Digging for the root cause(s) of global crises

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Last week my Sustainable Living class at the University of Massachusetts explored Mother Earth’s three ecological rules for living sustainably.  They are:

  1. Use current solar income
  2. Waste = food (cycle everything)
  3. Support biological diversity

During the class, I briefly mentioned what happens when humans violate these rules.  The result is “collapse” as presented so well by these two classic texts, Collapse and The Lorax (which are basically the same book – well, one has more pictures!).

Both Jared Diamond and Dr. Suess knew that when a society outstrips its natural resource base (what was that old onceler thinking when he cut down the last truffula tree because “everybody needs a thneed“) ….. well, things get bad – its  the “perfect storm”!

There are many ways to analyze the problems we face today.  In Sustainable Living class, we  look for root causes of the events that make it into the newspaper.  In his 1949 book of essays, A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold encouraged us to “Think Like a Mountain.”   I suspect a mountain would not notice the daily economic and political struggles of humans, but would focus on the underlying systemic patterns that result in social and environmental decay.

In class, I presented three global systemic patterns (“the perfect storm”) as the principle ecological crises that we must face – or collapse!  They are:

  1. Peak Oil
  2. Global Pandemic
  3. Climate Change

When we begin to look closely at these patterns, it is easy to become depressed and feel quite hopeless.  It is easy to blame others.  In Sustainable Living class we look for realistic and simple actions that students can take to begin to address these problems.  The first step is to try to understand the root cause of the patterns.

To begin to understand complex systems (like the entire planet and all of human civilization), we need some powerful tools.   I’ve been teaching courses related to systems thinking for some time and the most useful tool I teach is the “iceberg.”  This systems thinking tool helps us to “see below the surface” of daily events to begin to identify the root cause of systemic behavior.  Lets try it!

In the iceberg tool,  individual “events” are depicted as the tip of the iceberg, and visible to the naked eye.  But most of the iceberg is below the surface.

So we learn to look below the surface for the root cause of events.  Here is a simple example:

An Eventthere was a robbery in my neighborhood last week during which someone took a laptop computer and some loose cash from an empty house.  The break-in took place one evening while the homeowners were out to dinner.

The Patternthis has been happening regularly for several years!

Structure (these are physical things, organizations, policies and rituals that are relatively permanent and contribute to the pattern)

  1. Most homes in my town have been left unlocked day and night for years (ritual).
  2. It is easy to break a window (physical thing) and gain entry to most homes.
  3. Unemployment has risen dramatically over the past few years (a result of policies).
  4. The capacity of police departments (organizations) to patrol neighborhoods has been hampered by limited budgets (policy).
  5. Cuts in public support for education results in some people having less opportunity for good jobs (policy).
  6. Television and magazines depict “the good life” as one rich in material goods (policy).

Mental Models (these are the beliefs, worldviews, and assumptions that create the structures)

  1. “It won’t happen to me, so I won’t lock my doors at night” (homeowner).
  2. “People with homes can afford to loose a few luxury items” (robber).
  3. “Its probably just a few kids.  We’ll catch em soon.” (police).
  4. We can’t afford good public education or employment programs during this economic crisis” (conservatives).
  5. “You can have it all!” (the advertising industry).
  6. What else?  I”m sure there are many more.

This example describes how the iceberg model can be used to “dig deeper” into root cause of a social problem.  If all we do is “react to events” (such as an individual house break-in), the systemic problem (lack of education and employment, and material-rich expectations of “the good life”) will never be addressed.  Systems thinking helps us to uncover leverage points for the transformation of society necessary to deal with systemic problems.  Transformation must begin with a “mind change”…. that is, how we think.

Here is how we use the iceberg tool to “see below the surface.”


Over the next few weeks, we’ll use the iceberg to begin to try to understand the root cause(s) of the perfect storm. For now, here is a link to some of the events and patterns that describe these three global systemic problems.

The Perfect Storm

Lets look at another example of how to use the iceberg.

While major problems (patterns) are embedded in social structures and supported by mental models, sustainable behaviors are also encouraged by sustainable structures and mental models.  Here is an example.


To change behavior, we need to change the way we think.  I wrote a post about this a while back.  See “changing minds” for some thoughts on the power of the mental model!

The good news is that the structures that contribute to global systemic problems are “mind made”…… and therefore can be mind changed!

Check back here in a week to learn more…….

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

4 thoughts on “Digging for the root cause(s) of global crises

  1. Jared Diamond has missed much of what must be said because he does not understand the difference between life maintenance style infrastructure needs and the rest of "normal" human activity. His discussion of and dismissal of proactive forest production maintenance is built on the idea that current economic thinking is fact based. Whereas most economic thought is geared toward making a few old men the most powerful and the most rich ever. We should in stead be discussing systems that disable the accumulation of wealth by individuals and promote those activities that will result in the minimization of the effects of the human population on the naturall life support systems.

  2. Pingback: Learn to “think like a mountain” | John Gerber

  3. Pingback: Systems Thinking Tools: finding the root cause(s) of BIG problems | John Gerber

  4. Pingback: Lessons in Ag Systems Thinking | John Gerber

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