Image credit: ‘Contact’ by Ira Ratry
Climate change. Biodiversity loss. Poverty. Hyperconsumption. Lifestyle diseases.
These are wicked problems - those that are complex, and for which there are no simple answers, or no easy-to-implement solutions, or no known process to address them. And sometimes all three.
They are also symptoms.
Symptoms are clues that a system has been designed in such a way that it is not delivering the desired results (or that it has been designed to work to benefit particular interests). They are the manifestations of an underlying field of energy and intent.
Another way to think of ‘symptoms’ is as the logical consequences of a set of system conditions – for example, if you make energy-dense high calorie foods easily and cheaply available to a population that is car-dependent and in sedentary work, they are very likely to become overweight or obese.
Sometimes, symptoms are unintended consequences of a course of action. One of the most illustrative examples of attempting to fix symptoms with ‘solutions’ instead of taking a systems approach is the tale of ’Operation Cat Drop’, cited in Amory Lovins, L Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken’s book, Natural Capitalism:
Sometimes single-problem, single-solution approaches do work, but often optimizing one element in isolation pessimizes the entire system…
Consider what happened in Borneo in the 1950s. Many Dayak villagers had malaria, and the World Health Organization had a solution that was simple and direct. Spraying DDT seemed to work: mosquitoes died, and malaria declined. But then an expanding web of side effects (‘consequences you didn’t think of,’ quips biologist Garrett Hardin, ‘the existence of which you will deny as long as possible’) started to appear. The roofs of people’s houses began to collapse, because the DDT had killed tiny parasitic wasps that had previously controlled thatch-eating caterpillars.
The colonial government issued sheet-metal replacement roofs, but people could not sleep when tropical rains turned the tin roofs into drums. Meanwhile, the DDT-poisoned bugs were being eaten by geckos, which were eaten by cats. The DDT invisibly built up in the food chain and began to kill the cats. Without the cats, the rats multiplied.
The World Health Organization, threatened by potential outbreaks of typhus and sylvatic plague, which it had itself created, was obliged to parachute fourteen thousand live cats into Borneo. Thus occurred Operation Cat Drop, one of the odder missions of the British Royal Air Force.
Sometimes, it can be reasonably predicted that a course of action will generate undesirable symptoms, but even so, decisions are made with the acceptance that certain outcomes will happen.
Ideally, we’d be able to attend to the short term concern of symptom management and also put some effort into preventative measures. Yet frequently, investment in prevention is traded off in favour of cure – ‘fixing’ the problem after the damage is done.
Symptoms absorb time, attention and money, often so it can be shown that something is being seen to be done, while the underlying causes go unaddressed, and continue to perpetuate the problem.
In a recent post on The Daly News, conservation biologist turned steady state political economist, Brian Czech, drew the comparison between environmental journalism and the doctors in terms of their attention being focused on symptoms:
Environmental journalists are like doctors. Doctors run from patient to patient, harried, dealing with symptoms more than causes. They’re too busy dispensing pills to talk about holistic health. It’s an approach that makes money for the health industry but isn’t so great for public health.
Environmental journalists run from issue to issue, harried, dealing with environmental impacts more than causes. They’re too busy dispensing stories to talk about context. It’s an approach that makes money for the media but isn’t so great for environmental protection…
Similarly, we have a society — a readership — that considers economic growth the top priority. This unhealthy obsession has led to all kinds of problems: biodiversity loss, climate change, and ocean acidification to name a few. Yet the reader is just not making the connection. Growing GDP seems like the answer to all problems, not the cause.
Yet in the same week, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s devastating impact on the east coast of North and Central America, the connection between climate change and economic growth was cited by a somewhat surprising source - Businessweek:
In his book The Conundrum, David Owen, a staff writer at the New Yorker, contends that as long as the West places high and unquestioning value on economic growth and consumer gratification—with China and the rest of the developing world right behind—we will continue to burn the fossil fuels whose emissions trap heat in the atmosphere.
Wicked problems like climate change will not be effectively addressed while we continue to focus on the symptoms – perhaps our biggest challenge is the shift in mindset needed to understand that the things ordinarily listed as being a ’cause’ of climate change (burning fossil fuels, destruction of forests, industrial agriculture etc) are, in fact, symptoms.
Now, it’s certainly easier to keep describing the problems, and what can be done to ‘fight them’, and it’s harder and messier to have to change the complex systems that are producing them.
But we cannot resolve our intractable social and environmental problems by focusing on the problems themselves.
A system is a big black box
Of which we can’t unlock the locks,
And all we can find out about
Is what goes in and what comes out.
Perceiving input-output pairs,
Related by parameters,
Permits us, sometimes, to relate
An input, output and a state.
If this relation’s good and stable
Then to predict we may be able,
But if this fails us — heaven forbid!
We’ll be compelled to force the lid!
Kenneth Boulding, in ‘Thinking In Systems: A Primer’, by Donella Meadows
Successfully meeting sustainability challenges means we need to stop focusing on ‘reducing’ and ‘managing’ energy, emissions, water, waste and everything else (which are outcomes of how people live) and start looking our systems through a lens of design (not just physical design) and social innovation.
Ultimately, environmental organisations and programs are not really about ‘environment’ at all - they are social innovation, because they set out to create new patterns of behaviour among human beings in order to lessen our impacts on the ecological systems which sustain all life. And social innovation is a design process.
This approach might also help reach those groups for whom the the ‘green’ or ‘environmental’ frame is no longer working or for whom environmental or sustainability messages have never resonated, because design focuses on how to make life better rather than offering up a laundry list of problems to be ‘fixed’.
If we ‘open the black box’ and design systems and environments that enable us to live collaboratively, share more and consume less, we might just find that the trend lines start to reverse, and we won’t need to tackle ‘obesity’ or ‘waste’ or ‘saving water’ or ‘greenhouse emissions’ or ‘social breakdown’.
If we want to address symptoms, then we need to design new systems.
Design is the new ‘green’!
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