Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 11, No. 10, October 2015
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Viewing Trees and Woods:
Connecting Dots, Links, Sectors, and Frames

Heiner Benking and Rob Wheeler

October 2015

This article is about ways to outline and represent the SDG goals and ways to communicate and achieve them (click to view the banner)
Links to more information: 2000-2015 MDGs, 2015-2030 SDGs, FOCUS AREAS

This article proposes a critically important perspective on the Environmental Situation of the world as seen from a distance. It could be perhaps considered as a macroscopic interpretation of the “Global Problematique” [1] as it has been studied now for more than 50 years. The article will revisit past approaches, earlier and present mindsets, and presentation and representation formats; and then suggests that a broader, deeper and more systemic, global [2] approach is both feasible and very much needed.

When one sets about to agree on goals like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to be able to discuss directions and priorities for implementing them is a necessary step. There is no doubt about it. The world community has struggled for the past 15 years to tackle the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and now is “starting afresh” once again unfortunately, instead of settling on sound and lasting concerted actions.

The first answers for the reasons we are starting over again would include that not all stakeholders were challenged by the MDGs, for example there were no ambitious goals for the “developed world”, too many things had been left out before, the statistical base is not sound enough for the next efforts and decades, or that there is no coherent map, only arbitrary agreement in long international negotiations without sound attempts to make sure that “blind spots” are identified and avoided.

An example of such a systemic - built in - error is that the international research and activity agenda has left aside many aspects of “soil” [3] as an integral essential factor and segment in the work after Rio 1992; there is not enough focus on either root causes nor on interdependencies; and important cultural and other underpinnings are left out when we address only 3 pillars - economic, ecologic and social. Dr. Noel Brown, the former Director of UNEP-RONA stated repeatedly that for him the principal outcome of the Rio '92 process was the work on “Common Frames of References.” [4]

A current Special Envoy with the United Nations, and the Deputy Chair of The Elders, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, after Stockholm 1972 and Rio 1992, in her role as the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), looked at the “health-sector as a starting point”, as a chance to integrate sectors and come to viable and lasting solutions for “Man/Humankind and the Environment”. But this did not succeed as a nexus along and across sectors, and scales are still seldom included in our policies and global programmes, beside the ubiquitous competition for funds and influences. Maybe after health and nowadays climate, maybe soon “soil”, “water” or “security” are the central nexus on the international agenda. But is this the solution, to jump from one “central issue to the next paradigmatic “turn?” [5] This would alienate and disturb the public, continue to widespread perplexed views on the complexity and dynamics at hand, and make us widen the gaps between the high expectations and objectives and their realizations. Such a fragmented approach is obviously not a sound strategy for going forward.

Nowadays it seems to be fashionable to speak about “systemic” and “holistic” approaches, but little is done beyond emphatically mentioning the needs, while still hiding behind words about what a “holistic mindset” might really means.

We would be remiss if we don't mention the great work of the Open Working Group (OWG) towards integration. A matrix of interlinkages has been on the way through the SDG process. Indeed, such connections have NOT been ignored by governments, and this effort to bring in and continue to focus on such interlinkages ought to be mentioned and highlighted in calling on our governments to continue to do so. But we feel this process needs not only to be supported and intensified, but there should also be a focus on the quality of the interlinkages, proportions and consequences involved. To support this we feel it is advisable to not only check technological and media means, but concepts and preparatory work done in the “dark days before the internet” - when (re)searchers were still closer to living processes and the links between analysis and synthesis were more easily observed in daily life.

From Complexity to Perplexity? - lost in “Spaces”?

Let us take a break here for a moment and reflect on what is going on and what might be on the way besides all the good will in the field of science and policy.

Why are we really creating such categories and silos, hierarchical trees, or linear cues of goals and issues without defining and translating and linking multiple frames to check coherence and completeness? And why do we treat all issues as equal and separate, ignoring the interconnectedness and deep roots and drivers involved? [6] Maybe such prevailing approaches are not fully ingrained in our mindset and representations. [7] Are we ill-equipped for exploding Problem Spaces with no appropriate “Solution Spaces” at hand/in mind? Do we really need to “order” by filling “boxes”, having “drawers” for faculties, sectors, goals, challenges, problems, …? Is avoiding and ignoring underlying deeper problems not part of the central constraints we have to face? And why do we avoid linking co-existing schemas, frames or grids when it is not possible to hold the dimensions and factors in a single “grid”, even when only roughly in an “overview” mode?

