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Archive for March, 2011

The problem

Delusional (or sinister) naysayers aside, the general scientific consensus is that the current trajectory of mankind has sent our planet (and us) hurtling towards, if not the destruction of life, then at least a state that will be incomprehensibly different than the world we inherited a couple of hundred millenia ago. We know that we are at peak oil; that humans appropriate some 40% of the biosphere’s primary production (conversion of minerals into organic compounds with energy); that we have set off a process of global climate change; that we’ve also instigated what may be the fastest and is evidently the first biotic-induced mass extinction in Earth’s history.

We managed all this over the span of a couple of centuries. We are all familiar with the “hockey stick” graph depicting the exponential growth since the dawn of the industrial age in you name it: population, green house grass emissions, land-use change, carbon dioxide (and most pollutants) emissions, average global temperatures, and all the other bad stuff. Not that one needs a graph to see the evident degradation of the planet almost everywhere touched by modern humans. Studies on our ecological footprint indicate that we are currently devouring the resources of 1.5 planet Earths. With billions of people in emerging and developing economies (along with the 2-3 billion more people expected by 2050) joining the consumptive classes, extrapolations are bleak.

System Dynamics

Now that we’re past the depressing statistics I would like to discuss some points relative to sustainability, sustainable development and envisioning a path forward. The vast majority of scientists and environmental and social activists (aside from the so-called techno-optimists) recognize that the problems are systemic. That is, we need to overhaul the system that we have built to manage our society if we are to have any hope of averting disaster.

But, resistance to change is enormous. On the individual level, this is not surprising since changing behavior entails, quite literally, changing the physical wiring of our neural networks, and rupturing old paths so that charge flows down new ones. Nor is it surprising on the systemic level. Coupled human-natural systems, or social ecological systems (SESs) behave like other systems; they develop an inherent resistance to change and an ability (if they are resilient enough) to incorporate deviations without altering their inherent nature. The field of system dynamics informs us that we have to think about the leverage points that can fundamentally alter a system. Recycling, for example, while necessary in any long-term multi-generational outlook, is a weak leverage point. All it does is tweak variables, not change the rules, let alone goals of the system. So too is the case with changing interest or tax rates.

The System is Centralized

What then is this system? There are many components and nested subsystems, not doubt. But on the human side, I tend to label it the neoliberal, industrial, consumerist, financial capitalist, globalized, Westphalian world order. All of these terms are fraught with ideological contentions. Lest we get lost in the irresolvable debate on ‘–isms’, I will comment on some of the features of this system.

I came of age in Egypt, a place that I would argue is unique in the world for the way that its geography has since the dawn of civilization dictated its centralization. For the vast majority of history it has been ruled from the fork of the delta where the productive capacity of the Nile Valley has been managed. It is a land remarkable even within its region for its relative homogeneity. Egyptians often joke, self-deprecatingly, that they love them a Pharaoh. There is some truth to this, but no more than in other collectivist societies. I maintain that this tendency towards centralized power is a function of geography. But, the point is, that I have a deep-seated repugnance towards centralized power.

One angle from which approach the history of the modern world is to think in terms of the several centuries of European (and subsequently global) struggles against the centralization of political power. The outcome of this has been representative democracy in which Sovereignty and Right lie with the People. To hedge against the usurpation of power, we have developed the concept of balance of powers. Perhaps the greatest realization of this has been the founding of the United States, in which power is balanced not just between executive, legislative and judicial branches but also between the federal government and the states.

But something went terribly wrong with the American experiment. Americans are right to be skeptical of government power. But in the process of emasculating their government, they have created something much more insidious. Economic liberals uphold the Free Market as the ultimate panacea. Of course, the Free Market (like Communism) has never really been actualized so we don’t know all that much about its actual (vs ideal) nature. That aside, there is also the fact that, as David Owen quoted in a talk today: famine is a market solution; sometimes the invisible hand goes for the jugular. By extension, the destruction of life (or just human civilization) is a possible market solution.

Back to the insidious: In a process that has spanned three centuries (with marked reversals between the Great Depression and Reagan), Americans have gradually devolved power from themselves (represented by the institutions of the State) to the Corporation. The world we live in is one ruled by corporations, those institutions that have transcended nations and borders; whose turnovers can be higher than most countries (WalMart’s sales would place it in the top 25 countries by nominal GDP); that are accountable not to the People but to their shareholders; and that by hook, crook, campaign finance and revolving door exert a tremendous influence on national and multilateral policy.

Even assuming the free market is the best way to manage our activities, with the advent of modern technology and marketing, there is no such thing as a free market. The integration of modern science and advertising into marketing means that corporations are able to manipulate consumer preferences. The media explosion has been conditioning us for decades. We know this even anecdotally.

There is little novel here, save to highlight the combination of the inordinate influence of corporations on both the rules of the game (policy) as well as the actors in the game (consumers). In fact, over the last several decades, we have seen a transformation (with the US at the leading edge) of the Citizen into the Consumer, as evident in the first exhortation of any US president in the wake of a national crisis: Don’t let this crisis put a dent in your service to the Economy (read: the Corporation).

In short, we have replaced the centralization of coercive and/or governing power of the state with that of corporations. Decisions that impact billions of people are taken in a few dozen boardrooms scattered across the globe. The tragedy here, though, is that unlike with the State, we, the citizens, have little influence over the Corporation.

What now, then?

This post has gotten a little long at this point. I will discuss what we can do about this in this space, but I feel I should give a sense of some of the things I will be discussing.

In the future I will use theories from system dynamics to outline how I think a process of instigating change on a systemic level can be pursued, finding the most influential leverage points and setting up the hierarchy of embedded systems (panarchy, which I will discuss in future) for maximum potential for (hopefully, positive) change. Since nature has developed the most complex systems on Earth which have successfully fostered and nurtured life for millions of years and proven resilient to the changes on a colossal scale (think meteors and ice ages), I believe that we need to take our cue from nature when it comes to resilience and sustainability. In many other fields from computer science to materials design the concept of biomimicry is gaining traction.

In contemplating a sustainable future we should take lessons from biodiversity. And this hits right at the problem outlined above. As diverse and globalized as our modern world seems, power is much more centralized than we tend to assume and we are moving, through the process termed McDonaldization, into increasing homogeneity. This is bad for social justice and it is bad for the resilience of life and our civilization.

More soon, I hope.

{This post is based on ideas from system dynamics, and other sustainability fields. It is inspired by lectures from, and discussions with the students of, the Linkages of Sustainability class, as well as conversations with others}

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