Saturday, February 18, 2017

Our True Nature

Between us and the environment there is no separation.
You are not a thing.
You are a process.
Every cell, every tissue, in constant flux and turnover.
You drink water. That water becomes, for a while, you.
The air that rushes into your lungs is not the same air that leaves when you breath out. The air that leaves was, just seconds ago, you.
There is no environment that is not us.
Therefore, the Environmental Protection Agency might better be called the the Agency for the Protection of Everything That Flows Through Our Bodies.
We share this gorgeous planet with other beings, our relatives. 
Who also are not things. 
Who also are processes.
Some of whom regulate processes essential for our own lives. All of whom endow us with beauty and awe and amazement and wonder.
Even if we decided to sacrifice our own well-being, we have no right to sacrifice theirs.
There is a bright side on this dark day for environmental protection.
Through us water has voice.
Through us soil can march on Washington.
Through us air and climate and ferns and porpoises can be mad as hell.
When we fight for our lives and the integrity of our children's bodies we fight for everything because we are everything.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Make Soup Like A Systems Thinker (or Think Like a Soup-Maker)

If you know how to make soup, you already know a lot about systems thinking.

At CI this month we launched our MOOC,* the Climate Leader, an introduction to the skills of systems thinking for people taking action on climate change.

There’s no one-size-fits-all definition of a systems thinker, but this afternoon as I puttered in the kitchen, it occurred to me that soup making offers a pretty good metaphor. Here’s a short list of things that all systems thinkers and all soup makers know:

The quality of the whole depends on the health of the parts.
The best carrots in the world won’t save the soup if the cabbage is old and rubbery. The best-resourced sales team in the world can’t save a business if the engineering department is stagnating. Pouring more wealth into the top 1% of families won’t produce vibrancy in the whole society if other families are struggling.

To get good results you have to look beneath the surface and back in time.
A major factor the deliciousness of my pot of soup today is that all the ingredients were grown right in our backyard. The freshness, the taste, the texture, the nutrients, all derive from the conditions of the soil, the care of the harvest, the attention to storage and preservation.

Focus on the health of the parts, and the quality of the process - then let the results emerge from your efforts.
You might know the individual tastes of potatoes, squash, beans, and leeks and still not quite know how the soup that melds them all would taste. This is emergence, that quality that is so mysterious and so fundamental to our lives, our communities, and our collaborations. Systems thinkers and soup makers both focus on quality, take care with the process, and then sit back and allow the magic of system (or the soup) to reveal itself. 

Like any art form there's more to systems thinking, and more to soup making, than these three simple ideas. But they are a start, and I'd welcome your additions to this short list. 

*MOOC = Massive Open Online Course

Friday, January 23, 2015

Warmth in the January Cold

Cobb Hill barns and greenhouse. Photo credit Jenna Rice
January has been a month of bitter cold with all of the challenges that brings: cars that won’t start, frozen stock tanks in the barn, and paths that, without a good coating of sand, are slippery enough to skate on – not a good idea, given the steep slope of some of them!

But even in the deep cold and the long nights, there are spots of warmth and light, all around. 

On the most bitter cold days, the sun pours into to our tight little house and Phil, the girls, and I all strip down to short-sleeves as the temperature rises towards eighty degrees, even while it hovers near zero outside. Phil and Jenna pore over seed catalogs and garden visions grow bigger and more exotic by the day.

Quilt assembly. Photo credit Coleen O'Connell
In the common house Coleen has spread beautiful quilt squares of bold, vivid colors across the dining room tables as she assembles not one, but two, quilts for the two-month old twin babies of friends. Each of the squares was made a by a different friend, and Coleen is lovingly stitching them together. These will be lucky babies, nestled into works of art that also embody stories from the past and hopes for the future. 

Seed catalogs and quilting projects, cozy houses, and warm cups of tea - there are all sorts of ways to be warm even in the coldest days of winter.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Reducing Energy Demand: It’s Not Only About Technology And It Doesn’t Always Require Experts

In transforming our world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions there’s room for the creativity of all of us.

In our simulation modeling of the transition to a low-carbon economy, we find plenty of policies and actions with huge potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon prices, investment in renewable energy, and investment in a new energy infrastructure all have a part to play. But most of the successful scenarios we find in our simulation runs also have another element – reductions in energy demand.

Technology, from more efficient appliances to highly fuel efficient vehicles, has a lot to contribute to reducing energy demand.

But that is only part of the story.

People are also, without any new technologies or inventions, coming together to create systems that accomplish the same goals with less use of energy.

One of my favorite examples from recent months was reported in the Washington Post.
A class of second-graders, concerned about climate change, looked at the line of cars picking up children in front of their school each afternoon. If only we could make the pick-ups go more quickly, they reasoned, there’d be less idling, less waste of gas, and less greenhouse gas pollution.

Thinking and learning together, the kids came up with a system where pick-up times were staggered, every few minutes, based on the first letter of a family’s last name. Not only did the amount of idling decrease, but parents reported less hassle and less stress from waiting in long, slow-moving lines of traffic!

There are similar examples in most communities, if we’d just take the time to stop and look. In my neighborhood, for instance, we use an email listserve, which often has requests for “anyone going grocery shopping who could pick up one thing”, cutting done the number of trips by car we all need to make.

Urban design that makes cities more walkable. Bike sharing systems that make it easier to get around without a car. Ideas like these don’t need scientific breakthroughs (although we could use a few of those too). Thinking smarter about our energy use mostly requires imagination and a willingness to experiment.