Mind bugs and Clan thinking

We are questioning here very basic issues in our communications. Shouldn't we have a map and directions, instead of working on isolated directions or goals, keeping our terms, concepts, values out of context, disembodied and sterile? Shouldn't we keep an extra eye on the situations, cultures, media and representations involved?

Are such prevailing, just outlined approaches part of our societal or civilizational “mind bugs” or “mind boggles”? Are we necessarily always stuck in our terminologies and approaches, our “clan think” and “group think”, wired into technological solutions or “quick-fixes” which seem to be opportune to help us avoid deeper questions and uncomfortable answers? A recent systems thinking inquiry have explored such aberrations and how to keep them in check in modern cybersystemic governance strategies. [8]

Fortunately, there has been also quite a bit of interest in interlinkages between various issue areas recently. For example in the run up to the 2012 Earth Summit Conference a NEXUS conference was held to look at the interlinkages between Water, Energy and Food Security that was very well attended by both governments and the international community. Since then additional conferences have been held and programs launched all looking at such inter-connections and dependencies. As was stated in the conference materials, "There is no place in an interlinked world for isolated solutions aimed at just one sector. If the world is going to reduce hunger and eradicate poverty, achieving security for water, energy and food is critical. The NEXUS perspective is central to creating a Green Economy and to achieving the sustainability development goals; and it raises awareness that more systemic thinking is needed." [9]

However, when questioning negotiators in the process around the Open Working Group (OWG) and the High Level Segments in the SDG process, lip service was given, as it was in the past with the MDGs, that with the SDGs “integrated solutions should also be encouraged and promoted”. But we are all aware that this is not easy to measure, compare and evaluate and, as we all know, quick fixes for single issues and undercomplex solutions are usually favoured and besides, more easily communicated to the public. We applaud the direction and insight to strive for integrated approaches but feel when looking back at earlier approaches as mentioned, and also at past efforts to harmonize environmental information of the international community [10] and at multi-lingual, sign-system integrating representations [11] that they all should be revisited, while devising future strategies.

Instead, the answers that we received from high level negotiators promise that reviews of the SDGs and implementation efforts will be the next steps without clear procedures, means, and ends. Comprehensive high-level reviews of the process are necessary, but is this enough so early in the process? And when could we start establishing deep-drivers between root-causes [12], and making use of the obvious and established interlinkages that occur among different issues and goals? Can we wait and continue “as usual” when we realize that there are built-in “bugs” in our procedures and mindsets, and that some approaches considered today might be “one-eyed” and flat? [13]

It is certain that there is much need to agree on goals, like it is important to agree on directions and frames. But how about also linking goals collectively? [14] It is obvious that one cannot go into various directions all at the same time as a single person and it is critical which way we go, as every step can make all the difference; but goals are objectives that you want to achieve collectively so the actions can and should support and reinforce each other.

Acting towards the achievement of one goal can at the same time either be very supportive or quite detrimental for the achievement of other goals. This is obvious in real life, but for research and management there are high obstacles as projects have to be monitored. But such comparable bottom-lines only work in one system with the same standardized measures, units and terminologies. This urge for compatibility is understandable in the world of administration, but science has to be independent; has to critically review its reasoning and co-operating; and any “Sectarianism of Science” [15] should be carefully kept in check.

Walking the Talk, down to Earth and beyond Turns and Turfs

We can look for example at efforts in reforestation and environmental restoration which tend to restore and safeguard both watersheds and biodiversity at the same time, while also providing access to clean water. The trees then provide mulch, firewood, building materials, food, fuel, shelter, shade and protection to crops (all urgently needed in dry and desertified areas). They also protect and restore soil health, provide medicinal herbs, restore beauty and help us to re-connect with nature.

These same trees can then sequester carbon, while fixing nitrogen and creating micro-climates, etc. While clear cutting forests can have the opposite effect leading to drought, loss of soil health and productivity, and desertification.

We have been looking into approaches which are beneficial for the goals along and across many sectors. In a footnote we mention traditional and/or innovative approaches to pragmatically beneficial outcomes across various sectors and along and across scales. [16] This can only be one element for a growing repository of solutions already kept in various collections worldwide. It is a must to harness such integral “Winning Solutions” to contribute significantly to meet the now agreed SDGs intelligently and lastingly.

Centers, Measures and Directions without Frames and Orders?

The main avenue we are taking here is to look not only into “lumping versus splintering” but into how to find “smart-intelligent” socially and culturally compatible lasting solutions: “many wins” solutions – ways to serve many “Blue-Green” approaches – and more so to look into the critical points of where to “intervene in systems”. This is what Donella Meadows called “leverage points”, smart actions that not only address goals but also actions that will trigger and help resolve other issues, goals, problems, and challenges, etc… and strengthen each other by solving root-causes first.

