The following article is titled “A Dysfunctional System Creates Dysfunctional People“. Using systems thinking language, this is restated as Mental Models result in Social Structures, which influence Patterns of Behavior…. and hence, individual actions. The “iceberg” model helps us understand that we only find the root causes of human behavior “below the surface.”
Original Post by Sean Hurley in Social Rebirth.
It has become an almost mainstream view that it is us, the ninety-nine percent, vs. them, the one percent. While on the surface that would very much appear to be the case, if we should be bothered to take a closer look at the situation, it becomes evident that the reality is not so black and white.
Clearly we have an international banking cartel bent on controlling our political system, large global corporations buying their way into the political arena, pulling the strings of our so called elected representatives, treating us like little more than cattle with rapidly diminishing, low paying, unsatisfying jobs, selling us made-to-break garbage with little to no concern for us or our environment. To the so called one percent or more accurately the “point zero zero one percent”, it is all about profit, power and control.
Those labelled the one percent are actually part of the one hundred percent and are only exhibiting behaviors our social model has very effectively reinforced and rewarded them for their entire lives.
If you beat a dog, then that environment of abuse teaches the dog to be abusive, and humans are no different. We are raised and educated to compete with each other, to get the best marks at school, rewarded with scholarships and better paying jobs. Not that there are all that many jobs, never mind high paying jobs, floating around these days.
Our education system has become less about educating and more about churning out unquestioning, unthinking robots which can slot into the workforce, filling in the forty hour week following procedures and being a company (wo)man. This system encourages mediocrity, it is not designed to generate highly informed critical thinkers, it wants you to know just enough to push the button at work, but not enough to ask why.
How many times during our educational process are we encouraged to question society, when do our educators question us about the relevance of our very social design? While we can identify criminal behavior the ability to understand what causes people to act in a particular way can for the most part be lost to us. Why are so many people self medicating with drugs like alcohol, cannabis, or heroin, is it recreational escapism and if so, what is it people are trying to escape from? Why is it that those which are the most violent have a past history of abuse in their childhoods, yet in general this is seen as nothing more than a handy excuse? Why do we not want to try and understand the science and begin to figure out how to go about breaking the cycle and what doing so may require? When are we encouraged to ask difficult questions and employ some critical thought in regard to society and its fundamental mechanics?
We would appear to be so preoccupied with placing blame that we do not have the time or desire to look beneath the surface to figure out where all this aberrant behavior stems from. It is just lock them up, it’s such an easy solution, no need to investigate the impacts of our social environment on our intellectual, emotional and physical development, we can just put these bad people in jail and get on with our shopping.
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
As a species we tend towards finger pointing when things go wrong, we want someone to blame to hold to account, to punish, but what are we actually accomplishing?
As a result will our infinite growth economic system be altered at the most fundamental level, to reflect required sustainability practices on a finite planet?
Will we begin to produce high quality products that are designed and built to last?
Will we place more importance with our global environment than with profits and profitability?
Are we going to work towards access abundance and the removal of price tags on the necessities of life?
Do we identify corporations that produce substandard products, wasting finite resources and can we hold them to account for profiting at the expense of sustainability on our planet?
How far will we go?
Far enough to get back to work, no banker is going to jail, bailouts for banks and austerity for the rest then get on with business as usual. Oh sure there may be a few superficial reforms here and there, perhaps some tax increases for the rich, but not much else. The last thing we want to do is actually address the systems failure which generates a stratified society, perpetuates endless debt and reinforces the continual consumption of materialistic garbage in the first place.
Blaming and shaming a few bankers without criticizing the system that generated them in the first place, is akin to having ten people stand in a circle and explaining to them that they each must take turns blowing up a balloon. Continuously passing this balloon around taking turns inflating it without stopping for any reason, then when the balloon inevitably bursts, holding the poor individual with it in their hands responsible. Taking them away, replacing them with someone else and starting all over with a new balloon.
It is plain madness.
The balloon is our environment, while the air being pumped into the balloon represents the demands we put on the environment. Constantly inflating it to buy new cars, homes, gadgets, to fill desires that corporations are busy convincing us we have. Now of course there is a limit to how much strain we can put on the environment, before it bursts under the pressure of ever increasing consumptive demand. It is always bound to happen while we continue to operate an economy based on repetitive consumption, of what is little more than garbage, for the sake of keeping people employed so that they can continue to consume.
