Your Lying Mind… or the power of mental models

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Ben Yahoda in September, 2018 Science

I am staring at a photograph of myself that shows me 20 years older than I am now. I have not stepped into the twilight zone. Rather, I am trying to rid myself of some measure of my present bias, which is the tendency people have, when considering a trade-off between two future moments, to more heavily weight the one closer to the present. A great many academic studies have shown this bias—also known as hyperbolic discounting—to be robust and persistent.

Most of them have focused on money. When asked whether they would prefer to have, say, $150 today or $180 in one month, people tend to choose the $150. Giving up a 20 percent return on investment is a bad move—which is easy to recognize when the question is thrust away from the present. Asked whether they would take $150 a year Read the rest of this entry »

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The Shambhala Worker

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An open letter to Sustainable Food and Farming majors….. (adapted with permission from Joanna Macy).  A printable version of this post maybe found here.

Many students who choose to study Sustainable Food and Farming have discovered their major through a circuitous route in which they tried other paths and found they just didn’t belong.  For you, I have a gift.  This is a story about people who don’t “fit” into the mainstream institutions, the citadels of learning, you know…. higher education.


There is a prophecy that emerged from Tibetan Buddhism about 12 hundred years ago. The signs it predicted are recognizable today… in our time. There are several

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Your life is a “story within a larger story”

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When I introduce my Agricultural Systems Thinking class  to the concept of hierarchy, I often use our own lives as a metaphor for “subsystems within larger systems.”  In this blog, I will try to examine the relationship of subsystems within a natural systems hierarchy (or holarchy) to the “system above”, which provides the “system below” with meaning.  But first, lets  examine the title of the blog “your life is a story within stories.”  I borrowed this metaphor from a wonderful systems thinker, Michael Dowd, who wrote ”

“Each of us is a story within stories. My daughter’s life story is part of both my story and her mother’s story. The story of our family is likewise part of other stories larger than our own: the story of our town, our state, our nation, Western civilization, humanity, planet

Earth, and the story of the Universe itself. Each of us is a story within stories within stories. Read the rest of this entry »

How to use the “iceberg” to understand complex systems

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icebergmodOne of the most useful tools available to a systems thinker is called “the iceberg“.  The iceberg metaphor represents the problems we face in the world (much like an iceberg is a problem for ships).  The visible world or the symptoms of a problem are easy to see.  But the bulk of the iceberg representing the underlying cause(s) of the problem is below the water line.  We need to learn to see below the water line.

Get it?

Okay…. so that was easy.  Now we dig deeper into the iceberg model and use it to try to

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Bottom up and place-based economics: a systemic solution

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By Chuck Collins – In Yes; Summer 2017

Resistance to the Trump administration’s attacks on immigrants, climate change policy, and economic fairness has been fierce. But alongside these efforts—from flooding representatives’ phone lines to packing town hall meetings to marching in protest—it’s also important to begin the work of building alternatives to the systems that underlie the exploitation of people and planet.

Chuck Collins wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Chuck is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies.  In the face of renewed calls for trickle-down economic policy—such as proposed tax cuts for the rich and transnational corporations—we urgently need a clearly articulated theory and practice of sustainable economics that work for local communities. Enter a blessing of a book, Anthony Flaccavento’s Building a Healthy

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Local Activist Uses Systems Thinking to Promote Peaceful Solutions

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December 15, 2016 – by Richie Davis in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

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Leverett peace activist Paula Green, who spoke at the Traprock Peace Center in the wake of the Nov. 9 presidential election of Donald Trump.

Leverett peace activist Paula Green says that rather than dwelling on habits that “solidify rage, hatred and alienation,” those caught in despair and fear in the aftermath of last month’s presidential election, “need to learn what we can from the catastrophe.”

Green, who has worked around the world to try to heal the effects of social and political conflicts and build means of reconciliation, told a Traprock Peace Center gathering of about 100 people recently, “Our communities, our country and our world need our concentrated determination to protect, resist and follow what musician/activist Harry Belafonte calls our ‘rebellious hearts.’ We have a long history of nonviolence to draw upon as we engage in acts of resistance in these next years.”

Franklin County voters chose Democrat Hillary Clinton at nearly 62 percent to nearly 30 percent for Donald Trump. In Hampshire County, Clinton won nearly 58 percent of the vote to Trump’s greater than 36 percent.

