Systems thinking and the narrative of climate change

By Francesco Gonella

The problem of climate change has become a part of the current global discussion, due to the Paris Accord. Current mainstream arguments focus on three specific components of the problem: (1) the disputability of global warming, (2) the relevance of anthropogenic contribution, and (3) the extent of the dangers associated to an increase of the global temperature. Key players appear to have difficulty moving the discussion past these three components of the problem, towards potential solutions. Instead, the discussion returns again and again to describing the problem, in greater and greater detail, with arguments stalling on various small pieces of the problem. Our inability to move past the problem to solutions is based in part on how the various critics frame the discussion. Critics on both sides of the issue are subject to a framing effect, where we house the problem mentally within the boundaries of the human economy. While opponents of climate change suffer from their own framing effect, this post focuses specifically on the proponents’ framing effect. Those who advocate for policies to limit climate change make four main assumptions that impact their thinking: Continue reading Systems thinking and the narrative of climate change

Responsibility for regeneration

By Mary Odum

Examples can be powerful

I’m housesitting in Alaska, and my return to a place where Mother Nature is in charge once again motivates me to express myself. The front yard of this house is a beautiful rock garden which is low maintenance, and fertilizer and pesticide-free. But the real front yard for this house is the back yard, which backs to 780 square miles of Chugach State Park and its pristine wilderness. That view is grounding, reminding me of what the world looked like before the fossil-fueled growth of the past two centuries. Can we return to that view after the fossil fuels are gone, with clear

Anchorage back yard
Anchorage back yard

air, drinkable water, and an intact food chain? Do we just throw up our hands and accept die-off? Or do we actively work towards a more balanced society? Who’s going to do that and how do we start? This post is about prosaic lawn reform as a symbol of change and personal responsibility for the environment, but first I’m going to wander in synthesis through the threads of current events, to pull that theme together.

Continue reading Responsibility for regeneration

Sociocultural Boundaries

By Tom Abel

Some years ago now a team of Swedish scientists proposed an interesting framework for understanding planetary environmental problems. It generated a range of responses from the environmental community, mostly positive. I had what is undoubtedly a very unusual response to their framework, and while it is perhaps old news, it may still be useful to present it here. As an anthropologist, I see planetary problems from a cultural and evolutionary perspective that could offer a different take on the subject.

Estimates of how the different control variables for seven planetary boundaries have changed from 1950 to present. The green shaded polygon represents the safe operating space. Source: Steffen et al. 2015
Estimates of how the different control variables for nine planetary boundaries have changed from 1950 to present. The green shaded polygon represents the safe operating space. Source: Steffen et al. 2015

First, though, I want to say that the identification of the nine interrelated environmental ‘boundaries’ has been unquestionably of great value (Planetary Boundaries). Raising awareness about the problems and emphasizing nonlinear feedbacks effects, and so the possible triggering of abrupt global environmental changes, are integral to a more sophisticated discussion of climate change and the other problems they highlight. To list them, they are climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, nutrient fluxes, global freshwater use, land use change, biodiversity loss, aerosol loading, and chemical pollution.

The great acceleration of the Anthropocene. Source.

The nine ‘boundaries’ are concisely represented in their popular diagram. The green space in the center represents the safe operating values. If the wedge exceeds the green space then it has already crossed its threshold and become a threat of flipping to a disastrous state for our human presence on the planet. Worse, the problems are interrelated and interactions are a grave threat. As an example of dangerous interactions, loss of soil moisture, degradation of land to new land types, and biodiversity loss all reduce the ability of ecosystems to sequester CO2, and thus increase greenhouse effects.

These same issues can be found today in a number of diagrams such as the one above. The Swedish authors have called our times the ‘great acceleration’, a time of rapid growth of a number of environmental problems. They have argued persuasively that now is the time that we need to ‘bend the curves’.

The great acceleration. Source.

Continue reading Sociocultural Boundaries

Sandy and digital snow days

by Mary Logan

My thoughts and concern goes out to those struggling with this unprecedented American storm in the northeast. As I write this early on Tuesday morning, watching this game-changer of a storm, a myriad of thoughts go through my head. The storm event is just the beginning. Rivers will flood, and snows will accumulate. Recovery will be long and slow. Recovery will be hampered by problems with energy delivery, complexity, and density of populations. Just in time, digitized systems that are overly complex will be challenged. News will filter out slowly, with initial optimism about the extent of the damage, followed by increasingly pessimistic reports about the size and extent of the problems as communication begins to be reestablished. This post describes Sandy as a catastrophic pulse in relation to the problems of dense urban living, complexity, and digitization. Continue reading Sandy and digital snow days

Hair of the dog, or, the limits of technology

By Mary Logan

This post is about the hopeful idea that technology is going to save us from having to adapt to descent. A recent article describes an episode of geopiracy to geoengineer the ocean, so we’re back at climate again, since this example provides particular insights and illustrations into our blindspots about the limits to growth and the limits of technology. Almost all environmental articles now mention climate, whether it is warranted in the discussion or not, so it is hard to avoid the topic. We are shoehorning every environmental problem into the same size small shoe of solutions. Is it lack of ecoliteracy? I also continue to beat this drum because one of Odum’s great concerns was that misunderstandings about the interconnected nature of our problems would lead to geoengineering of the planet. He recognized the hazards of industrial scale manipulation of the biosphere, and the danger of relying on the industrial machine for fixes.

