The perfect storm part III: Climate change


Last week’s blog focused on the second of the three big problems of our time, the threat of Global Pandemic. This week we are looking at Climate Change.   According to the Director General of the World Health Organization, the three major problems of our time are:

1. Peak Oil
2. Pandemic
3. Climate Change


When we discussed the problem of climate change in my Sustainable Living class, some of the students in were surprised to find that I had learned about “global warming” when I was in college 40 years ago!   One student told me after class that I must have been wrong because he heard (in another class) that scientists became aware that climate change was a problem only recently.  So I took a look at the history of global climate change and found:

  • In 1896 a Swedish scientist published the idea that as humanity burned fossil fuels, carbon dioxide gas released to the Earth’s atmosphere would raise the planet’s average temperature.
  • In the 1930s, people realized that the United States had warmed significantly during the previous half-century.
  • In the 1950s, a few scientists began to look into the question with improved technology.
  • In the early 1970s, the rise of environmentalism raised awareness about climate change and more scientists took it seriously.

We have known about this treat for a long time.  One of the questions I get regularly from students is; “if you knew this might be a problem, why didn’t your generation do something about it?”

Good question!

So, once again I turn to the “iceberg” to try to understand the root cause of seemingly “crazy” and self-destructive human behavior.

If an intelligent human living in 1970 learned that their behavior might be causing harm to the planet, why would this person not change their behavior?

If we apply the iceberg tool, an event might be a one human choosing to ignore the evidence.

A pattern would be lots of individuals choosing to ignore the evidence (which is indeed what happened).

But what are the systemic tructures that supported this particular pattern of behavior?  What organizations and policies specifically contributed to an entire society not paying heed to the warning?

Well, how about:

  • The U.S. Government under the Reagan administration
  • Automobile manufacturers that claimed they could not improve fuel efficiency
  • The U.S. Government under the Bush administration
  • Energy company sponsored advertisements that cast doubt upon the science of global climate change
  • The U.S. Government under the Clinton administration
  • Mass media that made “the good life” seem like the only life worth living
  • The U.S. Government under the second Bush administration
  • An entertainment industry that provides distractions that are much more pleasurable than worrying about the future
  • The U.S. Government under the Obama administration

The only problem in making a list of the social structures that support millions of people living in denial is that EVERYTHING about our culture supports this self-destructive behavior.

But lets continue.  The next question is “what mental models support these structures”?

A recent article in The Economist speculates on the belief systems (mental models) that explain why Americans seem unwilling to change our behavior.  They write:

  • “Psychological: The consequences of climate change are too awful to contemplate. Therefore, we’re denying the issue, as we used to deny monsters in the room by hiding under the blanket.
  • “Economic: The costs of a large-scale effort to fight global warming are too steep to bear. Therefore, we’re trying to ignore the issue, or pretending it doesn’t exist, or we believe that the economy (including development) is more important.
  • “Political: The fact that Democrats are always hammering on about climate change and Republicans aren’t suggests that this is a political issue, not a scientific one. This creates a feedback loop: if climate change were real, why is it so polarizing? Because it’s so polarizing, it must be slightly suspicious.
  • “Epistemological: Why should we believe in climate change? Where’s the evidence? All we know is what scientists say, and scientists are sometimes wrong.
  • “Metaphysical: God isn’t going to let millions of people die in an epic drought.”

In addition to these mental models, I will add my own:

  • the belief that the “world was made for us to use”
  • the worldview that “humans are not part of Mother Nature”
  • the hope that “government will protect us”
  • the “joke” that whomever dies with the most stuff wins

To change the patterns of behavior, we must change the structures; the policies and organizations that allow millions of humans to continue to avoid or deny the truth.   But to change the structures, we must change the way we think (mental models) because thoughts create actions and actions create thoughts.  This reinforcing feedback loop is very powerful and has allowed us to live in denial for a long time.

So the next logical question must be “what would cause us to wake up?”  The Academy Award winning 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” didn’t do it.  A highly respected report from Britain’s Government Economic Service (the Stern Report) which found that it would be less expensive to take action now than try to deal with the crisis later, didn’t do it.

My students often ask “where will we find the necessary political will and leadership to take action?”

Good question!

There are many interesting theories about why we seem to find it so hard to change our behavior, but my response is usually, “why are we so worried about everyone else – what are you willing to do?

The response from many students is to look for leadership from politicians and business leaders.  But we know that anyone in government is caught  in a systemic social structure that requires them to run for election every 2, 4, or 6 years.  They cannot afford to think about the long term.  And for business leaders it is much worse.  They must show profitability to shareholders every quarter (3 months) or their job may be in jeopardy.

So who can think about the 7th generation?   Well, perhaps a mature young adult taking my class?  Perhaps you?

I believe that individuals who are not afraid to act  must “join the sustainability parade” and the politicians and corporate leaders will “jump up front” when they see which way the parade is headed.

Are you willing to join the sustainability parade?


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The perfect storm part II: Global pandemic


Last week’s blog focused on one of the three big problems of our time, Peak Oil. This week we are looking at the threat of Global Pandemic caused at least partially by industrial animal agriculture (factory farms). According to the Director General of the World Health Organization, the three major problems of our time are:

1. Peak Oil
2. Pandemic
3. Climate Change

In my Sustainable Living class, I introduced the topic of Global Pandemic with this video:

There is evidence that the bird flu and swine flu epidemics of the past few years originated in factory-farms in Southeast Asia and Mexico.  The industrial response to bird flu was typical of modern culture – proposals to irradiate meat, flu vaccines for the birds, efforts to outlaw backyard chickens.  The real problem is the system we have created to make sure our meat products are cheap – factory farms (these are “structures” in our iceberg tool that we use to understand root causes).   Perhaps an even more immediate concern however, is the potential loss of antibiotics for human health care due to their extensive use in factory farms.