Speaking to a gathering of about 100 people from around Franklin and Hampshire counties on “Despair to Empowerment in Our Watershed Moment,” Green took solace in Trump’s election having disrupted our “business-asusual” path, which “has no rational approach to addressing the fundamental threats of militarism, resource depletion, global population and migration, rising inequality, and environmental calamities, each problem feeding on and exacerbating the other to produce devastation and chaos. Business as usual allows our resources to go into defending ourselves with extravagant military budgets and increasingly militarized policing. Perhaps it has taken the election of Trump to realize that the industrial growth society is bankrupt.”

‘The Great Unraveling’

Green, founder and director emeritus of the Karuna Center for Peace-building in Amherst, drew on her experiences in the former Yugoslavia, where she worked after the fall of dictator Slobodan Milosevic, in describing what writer Joanna Macy has called “The Great Unraveling.”

“Systems lose their coherence; institutions decline in legitimacy and fall apart; functioning organizations become erratic and disrupted; the climate behaves menaci ngly,” summarized Green. “Infrastructures collapse. Social norms crumble. People on the margins feel squeezed out. Borders close as fears multiply and compassion weakens. We watch overloaded rafts collapsing in the Mediterranean Sea and children drowning on the shores of Europe. The European Union, a great project of the post WWII realignment, begins to disintegrate.”

She added, “Cries of pain are heard everywhere from the Trump and Brexit voters whose lives feel unpromising to the ISIS fighters expressing their own experiences of despair and hopelessness.”

In fact, Green noted, “Despite their horrifying methods, there are connections between ISIS fighters, and our and Europe’s discontented voters. In our countries and theirs, unjust political and economic structures have marginalized large swaths of the population, leaving disempowered victims who then turn on each other.”

A former Pakistani student of Green’s from the School of International Training’s Conflict Transformation Across Cultures program, who now devotes her life to deprogramming current and potential ISIS fighters and their families, reports that “Despair and alienation drive their choices, just as they determine our election outcomes,” according to Green.

With many voters in this country so desperate that one in five admitting to pollsters they voted for Trump even though they believed him unqualified, Green said, “The large numbers of white working- class people who cast their protest vote for Trump will experience crushing disappointments and predictable rage as they feel once again tossed under the bus. Using the age-old tools of pitting marginalized groups against each other, the incoming administration will maneuver and coax their supporters to vent their frustration at scapegoats,” much as she saw in the former Yugoslavia.

“Milosevic, an opportunist demagogue, rose up by cleverly appealing to the grievances of one ethnic group in the region, promising them status, prosperity and glory. Demonizing all the other ethnic and religious groups, especially the Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims, he slowly tightened the noose, inciting and baiting his followers toward committing plunder, murder, and war crimes. The parallels are chilling; the lessons are clear.”

She warned, “We need to be prepared and present, ready to respond to escalating levels of divisiveness and race baiting. We, and our progressive politicians, must especially expand our reach to address the concerns for economic security and self-respect of those voters who will find themselves once again disappointed. We will have to cultivate allies in unlikely places within our own society.”

Actions for the future

Green said there is a need for “holding actions (to) demonstrate our resistance to the further degradation of life and environment” but also for creating food co-ops, solar and wind farms, as well as affordable housing, sanctuary programs and other new systems.

But there’s also a need, she said, for “shifting our consciousness toward a full understanding of our interconnectedness and interdependence,” in what Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela of South Africa called ubuntu: “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. A person is a person through other people. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other.”

Rather than falling into the “us” versus “them” trap, Green calls for the need to widen our circle of inclusion, with understanding and respect for one another — especially in this time prone to exclusion and disrespect.

“How are we going to end polarization while we are polarized?” she asked. “How do we un-polarize from the people we want to blame and hate for this electoral disaster? How do we disarm ourselves from our own attitudes and prejudices? How do we do the inner work of self-transformation and simultaneously extend ourselves outward to organize and resist, which we absolutely must do?”

Look for and Leverage Elegant Solutions

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Original Post – August 30, 2016  by

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 “A good solution solves more than one problem, and it does not make new problems.”

– Wendell Berry

An essay that I return to now and then, including over these past summer months, is Wendell Berry‘s “Solving for Pattern.” Published in 1981, the piece essentially considers systemic approaches to more “sustainable “agriculture, though the concept alluded to in the title has wider application. The phrase “solving for pattern” is an invitation to take a larger and longer view of “problem-solving,” to think about interventions that serve a bigger picture in more sustained and multiply beneficial ways.