At what stage will we consider the limits of our planet, or the immense strain we are putting on our environmental life support system? There must come a time when we agree we must see our planet as a holistic system. A system which we are very much dependent on in order to sustain our very lives. To operate an economy based on anything but sustainability and equality is destined to nothing but severe failure.
Sure we can blame bankers, blame politicians, we can even blame each other if we want to, but it isn’t going to get us anywhere in the end. We will still be in a system that has us going to jobs the majority get no pleasure from, so we can pay the bills, purchase things we really do not need, which are designed to fail so that we end up having to buy them again, taking loans and racking up credit card debt. Starting the entire process of blowing up the balloon all over again, sure this time those nasty bankers will have been punished, but they will only have been replaced by more bankers. Human beings which have been raised in this system, like the rest of us, taught that success is measured by acquisition, working to secure profits for both themselves and large multinational corporations.
Nothing of substance will have changed, apart from some names at boardroom meetings; we will be back to the shopping, but this time there will be more of us doing it, China is set to join us in a way that has never been witnessed. The strain we will be putting on our planet and biosphere is going to be unlike any other time in our short human history. In 2011 the U.S.A. had a G.D.P. of over 15 trillion dollars, while China was less than half that at just over 7 trillion, how long is it going to take for our planetary limits to became painfully apparent once China is matching the G.D.P. of the U.S.A.?
If we fail to recognize the natural limits of our finite planet, if we simply put a few people in jail and revert back to business as usual, we may find the next collapse is not a financial one, but an environmental one. If that happens printing more money, or jailing some more bankers won’t solve a thing.
No matter how enticing it may be to point our fingers and blame someone, if we fail to address the social root cause, which is the social structure which reinforces and rewards this type of behavior with giant houses, fast cars, private jets and extravagant salaries, then we will be doomed to relive the entire situation.
It is not the people that are the problem, it is the system and we are all victims of this system, even the one percent. Growing up many have dreams of becoming movie or rock stars, driving expensive cars, or just generally having loads of money. As time goes by we find we are not stars, are driving used cars and are scraping by trying to repay massive debts, then we start to question the fairness of the system. Even still we do not question the validity of the system itself, rather we pontiff about how fair it is and think that it could be fixed with this reform or that. While the few which do experience a degree of “success”, if that is what we want to call it, are then subject to media scrutiny, are consumed by a desire to have more property, more power, more money, as this is what this system generates. The false needs and desires for more.
Then of course we get the statement that this evil one percent is not going to just lay down and let us change society without a fight, like we have somehow not realized that of the seven plus billion people on this planet, the one percent represents something like seventy million people. When was it concluded that over 6,930,000,000 people had to ask permission of 70,000,000 people to do a damn thing. Our biggest problem is not this nefarious one percent; it is ourselves, our failure to be able to identify what the root cause problem manifesting all these symptoms is. Not understanding how it is our social environment reinforces and rewards the aberrant behavior of the few and leaves us feeling powerless to change anything.
We have all the power, if we can stop bickering over pointless superficial crap and unite under the common understanding that our real problem is an outdated system and not each other. Do the so called one percent have to be on board, no of course not, but nor do they need to be banished or ostracized. They are only doing what has been taught to them and reinforced by society at large after all.
We are not the ninety-nine percent, we are the one hundred percent, united we stand, divided, well, look around – this is what divided has gotten us so far.
We are all products of our environment and until we understand that and make the fundamental changes required to our very social design in order to promote outcomes beneficial to our entire species, then nothing of substance is going to change. We will continue to find ourselves in this self perpetuating feedback loop, which manifests all the symptoms we tend to misdiagnose as problems.
“It’s not that they are “bad” people, or anything like that. This is what this system has created. Simultaneously, let’s remember that the market system requires constant problems. In order for the public interest and consumption to be maintained, problems in cultural influence is required. The more problems there are, the better the economy, generally speaking. In this system it is inherently “good” for cars to break down. It is “good” for people to get cancer. It is “good” for computers to become quickly obsolete. Why? More money. To put it into a sentence: Change, abundance, sustainability and efficiency are the enemies of the profit structure. Progressive advancements in science and technology, which can resolve problems of inefficiency and scarcity once and for all, are in effect making the prior establishment’s servicing of those problems obsolete. Therefore, in a monetary system, corporations are not just in competition with other corporations; they are actually in competition with progress itself.”
