science

The deluded environmentalist

I’m not an environmentalist.

“Wait, don’t you drive a truck on vegetable oilAnd aren’t you always going off about sustainability? And don’t you have a Master’s degree in Environment & Management?”

Yes to all three, and more. I co-chair a sustainability minded non-profit in Cochrane, bought a bunch of veggies at the farmer’s market this morning, and generally try and live a conscientious lifestyle.

I’ll tell you why I’m not an environmentalist (anymore). It’s because I live in North America, specifically in Alberta, near the capital of oil country (Calgary). I can’t be an environmentalist. The impact of even my most conscientious lifestyle on the planet still greatly exceeds that of probably 80-90% of the world’s population (I’m making up that stat, because it doesn’t really matter). How can I claim to be an environmentalist? What does that even look like in today’s 100mph consumer culture? A new prius? Curbside recycling? Driving a veggie oil truck like it’s my personal carbon offset so that I feel less guilty about taking a holiday to Hawaii?

It’s this very act of rationalizing our actions, offsetting the bad with the image of the good, that feeds our delusional picture of environmentalism. Like the cartoon above so aptly illustrates, our collective conscience is all to easily soothed by the placards of modern environmentalism. 3R’s? Yes please (except for the first two, they’re pretty inconvenient). Ban plastic bags? You betcha! (Except when I forget the cloth ones…)

Stop buying cheap consumer goods transported halfway around the world, used once and then tossed into a landfill? Uhh…hang on a sec.

Stop draining wetlands for those suburbs? Not so fast big guy…I have to put my starter castle somewhere!

Stop bottom trawling the ocean to get every last fish? But I really don’t want to pay more for my canned tuna…

I’ve got nothing against (most) environmentalists. Hell, I used to be one. But if we think that the planetary crisis’ of our time is going to be solved by token acts of conscientiousness, we’re seriously deluded.

And delusion’s a problem, because it maintains for us a belief that the world is the way we want it to be, instead of the way that it is.  It allows us to feel great about recycling our pop cans, while allowing us to turn a blind eye to our SUV’s and iPads. Add a little rationalization (my truck’s not as big as THAT GUY’s) and you’ve got a pretty dangerous combination.

I’m picking on environmentalists in this post, but the same could be said for philanthropy, religion, governance, education, finance…the list of societal systems afflicted by the threat of rational delusion is long.

And a little delusion goes a long way, so we’ll hang on tight.

 

 

The Resilient System: Feedback

Last week I wrote about Diversity vs. Efficiency, and how often in our systems we’re sacrificing the former for the latter. This week I’m going to get into Feedback a little bit.

Not the dreaded “sit down with the boss every year and chat about your annual review” kind of feedback. The kind of feedback that drives systems, both little and huge.

First though, two kinds of Feedback:

Positive Feedback: Encourages the system to “do it again”. From rave reviews at the concert hall that sparks a 2nd run of the same play, to diner’s consistently ordering the same dish at the local restaurant, positive feedback is what propels systems forward (usually quite rapidly). Positive feedback often encourages the system to use up resources (think of shareholders getting high returns from companies that cut down rainforests… the positive feedback encourages more investment, which results in more logging, which results in higher profits, which results in more investment…).

Negative Feedback: Places limits on the system, and is essential for long term system stability. It’s the wolf or coyote that keeps the rabbit population in check. It’s the group of book publishers that only buys recycled paper, instead of virgin wood. It’s the ability of the planet to absorb the carbon we emit.

Typically, positive feedback loops are much faster than negative feedback loops. Often, these positive loops will lead to runaway growth within a system, until the negative feedback loops of the system catch up (or the system uses up all the resources and crashes…also a form of negative feedback. A recent financial crisis come to mind…lot’s of little positive feedback loops at work there, creating a runaway system.)

The most important thing about feedback is that it exists, and we need to listen to it. First we need to figure out what the heck we’re measuring, and whether that’s the right “thing” that measures the stability and sustainability of the system. Thinking back to the cod fishery example from the previous post, it becomes pretty apparent that the positive feedback that was being measured didn’t indicate the resiliency of the system.

How do you know what’s going on in your system (business, classroom, community, etc.)? What do you measure? Why do you measure it? Is it positive feedback or negative?

The Resilient System: Diversity

As part of my focus on helping create a more resilient world, I’m going to be writing a series of blog posts on what I think are components of resilient systems.

The first topic is Diversity. For a system to be resilient, it needs to have resources distributed in such a way that they can be re-allocated to solving new problems as they appear, or dealing with challenges in multiple ways.  One of the main opponents of system diversity is efficiency.  There might be a conflict of interest here.

Since perhaps the dawn of mankind (but certainly the industrial revolution), we’ve been on a shared quest to increase the efficiency of our systems. From food production to education, manufacturing and transportation, we’ve been on a mission to do “more with less”. And that’s been great, and it’s led to all kinds of innovation and savings in energy, time and money. Heck, the very fact that you’re reading this on the internet (and not in a book 6-months from now) is the result of increases in communication efficiency. But the dark side to all of this efficiency is rigidity.

Called the “Rigidity Trap”, systems that are highly efficient are also highly prone to failure when confronted with crisis. One look at the cod fishery collapse in Atlantic Canada shows a system that evolved from being very diverse (lot’s of little fishing boats and owner/operators pre 1950s, using traditional fishing methods) to being highly efficient (giant trawlers with enormous haul nets and onboard cleaning and freezing facilities). The annual catch went up from 250,000 tons in the 1950s to 800,000 tons in 1968. This increase in efficiency led the system into a rigidity trap, where fisherman HAD to keep pursuing larger and larger catches, to justify the mortgages on very expensive and efficient boats. The federal government didn’t step in until 1992, at which point 42,000 people were put out of work when the fishery was closed. For over 400 years the northern Atlantic cod fishery had been one of the richest in the world, and in a few short decades of ever-increasing efficiency, was decimated.

Of course, we can look at diversity at a broad range of scales. How diverse is your personal thinking? Do you visit the same websites, read the same newspaper columnists, listen to the same radio talk shows? Do you only read things at seetheconnection.com?

The next blog post will be on Feedback, as it’s the critical element that informs the system on what’s working and what’s not. From the examples above, if we only get feedback from sources that support our worldview, I think we’re in danger of developing our own “rigidity traps”.

A few things to ponder in your own systems (at whatever scale you have influence on).

  1. Are we sacrificing diversity for efficiency? And what are the consequences if our efficient system becomes so rigid that it can’t handle change, and collapses? Will 42,000 people be put out of work and an ecosystem destroyed?
  2. Do we have redundancy built into the system? Are we willing to sacrifice a bit of efficiency to ensure the system can survive crisis? (An example from my own life is heating my house. I have a traditional furnace and a wood stove. Redundant systems that perform the same task, a little less efficient, but more resilient. Same idea with the truck that runs on diesel and vegetable oil.)