recall is the event
  2. Multiple recalls of food every day is the pattern

So, next we will ask “what are the structures that result in the recurring patterns?”

Finding Structures

Structures are relatively permanent components of human organization that create patterns and events.  For example, a stop light at a cross roads and the government policy that requires drivers to stop at a red light are structures that result in a specific pattern of behavior.   Structures are powerful.  I described systemic structures in a previous blog. Structures are:

  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.

In the case of fresh food recalls, these structures represent all that is good and bad about industrial agriculture, which is a system in which the farm is viewed as a machine (a very efficient and profitable one but still a machine) rather than a living system.  Some of the structures that result in food recalls are:

  1. Large corporate farms with the primary objective of making a profit
  2. Monoculture farming that creates large amounts of single food items
  3. Mechanically assisted harvest equipment (that spread bacteria)
  4. Washing and handling equipment that handles enormous quantities of fresh food quickly in shared water baths
  5. The corporately controlled global food distribution system that ships products by truck, rail, air and boat anywhere in the world
  6. The Food and Drug Administration inspection system and the policies that test, track and recall potentially contaminated food

These structures which support a very efficient industrial agricultural system will ALWAYS result in food recalls. To eliminate food recalls we have to change the structures that create an environment in which recalls are inevitable.

Recent efforts to do a better job tracking adulterated food have been proposed but do not address the root cause of the problem.   Proposals to irradiate food treat the problem after the contamination has occurred.  A recent British study on global food safety titled “Root Cause Analysis” missed the mark and only focused on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the same structures that ALWAYS result in food recalls.  Root causes are poorly understood.

To find root causes, you have to go deeper than the structures in the iceberg model.  Structures are created by how and what we think or “mental models“.

Finding root causes of patterns of behavior means we need to dig down to the level of mental models.  Once we understand the thinking that produces the structures that result in certain patterns of behavior, we can make better decisions.  In this case, the answer to reducing food recalls (along with many other problems created by industrial agriculture) is to create a safer and more sustainable food and farming system.

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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.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Systems Thinking Tools: the mind map

My last blog, Learning to Think Like a Mountain, introduced “systems thinking” as a useful means of understanding why “linear thinking” is inadequate when a problem under study: 1) is complex; 2) involves multiple relationships; and/or 3) involves human decision-making and uncertainty.

This post introduces one of the simplest and most useful of all the systems thinking tools, the mind map.  There are many variations of this tool, including concept mapping and spider diagramming but they are all generally used to view multiple, complex (non-linear) relationships in a system.  One of the failures of industrial agriculture is the assumption that it functions as a machine, with inputs (seeds, sun, fertilizer) that flow into a farm and outputs (food, fiber) flowing out.

This simple, linear understanding (which Annie Leonard described so well in the popular video The Story of Stuff) is inadequate as we work toward an agroecological frame for agricultural sustainability.  The mechanistic, linear view will rarely account for questions about environmental justice, decay of soil health, offsite impacts of pesticides, or vitality of rural communities, which may be discounted as “externalities.”  These perspectives, will on the other hand, be considered using systems thinking.

The mind map is also a nice tool for telling a story, such as how a household designed on permaculture (or ecological) principles is likely to view a “cup of tea.”

Instructions

To get started, you simply pick a topic and depict it either in words or a symbol in the middle of a page.  Here is a mind map of how to mind map.

Viewing the entire diagram, most people can easily get a sense of what a mind map is all about rather quickly.  Some suggestions on how to get started are:

  1. Start in the center with a description of the topic or theme
  2. Write whatever comes to mind next as a “sub-topic” and draw a connecting line, do it again, and again….
  3. Use images and symbols as much as possible
  4. Select key words and print clearly
  5. Each word/image should sit on its own line or inside its own bubble
  6. The lines should be connected, starting from the central image.  Important connections between concepts in different sub-section should be indicated
  7. Use colors to code for key ideas or sub-systems (sections of the map)
  8. Use thinker lines to indicate more important connections
  9. Put the most important ideas are near the center (its a hierarchy of ideas)
  10. Do it your own way!

