No Solutions to Problems Like These
"In the new Congress, we are encountering a severe backlash against essential environmental safeguards. Under the guise of reining in federal spending, anti-environmental forces are attempting to gut the enforcement of federal protections and to put the brakes on EPA just as it was beginning to make real progress...." - Frederick Middleton, Southern Environmental Law Center, US
"Writing this Report has been a disheartening process. ...the bad and the positively ugly indisputably outweigh the good. At this stage, the likelihood of the Coalition Government living up to its 'Greenest Government Ever' pledge is vanishingly remote. ...it is clear that that the ‘growth at all costs’ lobby has won out over the advocates of ‘sustainable economic development’.... " - Jonathon Porritt, Forum for the Future, UK
"For 17 years, officials from nearly 200 countries have gathered under the auspices of the United Nations to try to deal with one of the most vexing questions of our era — how to slow the heating of the planet. ... Every year they fail to significantly advance their own stated goal of keeping the average global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius ...above preindustrial levels." - John Broder, New York Times
It's a grim situation.
Environmentalists are making some progress, like reducing local pollution, setting aside conservation parts, and saving some species from extinction. At the international level we've solved the stratospheric ozone hole problem. This was a tremendous victory.
However, we are winning a few battles but losing the war.
The sad truth is that traditional approaches like grassroots campaigns, lobbying for stricter regulations, enforcement of existing laws, and trying to elect "better" politicians are simply not working on the sustainability problem as a whole.
So what can we do?
We can take a different approach by changing how we solve problems.
The approach begins with the realization that:
All problems arise from their root causes
A root cause is the deepest cause in a causal chain that can be resolved. If the deepest cause in a causal chain cannot be resolved, it's not a real problem. It's the way things are.
Millions of people have worked on the sustainability problem for generations. Countless and frequently brilliant solutions have been tried. While some have worked at the local level, and a few have worked at the international level like the ozone hole problem, none have worked at the systemic level.
Because popular solutions do not resolve root causes.
Systemic means affecting most or all of a system rather than a small portion of the system. Nearly the entire human population is behaving unsustainably, so the sustainability problem is clearly a systemic problem. It therefore requires systemic solutions, ones that makes deep fundamental changes to the system by resolving the root causes. There is no other way.
Systemic solutions resolve root causes. A systemic solution is the same thing as a root cause solution. Systemic solutions change the fundamental way a system works by changing the structure of its key feedback loops. For example:
The solution to the autocratic ruler problem was democracy. The root cause of despicable autocratic rulers like kings, warlords, and dictators was there was no easy way for an oppressed population to replace a bad ruler with a good one. Democracy resolved the root cause with addition of the voter feedback loop.
Consider the recurring wars in Europe problem. Its root cause was excessive competition over limited resources. This was resolved by the European Union, which created feedback loops binding all members of the union together, primarily via free trade within a single common market.
Note how popular sustainability solutions are nowhere near as fundamental as the above two solutions. Also note the elegant simplicity of the two solutions.
A grassroots activism campaign is not a systemic solution. Neither is lobbying to get new regulations passed. Neither is enforcement of existing laws to get polluters to clean up their act. These are not systemic solutions because they don't change the system in a fundamental manner by resolving root causes. Instead, they change one little thing in the system. They are thus incremental solutions that whack away at intermediate causes.
They are also symptomatic solutions, because they treat the symptoms rather than the root causes. For example, the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign in the US seeks to end construction of new coal power plants and retire the rest. It's a symptomatic solution because all those coal plants are symptoms of a deeper problem. WHY isn't industry aggressively looking for more sustainable energy? WHY do environmental NGOs have to sue to get existing laws enforced. Isn't that something government should be doing?
Questions like these reveal there are deeper causes. A series of additional WHY questions would ultimately lead to the root causes of the sustainability problem. These are the causes environmentalists need to be addressing because all problems arise from their root causes.
Systemic problems requires systemic solutions, because only a systemic solution can resolve a root cause.
Let's put on our systems thinking hats and get started on finding those solutions.
The graph shows we're not doing too well on solving the environmental sustainability problem. The world's ecological footprint crossed what one planet can support sometime in the 1970s. It's now at about 50% overshoot and growing, with not the slightest sign of turning downward.
The six dots show some of the world's best efforts to solve the problem. But despite these efforts the footprint keeps right on marching upward. Footprint growth has become as unstoppable as a runaway elephant.
Why is this? Why, despite over 40 years of prodigious effort, has the human system failed to solve the sustainability problem?
That's the question Thwink.org asked in 2001 when we begin working on the problem. After quite a struggle due to the overwhelming complexity of the problem, we've come to a conclusion. The reason for solution failure is the right tools are not being applied. Fortunately this is easily corrected by switching to the right tools, just as so many fields of science and business have done once they figured out what tools they needed to solve their central problems.