By Maria Popova
“Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind,” I wrote in reflecting on the 7 most important things I learned in 7 years of Brain Pickings. It’s a conundrum most of us grapple with — on the one hand, the awareness that personal growth means transcending our smaller selves as we reach for a more dimensional, intelligent, and enlightened understanding of the world, and on the other hand, the excruciating growing pains of evolving or completely abandoning our former, more inferior beliefs as we integrate new knowledge and insight into our comprehension of how life works. That discomfort, in fact, can be so intolerable that we often go to great lengths to disguise or deny our changing beliefs by paying less attention to information that contradicts our present convictions and more to that which confirms them. In other words, we fail the fifth tenet of Carl Sagan’s timelessly brilliant and necessary Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking: “Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.”
That humbling human tendency is known as the backfire effect and is among the seventeen psychological phenomena David McRaney explores in You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself (public library) — a fascinating and pleasantly uncomfortable-making look at why “self-delusion is as much a part of the human condition as fingers and toes,” and the follow-up to McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart, one of the best psychology books of 2011. McRaney writes of this cognitive bug:
Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do this instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them. When someone tries to correct you, tries to dilute your misconceptions, it backfires and strengthens those misconceptions instead. Over time, the backfire effect makes you less skeptical of those things that allow you to continue seeing your beliefs and attitudes as true and proper.
But what makes this especially worrisome is that in the process of exerting effort on dealing with the cognitive dissonance produced by conflicting evidence, we actually end up building new memories and new neural connections that further strengthen our original convictions. This helps explain such gobsmacking statistics as the fact that, despite towering evidence proving otherwise, 40% of Americans don’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old. The backfire effect, McRaney points out, is also the lifeblood of conspiracy theories. He cites the famous neurologist and conspiracy-debunker Steven Novella, who argues believers see contradictory evidence as part of the conspiracy and dismiss lack of confirming evidence as part of the cover-up, thus only digging their heels deeper into their position the more counter-evidence they’re presented with.
On the internet, a giant filter bubble of our existing beliefs, this can run even more rampant — we see such horrible strains of misinformation as climate change denial and antivaccination activism gather momentum by selectively seeking out “evidence” while dismissing the fact that every reputable scientist in the world disagrees with such beliefs. (In fact, the epidemic of misinformation has reached such height that we’re now facing a resurgence of once-eradicated diseases.)
McRaney points out that, despite Daniel Dennett’s rules for criticizing intelligently and arguing with kindness, this makes it nearly impossible to win an argument online:
When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel even surer of his position than before you started the debate. As he matches your fervor, the same thing happens in your skull. The backfire effect pushes both of you deeper into your original beliefs.
This also explains why Benjamin Franklin’s strategy for handling haters, which McRaney also explores in the book, is particularly effective, and reminds us that this fantastic 1866 guide to the art of conversation still holds true in its counsel: “In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”
McRaney points out that the backfire effect is due in large part to our cognitive laziness — our minds simply prefer explanations that take less effort to process, and consolidating conflicting facts with our existing beliefs is enormously straining:
The more difficult it becomes to process a series of statements, the less credit you give them overall. During metacognition, the process of thinking about your own thinking, if you take a step back and notice that one way of looking at an argument is much easier than another, you will tend to prefer the easier way to process information and then leap to the conclusion that it is also more likely to be correct. In experiments where two facts were placed side by side, subjects tended to rate statements as more likely to be true when those statements were presented in simple, legible type than when printed in a weird font with a difficult-to-read color pattern. Similarly, a barrage of counterarguments taking up a full page seems to be less persuasive to a naysayer than a single, simple, powerful statement.