This search and urge is as old as mankind. It is obvious when “wise” people or a mother finds a peacemaking solution - leaving the confines of our gated thinking and living; but how can we do this without taking in the positions and meanings of “others” and this along and across sectors, scales, cultures, and times?

For the past twenty years, various countries have organized national sustainability councils and have developed and begun to implement national sustainable development strategy plans. The best of these have developed and used an integrated, multi-sectoral approach to development. Under the Clinton Administration in the United States, an excellent model was developed that unfortunately was never fully implemented. However, the model shows what could be done in pretty much any UN Member State. This President's Council on Sustainable Development was established that included Cabinet Officials, key business leaders, and the heads of leading civil society organizations. Under this Council, eight multi-stakeholder Task Forces were set up which drafted recommendations and reports on such topics as Climate Change, Environmental Management, Education, and Metropolitan and Rural Strategies for Sustainable Communities. Federal Interagency Working Groups were also established to address such issues using a collaborative approach such as: Education for Sustainability, Material and Energy Flows and the development of Sustainable Development Indicators.

The Council also supported efforts to replicate this collaborative approach at the local and regional level; and began to create Regional Councils to address sustainable development in an integrated manner closer to where it needs to be implemented. The Council, working in partnership with the federal government along with the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Association of Counties, created a "Joint Center for Sustainable Communities" which supported the development and implementation of regional and multi-stakeholder strategies, shared success stories and provided peer-to-peer learning. [17] So indeed the work already done is available and promising.

An ADDITIONAL Big Picture approach needed?

To really look at a comprehensive map, instead of single compartments and issue areas, is an endeavor that has long been suggested and practiced. The United Nations University (UNU) and Union of International Associations (UIA), during the first Earth Summit preparatory process in the early 70s, proposed to use a grid with the “intersectoral strategic dilemma in environmental negotiations” [18] but not many in science and policy seemed to be interested in having more comprehensive and coherent schemas.

Perhaps this is changing now. Maybe we should revisit an old display and built “System Earth” [19] model created for the GLOBAL CHANGE exhibition (1990) in Germany. We have for a while known that we can same as objects outline themes [20] in Venn Diagrams. Why not then show how compartments, sectors, and goals can connect, overlap and relate?

The Wisdom of the People or the Noise of a Swarm of Chaos out of Context?

One last point is how we deliberate, go to deep drivers, check meaning and how actions cause and impact/inflict each other. We are talking here about Requisite Requirements for Deliberations and the needed context and embodiment. Here to mention is the work of Hasan Oezbekhan, Erich Jantsch, Alexander Christakis in the 60ies, but also how it evolved with scholars and system scientists like John Warfield. Oezbekhan with Christakis have done, based on the work of the reports Predicament of Mankind and Problematique, an inquiry in 1993 using this method of Structured Dialogic Design to revisit after 20 years the original 49 Continuous Critical Problems (CCPs) [21] of the Club of Rome report. More recently Reynaldo Treviño Cisneros made a similar exercise of linking the Millennium Project Global Challenges [22], or Yiannis Laouris from Future Worlds Center for example with European youth revisiting the MDGs [23], or prioritizing projects for funding strategies/priorities for European Research Projects [24] or North American Indians or Maori with their Peace making efforts (AIO and AMO). [25] And last but not least to mention is the Global Commons Action Alliance/Common Cluster [26] within UN-ECOSOC which condense recommendations in the UN-system periodically. In summary, all these efforts look like desperate and seemingly isolated and underfunded efforts, which we feel that they need some more attention in the science and policy arena.

Engineering blueprints AND architectural designs needed

We feel that at this stage and in the required “harmonized” macroscopic, multi-modal, “overview” mode the requested “engineering blueprints” cannot be delivered and for alternative, “architectural designs” only a rough Gestalt/Design can be delivered. Such a coarse general layout might help to share bigger pictures, without ignoring and celebrating the very details, because we should not forget: “all Life is local”.


[1] Global Problematique: Problematique and the Club of Rome, Ken Bausch, Institute for 21st Century Agoras.

[2] The Glocal and Global Studies, GLOCALIZATIONS 2015, Victor Roudometof (2015), Taylor & Francis 2015.

[3] Global Soil Week, Bridging Knowledge. Empowering Transformation.

[4] Proposing a Conceptual Superstructure: Work-Report of a Vision to explore issue-scapes like virtual landscapes by making use of Surveyors' abilities and Views, Heiner Benking, FIG XX Congress, Melbourne 1994.

