Systems Thinking Tools – Resilience

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As I prepare to teach my new Agricultural Systems Thinking class at UMass this fall, I have become more and more intrigued with the thinking underlying the science of resilience.  Ecologists, psychologists and engineers are quite familiar with the idea that sustainable systems are able to withstand disturbances, large and small.  Most humans with significant life experiences can surely understand the value of resilience, as life is rarely “smooth sailing” and as the bumper sticker says “shit happens.”

The need for a deeper  understanding of resilience in agriculture has never been more obvious, as the U.S. experiences the impact of drought on the 2012 corn crop and on subsequent food and energy costs.  The inability of the industrial system to adjust gracefully to the shock of drought is just one of the indicators that it is at a tipping point.

Resilience science has taught us that systems designed for economic efficiency can maximize short-term profitability but at the same time will sacrifice resilience or the ability of the system to adjust to shocks and stresses such as drought.  Industrial agriculture and thus the modern food system is highly vulnerable to collapse.

According a report from the Prince Charities Foundation International Sustainability Unit (established by His Royal Highness, Charles the Prince of Wales), titled “What Price Resilience: Toward Sustainable and Secure Food Systems,” the systemic stresses for which industrial agriculture is NOT well-prepared to adapt to include:

A. Disruption caused by declining supplies of easily accessible fossil fuel and the subsequent escalation of energy prices.

B. Erosion of the natural capital upon which the system depends such as soil, clean water, and biological diversity and disturbance of global climate.

C. Global hunger, poverty and inequality, creating social unrest from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement.

Ecological agriculture on the other hand is more resilient as it addresses each of the systemic stresses that threaten the industrial system;

A. Agroecological systems minimize dependency on fossil fuel by increasing reliance on solar and energy reuse and efficiency.

B. Agroecological systems build rather than deplete natural capital  such as soil, clean water, and biological diversity, and sequester carbon to help ameliorate climate change.

C. Agroecological systems directly address social inequities, hunger, and poverty by creating opportunities for small landholders and community-based farming.

Systems scientists define resilience as “the capacity of a system to experience change while retaining essentially the same function, structure, feedbacks, and therefore identity, e.g.agricultural system properties and services.”  Resilience is conferred to living systems which (unlike industrial agriculture) exhibit the following attributes:

    1. Diversity – most ecologists agree that biological diversity adds to the resilience of a system.  This is achieved in agriculture through multiple cropping systems, permaculture and crop diversification.
    2. Openness – this is a measure of how easily components of a system such as people, ideas and species can move into or out of a system.  In agriculture it might be manifested in the ability of a farmer to change crops in response to market demand. 
    3. Reserves – reserves add to resilience in response to shocks.  In agriculture, this might be financial reserves, stored seed, or local knowledge.   
    4. Feedback – critical information on productivity, environmental quality or socioeconomic impact is needed by system managers to make good decisions.  In agriculture this might be information on the extent of soil erosion, sales figures, profitability of each product,

I’ll explore resilience in agriculture more in future blog posts but for now I’ll share a list of interventions available for systems in distress.  According to Walker and Salt in their 2012 book Resilience Practice, there are four main areas of intervention:

  • Management – changes in recommended management of components of a system
  • Financial – assistance, investment, subsidies, taxes which support the function of a system
  • Governance – laws, regulations, and policies
  • Education – knowledge to influence behavior (and especially to help decision-makers overcome denial)

If this topic is of interest to you, please check out this new video (click on the picture below) in which Fred Kirschenmann speaks about resilience in agriculture.

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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.  Or for more systems thinking posts, try this link.

 

 

Systems Thinking Tools: understanding hierarchy

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I’ve focused my last few posts on Systems Thinking, as I prepare to teach a new course at UMass in the fall.  This post examines the structure of hierarchy using a systems thinking lens.  Like many of my friends who have a “problem with authority” –  that is, I always struggle with the concept of  hierarchy.  I think this is because the dominant form of hierarchy working in the human world is based on what peace and social justice activist Starhawk  calls power-over and is manifested as domination (at best) and oppression or abuse (at worst).

POWER-OVER HIERARCHY –  A HUMAN CONSTRUCT

Power-over hierarchy is most apparent in the military, but is also found in corporations, universities, and many religious organizations (that is, just about every major human organization ever known).  Power-over hierarchy, built upon “command and control” relationships is deeply rooted in human history.

One of the early records of  hierarchy is found in Exodus 18.   When Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, came to him “in the wilderness, where he was camped near the mountain of God,”  he found Moses sitting all day making decisions over disputes among his people.  He asked Moses “why do you sit alone as judge?”  He advised Moses to “select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain —and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.”  There it is!  One controls the 10, ten controls the 50, etc., etc….