One particularly pernicious manifestation of this is how we react to critics versus supporters — the phenomenon wherein, as the popular saying goes, our minds become “teflon for positive and velcro for negative.” McRaney traces the crushing psychological effect of trolling — something that takes an active effort to fight — back to its evolutionary roots:
Have you ever noticed the peculiar tendency you have to let praise pass through you, but to feel crushed by criticism? A thousand positive remarks can slip by unnoticed, but one “you suck” can linger in your head for days. One hypothesis as to why this and the backfire effect happen is that you spend much more time considering information you disagree with than you do information you accept. Information that lines up with what you already believe passes through the mind like a vapor, but when you come across something that threatens your beliefs, something that conflicts with your preconceived notions of how the world works, you seize up and take notice. Some psychologists speculate there is an evolutionary explanation. Your ancestors paid more attention and spent more time thinking about negative stimuli than positive because bad things required a response. Those who failed to address negative stimuli failed to keep breathing.
This process is known as biased assimilation and is something neuroscientists have also demonstrated. McRaney cites the work of Kevin Dunbar, who put subjects in an fMRI and showed them information confirming their beliefs about a specific subject, which led brain areas associated with learning to light up. But when faced with contradictory information, those areas didn’t fire — instead, parts associated with thought suppression and effortful thinking lit up. In other words, simply presenting people with information does nothing in the way of helping them internalize it and change their beliefs accordingly.
So where does this leave us? Perhaps a little humbled by our own fallible humanity, and a little more motivated to use tools like Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit as vital weapons of self-defense against the aggressive self-righteousness of our own minds. After all, Daniel Dennett was right in more ways than one when he wrote, “The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself.”
The following is taken from an article by George Lakoff on how Donald Trump uses language to change minds….. Lakoff writes:
Any unscrupulous, effective salesman knows how to get you to buy what he is selling.
Most thought — an estimated 98 percent of thought is unconscious. Unconscious thought works by certain basic mechanisms. Trump uses them instinctively to turn people’s brains toward what he wants: Absolute authority, money, power, celebrity.
The mechanisms are:
1. Repetition. Words are neurally linked to the circuits that determine their meaning. The more a word is heard, the more the circuit is activated and the stronger it gets, and so the easier it is to fire again. Trump repeats. Win. Win, Win. We’re gonna win so much you’ll get tired of winning.
2. Framing: Crooked Hillary. Framing Hillary as purposely and knowingly committing crimes for her own benefit, which is what a crook does. Repeating makes many people unconsciously think of her that way, even though she has been found to have been honest and legal by thorough studies by the right-wing Bengazi committee (which found nothing) and the FBI (which found nothing to charge her with, except missing the mark ‘(C)’ in the body of 3 out of 110,000 emails). Yet the framing is working.
3. Well-known examples: When a well-publicized disaster happens, the coverage activates the framing of it over and over, strengthening it, and increasing the probability that the framing will occur easily with high probability. Repeating examples of shootings by Muslims, African-Americans, and Latinos raises fears that it could happen to you and your community — despite the miniscule actual probability. Trump uses this to create fear. Fear tends to activate desire for a strong strict father — namely, Trump.
4. Grammar: Radical Islamic terrorists: “Radical” puts Muslims on a linear scale and “terrorists” imposes a frame on the scale, suggesting that terrorism is built into the religion itself. The grammar suggests that there is something about Islam that has terrorism inherent in it. Imagine calling the Charleston gunman a “radical Republican terrorist.” Trump is aware of this to at least some extent. As he said to Tony Schwartz, the ghost-writer who wrote The Art of the Deal for him, “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and it’s a very effective form of promotion.”
NOTE: Reframing is an effective means of communication. However Lakoff claims that unless it is honest, it will always be self-defeating in the long run. The problem is that politics is a short-term game that has long term impacts. Political “spin” is a form of dishonest reframing that works….. as long as we fall for it!
Cognitive psychologist, George Lakoff, wrote in a recent article about understanding Donald Trump that there are two ways of dealing with a visible problem… that is, understanding the problem as having a direct and unique cause, or understanding the problem as part of a complex system. He wrote….
Direct vs. Systemic Causation
Direct causation is dealing with a problem via direct action. Systemic causation recognizes that many problems arise from the system they are in and must be dealt with via systemic causation.
Systemic causation in global climate change for example, explains why warming over the Pacific can produce huge snowstorms in Washington DC: masses of highly energized water molecules evaporate over the Pacific, blow to the Northeast and over the North Pole and come down in winter over the East coast and parts of the Midwest as masses of snow. Systemic causation has chains of direct causes, interacting causes, feedback loops, and probabilistic causes — often combined.
