Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Learning from Modeling

I've recently been reading The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge (which I hope to review at some point). I've also just read Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows, which was wonderful but I was borrowing somebody else's library book. I know I'm going to have to get it.

So I was excited when Peter Senge began referring to work by Donella Meadows. I knew that Thinking in Systems came out after The Fifth Discipline so I was curious what he was citing. It turns out he was referring to an article that she wrote, "Whole Earth Models & Systems", in the Summer 1982 issue of CoEvolution Quarterly. I have lots of old CQs which I treasure, so I flew to my horde, and there was Summer 1982. I read the article and learned a lot from it. I was particularly impressed by her reference to seven very different "Global Computer Models" that various people had made. She pointed out that these were "made by people with different political and cultural persuasions and all extremely biased, but in different ways." She goes on to say that these "modelers themselves, who generally started out hostile and critical of one another, have been surprised at the extent to which their conclusions overlapped." She then lists 12 statements that she thought everyone who has done the modeling would agree to. (Apparently this list is also included in a book of hers that I wasn't aware of entitled: Groping in the Dark: The First Decade of Global Modeling.) I want to quote extensively from this list (but not everything, just to conserve time and space) because I think it supports a lot of what I wrote in my previous series on Beyond Fuels.

Her list (excerpts--and remember this was written in 1982; if only we acted then...):

1. "There is no known physical or technical reason why basic needs cannot be supplied for all the world's people into the foreseeable future. These needs are not being met now because of social and political structures, values, norms, and world views, not because of physical scarcities."

2. "Population and physical (material) capital cannot grow forever on a finite planet."

4. "Continuing 'business-as-usual' policies through the next few decades will not lead to a desirable future - or even meeting basic human needs. It will result in an increasing gap between the rich and the poor, problems with resource availability and environmental destruction, and worsening economic conditions." (Unfortunately, all this wisdom from 1982 reminds me of John Michael Greer's remark that "...the collective response of most industrial nations to the approach of the limits to growth would turn out to be a thirty-year vacation from sanity..." See Beyond Fuels 7: The Muddling Path, 12/26/11, for the whole quote.)

5. "...Over the next three decades the world socioeconomic system will be in a period of transition to some state that will be not only quantitatively but also qualitatively different from the present."

7. "Owing to the momentum inherent in the world's physical and social processes, policy changes made soon are likely to have more impact with less effort than the same set of changes made later. By the time a problem is obvious to everyone, it is often too late to solve it."

8. "Although technical changes are expected and needed, no set of purely technical changes tested in any of the models was sufficient in itself to bring about a desirable future. Restructuring social, economic, and political systems was much more effective." (Only too true...)

9. "The interdependencies among peoples and nations across time and space are greater than commonly imagined. Actions taken at one time and on one part of the globe have far-reaching consequences that are impossible to predict intuitively, and probably impossible to predict (totally, precisely, maybe at all) with computer models." (Parenthesis and items within it were part of the original quote. My thought: I think this says we need to think globally, act locally.)

10. "Because of these interdependencies, single, simple measures intended to reach narrowly defined goals are likely to be counter-productive. Decisions should be made within the broadest possible context, across space, time, and areas of knowledge." (It's all connected, it's all connected...)

11. "Cooperative approaches to achieving individual or national goals often turn out to be more beneficial in the long run to all parties than competitive approaches." (If only more people thought about the long run.)

12. "Many plans, programs, and agreements, particularly international ones, are based on assumptions about the world that are either mutually inconsistent or inconsistent with physical reality. Much time and effort is spent designing and debating policies that are, in fact, simply impossible."

She goes on to say that "To nearly anyone with the education and time to think about the world as a whole, these statements are not surprising. ... What is surprising is the lack of congruence between these descriptions of the world and the view of the world reflected in policy - nearly every policy of every nation, enterprise, and individual."

I hope to write more about systems thinking, and the work of Peter Senge and Donella Meadows, in the future. In the meanwhile, I hope that at least some of this is still useful as we try to figure out what we can do now in working toward a better future.

Quote of the Day: "The bottom line message of the global models is quite simple: The world is a complex, interconnected, finite, ecological-social-psychological-economic system. We treat it as if it were not, as if it were divisible, separable, simple, and infinite. Our persistent, intractable, global problems arise directly from this mismatch." - Donella Meadows

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