Using Mind Maps in Agricultural Systems

Mind maps are useful tools for beginning to understand a complex system (like a farm).  The following is a mind map of a community farm in Waltham, MA developed by a student taking our online class, Sustainable Agriculture.   To try to understand the farm in depth, it is useful to review their web page – Waltham Fields Community Farm.  However to get a quick understanding of what the farm is all about, nothing beats a mind map.

Mind maps are particularly useful for:

  • understanding complex problems
  • taking notes
  • initial stages of designing a project
  • team collaboration
  • creative expression
  • presenting complex material in a concise format
  • team building or synergy creating activity

We often ask students to make a mind map of farms they have visited in our Sustainable Food and Farming classes at UMass.  For some examples, look at the links for individual students who took PLSOILIN 265 Sustainable Agriculture online.  I teach a course on Agricultural Systems Thinking at UMass as well.

There are lot of mind mapping software packages available, but I find the best way to learn to do this is drawing by hand.  Here is an example of a hand drawn mind map on a local project, Grow Food Northampton.

Mind maps are particularly useful for describing a farm because they are complex systems with multiple relationships managed by humans.  There is no “right or wrong” way to do this.  Whatever works is fine.

Why not give it a try?

NOTE: click on the link for more systems thinking blog posts!

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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.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

 

Learn to "think like a mountain"

Aldo Leopold’s famous suggestion that only a mountain has lived long enough to “listen objectively to the howl of a wolf” reminds us that to understand how ecosystems function, we need to “think like a mountain.”  If you’ve never heard this quote, its time to read A Sand County Almanac!  And if you are a student of agricultural ecology or a related field at the University of Massachusetts, perhaps its time to take a class in Agricultural Systems Thinking.

I’ve not offered this class for the past few years, but I’ve decided to resurrect it next fall (2012) because so many students in the Sustainable Food and Farming major at UMass seem interested in creating a way of farming consistent with ecological principles.  The dominant form of farming in developed countries, industrial agriculture, violates just about every ecological principle we know in an attempt to maximize short-term financial success.

Soil and fertilizer from farms drain down the Mississippi creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico

Leopold was hard on industrial farming in his 1949 essay in which he wrote that farmers and ranchers have “…not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”  We also have dead zones in the oceans, anti-biotic resistant bacteria developing from factory farms, nitrates in the groundwater, herbicides in the surface water, floods and drought, and on and on and on…..

The solution is a more sustainable agriculture designed in ways that are consistent with ecological principles.  It is unlikely however that we will be successful in developing such techniques until we learn to think like a mountain and come to appreciate the profound interconnectedness of the components of an ecosystem (either natural or agricultural) over both space and time.

Our educational system trains students to think in a linear, logical, analytical way at best, or simply to memorize disconnected facts at worst.  Graduates are well-prepared to take exams and write papers, but not to think creatively and systemically about climate change, war, poverty, hunger, environmental degradation etc.

These intractable problems won’t budge in response to linear thinking.  Systems thinking tools are needed to begin to understand why these systemic problems are so resistant to our efforts.  Systems thinking is a way of understanding complex real-world situations such as those often encountered in sustainable food and farming careers.

Systems tools are needed to complement more traditional scientific approaches when a problem under study: 1) is complex; 2) involves multiple relationships; and/or 3) involves human decision-making.  Agricultural Systems Thinking (STOCKSCH 379) will introduce students to systems tools for unraveling complexity and integrating their learning from previous courses and experience.

I’d appreciate your own thoughts and feedback in the comments box below.  But for now, lets just remember Leopold’s famous description of the howl of the wolf…..

“A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call.”

 And his final thought:

“In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.”

Systems thinking provides us with the tools to learn to…

think like a mountain.

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A conceptual foundation for teaching "Sustainability" courses

Have you noticed the word “sustainability” showing up in the titles of many new courses at universities and colleges these days?  I surely have at the University of Massachusetts – and for the most part I think it is a good thing.  It worries me a bit however, when I hear my faculty colleagues talking about sustainability as if its little more than environmentalism.  This blog was written in preparation for a Five College Sustainability Studies Seminar.