- Direct causation is easy to understand.
- Systemic causation is more complex and has to be learned.
Political Implications and Trump
Empirical research has shown that conservatives tend to reason with direct causation and that progressives have a much easier time reasoning with systemic causation. Many of Trump’s policy proposals are framed in terms of direct causation.
- Immigrants are flooding in from Mexico — build a wall to stop them.
- For all the immigrants who have entered illegally, just deport them — even if there are 11 million of them working throughout the economy and living throughout the country.
- The cure for gun violence is to have a gun ready to directly shoot the shooter.
- To stop jobs from going to Asia where labor costs are lower and cheaper goods flood the market here, the solution is direct: put a huge tariff on those goods so they are more expensive than goods made here.
- If ISIS is making money on Iraqi oil, send US troops to Iraq to take control of the oil. Threaten ISIS leaders by assassinating their family members (even if this is a war crime).
- To get information from terrorist suspects, use water-boarding, or even worse torture methods.
- If a few terrorists might be coming with Muslim refugees, just stop allowing all Muslims into the country.
All this makes sense to direct causation thinkers, but not those who see the immense difficulties and dire consequences of such actions due to the complexities of systemic causation.
Direct causation is easy to understand and because we live in a complex living system, it is also generally wrong…..
My favorite class to teach at UMass is Agricultural Systems Thinking. In this class we learn how to think about the many problems created by modern industrial agriculture. This post is written for the students who will join me in what I consider to be an exciting exploration into a way of thinking that might just “save the world.”
Let me explain….
First, the class is called “agricultural” systems thinking simply because I get paid to think about food and farming stuff by the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture. The systems thinking tools I teach can be used to better understand any complex system. Although it is critical to advancing our sustainability agenda, classes in systems thinking are missing from most university programs today.
As I wrote in “Learn to Think Like a Mountain”….
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.
Most students are ill-prepared to understand the complex problems we have created by our single-minded focus on economic viability, which we pursue at the expense of environmental integrity and social justice. Industrial agricultural systems, which are found everywhere on the planet, damage the environment, exploit humans, and manipulate other species to benefit the short term interests of those who have money and power. In doing so, we produce tons of food and fiber! And in the United States, food is relatively cheap (we expend less than 10% of our income on food in the U.S.) but industrial agriculture is not sustainable if we consider all three critical objectives of the economic vitality, environmental integrity, and social justice.
Our short term success growing food for the past 50 years has made us overly confident. We think we know what we are doing! We bend Mother Nature to do our will – but we lack the capacity to control the unintended consequences of our actions. The results produced by the industrial agricultural system are many and complex, both positive and negative:
- lots of cheap food
- radical global climate change
- the convenience of food available every day
- environmental degradation and energy depletion
- a tremendous diversity of food products available on the shelves
- low wages and poor or no health benefits for most food system workers
- record profits for food corporations like PepsiCo and food retailers like Walmart
Is industrial agriculture successful?
The industrialized agricultural system is VERY successful at its primary purpose (result #7 above) making rich people richer. Some of the other socially positive outcomes of the industrial system (1, 3 & 5) are necessary “side effects” of the primary purpose. And clearly the socially and environmentally negative consequences (2, 4, 6) are not intentional. Since they are “external” to our single-minded vision and linear understanding of the situation, they are unseen even though they are a “built in” part of the design.
Agricultural Systems Thinking can help us to:
- discover the root causes of our most perplexing agricultural problems,
- learn how to build resilience into food and farming systems,
- see how our linear thinking creates our problems and unintended consequences, and
- ultimately how to manage complex systems for multiple objectives (economic, environmental AND social) and thus move us toward a more sustainable and truly successful agriculture .
The “ah-hah” moment
When we learn how to use causal loop diagrams (one of the systems tools) to examine why our “fixes” to a particular problem are not working – and in fact may be making the problem worse – we can see that an unseen feedback loop is at work. For example, those people who have an investment in the status quo often cite the global corporate food system as the OBVIOUS solution to hunger and malnutrition. However, the “fix that fails systems archetype” helps us see that corporate control of the food supply is a root cause not the solution to global hunger.