Solving for pattern, according to Berry, runs counter to reductionist and mechanical solutions, which lend themselves to more predictable and relatively contained situations. When reductionist solutions are applied to more complex and systemic situations, they are more prone to failure and to exacerbating negative aspects. Real-life examples include:

  • Applying pesticides to plants that pollute soil and water and poison people and other living beings,
  • Irrigation schemes that channel water in such a way that the larger water cycle is disrupted and nutrients lost to key places in the ecosystem;
  • Trying to save money in a community by restricting public library hours and thereby significantly reducing an important job search resource for un- and under-employed people;
  • Providing more shelters for people who are homeless without also trying to address the underlying causes of homelessness (result = those who are homeless are no longer as visible, reducing the public’s concern about the issue, limiting more comprehensive solutions – see David Peter Stroh).

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“A bad solution is bad . . . because it acts destructively upon the larger pattern in which it is contained.”

A better approach in these situations is to get a sense of the larger systemic picture and pattern at play (which takes more time) and to look for interventions that support overall healthier dynamics in the system.

On a related personal level, my wife and I took some time recently to think ahead to the fall when kids are back in school and we are both working full schedules and trying to maintain some semblance of sanity on the home and family front. One situation that we were struggling with was how best to support our eldest daughter’s desire for musical enrichment after school without creating more stress on the family through racing around breathlessly from work to get kids from one location to another. We took it upon ourselves to find an “elegant solution” that solves multiple challenges without creating additional ones. In this particular instance, we arrived at the idea of finding a music student at one of the local colleges who could be hired to both teach our daughter and provide childcare until one of us returned home. Our daughter particularly liked the idea of connecting with a college student who is somewhat close in age and to whom she might ask questions about the college experience. That could create some very positive patterns of learning and mentorship on multiple fronts!

A beautiful example of pattern creation beyond isolated problem-solving is found in a story told by Sir Ken Robinson, in his book The Element, about the Jenks school district in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The state of Oklahoma has made a strong commitment to supporting early childhood reading for 3 to 5 year olds. The story goes that the head of a retirement home, the Grace Living Center, approached the superintendent in Jenks about establishing a preschool and kindergarten classroom in the home. The classroom was indeed built right in the heart of the Grace Living Center, with glass walls and a gap at the top of the walls to allow some of the sounds from the children to filter out into the hallways.

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Rather quickly, a number of the residents of the home volunteered to read to and be read to by the children. The results were impressive. The majority of the children in that particular reading program left for first grade reading at a third-grade level or higher. In addition, there were remarkable relationships established between the children and their senior Book Buddies, which yielded rich inter-generational learning about much more than reading. What’s more, the staff at the Grace Living Center noticed that medication levels of residents plummeted (which aligns with Ellen Langer’s research about the life-giving impacts of mindful engagement among older adults). As Sir Ken Robinson notes, “the Grace Living Center has restored an ancient, traditional relationship [or pattern] between the generations.” Fitting of Wendell Berry’s definition of a good solution, the partnership between the Grace Living Center and the school district is creating multiple benefits.

“Life-enhancing things can happen when we take the time to step out of our routines [and] rethink our paths.”

– Sir Ken Robinson

Yet another example is one I learned about during a meeting of the Food Solutions New England Network Team. We had the opportunity to hear from Ken Toong, Director of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Auxiliary Enterprises, which includes the award-winning dining program. The reason we invited Toong to speak with us is because of the program’s unique systemic commitment to not simply providing tasty food to students (17,000 of them), but to doing this in a way that promotes health through a variety of cuisines, educates and engages students, supports the local and regional economy, and is “regenerative” of human dignity and ecological integrity.

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UMass Dining sources much of its food locally year-round, serves sustainable seafood, employs hundreds of students and uses what it calls a “small plate [to promote health and reduce food waste], big flavor” philosophy, “all in the aim of supporting the New England Food System.” Having met students involved in the program, including the innovative Permaculture Initiative, and having eaten in the Hampshire Dining Commons, I can say that there is a palpable sense of enthusiasm and aliveness that seems to grow out of this larger systemic commitment to re-connect and create health-promoting patterns in students’ lives as well as in the surrounding community and region.

All of this leaves me with hope as well as some big questions about how to create larger and more inclusive patterns for justice and sustainability. What are the patterns that connect the injustices and imbalances that we are working on that are in need of repair and re-creation? What agreements might be made to create patterns of equitable resilience and abundance?

Beyond isolated problems to be solved, what larger patterns of life do you want to reinforce and/or create?

Please share your thoughts and stories . . .


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