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

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Three Versatile Blogs

I'm deeply honored to have gotten my second blogger award in six months.

Jerry at SoapBoxTech awarded me the Versatile Blogger award in his post "I'm Blushing Here!" Thank you so much, Jerry!

The award comes with two rules: first, to pass it on three more bloggers, and second, to offer seven pieces of obscure information about yourself.

My three choices for versatile blogs:

First, Austanspace. Austan runs a very versatile blog; as she puts it she writes about: "...ponderings, massacres, cool things, rants, family news, international incidents, outrages, general strikes, fart stories, that sort of thing." How much more versatile can you get? (And besides, she was the one who gave me my last award.)

Next is One Smoot Short of a Bridge. Eeka claims she writes about "Culture, social justice, queer issues, disability rights, arts, Boston, and stuff I think is cool."--but the truth is she writes about all sorts of quirky things, and generally has cute comments on them. (One of my all time favorite of her posts was from August, 2009: "The MBTA trip planner had too much coffee this morning". I think that post deserves an award in itself.) Versatile and entertaining.

And finally, Cracker Lilo's Front Porch. Okay, I'm used to folks writing about queer and pagan stuff--but how many of them combine it with NASCAR racing and hockey? I think that's beyond versatile. (My only concern is that CrackerLilo hasn't written in her blog since November. I hope that she hasn't gone off the 'net.)

Now, as to seven obscure things about me:

1) I was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts--although my family moved from there when I was three.

2) I've lived eight different places in Somerville, although I'm not living there now.

3) In the nine month period between May, 2007, and February, 2008, I lived at five different addresses--a feat I hope to never repeat.

4) Ninety percent of the time, I wear black jeans.

5) It would surprise many people who know me, but I actually like getting dressed up in a shirt, tie, and jacket or suit. I think of it as my version of 'drag'. I actually have a closet full of dress clothes.

6) However, I'll try to never wear a bright red tie--because I had to wear one for nine years as part of a Catholic elementary school uniform.

7) I have dragons and unicorns all over my room--including a little stuffed dragon and a little stuffed unicorn.

I hope that was obscure enough.

Quote of the Day: "You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process, is its own reward." - Amelia Earhart

Monday, January 23, 2012

Beyond Fuels 12: Summing It Up

We need to learn to live without fossil fuels because, whether we like it or not, it's going to happen. The biggest question beyond fuels is whether we get there by wrecking the planet--fracking, burning low-grade coal, stripmining everything we can, extracting from tar sands and shale, causing ever-greater climate change, and massively polluting our world to get those last drops of fuel--and then, eventually, running out out of available fuel anyway, or we choose to change and live sustainably by making the adjustments now and begin creating a different future.

My hope is this series has been useful in giving some ideas about what each of us can do to change and prepare for life without fuels: learning to use simple tools, to fix and build things ourselves, to use our muscles instead of oil, etc, and to envision a 'post-carbon' world. I've looked four pathways forward, and as I said in my last post, I think we need to draw from all of them: curtailing our consumption while creating community, looking realistically at possibilities ahead while also seeing the opportunity to create real social change, and most importantly, realizing that much of this will be done by small, slow, incremental changes--'muddling', if you will, our way forward. None of this will be easy, but it needs to be done and, if there's anything we've learned, we can't expect government or business to lead the way.

It's up to each of us to begin, little by little, to build that world beyond fuels, just as it's up to each of us to work toward a world where everyone gets what they need, where people are not hurt or oppressed, and where we work with nature and natural systems, rather than believing somehow we can control everything. Another world is not just possible, but essential. Things are going to change, the only question is whether the change is toward the world we want to live in or a world that will bring horrors to upcoming generations. Each of us has to choose. We are moving, right now, day by day, beyond fuels--but it will be our actions that will determine what lies there.

