Systems Thinking

(I wrote this while flying home from Europe earlier this year, and just found it, unpublished, on my MacBook desktop. Note to self: organize desktop. I liked it enough that I figured it should see the light of day so am posting it now, months later.)

“To grasp climate change, you have to think in terms of species and their future. You have to think in terms of systems, not in terms of events. To know how things have already changed, you have to remember how they used to be…”

ThankYouThe Peace Palace, The Hague (photo credit: Vredes Paleis)

Several years ago, I was visiting a good friend whose family has had a house on the coast of Maine, hard up against the Atlantic, neighbors to Andrew Wyeth’s studio, for generations. We were ankle deep in basalt-grey tidal flats, hunting littlenecks and razors for that evening’s clambake. His children sprinted, ebullient, between sudden nano-geyers of seawater, spit skyward by tunneling clams, their shovels clanging like swords as they competed for the richest haul. My friend watched them with undisguised pleasure, and I could see the memories of his own childhood scud across his face. So I asked him what it was like when he was young.

I don’t remember much of the conversation, but what stuck with me was one comment: “When I was a child, there were so many birds here that when they rose into the morning, the marsh changed color. As we were driving up here yesterday, my son pointed out a flock of maybe 30 long-tailed ducks, and he remarked how beautiful it was to see so many birds. I hadn’t thought about how many there used to be until he said that, and when I told him what it was like driving past the marshy sea-grasses forty years ago, he didn’t believe me. He literally didn’t believe me. What has happened to the birds?”

Which brings me to an experience I had a few days in the Netherlands. I was in The Hague, moderating a panel at a conference held in the Peace Palace (as an aside, those guys really know how to build conference centers!), and my hotel was situated on the other side of the Scheveningse Bosjes, a 30 minute walk across a heavily wooded park in the center of the city.

What was remarkable was the amount of bird song. I’d be tempted to call it a full-on racket if it hadn’t been so damn melodious. It strikes me still, a week later, how full of birds and their songs the forest was. While walking through the forest, I tried to recall when I had last heard so many different birds at one time. In short, I couldn’t. Was it just this park? Or had my brain simply failed to store the memory of a world full of birds?

While in Paris a few days later, I read an article about birds being smashed by wind farm turbine blades, incinerated by the heat from solar thermal plants, broken when trying to land on solar panels. And we’ve all seen them; stories that question the environmental credentials of renewable energy because animals are being killed by the same technology that promises humans the ability to live the life we currently enjoy without the threat imposed by burning carbon-intensive fuels. A nearly irreconcilable conflict, full of contradictions, irony and uncomfortable trade-offs. Which is, in part, why climate change is so difficult to address rationally.

But what struck me then, and what strikes me still, is this: the hardest thing about climate change is that the cadence is nearly imperceptible to detect. 2015 will likely be the hottest year on record, but we can’t really experience that as a fact. Marsh birds disappear over the course of decades. Glaciers recede over the course of a lifetime. Humans are usually better at specifics than generalities, at sudden events rather than ongoing patterns, at the fate of a single sparrow rather than a species or its habitat. Our eyes miss so much.

To grasp climate change, we have to think in terms of species and their future. We have to think in terms of systems, not in terms of events. To know how things have already changed, we have to remember how they used to be. So we may not notice birds disappearing from the skies, or hotter weather or more extreme storms and forest fires. Or even if we do notice changes like this, we must be able to contextualize them, to patternize them (I just made up that word). We need to look past the sparrow and see the whole system that allows — or allowed — the birds to flourish. The swallows, the Chinook salmon, desert tortoises, manatees, moose and, well… us.

ThankYouA northern rough-winged swallow with scorched wings near the site of the Ivanpah Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert. (Credit: BrightSource Energy)

When a bird is incinerated while flying over the mirrors that drive solar thermal plants in the Mojave Desert, that is a newsworthy event. If enough of them die in a short enough time, it may even be headline-worthy. But a tidal marsh on the coast of Maine that is emptied of waterfowl over the course of a generation is un-newsworthy. Even to the people who live there, it may be unremarkable. There are precious few ways to bring the abstract consequences of habitat loss into the concrete world of the day-to-day. And even when the abstract is transformed into the concrete, the systems that intersect to create that transformation are so complex, so relentless and so intertwined with All That Is Human that we are tempted to simply avert our eyes… and our memories.

The truth is that alternative and renewable energy kills animals. The truth is that burning fossil fuels kills more. And the truth is that man’s activities kill even more (riffing for a moment on this theme, I recently read “The Sixth Extinction”, one of the more lyrical yet relentlessly depressing books I’ve ever completed. If you are of any doubt that we have entered the Anthropocene, I encourage you to read it.)

As a recent New York Times reporter wrote, “Climate change is everything, a story and a calamity bigger than any other. It’s the whole planet for the whole foreseeable future, the entire atmosphere, all the oceans, the poles; it’s weather and crop failure and famine and tropical diseases heading north and desertification and the uncertain fate of a great majority of species on earth.”

All of which is a long lead-up to the idea that we simply have to try everything at our disposal to bend the narrative arc of our relationship with our own habitat.

Regardless of man’s activities. Regardless of what the future may or may not bring. Regardless of one’s perspective on climate change. Regardless of potentially negative consequences like killing birds. The reality is that we have already contributed to a degradation of our natural environment that is so profound that our children have zero hope of experiencing our world as we did. And we won’t know what works until we commit. All in. Fail forward. Try it all. For, until we invest enough capital and creativity and innovation into every single option that promises the chance for a different trajectory into our shared future, we will simply be accepting a future that, candidly, I don’t want.

Yes, there will be an enormous amount of failure. And, yes, a great deal of money will be invested (and lost), much of which will be seen in hindsight as an “inefficient allocation of capital”. And, yes, virtually anything we do will injure our natural environment. We are, after all, humans, and we extract the stuff we need to support our lives. But we must try. We simply must. And I, for one, am incredibly excited about the notion that we can invest for solutions, and to let those solutions be the manifestation of our willingness to fight for the world we want our children to inherit.

For if we aren’t willing to fight – if we aren’t willing to engage what might be the biggest systematic challenge the human race may ever face with our sharpest, deepest most effective systemic thinking – our only option is to buy a Hummer, fill up the tank and go for a nice long road trip…

Yellowstone, anyone?

Flying across an ocean as I type in a demonstration of absolutely breath-taking hypocrisy,

Matthew