Asking wrong questions….

Climate change is a situation where we have fastened on a subset of the real problem, which is population and economic growth. So we immediately frame the solution set in an even smaller space, which is geoengineering, or financial wizardry, or some other narrow solution to the wrong problem that benefits only a few, and further damages the environment. 

We have trained our minds to focus and analyze, thus we anxiously narrow our frame of reference when faced with big problems. Einstein said that  problems cannot be solved by the level of awareness that created them. He meant seeing the big picture, and avoiding doubling down on behaviors that got us where we are now. Or, in colloquial terms, What how fellow, thou knave, I pray thee let me and my fellow have a haire of the dog that bit us last night. And bitten were we bothe to the braine aright (, from 1546). The idea that the hair of the dog was a cure dates back to the Greek, who believed that a dog bite would heal more quickly if you ate dog hair. Is technology a hair-of-the-dog cure for our energy bender?

We’re going to have to shift our world views to adapt. In an ongoing quest to broaden worldviews to consider the hierarchy of energy, here are some recent climate articles as examples of the limits of technology. Continue reading Hair of the dog, or, the limits of technology

Is climate change a euphemism for growth?

by Mary Logan

I have become sensitive to the silences that come during discussions about the world with others who view the world through a microscope. Silence or a change of topic suggests either denial of my point of view or failure to grasp my frame of reference. While I am peering through an energy lens or macroscope, others may view the world through a lens where money or some other construct makes the world go round instead. One question that stops conversations cold is, “What if our greatest societal challenge is not climate but growth?” That challenge sometimes elicits a glare signifying indignation or perhaps a sense of betrayal that I’m stepping away from my supposed congregation.

Two mechanisms may be occurring when speakers frame climate change as the most important problem that the world has to face. If one’s view of the world is that energy is unlimited, and that we can grow infinitely, and that the environment has a limitless ability to absorb our pollution, then growth is not an important issue. While most people probably know in their hearts that infinite growth is not sustainable, they do not know that energy has limits. So speakers may use a euphemism to subconsciously displace the problem of growth with climate change, since we have been taught the goal of economic growth as a fundamental precept of our society. Secondly, speakers who focus on climate may fail to grasp the severity of the problem of peak oil, because of declining net energy or emergy yields. Thus we lump other assaults on ecosystems such as growth of population, growth of the economy, extraction of resources and other forms of pollution within the problem of climate change. These problems are inextricably connected, but we prioritize them differently depending on our ability to think like a system. Continue reading Is climate change a euphemism for growth?

The Unclear Lobby

No one really knows the net yield of nuclear power because at present its use is subsidized by fossil fuels in a thousand ways that cannot be estimated until we try to run a nuclear system without them. Will nuclear power have a more concentrated value than the wood output of the solar system, or of coal, or of cheap oil from rich deposits? The new power plant seems to be more economical than the competing fossil plants as long as it is running on the accumulated storages of nuclear fuel and fuel prospecting done on fossil-fuel subsidy. Is nuclear power at this level of net power delivery possible in a culture that does not have the accompanying fossil fuels? (Odum, 1971, p. 135).

by Mary Logan

I am broaching this topic in support of the Japanese people, in order to add my voice to the many who are challenging assumptions regarding the clean green nature of nuclear power. Choosing a nuclear future means that we choose profit over the future of humanity. The nuclear lobby is connected to climate change campaigns and the defense industry. The lobby deals in deception and omission; thus the title for this post that is part of a series of posts about laying siege to empire. Continue reading The Unclear Lobby

Thinking Like a System about Climate Science

by Mary Logan

H.T. Odum spent formative years interrupting his undergraduate study during World War II as a tropical meteorologist in the Panama Canal zone, which helped him to develop understanding of the energetic basis of global systems. He was generally less disturbed about the threat of climate change than he was about our coming bottleneck due to peak oil, proposing that the greatest and most impacting effect of climate change would would be greater extremes and wider swings in weather. On the subject of climate, he was

A little ice-age in Anchorage

unsure about whether heating due to greenhouse gases would cause significant rises in sea level or not; one early hypothesis of his in the 1980s was that if heating caused more water vapor to go into the air, then more snow and ice could form in polar regions at high altitudes. Glaciers might melt at their toes at sea level, but might actually accumulate in ice fields, perhaps counteracting the relative rise in sea levels. While there is accumulating evidence that sea levels are rising, and the jury is still out on glaciers at high altitudes/latitudes, there are certainly greater extremes in weather.  I ponder these questions as I write about the intersection of climate and peak oil this morning, looking out my window in Anchorage, a weather sample of n=1. We are victims of the polar jet and La Niña here in Alaska this winter, and I’m wondering when it’s all going to melt?!? Continue reading Thinking Like a System about Climate Science