Quote of the Day: "We cannot predict outcomes but some things are coming clear and that clarity is beginning to rattle us: The shock of melting ice caps and dying penguins, of leveled rainforests and species wiped out daily before we've met them, of children armed in genocidal war, and children dying of hunger even as we feed over a third of all grain to livestock...[sic]all of this is sinking in, and more and more of us know the time is now--that we act powerfully now or we see our fate sealed...
"...the real problems facing our planet can only be met by the ingenuity, experience, and buy-in--the contagious engagement--of billions of us." - Frances Moore Lappé

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Beyond Fuels 11: Where The Paths Converge

The four paths I've just described (aka the four books I've just reviewed) have a lot in common. First of all, they all are clear that we can't continue on as we are, using fossil fuels like they're endless, because they're not. On the other hand, no one is predicting sudden collapse, the destruction of everything we've known, and plundering hordes of barbarians. Although John Michael Greer is the clearest on this (see also his book The Long Descent for another take on this), all four of these authors talk about a long, slow pathway toward a future beyond fuels.

In essence, I think each of these books focus on a different element of that pathway. Muddling toward Frugality emphasizes the slow, indirect route we will need to take. Plan C emphasizes what we will need to do (curtail consumption and create community). The Great Turning emphasizes the opportunity here to use this unavoidable decline to move toward the society many of us want. The Ecotechnic Future emphasizes the probable stages ahead.

Where they disagree (and there are plenty of these places), they illuminate one another and push us toward examining our own values and biases. None of them suggest their view is what's going to happen (Korten: "The Great Turning is not a prophecy; it is a possibility." Greer: "...the logic of dissensus applies to my own ideas just as much as much as anyone else's..."); all of these paths are really just hypothetical routes. And what JMG refers to as "the logic of dissensus" makes all of these paths valuable because each author has sketched pieces of the potential terrain ahead--the greater the diversity of options available to us, the more likely some of these routes will prove useful.

Which is why I've read and reviewed all of them, as well as why I've been writing this series. I think that, year by year, we will be dealing more and more with less and less fuel sources available to us. All of these authors would agree that beginning to prepare for this now will help us tremendously as we move beyond fuels.

Quote of the Day: "The goal of foreseeing the future exactly and preparing for it perfectly is unrealizable. ...
"The future can't be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being. ... We can't surge forward into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them and even profit from them." - Donella Meadows

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Beyond Fuels 10: The Ecotechnic Path

Surprisingly, the most practical, rational, and hard-nosed of these four paths comes from a book written by a druid who also writes books about the occult (his recent books focused on UFOs and Secret Societies). This is actually the 'Archdruid' John Michael Greer who I've blogged about several times (see A Magical Way of Thinking, 8/3/08 and The Archdruid Report, 8/5/08).

I've referred to Greer (aka JMG) in two of my previous posts in this series since he has commented on the writings of both Warren Johnson and David Korten (the former positively and the latter negatively). The Ecotechnic Future is his attempt to look at life beyond fuels and he subtitles the book 'envisioning a post-peak world'.

The title is somewhat misleading however since he never really describes what an Ecotechnic Future is. The closest he comes is in the introduction where he says that "an ecotechnic society... will support a relatively complex technology while maintaining rich and sustainable relations with the rest of the biosphere." But Greer's real interest in writing this book is describing the path to that future, particularly focusing on what we can do now and in the immediate period ahead. He uses history and particularly the evolutionary perspective of succession to look at several stages that he thinks we will go through before we even near his ecotechnic future.

Greer sees us now in 'The End of Affluence' moving into a time of 'Scarcity Industrialism' where we will continue as we have been but with less and less resources and needing to get the most out of anything we have. As these resources run out, we will transition to an 'Age of Salvage' where people will recycle many things in ways they were probably not intended for--because he thinks at this point we won't have the resources to create many of the things we now take for granted. (He envisions a time when steel girders, for example, will be hacked free and then used by blacksmiths to forge nails, plows, knives, etc.) Only when we have used up most of what we can salvage are we likely to begin building an 'Ecotechnic Future'.

JMG then looks at how we can find, create, and use resources such as food, housing, and energy, as well as maintaining community, culture, and science through these changes. He thinks that 'dissensus' (which he defines as 'the deliberate avoidance of consensus') as a useful tool since he sees the period ahead (and indeed the whole future) as quite unpredicable and having different people exploring a variety of paths makes it more likely that some of these folks may stumble on the right thing to do in their own situation. He also thinks that different strategies may well work in different areas, so he doesn't think that anyone (including himself) would be able to come up with a plan that would work everywhere. Greer supports what he calls 'the mariner's two hands'--that is, having one set of skills and tools to deal with whatever crisis we may be facing at the time, while preserving other 'legacies of the modern world' for future generations that may be able to use them.

