Thinking Systemic

In class we had a discussion on various topics and how they are linear and systemic. In the video Science for the Future and the Future of Science, Dr. Khosla covers multiple concepts involved with the science of sustainability.

While he does not explicitly state what degenerative or regenerative means, he makes these distinctions obvious through terms and examples to model what these practices look like.

Dr. Khosla referred to a concept called ecological rucksacks and illustrated this by displaying a diagram on “Choice and Production of Food and Ecological Costs.” Ecological rucksacks are the amount of material that is needed to be moved in order to get 1 kg of material you want to use.

On the right side of the diagram shows traditional food production that is sustainable, where 1 Calorie of energy goes into agriculture and yields around 10,15,20, or 100 Calories of food energy. On the left side shows unsustainable food production, known as supermarket production, where 500 Calories of energy goes into agriculture and yields only about 1 Calorie of food energy.

The way our economic system is designed favors the supermarket spectrum and pushes us toward that side. The supermarket spectrum is linear because way too much energy is going into the food that we eat when we’re not even getting much out of it.

Large areas of land are being used specifically for agriculture or to grow the food to support livestock. This takes a lot of energy just to convert the land, harvest the food, and simply maintain it. Then the food is distributed, processed, and packaged, which further requires mass amounts of energy. In addition, most of the food we eat doesn’t just come from one location and travels hundreds of miles to get our grocery stores sucking up, you guessed it, even more energy. By the time the food gets onto our plates, the actual energy we are getting from it is ridiculously minimal compared to the entire energy used up until the point it got to us.

The traditional spectrum is regenerative because it maximizes energy through making choices that choose systems where the outputs are greater than the inputs. Some examples would be to buy local, purchase food in the bulk section to avoid packaging, get involved with a community garden, have your own garden, or best yet; grow a food forest.

Another interesting perspective on systems thinking came from the audio recording of Fritjof Capra. He talked about Leonardo Da Vinci and how his painting formed a tight connection between art and science.

He followed a process similar to the scientific method and made scientific discoveries through observing, understanding, and painting nature.

According to Da Vinci, “The eye, which is said to be the window of the soul, is the principal means whereby sensory awareness can most abundantly and magnificently contemplate the infinite works of nature.”

He really focused on natural forms and underlying principles of how nature looks and operates, forming an intimate connection with nature when trying to answer questions about the environment and science.

Regenerative studies does exactly the same thing when it comes to systems thinking and trying to find answers and solutions to real world problems. This discipline involves having an understanding that nature and our problems are complex and that there are many inputs and outputs to a situation, not just one single cause and effect.

Both of these approaches emphasize on observation in the early stages to gain a deep connection and understanding on how systems operate, look, and all its inputs and outputs.

From this, one will be able to ask the right questions to come up with well-thought out solutions, that take on a holistic approach.

Arrive at Solutions, Don’t Impose

When comparing the reading from Meadows and the video on Permaculture, I noticed a couple common themes to sustainability which are diversity and observation.

The reading from Meadows discussed systems theory. This theory takes a look at systems and observes the relationship between structure and behavior. A system consists of elements, interconnections, and functions or purpose and together these interconnected components are organized in a way to achieve something. This theory provides insight into how these systems operate, the results produced, and patterns which can help us manage, adapt, and see the range of choices we have available to us.

An example that we went over in class was water consumption. Our current efforts to deal with over consumption of water and drought is degenerative. This is because it is handled as a linear problem in which we analyze the problem by tracing a path from cause to effect, and then solving it by acting on or controlling the world around us. We are told that we have a drought problem, so to help the planet out we should take shorter showers, turn the water off while brushing our teeth, and stop watering our lawns.

While I don’t believe this is necessarily a bad thing to follow, it is not addressing the root cause.

Water scarcity is a complex issue with multiple components and layers to our environment and the economic and social structuring of our society. Rather than imposing solutions to big problems, this method is sustainable because it arrives at solutions through observation and having an understanding that these systems are always diverse, not black and white.