Human hierarchy runs deep.  This mode of decision making is the standard way humans have organized for thousands of years.  It is so much part of our culture that it appears to be the ONLY way to understand hierarchy.  While efficient in one sense, it is inherently unjust.

But there is another way to think about hierarchy….

POWER-WITH HIERARCHY –  NATURE’S WAY

While its true that humans have had thousands of years of experience organizing as power-over (command and control) hierarchies, ecological systems have several billion years of experience operating as power-with hierarchies.  That is, rather than power being manifested as command and control (power-over), it is seen as participation and inclusion (power-with).  Perhaps there is something we can learn from Mother Nature?

References to nature’s hierarchy are almost as old as the story of Exodus.  The first time we find nature’s hierarchy in literature is associated with Aristotle and is called the Great Chain of Being, or scala naturae (literally the “ladder or stair-way of nature”).  This ancient understanding of all relationships in the universe began to provide us with a sense of order and meaning.  More recently modern systems thinkers have added to this model of the universe.

Today, we understand a natural hierarchy (or holarchy in systems jargon) as a nested set of “systems within systems” of increasing complexity.  An organism (like you and me) contain “lower” or less complex subsystems like the human heart, and likewise are contained within the “larger” more complex subsystem of the human population. This is how living systems are organized and might depicted like this.

Now, what can we learn from this understanding of hierarchy?   Well…… one of the most important lessons has to do with the relationship between the levels of complexity.  A basic truth about natural hierarchies is “we look up for purpose and down for function.”

WHAT?

That’s right….  we look to more complex subsystems for purpose.  For example, an individual cell finds purpose in serving an organ (like the heart).  The purpose of the human heart, in turn, is to serve the human body (organism).  And, the organism looks to the less complex subsystems for function.   The organism looks to the heart for function.  The heart looks to individual cells for function.

GET IT?

Well, if this makes sense to you we might then ask the question…. so what?

YIKES….. its a big “so what!”   In fact it helps me to understand who I am and why I am here.  If I am indeed “a part of nature rather than a part from nature” then my relationship with all that is living is clear.  I too “look up for purpose” – that is, I am a “child of the universe” and my purpose is to be useful to something larger than myself.  If we apply the principle of “look up for purpose” we might see ourselves as part of “larger” or more complex “selves.”

For example, I am certainly part of a “family-self” and a “community-self”, so why not think of myself as part of an “ecological-self”, “universal-self” or even a “divine-self”?  This helps me to see that my purpose is to serve something larger than my personal self.

In a society when so many people seem to lack purpose (and therefore may substitute amusements or worse addictions for a meaningful life), the recognition that you and I are necessary to the function of more complex systems can be empowering.  The system we serve may be our family, community, nation, Mother Earth, or perhaps a sense of the divine.

This understanding of hierarchy based on living systems theory, might allow us to organize more human endeavors based on power-with relationships.  In this case, power comes from working with others at the same level of the hierarchy in service to a larger or more complex level.  Working in local communities for example, we can take actions together that serve others in the nation or protect and nurture “Mother Nature” (the eco-self).  Unlike the human hierarchy, the natural hierarchy is less likely to be unjust.

IMPLICATIONS

Power-over hierarchy it is NOT the only way of organizing human activities.  Some  businesses have learned that as they add layers of organization between top management and customers they lose access to feedback and begin to make poor decisions.   Likewise political leaders lose touch with constituents when there are many layers of organizational hierarchy.  This also explains why “conquerors” throughout human history rarely retain power for very long.

Conservationist, Aldo Leopold, reminded readers in his classic essay The Land Ethic, that conquest is always self-defeating, as conquerors rarely know “what makes the community clock tick, and just what and who is valuable… in community life.”  Power-over conquest always fails, eventually.  The “command and control” hierarchy that represents the dominant mental model governing how humans choose to organize has certain deficiencies.

If you have to cross a desert with a “stiff-necked people” (Exodus 32:9), then perhaps a command and control hierarchy is needed.  Or if you are fighting a war, then perhaps power-over is the relationship of choice.  However if you are trying to create a sustainable society based on economic vitality, environmental quality AND social equity…..  the human hierarchy just isn’t adequate.  For example, (with apologies in advance to all of my fellow Roman Catholics who I may offend) I do not believe the Catholic Church will ever be fully successful sharing the message of peace, justice, forgiveness and love attributed to Jesus as long as it is organized as a command and control, patriarchal hierarchy.  As I stated at the beginning, If power-over is the dominant relationship in an organization, it will ALWAYS result in domination (at best) and oppression or abuse (at worst).

The only human examples I can think of that might at least partially model a natural hierarchy are the first century Christians and modern 12-step programs.  Do you know of any human organizations based on power-with?

Perhaps after thousands of years of trying to get the power-over human hierarchy to work, it is time to give the much older power-with natural hierarchy a try!

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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.  Or for more systems thinking posts, try this link.