Chapter 5 Free Response: System Traps and Opportunities
All of the solutions to systems traps that are outlined in this chapter are summed up in this quote: “But system traps can be escaped – by recognizing them in advance and not getting caught in them, or by altering the structure – by reformulating goals, by weakening, strengthening, or altering feedback loops, by adding new feedback loops. I was thinking about “reformulating goals” while I was mountain biking this morning. See, I have the worst mountain bike around – it has no moving suspension, the tires are basic, and it’s basically just a bike that I found for free and fixed up. But I took it out to Signal Peak this morning, and had a good time. Most people wouldn’t go near my bike if they were going mountain biking, and I don’t blame them. But I set my goals low! I said to myself, “Ok, if I can just make it out there without wrecking my self or my bike, it will be an accomplishment.” And I did fine! I didn’t fall into the trap that so many recreationists fall into – having standards for how well your gear works that are too easy to fall short of.
It seems to me that many people don’t want to work for sustainability because they set the goals too high. “The world’s going to end someday anyway, why try to fight it?” Yes, the end of the world will come one day – but that’s not the point. No environmentalist thinks they can stop the world from ending, we just think it could be delayed by quite a long time. I can’t remember which one it was, maybe Jeb Bush, but I recently heard a politician saying something like; “If all we can do is stop the climate from warming two degrees, why would we make all the changes that are proposed? We know that we’re going to have warming of two degrees already, what’s the difference if it’s four degrees?” This is a typical mindset – that if you can’t stop all environmental disturbances, why try to stop any at all? These people see a goal for the system as being too high, and throw their hands up and say, “to hell with it.” Their goals need to be reformulated. Mitigation is better than nothing.
Chapter 6 Free Response: Leverage Points
“Leverage points are points of power.” How do we leverage for sustainable change? Making people responsible for their future generations has been mighty successful. Invoking the extinction of polar bears was somewhat successful, at least in the beginning of the movement. Economic reasons are hugely powerful leverage, both when arguing for and against change. The advertisement for the EPA’s new report, “Benefits of Global Action,” focuses on the monetary advantages to mitigating climate change: “By the year 2100, we could avoid $10 Billion in agriculture losses and help to keep the price of food affordable. We can cut billions in infrastructure costs by the end of the century, and save Americans approximately $3 billion in annual costs to coastal property and $7 billion in road repairs.” And while it mentions how many lives would be saved, and how we’ll all be happier and healthier, the ad really does focus on the monetary benefits.
Early on, Meadows argues that the most common changes made to a system, the “parameters,” are the least likely to change the system – and that we all spend too much time arguing about them. For example, changing the federal minimum wage to fix inequality does not change the social stigma of racism or other more systemic causes. This makes sense to me – with how hard it is to get everyone to agree on something, how could we change anything like racial views or caring for the environment, from a legal perspective? All we can hope to do is set limits on parameters, such as capping CO2 emissions. I’m happy about that. I’m glad no one has the power to tell me what to think or say. One of her examples is, “After decades of the strictest air pollution standards in the world, Los Angeles air is less dirty, but it isn’t clean.” Seems like you’re falling into a systems trap, Ms. Meadows! How can you hope to solve a problem like Los Angeles air pollution by setting your goal for 100% clean? That’s unreasonable! Being able to change parameters leads to system change. Like in Los Angeles, maybe Joe Shmoe decides that dealing with more emissions testing for his vehicle is a hassle, so he invests in a nice bike. Then he works towards making bike transportation safer by asking his congressperson to try to fund more bike lanes, and more bike lanes are built. Parameter change has created a deeper system change!
Chapter 7 Free Response
In this chapter, many broad thoughts are wrapped up about systems thinking. I particularly like this nugget of wisdom: “Mental flexibility – the willingness to redraw boundaries, to notice that a system has shifted into a new mode, to see how to redesign structure – is a necessity when you live in a world of flexible systems.” From this, I realize that it’s also not enough to simply be observant. You also have to be open to the idea that your observations might cause you to have to change basic assumptions that you have about the world. You can’t be offended by new information chat challenges those basic assumptions. You can’t have an emotional connection to them if you want to be able to keep up with a changing system, which is what the world is.
Another point I like is summed up here: “It’s especially interesting to watch how the various elements in the system do or do not vary together. Watching what really happens, instead of listening to peoples’ theories of what happens, can explode many careless casual hypotheses.” Knowing about this kind of systems trap is important for our presidential elections because candidates make these sorts of “casual hypotheses” all the time. Casual hypotheses get you nowhere, they just distract from the real problems and opportunities. They seem like a trap that is built into our democracy, where presidential candidates try to win the favor of a large, diverse, continent-spanning population. They have to make broad general statements that are convincing to the average person – and end up being totally false in reality because wrong assumptions were made about what variables in the system have an effect on each other. Variables such as prison sentences and drug use. Casual hypotheses are a basic way that people use systems to make sense of the world, and are a useful tool – but only when the uncertainty of them is understood. As the saying goes, correlation does not prove causation (but it warrants looking into).
Another point that is in this chapter relates to a thought I was having about urban design the other day. It seems to me that loads of towns are just plain butt-ugly because of how they are built. They are a continuous string of buildings of the cheapest construction possible that are each surrounded by their own parking lot. They are a paving-over of nature and its systems, and they are ugly to look at and be surrounded by. The point from the chapter that relates to this is that even if you can’t quantify something, that doesn’t mean it doesn't play an important part of a system. What I think is missing from land development systems are the consideration for an aesthetic appeal, the consideration for nature, and the consideration for pedestrians. So much development seems to take no other mode of transportation into account other than automobiles that the consideration for walkers and bikers is totally left out. You can quantify how many parking spaces you think you need, but walking convenience isn’t as quantifiable. It’s always frustrating for me to have to walk across a big parking lot, because I see it as an inconvenience created by other people’s need to drive a car everywhere, and I am stuck with development that is twice as spread out as it needs to be. If I had it my way, I’d make businesses build their parking lots at the back of the store, so the doors to the store were on the street, and then people with cars could deal with the extra walking. I don’t want to keep rambling, so I’ll conclude by saying that I think automotive ease-of-use has a big unfair advantage over other transportation modes in our current system of urban development, and it’s the result of the quantifiable cost-benefit analysis being the only consideration, and that the less-quantifiable elegance of the system of development is being ignored.