[5] Presently the digital and ontological “turn” is widely discussed around new media and Higher Education, Check regarding the Digital Turn. Wake-up Call: What is the next Turn?, Berlin, September 2015. It was also discussed at the International Society of Knowledge Organization (ISKO) in Granada 2004: What do we need? Where do we want to go? - A Linguistic Turn? An Iconic Turn? or a Pragmatic Spin? - The construction and ethics of shared frames of references, in Ethics in Knowledge Representation and Organization, in: Knowledge Representation and Organization for the 21stCentury: Integration of Knowledge across Boundaries" The Seventh International ISKO Conference, Granada, Spain, 10-13 July 2002.

[6] The nested hierarchy of multilevel, subsidiary governance systems may look like a ‘tree’, however, if you look at the interaction matrix you will realize that everything is related to everything else. Check for more on this in the Handbook of the Council on Global Issues, Helmut Burkhart, Julia Morton-Marr, see Annex I and International Council for Science - CODATA- Committee on Data for Science and Technology ICSU-CODATA Conferences, for example Chambery 1994, A Conceptual Superstructure of Knowledge - Quality and Content in Organisation, Management and Awareness, Heiner Benking, W.D. Grossmann, and more recently: Heinrich Herre, Heiner Benking, Formal Ontology and Principles and Prospects of Knowledge Organisation: An Axiomatic Approach. In: Ohly: Wissen - Wissenschaft - Organisation. Würzburg: Ergon Verlag 2013.

[7] There were sessions by the Nobel Peace Laureats looking into the needs for “New Sciences, new Languages, new Thinking” and in Anthropology the question of Representation for more than 30 years, but we believe in international science and politics that one set of signs is enough.

[8] GOVERNING THE ANTHROPOCENE: CYBER-SYSTEMIC POSSIBILITIES?, Herrenhausen Palace, Hannover, Germany, July 30-31, 2015 - Programme for a Systemic Inquiry. Publication in progress. Check: Heiner Benking. Revisiting, Reframing and Rescaling an embodied „Problematique“ and Covenant.- Reflections and Learnings about Systems, Models, Frames, Signs, Media, Representations (like Scaffoldings), Boundaries, Scales, Languages and Mindsets, and this report: Governing the Anthropocene!? Cyber-Systemic Possibilities?

[9] See: Water, Energy, and Food Security, NEXUS, 21 August 2015.

[10] See UN AMR 2008: e–DISCUSSION ON ACHIEVING SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: "Implementing the internationally agreed goals and commitments in regard to sustainable development", summarized and expanded in the recommendations for Letter to HofS, UN Ambassadors, Secretariat, by the UN ECOSOC Commons Alliance, September 2014.

[11] Multimedia, Where do we go from here?, International CODATA Symposium on Multimedia in Science and Technology, ICSU-CODATA – MIST 2005, Using Maps and Models, SuperSigns and SuperStructures, Heiner Benking, Berlin 2005.

[12] See Structured Dialogic Design (SDD) as described in: A SOCIAL SYSTEMS APPROACH FOR GLOBAL PROBLEMS. 21st Century Agoras Monograph Series. Volume One: Strategic articulation of actions to cope with the huge challenges of our world today and A Platform for reflection Collecting, Framing, Negotiating, and Connecting in Times of a GLocal “Problematique”, A HOLISTIC APPROACH TO COPE WITH GLOBAL CHALLENGES, Heiner Benking, Reynaldo Treviño Cisneros, Bethania Arango Hisijara, Cambridge Scholar Publishing, ISBN: 978-960 86383-8-9. See also: 21st Century Agora.

[13] WORLDVIEW and VIEW OF LIFE is “too flat.” XIII World Conference of World Futures Studies Federation, WFSF 1993, COHERENCE AND CHAOS IN OUR UNCOMMON FUTURES, Visions, Means, Actions, Poster and Sessions and Workshops, Turku, Finland, August 23-27, 1993.

[14] How People Harness Their Collective Wisdom and Power to Construct the Future in Co-laboratories of Democracy, Alexander N. Christakis, Kenneth C. Bausch Christakis, and The Talking Point: Creating an Environment for Exploring Complex Meaning, Tom Flanagan, Alexander N. Christakis, Global Agoras.

[15] See: Ignorance or Compassion? Limits and potentials of human concepts, maps and models with regard to nature, Mother Pelican ~ A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability, Pelican Web, A Journal of Sustainable Human Development, Vol. 7, No. 5, May 2011; Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor; and To See with Other Eyes - The “World House” links realities, Hagia Chora - 5-2005 and Towards a Nre and Health - EMBODYING, HARMONIZING, and SHARING NEW SPACES - Sharing Commons in an Embodied Covenant - Bringing together cultural expressions, sign systems, perspectives and positionalities (PDF), Humboldt University, International Renaissance 3, Harmonising Spirituality, Nature, Scientific, and Medical Network, 2009.

