Saturday, September 20, 2008

I Wish Dana Meadows Could See This

Of all the people I have met in my work in sustainability over the years none of them have believed in the fundamental goodness of human beings more than Dana Meadows, my first and in many ways, most important teacher in this field.

We don't have climate change and polluted waterways and eroding topsoil and declining fisheries because people are fundamentally bad, stupid, greedy, or lazy, she said, but because we find ourselves in complex systems that defy our intuitions and whose rules don't promote or reward the kind of care for each other and our world that most of us feel, most of the time.

That was her conclusion after decades of study, including participating in the creation of a computer simulation that explored the dynamics as our global human civilization approached and then overshot the carrying capacity of the Earth.

Her years of computer modeling left her deeply aware of how the dynamics of exponential growth, long delays, and distorted signals characterize most, maybe even all, of our major sustainability challenges and how these same dynamics fool even the most well-meaning of us into a false sense of security, a feeling we have more time to solve these problems than we really do, and a confusion about their underlying cause.

We don't need to be better people, Dana said, but we do need to challenge our intuitions, and learn to feel – deeply and without illusion – the dynamics of these complex systems.

I think Dana would be thrilled to see the recent work of some of the people she mentored in this field, Tom Fidaman and Drew Jones, especially.

With the help of others, they have created a computer simulation of the world's climate, called Pangaea. And, these last few weeks, as I have begun to help in their efforts, I've seen its potential to bring the climate system to life.

The oceans and atmosphere don't talk to us directly, at least not in ways we modern, 'sophisticated' people have been taught to trust, but Pangaea is, in many ways, the next best thing to this. While its output agrees closely with much more complex scientific models of the climate, Pangaea runs much more quickly, and on a desktop computer. With it, one can asks all sorts of questions about our options, as individual nations and a collective global society, to reach the goal of a stable climate.

What if the US froze emissions? What if the developed world started reducing emissions by 3% per year? What if all nations did so?

The answers to these questions are startling to most of the people I've watched experiment with Pangaea, even those with years of dedication to various aspects of sustainability. The simulator supports what some of the people on the planet with the best intuition about the climate - climatologists – have been saying more and more vehemently - we need to act, now, and strongly, all of us, in all the parts of the world. But there is something about discovering this for yourself through testing scenarios that is more powerful than reading the words of even the most alarmed climatologist.

Pangaea doesn't tell us what do in response to the climate crisis, or how to rise to the challenge, or what kind of people we need to be to help our societies move through it, but it does help us to begin to see which choices might be sufficient to give future generations a stable climate.

And, I think Dana Meadows would agree, we need that level of unflinching understanding in order to participate fully and whole-heartedly in the millions of efforts, large and small, that it will take to bring our Earth's climate back into balance.