My observations on the emergence of sustainability as an academic discipline are flavored by my own experiences in sustainable agriculture.  When this field of study appeared in early 1980’s it was largely driven by the thinking and interest of farmers.  The academy first ignored the call for more research and education on agricultural sustainability.  This was followed by ridicule, derision, and eventually acceptance (helped along by a source of federal funding).

Over the next 25 years, sustainability studies spread throughout the university and today we even have a major national association called The American Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.   Things have certainly changed!

A few faculty (perhaps who were not part of the early debates about the nature of sustainability studies) may be inclined to attach the word sustainability as an adjective in front of the title of a course they have been teaching for years.  This blog post challenges us all to develop our own intellectual foundation for teaching sustainability courses before we name them “sustainable”…… here is a brief look at mine.

triangleAlmost everyone accepts some version of the “sustainability triangle” which includes 3 “E’s”…

  1. Environment
  2. Economy
  3. Equity (as in social equity or justice)

While the words used by different communities of scholars or practitioners may differ, we often see symbolic representations of these three basic concepts associated with the word sustainability. Sometimes these three concepts are depicted as overlapping circles.

threecircles

These common and generally accepted symbolic representations are useful, as they clearly require us to consider social equity or justice (often overlooked) as part of the sustainability equation.  However, they all have a common flaw…. they each assume competition among equally important perspectives.  This limited view allows us to negotiate tradeoffs between environmental quality and economic vitality, for example.

How often have we heard a business executive decry that “we just can’t afford to protect the environment today.”  Or perhaps a congressperson claim that some social justice legislation is a “job killer.”  As long as we accept these symbolic representations of sustainability, I suspect economic considerations will always win out over environmental or equity concerns.

But what if we took the same three symbolic circles and put them inside of each other, with the economy at the center? 

econsocenv02

We might then begin to understand that we can’t sustain a healthy economy within a sick society, nor a healthy society within a sick environment.  This symbolic representation of the same three concepts shifts the relationship they have to each other.  This is the representation of the three perspectives we need for the long term, which is what sustainability is supposed to be all about!

This picture changes everything!

We can not afford to have “either/or” conversations about money and society – nor about society and the environment.  We must begin to see that the economy is thoroughly embedded in society and the environment and change the assumption that it is okay to grow an economy by exploiting people and the natural world…..  this cannot be sustained.

Does this mean that the environment is more important than the economy?  NO!  It means that they are each critical to each other but there is a “directionality” to our sense of purpose.  In the study of living systems we learn to look to the “smaller” circles for function and the larger circles for purpose.  That is, human society can look to the economy as a tool to a serve a higher purpose, such as a healthy community and livable natural world.

This only makes sense if we see human nature as an integral part of “mother nature.”  Understanding that humans are apart of (rather than a part from) nature and subject to the “laws of Mother Nature” allows us to know who we are and where we fit in the world.  It gives us a foundation upon which to explore the big questions, like “who am I” and “why am I here?”  Students and teachers studying sustainability should be challenged by these questions in ways that are engaging and purposeful.

But how do we teach our classes based on this holistic, integrated nature of sustainability?  For me, the answer is by telling stories!  In my sustainability classes, I invite academics and practitioners to share stories about their lives and work in ways that integrate our desire for financial security, community connections, and a livable natural world.

A course on sustainability cannot afford to be merely objective.  There are values and purpose embedded in the study of sustainability…. yes, even within the academy.  There are even times when I’ve engaged in discussions of  spirituality in class!  Here is why...

We might see our individual self as a part of something bigger, lets call it the “family-self”, which is part of a”community-self” etc.  Continuing our exploration of the symbolism of circles within circles, lets now ask… “whats the next realm to consider?”

diineself

For some I suspect it might be the study of the ecology.

For others, perhaps cosmology.

For me, its the divine….

Sustainability studies, for me, is an opportunity to explore our relationship with some power greater than finite ourselves.  And what could possibly be more important than that?

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What is your conceptual foundation for teaching sustainability?  Please share your thoughts in the comments box below….

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and perhaps comment   For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please check out my web page Just Food Now.

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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