[16] Exemplary projects for such winning, overarching solution include projects linking the following sectors: Terra Preta/Biochar, Ecology, Development, Ecology, Housing and Agriculture, … ReefFormers: Oceans, Food, Health, Work, Infrastructure, Agriculture, … Ecologic Housing and Cooking, Health, Gardening, Mangroves and Forrest protection, Habitat Preservation. Examples should grow into “living collection of BLUE-GREEN solution.

[17] See: President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD).

[18] Configuring Globally and Contending Locally: shaping the global network of local bargains by decoding and mapping Earth Summit inter-sectoral issues, also available in PDF format, 1992. See also: Encyclopedia of World Problems, Union of International Associations.

[19] See Mother Pelican Vol. 7, No. 5, May 2011, Figure 1 - Cognitive Panorama, and how a Cognitive Panorama might help us to see from different positions, perspectives and in different frames and help negotiate observations and check their representation. For the Global Change exhibition and its revisit after 25 years in July 2015, see “Wunderkammern revisited?” publications, forthcoming: Wunderkammern Action & 25th GLocal Change before the Chancellery.

[20] As a prerequisite to understanding such visualisation/diagrams we have to consider drawing thematic maps and building thematic models. See for example the general diagram of mankinds’s place in the global ecosystem using a VENN diagram subdivided as proposed by E. EDWARDS (1989) as taken from the International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics, The intersections represent specific fields of inquiry. For example: A: Atmosphere, G: Geosphere, H: Hydrosphere, E: Energy, - EH is for example hydrodynamics. Any subset can be subdivided according to more particular necessity (A…A1, A2… An) Mankind and smaller human groups interact with any environmental subset. EHAG represents the most global dynamic and integrated ecosystem. Different and much more complex representations are possible as for example DOXIADIS’ ekistics or BENKING’s eco-cube. More about this can be found in “Pointers to Possibilities” by Anthony Judge.


[22] See footnote 12.

[23] TeachMDGs by Future Worlds Center, Nikosia.

[24] CARDIAC-EU and the CARDIAC-EU Publications and Reports. See also footnote 20, Future Worlds Center. For more about Notes 20-21, see also EARTH FOCUS FOUNDATION, Geneva, 2011, From Global Concepts to Local Actions, "A Democratic Approach to Sustainable Futures" and the "Digital Peters, Heiner Benking, 17 October 2011.

[25] See Structured Dialogic Design used in traditional peacemaking and deliberation project: Facilitating Change, Indigenous Leaders Interactive System (ILIS), Americans for Indian Opportunity(AIO) and Advancement of Maori Opportunity (AMO)

[26] See: Commons Clusters for the United Nations.


Heiner Benking is part of the Commons Alliance within UN-ECOSOC and served in international development since 1977 and environmental programme projects since 1998. He served Dr. Noel Brown, director of UNEP-RONA and in the UNEP-HEM harmonization project and was later around before and after Rio. He is a trained technician and engineer and studied geosciences at the University Hamburg. He worked in management, marketing and strategy, later data-management consultancies, and in the 80s in sales and marketing of the founding computer-graphics indutry (vector- and rastergraphics). He holds verious positions in NGO's in the youth and educational sector worldwide, is associate of the Global Agoras in the field of deliberation, peacemaking, and multi-track diplomacy, works for an Institute for Sustainability in Education, Work and Culture. He established youth media agencies and works as a journalist and blogger, is still curator of the Global Change exhibition from 1990, and lives now in Berlin.

Rob Wheeler has represented several organizations at the United Nations for the past 18 years including the Commons Cluster, US Citizens Network for Sustainable Development, Association of World Citizens, the Global Ecovillage Network, and the World Alliance to Transform the UN. He has participated actively in the UN's Commission on Sustainable Development during this time. Mr. Wheeler developed and organized a Sustainable Community Campaign in Santa Cruz, California for five years in the 1990s; was the primary civil society representative on the UN's Initiative on Access to Basic Services for All; and served on the Executive Committee for the UN's Millennium NGO Forum. He served for many years on the K-12 Task Force of the US Partnership on Education for Sustainable Development, and has been an environmental, peace and political activist and organizer for more than 45 years. He is a foremost advocate for an integrated, multi-sectoral community based approach to rural and impoverished urban development.

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