Places to intervene in a system

This is the product of another email from the great Bill Bordass:

The pdf attachment is written by Donella H. "Dana" Meadows who was a pioneering American environmental scientist, teacher and writer. She is best known as lead author of the influential book The Limits to Growth.

Written in 1997, I think the relevance of this has increased with time.

I agree with Donella's opening statement about growth - both population and economic. We are afraid to address the growth problem and instead we try to solve the resulting problems by means of increased efficiency. Increasing efficiencies are constantly needed just to try to stand still and, like GM crops, these methods just delay the arrival at the point of reaching inevitable limits or the final "stop" sign. It would be far easier and more effective for us if we could find consensus on this subject, or at least some kind of workable balance with efficiency.

"It's the same as slowing the car when you are driving too fast rather that calling for more responsive brakes or technical advances in steering." See this speech by David Attenborough on the subject of population growth .

Later Donella says that reducing the gain in positive feedback loops is usually more powerful a leverage point than strengthening negative loops, and much preferable to letting the positive loop run - this is a truth that is relevant to population and economic growth.

Another statement that sticks out for me on the topic of negative feedback loops, is: "Democracy worked better before the advent of the brainwashing power of centralised mass communications." Written in 1997, it leaves me wondering if things have got worse, or are mass communications are becoming less centralised by the internet? If less centralised, does this mean that this particular problem is increasingly less serious? I don't begin to know the answer to that question.

Another statement that makes sense to me and that should be at the forefront of UK government thinking: "The power of big industry calls for the power of big government to hold it in check"

"Positive feedback loops drive growth, explosion, erosion, and collapse in systems. A system with an unchecked positive loop ultimately will destroy itself. That’s why there are so few of them."

The lack of feedback loops in ocean fish populations is depressing, Donella points out that increased prices due to scarcity make it more profitable to fish, a peverse feedback loop.

I love the idea on 'radical democracy': "Suppose any town or company that puts a water intake pipe in a river had to put it immediately DOWNSTREAM from its own outflow pipe? Suppose any public or private official who made the decision to invest in a nuclear power plant got the waste from that plant stored on his/her lawn?"

On rules: "That’s why my systems intuition was sending off alarm bells as the new world trade system was explained to me. It is a system with rules designed by corporations, run by corporations, for the benefit of corporations. Its rules exclude almost any feedback from other sectors of society. Most of its meetings are closed to the press (no information, no feedback). It forces nations into positive loops, competing with each other to weaken environmental and social safeguards in order to attract corporate investment. It’s a recipe for unleashing 'success to the successful' loops."

"The power of self-organisation" is beautiful in the context of the above, we just have to "write clever RULES FOR SELF-ORGANISATION", explaining that "this is why biologists worship biodiversity... and why allowing species to go extinct is a systems crime."

On GM: "The only thing one can say is that if corporations wield it for the purpose of generating marketable products, that is a very different goal, a different direction for evolution than anything the planet has seen so far."

"People within systems don’t often recognize what whole-system goal they are serving." Followed by the important point about a leader single-handedly changing the behaviour of large numbers of people, eg Reagan. In this case, I would slightly disagree with the term 'single-handedly' because people like Reagan, Thatcher etc don't operate in a vacuum. I believe that they get where they want to be with the help of money given by people who want to see a return on investment.

On paradigms: "harder to change than anything else"... but... "in a single individual it can happen in a millisecond"... "So how do you change paradigms? ... In a nutshell, you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you come yourself, loudly, with assurance, from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded."

And finally: "The highest leverage of all is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to realize that NO paradigm is true"..." that even the one that sweetly shapes one’s comfortable worldview is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe... I don’t think there are cheap tickets to system change. You have to work at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off paradigms. In the end, it seems that leverage has less to do with pushing levers than it does with disciplined thinking combined with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go."

Justin Bere

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