Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Leverage Points and Graphs of the Future

Here's more on Donella Meadows and world system modeling.

What I think is probably one of the most important things Donella Meadows wrote is available online, "Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System". This is an unbelievably useful piece of work, especially if you're interested in social Change, because here she summarizes years of systems thinking in terms of where you can make change and which points are most useful. She delineates twelve leverage points and (almost like one of David Letterman's Top Ten lists) lays them out in decreasing numerical order, from the least effective (number 12) to the most effective (number 1).

While this list is available other places on the 'net (Wikipedia, for example, has a condensed version), the original is worth reading for all the wisdom Donella Meadows put into it. (It is also included as a chapter in her book Thinking in Systems, which I highly recommend and hope to review here someday.) I'm not going to go over the points here; I really hope that you read her article and think about how you could apply this to your work.

Donella Meadows begins the article by talking about Jay Forrester's "world model" which led to her work with the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth report. (see my last post, Learning from Modeling, for more about world models.) Another online resource is an article by Forrester on the "Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems". While the whole article is worth perusing, it's the graphs at the end of the paper that make this invaluable to those of us interested in social change.

Here is the original 'world model' from 1971 (I'll admit, it's a bit much for me) followed by seven graphs (numbered 2 to 8, the model itself being Figure 1) plotting what the computer calculated would happen if: (2) things stay as they are and "industrialization and population are suppressed by falling resources"; (3) we reduce the usage of natural resources (by more effective technology) and face a pollution crisis; (4) we increase the rate of industrialization and once again face a pollution crisis; (5) again the industrialization rate is increased along with a 50% reduction in the birth rate and one more time we face a pollution crisis (and because the quality of life increases with the reduced birth rate, the birth rate begins to increase again); (6) we reduce the usage of natural resources *and* increase the rate of industrialization which leads to rapid and multiple crises; and (7) in addition to these two things we reduce the rate of pollution generation by 50%, which only delays the pollution crisis by 20 years. All of these scenerios result in serious population reductions, often by what looks like a real population collapse.

Finally, in Figure 8, Forrester shows what would happen if industrial growth, pollution generation, the birth rate, and the rate of food production were all decreased. (Yes, in his model food production would be decreased by 20%.) Population and pollution stabilize and the quality of life rises.

Of course, all this assumes we did this in the 1970's. The first graph (#2), while not pleasant (the quality of life goes way down), at least has a gradual reduction in the population. But this assumes the industrialization and pollution are suppressed by the lack of natural resources. The questions about pollution and natural resources bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the questions we face today about climate change vs peak oil--which comes quicker, resource depletion or pollution/climate change? These graphs make it clear the results would be quite different.

One of the things that interests me is, given what they found in these models, what happened to Jay Forrester and Donella Meadows. Jay Forrester, after noting what would happen with continued economic growth, went on with his work of helping corporations grow economically, and begin focusing on creating an economic model for the US economy and developing educational curricula for teaching system dynamics from kindergarten through high school. Donella Meadows (who died in 2001) became a professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, as well as establishing the Sustainability Institute in Vermont, which she described as a "think-do-tank." She also helped establish a ecovillage and organic farm at Cobb Hill in Hartland, Vermont. 'Dana', as friends called her, often referred to herself simply as "a farmer and a writer." Where Jay Forrester defended the model and then went on to other things, Donella Meadows took it very seriously and built a life in keeping with what she learned. Amory Lovins claimed, "When asked if we have enough time to prevent catastrophe, she'd always say that we have exactly enough time -- starting now..."

Quote of the Day: "There are no cheap tickets to mastery. You have to work at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off your own paradigms and throwing yourself into the humility of Not Knowing. In the end, it seems that power has less to do with pushing leverage points than in does with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go." - Donella Meadows

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