At first, systems-based solutions appear counter-intuitive (because we are so well-trained at linear, simple cause and effect, thinking). But when we practice using these tools, we can begin to have the big “ah-hah” moments of deep understanding of complex problems. Then – just maybe – we will have a chance of improving problematic situations that have plagued us for centuries.
How do we learn to think about complex systems?
Our disciplinary-focused educational system does not prepare us to understand complexity or manage for multiple objectives very effectively. Again, from “Learn to Think Like a Mountain“:
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.
Industrial agriculture represents a very complex global system of producers, shippers, manufacturers, retailers, processors, and financiers. The linear and logical analysis process taught in most universities is simply not adequate to understand this system. Systems Thinking tools such as the Mind Map of the food system pictured below are needed.
So where do we look for a solution?
In STOCKSCH 379 – Agricultural Systems Thinking, I introduce students to a toolbox of thinking skills that allow them to integrate knowledge across multiple disciplines. This class fulfills a General Education requirement at the University of Massachusetts Amherst called “Integrative Experience.” According to a statement on Integrative Learning from the Association for American Colleges and Universities & the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, March 2004;
“Integrative learning comes in many varieties: connecting skills and knowledge from multiple sources and experiences; applying theory to practice in various settings; utilizing diverse and even contradictory points of view; and, understanding issues and positions contextually.”
Systems Thinking is a form of “integrative learning”…….
There will be no sustainable agriculture until we become more skilled at systems thinking!
Warning! Systems Thinking is like the “red pill” that Morpheus offered Neo (remember the Matrix)….. once you take it, you will not be able to sleepwalk your way through life. If you prefer to ignore deeply rooted problems like climate change, institutional racism, hunger and poverty, then suggest you “take the blue pill” and don’t take this class.
If you have thoughts or questions, please post them to the Comments Box.
My favorite class to teach in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass is called Agricultural Systems Thinking. I’d like to share a few of the blog posts I’ve written relating to systems thinking with the class and of course anyone else who is interested.
Our modern educational system trains students to think in a linear, analytical way (at best) or simply to memorize disparate facts (at worst). College graduates are well-prepared to take exams and write term papers, but often not to think creatively and systemically about big agricultural problems (many of which I’ve written about in the past) like climate change, loss of biological diversity, peak oil, the threat of global pandemic, democracy, economic collapse, globalization, hunger, and food security, safety and quality.
Albert Einstein reminds us that…..
“Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”
My class in Agricultural Systems Thinking attempts to help students (and me) practice thinking creatively (explored in “On Creativity and the Sources of New Ideas“) at a level of complexity and rigor that will help us understand and perhaps even solve global problems. The following blogs introduce some of the tools and topics I teach in class.
In the blog titled “Learn to Think Like a Mountain” we begin looking at that higher level of thinking that Einstein mentioned. I suggest that we are unlikely to solve seemingly intractable systemic agricultural problems with linear (simple cause and effect) thinking. Aldo Leopold’s famous essay “Think Like a Mountain” reminds us that we need to take the “long view” by seeing problems through an ecological lens.
In “Education for Sustainability: a holistic philosophy” I suggest that education for sustainability will require “the integration of thinking and feeling, mind and body, science and spirit, knowledge and values, head and heart.” We need ethical ways of learning (explored in Ethics, Self-interest and a Purposeful Life) and new tools for teaching to achieve this broad goal for education.
One of the simple systems tools I teach is the Mind Map, which is a visual representation of the multiple components of a complex system like a farm. Students majoring in Sustainable Food and Farming are introduced to this tool in several of their classes and most find it useful as a means of taking notes, planning projects, of just telling someone else about a farm they have visited. Here is an example of a mind map of a community farm which uses land owned by UMass in Eastern Massachusetts.
In two blogs, Digging for Root Causes of Global Crises and Finding the Root Causes of BIG Problems, we learn about the iceberg. A very simple and useful tool for looking below the surface of actions and patterns of events to discover structural causes and the mental models (worldview, assumptions etc.) that direct human behavior. Mental models are further explored in “Which Comes First – Sustainable Policies or Sustainable Behavior?”