And, if the quotes from the second-graders are any indication, we might just discover that coming up with new ideas is very fun and satisfying too!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Three Reasons To Keep On Working on Climate Education and Energy Policy

“Wow.  I just want to cry.  Please tell me we are making a difference.”’
Those were the words of a colleague today after she watched a  video illustrating a recent Bill McKibben essay about a rising tide of climate change symptoms around the world.
Many months have passed since the disappointments of Copenhagen and the failure to pass climate legislation in the United States.
Facing urgency from the planetary physics and gridlock in the political process, it is probably natural to feel discouragement at times.

But there are good reasons to believe we are making a difference, and good reasons to keep on going.

Here are three that keep me going: 
While it may feel like time is running out, time is also on our side.
  1. Climate symptoms will become stronger and more convincing with the passage of time, and so will the lessons from those trail-blazing communities that have already leaped into the transition to clean energy and begun to reap the benefits in cleaner air and better jobs. If we keep moving ahead and doing our best, the dynamics of the system are destined to provide us with lift and support. Keeping going means that we are planting our seeds, strengthening our networks and building our capacity to seize the moments that a changing climate and cutting edge energy experimenters will offer as time passes
  2. No one can predict the evolution of attitudes and beliefs.
    Just like the climate system, human systems of attitudes and beliefs are complex and non-linear, with tipping points where change becomes unstoppable. If you made a graph of these patterns there would be a long, flat ‘tail’ rising suddenly and steeply when a critical threshold is passed. We can’t know where those thresholds are until we’ve crossed them, but they are one reason to keep on writing, speaking, teaching, analyzing, organizing, voting, lobbying, and doing whatever we can. Keeping going means adding, little by little,  to the cumulative total of small actions that could someday carry us over a critical threshold.
  3.  There isn’t a point where it makes sense to stop trying, saying ‘all is lost.’
    Every tenth of a degree of temperature increase prevented means better odds of survival for some species somewhere, or some community sometime in the future. When it comes to climate change, making a difference isn’t so much a matter of solving the problem once and for all as it is tilting the odds and keeping more options open.
So there you are, three ideas that keep me going, convinced we are making a difference. Without doubt there are more than these three.

What are some more? Why do you keep going?

Friday, February 25, 2011

In place of certainty - learning

I've spent the past weeks deep in data and competing theories on the transition to clean energy.  So many people are so certain they know what is needed, but the more I learn, the more humble I feel.

Depending on which report you read, we need everything from technical brilliance and breakthroughs to new definitions of happiness. We need political reform and the removal of money from politics. We need  behavioral change or a massive build-out of a 'smart grid'.  We need to redesign cities, cut the price of renewable energy, or charge the full costs of polluting energy sources. Or maybe we need to electrify transportation, redesign the electric grid, change our habits, invest in clean energy R&D.

Some of the proposals make more sense to me than others, especially those that influence the core structures of systems - internalizing the price of greenhouse gas pollution for example or restoring health to democracies in order to produce better decisions for the long-term and the common good. But I find myself with less and less faith in any proposal or plan. For better or worse, in this interconnected world it begins to feel impossible to predict what will happen next, let alone try to direct events toward a specific end result. Technical breakthroughs in China ripple through to mix with political factors in the US, to combine with attitudes about mountaintop removal, to mix with revolution in the Middle East and the changing price of oil, to combine with falling costs of renewable energy, to mix with rising evidence of climate change to produce conditions never seen before in the world. Who, really, knows whats coming next?

In uncertain times it is so tempting to try to discern the right course of action and to denounce all the other possibilities. But, because of the very uncertainty of these times, I suspect we need to cultivate the opposite response. We need to pursue our piece of the puzzle with focus and determination,while  remaining aware of and grateful for all the other paths. When the activists change the political landscape the engineers need to stand ready with the clean technology. Or maybe its the other way around, when the engineers have their breakthrough, the activists need to be organized to take it to scale.

We also need, it seems to me, openness to possibility, willingness to experiment, willingness to be wrong, and wilingness to share what we are learning. We need tools to track how we are doing, tools that help us see the collective impact of all the little local changes that are happening, tools that play out the trends into future, illuminating not specific predictions but a general sense of direction.

I'm biased of course, because those are exactly the sort of tools our team has been producing for years, but, still, I feel grateful that my day's work doesn't ask me to pronounce what we should do, but rather asks me to help people look forward into all the futures that could emerge from this moment and connect those futures to the choices we have before us today. Step by step, if we take the next hundred years on that way, looking far forward and doing what we can with what we have at hand today, perhaps we will learn our way into a sustainable future and something that might even come close to wisdom.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Lessons From Climate Change - One

When I started this blog, I decided to call it "Climate Teacher" largely to remind myself of my belief that as much as it is a problem to solve,  climate change is also a teacher for humanity, reflecting back to us important lessons about our own nature and the nature of our home, the Earth.

Yesterday, snowshoeing through our woods in the midst of snow flurries and wind, I decided that, with the start of the new year, it would be a good time to reflect on and try to articulate some of those lessons, at least as I see them.

Here's the first one:

Climate change teaches us that the destinies of all people and all nations are tied together. 

When Brazil cuts is deforestation rate we all benefit by the additional carbon dioxide that Brazil's forests can sequester. When the US misses the opportunity to adopt climate legislation that could have catalyzed the beginnings of a clean energy revolution, the whole world suffers from the additional greenhouse gasses that will be emitted in the coming years and decades as a result.

One thing that people always discover when they test emissions reductions scenarios with our climate model, C-ROADS, is that without every region of the world participating, its not possible to limit emissions enough to keep future temperatures within safe bounds.

In the old world, the world before climate change, it might have been better if nations worked together, but they didn't HAVE TO. In the old world, nations expected to solve their own problems.  Climate change is a challenge that solve together or not at all.

In the process, our attitudes and our institutions will need to slowly (or not so slowly!) shift until they come to reflect the physical truth that our single atmosphere, for better or worse, ties us all together.