If you WANTED to create antibiotic resistant bacteria, this is how to do it:

  1. Inoculate a petri dish with bacteria, which will “grow like crazy
  2. Apply an antibiotic, which will probably kill 99% of the bacteria
  3. Feed the surviving 1% with sugar water,and it will “grow like crazy”
  4. Apply an antibiotic to the new growth, which will probably kill 99%
  5. Again feed the surviving 1% sugar water, and it will……

Do this again and again and again…. and what you end up with is a strain of bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics!  And this happens BY DESIGN in at least two places in modern culture….

Human health care


Factory farms

Industrial animal farms and the over use of antibiotics in human health care result in antibiotic resistance.

In a  Johns Hopkins magazine article from June 2009….. Kellogg Schwab, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Water and Health, spoke about samples he collected from a lagoon used to store pig manure. “There were 10 million E. coli per liter [of sampled waste]. Ten million!   And you have a hundred million liters in some of those pits. So you can have trillions of bacteria present, of which 89 percent are resistant to drugs. That’s a massive amount that in a rain event can contaminate the environment.”

He adds….

“This development of drug resistance scares the hell out of me. If we continue on and we lose the ability to fight these microorganisms, a robust, healthy individual has a chance of dying, where before we would be able to prevent that death.

Schwab says that if he tried, he could not build a better incubator of resistant pathogens than a factory farm.

This is crazy!

Lets use the iceberg tool again to try to answer the question “why do we do this to ourselves?“.

So, once again I asked my class…. “what is the root cause of this crazy human behavior?”

In this case, an event might be a single hog or chicken that was treated with a low level dose of antibiotic to help it grow faster.

A pattern would be thousands of chickens treated with antibiotics to keep them alive while living in a crowded, unhealthy environment.

The more interesting questions are about the structures and mental models that make these crazy behaviors “normal.”

Among the structures named were:

  • Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (factory farms)
  • pharmaceutical industry
  • government regulation
  • advertising industry
  • fast food industry
  • what else?

And the mental models that make these structures “normal” might be:

  • a belief that everyone needs animal protein daily
  • the expectation that food should be cheap
  • the belief that animals are simply “units” not living beings
  • the worldview that humans are not part of “mother nature”
  • the hope that “government will protect us”
  • what other beliefs support this behavior”?

To change the patterns, we must change the structures used to raise animals.  But to change the structures, we must change the way we think (mental models). Take a few minutes to compare these two systems for raising chickens, and look for the mental models under each of these structures:

1. An industrial poultry farm

2. My backyard

The local farm or backyard option is a real possibility, but to change these structures we must first change the way we think.  And to change the way we think, we need to change the way we ourselves choose to live!  The following is a short video comparing the way we treat animals with the way we live our lives…..(can you see shared mental models?).

To change the way we treat animals, we need to change the way we live our lives.  What are you doing to change your own life!


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The perfect storm part I – Peak oil


This week in Sustainable Living class here at UMass we are beginning to explore the root cause(s) of the three big problems of our times.   According to the Director General of the World Health Organization, these problems (which I describe as “the perfect storm” because they are interrelated and all happening at once) are:

  1. Peak Oil

  2. Pandemic

  3. Climate Change

This blog looks for the root cause(s) of our excessive use and dependence on oil, a problem described by the term “peak oil”.   Most students at UMass have heard the term (which was not true just a few years ago). But it is surprising how few can speak about  the root cause(s) of our excessive energy use, which has resulted in peak oil.  So in class, we introduce the topic with a short video, and then ask the students to use the systems thinking iceberg model (which I wrote about last week) to begin to understand the root cause(s) of peak oil.  Here is what we learned…..

M. King Hubbard predicted that oil production in the U.S. would peak in 1970.   And it did! This means that half of the extractable oil in the U.S. was burned by Americans over 40 years ago.  This is a problem!

Even the former-President of the U.S., George W. Bush, charged the nation with being “addicted to oil.” The first step in 12-step recovery programs is to admit that we have a problem.   Based on our behavior however, it seems that we are not willing to accept this truth.  Like other addictions, this one will end badly.

So, if it is obvious that being addicted to a finite resource isn’t a good position to be in, why aren’t we taking it seriously?  I believe that most of us find it difficult to face problems when we can’t imagine a reasonable solution.  And understanding the problem is the first step toward creating and accepting reasonable solutions.

So in class, we look for the root cause(s) of problems by using the iceberg.

When I asked the class to identify the structures that result in patterns of human behavior that cause us to continue to deplete fossil fuels at ever-increasing rates, they came up with the following list:

  • The oil industry
  • Automobile manufacturers
  • Advertising agencies
  • Vacation & Travel industries
  • Well, in fact almost ALL businesses….
  • The military
  • High gas mileage thresholds
  • Subsidies for the oil industry
  • The national highway system
  • Airports
  • Non-energy efficient buildings
  • Well, just about everything in our lives

Here is a short clip explaining how we determine structures, with a few more examples:

The more interesting question is what are the mental models (the beliefs, the assumptions, the stories we tell each other) that contribute to the creation of the structures that encourage the excessive use of a oil.  These are some of the mental models generated by the class:

  • Individual actions don’t make a difference
  • We’ll figure out what to do when things get really bad
  • The world is made for humans to use
  • I have the right
  • Shop till you drop
  • I need amusements to be happy
  • If I can’t fix everything….. I won’t do anything

Here is a short clip describing mental models, with a few more examples:

Why don’t you identify your own mental models from the video below and share your thoughts in the comments box.


What do you think is the root cause(s) of peak oil?

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Digging for the root cause(s) of global crises


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…….


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 posts.