Thwink.org offers a comprehensive approach to solving the sustainability problem. It's an analytical, tool driven, systemic approach. Here's a comparison of the present approach and the analytical approach:
1. Intuitive due to its strategy of:
- Find the truth (the direct solutions)
- Promote the truth (about the solutions)
- If that fails, magnify the truth (inspiration)
2. Not working because it doesn't resolve the root causes of the problem.
3. No deep analysis of the complete problem, so solutions must be intuitively derived.
4. Leads to superficial solutions that tend to fail because they target intermediate rather than root causes.
1. Analytical due to use of appropriate tools:
- Root cause analysis
- Process driven problem solving
- Model based analysis
2. Can work because it resolves the root causes of the problem.
3. Deep analysis of the complete problem, so solutions can be rationally derived.
4. Leads to systemic solutions with a high probability of success because each solution resolves a systemic root cause.
To summarize, present approaches use an intuitive approach that stops at intermediate causes. This leads to pushing on low leverage points with superficial solutions. By contrast the analytical approach uses analysis to find the root causes. This leads to pushing on high leverage points with systemic solutions. The global environmental sustainability problem is clearly a difficult systemic problem if there ever was one, so only the analytical approach can solve it.
If you feel the present approach can work then you will find little of interest on this website, because absolutely nothing here takes the intuitive approach.
On the other hand, if you feel an analytical approach could do better, and possibly a lot better, then you will find Thwink.org to be an information rich, educational storehouse of knowledge designed to help you solve your problems. But beware. The new approach is completely different from the old one. It's as different as alchemy and science, and the Dark Ages and The Renaissance. That's why we say:
Welcome to a Whole New Way of Thwinking
What follows is a brief introduction to the analytical approach:
Solving a problem begins with defining it. In 1972 The Limits to Growth project and book defined the global environmental sustainability problem so convincingly it provoked the world into thinking about the TOTAL problem and the necessity of solving it. The key analysis tool was system dynamics modeling. This allowed understanding system behavior that had never been deeply and correctly understood before.
The first step - The Limits to Growth took the all-important first step of defining the sustainability problem in its totality. However, four decades later our problem remains unsolved. It continues to grow worse with no overall solution in sight, despite countless attempts at local, national, and international levels to solve the problem.
The second step - The work at Thwink.org is an effort to help break this impasse by introducing the novel use of a few key tools. This will allow us to take the next step and solve the problem. One of these tools is system dynamics modeling, because buried in the human system is behavior so complex and counter-intuitive it cannot be understood without modeling.
On the left are the core feedback loops of the World3 model of The Limits to Growth. These loops are the ones causing exponential growth and, for most scenarios after a period of overshoot, collapse.
On the right are the core feedback loops of the Dueling Loops model. These two loops appear to explain why the human system has so far been unable to solve the sustainability problem. Fortunately these loops can tell us much more. By expanding the model to include more relevant detail, we can drill down to the fundamental layer of the problem and find its root causes. That data, once refined and confirmed by further research, will lead to solution.
Here's the big picture of what the preliminary analysis at Thwink.org has found. The most important conclusions center on:
The Four Subproblems and Their Root Causes.
Overcoming change resistance is the crux of the problem because as long as the system resists change, the other subproblems cannot be solved.
The root cause appears to be effective deception in the political powerplace. Too many voters and politicians are being deceived into thinking sustainability is a low priority and need not be solved now.
Too many large corporations are dominating political decision making to their own advantage, as shown by their opposition to solving the sustainability problem. This indicates the top two social life forms, Corporatis profitis and Homo sapiens, are improperly coupled. The right feedback loops are missing.
The root cause appears to be mutually exclusive goals.
The model of problem solving that governments use to keep problems like sustainability solved has drifted so far from effectiveness that political decision making can no longer solve problems like sustainability.
The root cause appears to be low quality of political decisions.
The world's economic system is excessively degrading the environment. This indicates the economic system and the environment are improperly coupled. The right feedback loops are missing.
The root cause appears to be high transaction costs for managing common property sustainably.
Click a subproblem to drill down.
The great benefit of looking at the problem this way is we can see why we've been unable to solve it. Popular solutions (like carbon taxes, stronger pollution laws, corporate social responsibility campaigns, and promotion of The Three R's of reduce, reuse, recycle) have not come anywhere close to addressing the root causes of the problem. They have instead, as Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden in 1854, been “hacking at the branches of evil.” These are the intermediate causes. One must instead “strike at the root.”
A more precise analytical approach like this is the future of environmentalism.
Einstein told humanity that "A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels." If we are to solve the greatest problem of our time, that new type of thinking requires a complete overhaul of how environmentalism works, one just as radical as when science said goodbye to alchemy and adopted the Scientific Method.
To help you and your organization solve the more difficult problems you're working on, Thwink.org offers:
A set of powerful tried-and-true tools, adapted to fit difficult social problems
An in-depth analysis performed with the tools
The four root causes shown above
Twelve sample solution elements for resolving the root causes
One ready-to-implement solution. This is Common Property Rights.
Comprehensive approaches like this have worked extraordinarily well for science and business for centuries. It's just a matter of time before environmentalism does the same.