Thursday, June 25, 2015

ENVS 400 Independent Study - Daniel Woods - "Thinking In Systems" Chapters 1 & 2 Responses

Chapter 1: The Basics

The book starts with the statement that everything is a system, and that systems have parts that have interconnections that can either be physical or intangible, i.e., information. I can see that humanity is a system where the parts are individual people. There are a seemingly infinite number of systems that connect people; endless sets if physical and information connections between people. One of the great interconnections of all people is food. There are people that grow it, people that process it, people that package it, distribute it, and we all consume it. All the food that every person eats comes in containers of some sort, unless it is fresh from the farm. Even if you are eating at a restaurant, the ingredients they use came in a package, unless they came straight from the farm, of course. Because the system of food distribution is so integral to humanity, and also tied to containers, it logically follows that food containers are another system that is shared by all people. What happens to those containers can be one of three things: they become trash, they are re-used, or they are recycled. The first step in the system of recycling is for the person who has recyclables to sort them properly with other recyclables. This sorting is a physical interconnection between the person and the recycling facility.

A system created by people works because of the information that people pass to each other. For the physical interconnection of recycling to happen between a person and a recycling facility, the information has to travel from the facility to the people.

Donella writes that "An important function of almost every system is to ensure its own perpetuation." This is true of why systems of sustainability and resource conservation are present in the human system. At the most basic level, every human is born with the ability to reproduce more humans. But to make that happen, there are a lot of resources a human needs along the way; food is one - and so, containers for food are another. Recycling is a system that has the purpose of perpetuating our continued existence.

Chapter Two: A Brief Visit to the Systems Zoo

This chapter explains how several kinds of one-stock systems work. In one-stock systems, there are always two forces acting on the stock. The one stock system of the temperature in a house is a system governed by two equalizing forces: the temperature of the thermostat and the outside temperature. This leads into the important role of feedback delays in a system like this that cause oscillations. In the house analogy, the temperature in the house over time would oscillate up and down around the thermostat's setting because the thermostat can't tell what the temperature is in the whole house. In any system of two equalizing forces, oscillations will be present because of the feedback delay. I saw this feedback delay at the liquor store all the time; an obscure drink becomes popular seemingly overnight, and the orders for new product can't catch up to demand fast enough. Then when the order for the liquor has come, the fad has faded and the store is left with extra cases of a product.

A human population system in an industrialized economy is another one-stock system with one equalizing loop, but the other loop is reinforcing. The equalizing force is the death rate - it always pulls toward zero. The reinforcing loop is fertility - the growth of the population takes on an exponential curve as it increases in an environment of abundant resources. It would logically follow that resource consumption would also take an exponential curve upwards as well. In our society, the reinforcing loop of wealth accumulation leading to resource depletion has been stronger than the equalizing force of the limited amount of resources available. The world has a limited amount of oil and ore to support the reinforcing loop of gas-powered automobiles, and yet thousands of such vehicles are sold every year. The oil extraction industry (part of the reinforcing loop) seems to have more power to find new places to drill, such as in the newly melted arctic ocean, than environmental activists, who see the looming power of the equalization loop that will take effect when the oil is all gone, have to stop it. The oscillations that come with a system of two equalizing forces can be drastic in a system with an equalizing loop and reinforcing loop. In the book, the shift in balance between two forces system dominance. Oscillations in the system with two equalizing forces are smaller and more frequent than in the system with a reinforcing loop. For me, the whole point of pursuing sustainability is to avoid the violent transition from growth to decline of the human race if we deplete any resource too fast.

The important concept of flow is revisited later in the chapter when the system of a fishing economy is described. The use of a renewable resource like fish can go on indefinitely as long as the flow of fish from their habitat to human use is kept at the same level as the reproduction of the fish. Fishing can actually increase the reproduction rate of fish if the fish are at such a high population that there is not quite enough food for all of them. Flow seems to be important for the use of all resources. Take electricity. The amount of electricity we can harvest sustainably is only limited to how many solar panels and wind turbines we can build. While sustainable electricity generation can be produced in great quantity, there is a limit to how quickly it is generated, or how fast its flow is. However, the amount of electricity we use can be unleashed faster and faster. It is hard to tell if a fully electric vehicle fleet in America could be supplied by only renewable energy, but it seems unlikely to me. In the terms of systems thinking, what I am saying is that the flow out of the stock of electricity is always going to be faster than the flow into the stock.

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