It turns out that the answer to the question posed in the title of the last blog is – “NEITHER.” in fact thinking must change before either behavior or policy. In “Talking Sustainability” we explore how to be effective in sharing complex ideas and changing the thinking of large groups of people. Step by step instructions are given on how to effectively communicate our ideas. Its starts by speaking from the heart!
We know that the way we think has a powerful influence over our behavior. In “Worldview,Clocks and Trees” we explore the difference between mechanistic and ecological thinking. And we take another big picture look at ourselves and the world around us in “Understanding Hierarchy.”
Another of the tools we learn to use is the causal loop diagram, represented in the diagram above by a Fix That Fails, one of the system archetypes that describe mistakes that we make over and over again.
For example, we need to learn to see that the use of antibiotics in the animal industry (which results in a short term “fix”) can reduce the effectiveness of these critical drugs for humans (an unintended consequence). And the continued use of pesticides in farming results in the unintended consequence of increasing resistance to pesticides in insects and disease organisms.
When these fixes that fail are identified, it becomes possible to get off the “quick fix treadmill” and begin to find real solutions to these problems. Then we use the iceberg tool to help discover the root causes – and quite often find that we create our own problems! Our objective of course, is to create food and farming systems that are sustainable.
In “Resilience” we examine the key features of a sustainable system, or one that can “experience change while retaining essentially the same function, structure, feedback mechanisms, and therefore identity.” In the video below, Fred Kirschenmann describes the value of resilience in farming systems.
The blogs linked above offer a glimpse into my Agricultural Systems Thinking class and a vision of how I believe we must teach sustainable agriculture if we ever hope to address systemic global problems related to food and farming. In Education for Sustainable Agriculture – A Vision, I wrote:
Today’s graduates from university agricultural programs are generally well-prepared to address problems and opportunities from both a practical management and a theory-based perspective at the organism, organ, cellular and molecular levels. Graduates in the future will also need to understand complex food and farming systems at the population, community, and ecosystem levels.
While lots of people talk about the need for systems thinking in higher education, it is rarely offered as part of the curriculum. I believe it’s time that systems thinking becomes a core learning objective in all agricultural education programs. This is needed both to prepare students to think creatively and systemically, but also so they are better prepared to discover their own personal calling and create “good work” over a lifetime. This is one of my personal goals for agricultural education in the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture.
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. Go here for more of my World.edu posts. Finally, for more on the transformation of agricultural education and research at the University of Massachusetts, see: Land Grant Revitalization at UMass.
This week my class, Agricultural Systems Thinking, got underway at UMass. We began by talking about the difference between a mechanical and an ecological worldview. This blog explores the difference between looking at the world as machine or as a living system.
There has been much written about the emergence of the mechanical worldview as represented by the thinking of Descartes. More recently we have been introduced to living systems theory as a more mature way of understanding the universe. The difference between these worldviews is demonstrated by the difference between the clock and the tree.
The World as a Machine
In ancient eras prior to the invention of the clock, there was no mechanical time. The ringing of a bell, the setting of the sun, or the changing of the seasons marked time. When the clock was created, it was a marvelous invention but soon became more than a tool, it became a model for the universe – a worldview. This mechanical model of the world supported the belief that living systems were easy to take apart, adjust, and fix. Humans, as part of the world could also be “fixed” when something was wrong. Humans and ecosystems were perceived as “nothing but” machines. This worldview is expressed nicely in this clip from the movie Mindwalk.
The mechanistic model of the world was useful at the time since it allowed thinkers to break away from the tyranny of the church and initiate a scientific revolution. However as the authority of the church declined a new authority emerged, a science and the resulting growth of technology that allowed humans to influence their environment. This new authority produced modern medicine, modern technology, and modern destruction of natural ecosystems. Today we need a new way to frame our understanding of the universe – new way to “see” the earth.
The World as a Living System
A reductionist scientist who breaks a tree into its component pieces, such as roots, leaves, and bark will never fully understand the key ecological relationships that support the tree. A systems thinker would see the exchange of energy between the tree and the earth, between the soil and the atmosphere, and between people and the universe – as a living system. A systems thinker would see the life of the tree in relation to the life of the forest; a habitat for insects and birds and ask, “why does a tree produce millions of seeds and only produce few offspring?” This question is answered in another clip from Mindwalk.