He also writes a section on work where he talks about what skills might be useful to have in the immediate future. (He calls this section 'the deindustrial want ads'.)

All in all this is a very useful book to think about both the intricacies as well as the difficulties in creating a path beyond fuels. JMG's notion of dissensus applies to his ideas also (as he freely admits), which is just as well because I'm not ready to agree with some of his ideas about community and culture. Still, this is absolutely worth reading--and, in fact, balances out some of the optomism of the previous three books nicely without falling into the trap of gloom, doom, and collapse.

In my next post I want to see what we can learn from looking at all four paths together.

Quote of the Day: "The road to the ecotechnic future can only be guessed at in advance, and will have to be built step by step as the human societies of the future struggle to adapt the legacies of our age to the hard limits of a finite planet and the unguessable possibilities of their own time. What we do now, or leave undone, may have a potent influence on their successes or failures. Challenging though it will certainly be to take action on that basis, I can think of no task more richly worth our efforts." - John Michael Greer

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Beyond Fuels 9: The Turning Path

David Korten's The Great Turning is probably the most ambitious of the four paths to the future. This isn't exactly the same as Joanna Macy's version of 'The Great Turning', but in my post about it (see The Great Turning, 11/15/09), I wrote: "David Korten admits he got the term from Joanna Macy, and said that when he asked her to use it, she said that it 'should be a public term that is used by everyone and owned by no one.'"

Korten subtitles his book, 'From Empire to Earth Community', and this is the choice he puts before us. He gives his take on history and the growth of Empire, as well as laying out how the United States fits into all this. He begins with discussing the 'imperatives' of peak oil, climate change, terrorism and a world we can't conquer, and increasing inequality and economic instability.

While he sees this as a crisis, and is well aware that we need to go beyond fuels, Korten also sees this as an opportunity to create what he calls 'Earth Community'. He's not talking utopia here. He lays out a framework that includes vibrant community life (mutual trust, shared values, connection, and secure civil liberties), vocations that contribute to the well-being of the community and insure basic needs are met, strong and stable families, civic engagement, and a healthy natural world. He says "...this list may read like a radical utopian fantasy but only because it contrasts so starkly with our present experience. ... each condition aligns with core values shared by both conservatives and liberals. If any of them seem alien, it's only because they all depend absolutely on cooperation and sharing." Yet he believes that cooperation and sharing is possible. It's only our brainwashing by the values of 'Empire' that keep us from seeing this.

David Korten goes on to say that what we need to do is to challenge the stories of Empire and begin telling stories of what could be, putting our visions clearly out to people. In fact, he titles the last chapter "Change the Story, Change the Future". Simply challenging the stories isn't enough, of course, but people (and thus society) are not going to change until they have at least some idea of what's possible.

It's a broad and far-reaching vision and sometimes he goes a bit far. He begins with a psychological view of human development that, while I think it's mostly accurate, can give the impression of a favored few being superior to the rest of us. One person who, unfortunately, got that impression is John Michael Greer (I'll look at his path forward next) who writes "... David Korten's The Great Turning, insists that certain people have reached a higher 'developmental stage' than the rest of us and are thus naturally fitted to run the world." However, Korten doesn't say this at all. What he says is "Although persons of a mature consciousness are generally averse to the competitive struggle for dominator power, they are strongly attracted to leadership roles in social movements engaged in challenging Empire's dominion." While I still have some qualms about seeing some as more developed than others, there's a big difference between being 'fitted to run the world' and being 'attracted to leadership roles in social movements'. The model David Korten puts out is based clearly on 'partnership' rather than 'domination'.

Still, for whatever faults there may be, I'm glad to have this vision out there. In some ways I don't think he goes far enough, and I'd like a more radical outline for how we could be living. However, I really think this book gives a good overview of some of the possibilities of how we could be living in a world beyond fuels, and lays out clearly some of the next steps we need to take to create the path. As Korten himself says, "...we humans are path-breaking pioneers in uncharted territory."

Quote of the Day: "In the days now at hand, we must each be clear that every individual and collective choice that we make is a vote for the future we of this time will bequeath to the generations that follow. The Great Turning is not a prophecy; it is a possibility." - David Korten