2008/07/15 09:50 Jon Foley, "Sustainability and Global Environment: Living on a Shrinking Planet: Challenges and Opportunities"

ISSS Madison 2008, 52nd Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences

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Gary Metcalf, introduction

Steve Carpenter, research into inland water

  • Center for Sustainability and Global Environment
  • Computer models, satellite
  • Large scale ecosystem, patterns of land use


Systems that can make a difference

  • What can we learn from systems thinking?

Shrinking planet

  • We're getting bigger
  • We've now mapped every corner of the world, and we're using all of it

Not only a growing population, but a growing force:  technological

Combination of population growth, where between 1950 and 2000 population had double

  • Goods and servies have grown seven-fold
  • Pressure on natural resources:  food, water, agriculture
  • Food consumption tripled
  • Energy use, fossil fuel as increased four-fold

How do we use land?

  • Land deforested, will become cattle grazing
  • Pressure on rainforest isn't beef, it's soybeans
  • Mad cow mean vegetable proteins, although a lot to feed beef
  • Amazon looks more like Iowa
  • Connections growing


  • Fastest growing city is Las Vegas
  • Green is irrigated lawns, growing rapidly
  • Not only issue of land use, but water use

Most land is for agriculture

  • Use 3 million km2 in cities, c.f. 18 million km2 in cropland (the size of south America), and 30 million km2 of pastures
  • This is 40% of all of the land on the earth
  • Greatest change in biosphere, more than climate change

Water use

  • Photo out of plane:  fields of iceberg lettuce growing in the desert
  • Using water in places that don't have excess water

Colorado River flow regime, doesn't even flow into ocean any more

Poster child of problem:  Aral Sea

  • Once one of largest inland sees in the world
  • 1950s and 1960s, Russians diverted water, as feeds from snow melt into sea
  • Today, have lost about 70% of the land, and more in volume
  • Indigenous fish are now extinct
  • Channels carved into dessert to try to keep ships from the shorelind

About 50% of the water on the earth's surface is being used

  • Not just quantity of water, it's quality

Use of atmosphere

  • Troposhere is 10km wide, 6 miles, less than the New York subway
  • Combustion of fuels, are changing the composition of the atmosphere

It's a serious issue

  • Muir Glacier in Alaska becoming Muir Lake
  • Rock has become a deciduous forest

Traditional disciplinary science, have test tube problem, e.g. global warming is happening, and nothing more

  • But in other test tubes, have tropical deforestation, overdrafting water suppliers, pollution
  • All happening at the same time, and don't have scenarios
  • Interesting stuff is in the complex behaviours

Scale problem

  • Problems are massive
  • Planet changing, not Love Canal
  • Could have catastrophic results -- and I'm an optimist
  • Trillions of dollars

It's human problem:  dilemma

  • Impacts on human health
  • How does climate change affect human health?
  • Cartogram, stretching out the world, on the biggest polluters:  U.S., Europe, China
  • Earth is already 1 degree warmer
  • In may places of the world, when temperature goes up, deaths go up
  • Water-borne, food-borne, bug-borne
  • 1 degree temperature change causing deaths mostly in Africa and South Asia, lowest estimate is 150,000 extra deaths per year, equivalent to dropping a nuclear bomb on Madison every year

This is a world nobody wants

  • It impacts the people least able to respond:   the poor
  • Impacts on global economy and national security

We're running out of time

  • Lags:  chemistry is easy
  • Carbon dioxide stays there for 110 years
  • Then heat takes time to build up, 30 to 50 years
  • Today, we're catching up to pollution from 1948
  • If we started burning coal tomorrow, climate would warm for the next 30 to 50 years

Other lags

  • We can't stop on a dime
  • We have a narrow window to prevent catastrophic change, if climate thing is the only thing we're worried about, and there's more to worry about
  • We have the next decade or two to steer the ship

Long lag times, poor information on state of system, poential for overshoot and collapse

Optimist:  can find solutions

Solutions informed by systems thinking

How do we think about our stuff?  It's not population so much, but use of resources

  • Rich want to be richer, while population is slowing down

Coolest thing you own, but if you put it into a vault it's not help

  • It's about services
  • Efficient provision of services, e.g. water heaters, showers, flush toilets

In nature, vast opportunities

  • e.g. put phosphorous into the system, and it gets reused more often
  • There's no waste in ecosystems, just food for something else
  • It's a room temperature, with renewable energy
  • Lots of biomimicry opportunities

Hidden economy:

  • We externalize a lot in hidden books
  • Human rights, child slavery, economy needs to learn from us
  • Economics needs to change:  ecosystem goods and services
  • Pollinating bees, forests
  • Buying and selling commodities
  • Emerging carbon markets
  • Provision of water as a service

Emerging field of social networks

  • Cool way to enhance collaboration
  • Map of the Internet:  the whole 6 degrees of separation
  • Scale-free networks, huge connections
  • Emergent communication abilities
  • Wikis, myspace, facebook:  use it for something more than dating
  • Organic use of Google maps, Google earth, e.g. people tracking the flow of avian flu, faster than people at WHO could

Optimistic:  Lessons of systems dynamics would give us the opportunity to change the future

It's not just the science, need to develop morals

  • Will impact the future of humanities
  • We've inherited this moment in history:  a gift and a curse
  • Have to make a choice between who we are, and who we could be

Plea for help

  • Have learned a lot from system dynamics and systems thinking
  • Would like to get help from out networks


Live on a barrier island on Long Beach.  See people outside of academia, who have vested interests, have no contact or awareness of what's going on.  Go to a soccer match, look at the parking lot, more than 50% of vehicles is SUVs, a signal that people are disconnected, because politician respond to where people's heads are.  How do we get education, and people concerned.

  • Big question, how to mobilize people to do the right thing
  • Don't know how to do it
  • Don't think answer is going to come from Washington
  • Interested in cultural influentials, media
  • Capture our imagination
  • Have seen this in civil rights movement, with a few people sharing a vision
  • Leadership:  where will we find it?  Maybe more from this room than elected officials

You need us.  Depressing that you're an unusual person to say that.  Experience as systems thinker, gets marginized all of the time.  Kenneth Boulding review that he had lost interest in economics.  

  • Take it as a compliment if traditional academia says I don't understand what you do.
  • Out of the box, at the cutting edge.

Historical perspective.  In the 1950s, International Geophysical Year, that started a lot of investigations, created 50 data centers.  Since then, other geophysical programs, and global biological programs, none which have done anything similar.  Nothing near the funding.  Funding towards physical studies.  Physical studies, we had precise measures.  IGY inaugurated because of instrumentation.  What is the hope of shifting the paradigm?  We don't have the mindset to allow the world view.

  • We're eroding our capacity to observe our world
  • Troubled, losing infrastructure, and we need to expand it
  • We're measuring the wrong stuff:  flows rather than stocks, e.g. fish left in the sea, or oil production rather than oil left
  • Not even getting to human side, understanding cultural norms
  • Game-changing, we're not keeping track, concerned
  • But at the same time, we have better ways to communicate and collaborate

At Saybrook, trying to support these efforts.  As we're talking to leaders of public agencies (water boards, air control boards, toxic substance), finding that they're faced with a huge agenda of water change, but they don't know how to collaborate well.

Global effects, not tied down to any community or any particular problem.  We don't get involved with normal people, as not making sense to them.  Need to break this down, put it on the ground, and do thousands of workshops, so that they can tell the experts what to do.

  • Individuals will have a wisdom that experts don't