A systems thinker might look at the tree and notice both the subsystems that make up the tree (roots, stem, leaves) as well as notice the larger system in which the tree resides, the forest. In a previous blog focused on hierarchy, I shared the idea that a systems thinker “looks up to the next larger system for purpose and down to the subsystems for function.” A systems thinker would notice these relationships and might see both the forest and the tree.
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.
As I prepare to teach my new Agricultural Systems Thinking class at UMass this fall, I have become more and more intrigued with the thinking underlying the science of resilience. Ecologists, psychologists and engineers are quite familiar with the idea that sustainable systems are able to withstand disturbances, large and small. Most humans with significant life experiences can surely understand the value of resilience, as life is rarely “smooth sailing” and as the bumper sticker says “shit happens.”
The need for a deeper understanding of resilience in agriculture has never been more obvious, as the U.S. experiences the impact of drought on the 2012 corn crop and on subsequent food and energy costs. The inability of the industrial system to adjust gracefully to the shock of drought is just one of the indicators that it is at a tipping point.
Resilience science has taught us that systems designed for economic efficiency can maximize short-term profitability but at the same time will sacrifice resilience or the ability of the system to adjust to shocks and stresses such as drought. Industrial agriculture and thus the modern food system is highly vulnerable to collapse.
According a report from the Prince Charities Foundation International Sustainability Unit (established by His Royal Highness, Charles the Prince of Wales), titled “What Price Resilience: Toward Sustainable and Secure Food Systems,” the systemic stresses for which industrial agriculture is NOT well-prepared to adapt to include:
A. Disruption caused by declining supplies of easily accessible fossil fuel and the subsequent escalation of energy prices.
B. Erosion of the natural capital upon which the system depends such as soil, clean water, and biological diversity and disturbance of global climate.
C. Global hunger, poverty and inequality, creating social unrest from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement.
Ecological agriculture on the other hand is more resilient as it addresses each of the systemic stresses that threaten the industrial system;
A. Agroecological systems minimize dependency on fossil fuel by increasing reliance on solar and energy reuse and efficiency.
Systems scientists define resilience as “the capacity of a system to experience change while retaining essentially the same function, structure, feedbacks, and therefore identity, e.g.agricultural system properties and services.” Resilience is conferred to living systems which (unlike industrial agriculture) exhibit the following attributes:
- Diversity – most ecologists agree that biological diversity adds to the resilience of a system. This is achieved in agriculture through multiple cropping systems, permaculture and crop diversification.
- Openness – this is a measure of how easily components of a system such as people, ideas and species can move into or out of a system. In agriculture it might be manifested in the ability of a farmer to change crops in response to market demand.
- Reserves – reserves add to resilience in response to shocks. In agriculture, this might be financial reserves, stored seed, or local knowledge.
- Feedback – critical information on productivity, environmental quality or socioeconomic impact is needed by system managers to make good decisions. In agriculture this might be information on the extent of soil erosion, sales figures, profitability of each product,
I’ll explore resilience in agriculture more in future blog posts but for now I’ll share a list of interventions available for systems in distress. According to Walker and Salt in their 2012 book Resilience Practice, there are four main areas of intervention:
- Management – changes in recommended management of components of a system
- Financial – assistance, investment, subsidies, taxes which support the function of a system
- Governance – laws, regulations, and policies
- Education – knowledge to influence behavior (and especially to help decision-makers overcome denial)
If this topic is of interest to you, please check out this new video (click on the picture below) in which Fred Kirschenmann speaks about resilience in agriculture.
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.
This post examines the structure of 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.”
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.
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.
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!
A printable version of this blog may be found here.
- Learn to Think Like a Mountain introduced the need and value of systems thinking.
- Systems Thinking Tools: the Mind Map presented one of the simplest and most useful tools to help you get started.
- 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?”
“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:
- 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.
- 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).
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:
- Putting out small forest fires actually is the cause of big fires (because there is more flammable material when it does burn).
- Widening a road to prevent accidents actually causes more accidents (because people drive faster).
- Saving money by not repairing a roof on a house actually costs more money (eventually).
- 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. 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?
A printable version of this blog may be found here.