Permaculture is not necessarily something you do, but similar to the systems theory, it is way of thinking. Permaculture design takes a deep look into the patterning and ecological functions, relationships, and services that take place within nature to gain a better understanding on how to deal with real world problems.

One is taught to observe, understand, and respect nature’s diversity and interconnectedness to once again not impose solutions, but to arrive at them.

While nature may seem complex in its awe-inspiring majesty, it is actually quite simple and repetitive; if you really observe and pay close attention to her.

When thinking about patterning, whether micro or macro, the same patterns can be found no matter the scale. For example, a spiral can be seen on the tiniest shell of a hermit crab yet also in our very own immense milky way galaxy.

Nature also only operates in a cyclical manner and examples can be found in cycles such as the nitrogen, carbon, or water cycles. Waste is never an end result because nature always finds a way to reintegrate materials back into its circular system as something else.

Permaculture acknowledges these things and replicates or mimics these principles to create resilient and sustainable communities. An example from the video that I enjoyed was how they integrate animals into their community. Rather than solely looking at the animals as a source of food, they also offer services such as waste management, energy, and fertilizer. The pigs roam freely in the fields and excrete waste, which fertilizes the land and in turn produces food. The food that is not eaten by the people of the community is given to the pigs, which serves as a waste management strategy. Six months prior to slaughter, they are placed in a separate area and the waste that’s produced by the pigs is thrown into an anaerobic digester which provides the community with energy. This system perfectly mimics nature and is regenerative because no waste is produced. Everything in this system serves a purpose and once it fulfills that purpose, it is serves as something new.

I believe that we must fight the need for a quick fix to our global issues. Rather, we must work on taking a step back by observing and understanding nature and how it operates. In addition, the structure of our economic and social systems. From this, we may quite possibly be able to solve some of our most difficult problems.

Sustainability is…

Sustainability is a word that comes up quite frequently in my life whether at school, work, or in social settings, and nonetheless has always been a confusing concept to me. While there are many definitions and ways to describe what makes something sustainable or not, the gist of what I gather from it is to utilize resources or partake in activities that meet the needs of the present without compromising the future needs of others.

That concept sounds great, but at the same time is very deceiving because everybody has different wants, needs, and perceptions as to what is important in protecting and sustaining. I believe that it started out with good intentions, but is now a term that has been so green-washed that it has become a buzzword which serves as a safety net to make one feel less bad about their actions.

Take recycling as an example. This may be considered a sustainable alternative to throwing waste away in the trashcan which would otherwise go into the landfill. While it is way better option, it fails to shed light onto the bigger picture with our waste issue. The true root of this problem comes from our consumption of resources. Recycling gives this false idea that we are doing our part in society and being ‘sustainable’, so it is ok to keep consuming. But it still partakes in this linear fashion, because it is designed for the trash.

When I personally think of sustainability I like to consider nature and how it operates in a cyclical manner. Everything is connected and nothing is ever wasted because once something is done serving its purpose, it is then reintegrated back into the system as something new. We need to start observing ecological design and considering what would nature do when creating systems whether they are social, environmental, or economic. Because if we’re not thinking in a cyclical manner that is regenerative, than everything else is just degenerative in some way or another, which brings me to my next topic.

In our class discussion regarding sustainability being a scam, I couldn’t agree more with that statement. Being sustainable by causing less harm from a choice made still doesn’t completely rid harm. So when one thinks they are being sustainable they are ultimately just being less degenerative, not sustainable. This notion is also skewed because it prolongs the degenerative system by making these poor habits last longer, rather than arriving at solutions by addressing roots causes and implementing regenerative systems.

Another interesting topic discussed was about education and that it too can operate in a linear, degenerative fashion. This is because in many cases it is top bottom, where information is exchanged from professor to student. The educational system is degenerative and reminds me of a field only consisting of mono crops. The whole approach to education is based on conformity and promotes what everybody has in common. A massive number of students are placed into the system to observe, memorize, and repeat, then thrown out of the system as quickly as possible to repeat the same process all over again. It doesn’t work because the whole approach to education misunderstands how humans actually operate and we are not treated as the unique and diverse individuals that we are.