To achieve a sustainable future, the world clearly has two priorities that must come before all others. The first is to ensure that all citizens have access to the means of satisfying their basic needs. The second is to evolve practices that bring the environmental resource base on which their lives and future integrally depend, back to its full health and potential productivity. To achieve these two primary goals requires urgent action on two fronts. We must immediately get the public, governments and the international community to commit to:
- Efficiency, as the primary means of reducing the pressure on natural resources, particularly by reducing waste.
- Sufficiency, as the accepted goal to ensure that all citizens have access to enough resources for a decent life without transgressing the planetary limits.
With today’s production systems, whether industrial or agricultural, there are very large opportunities for raising efficiency. From simple housekeeping or technological measures to logistical and systemic ones, great increases in efficiency can be obtained at very little marginal cost to enable producers and consumers to get much more with much less. Resource efficiency, which is related to resource productivity is a self-evident ‘good’, delivering ‘win-win’ outcomes for the economy, society and the environment.
The need for sufficiency (‘raising the floor’, ‘at least enough for survival’) at the lower end of the economy where the poor and marginalised live is self-evident for any society that aims to be socially just.
The Obstacles: Objectives Too Narrow, Time Horizons Too Short
Policy makers who wish to deal with these difficult choices are confronted by factors that further obfuscate their decisions: growing complexity, rapid change and significant uncertainty in the system – political, social, economic or technological – that they must deal with daily. Often the short-term takes inordinate precedence over longer time horizons (which are themselves shortening by the day).
Adopting leaded petrol for automobile efficiency, Freons (CFCs) for air conditioners and foams, DDT for malaria control were all well-intentioned policies, which led to unintended consequences that were so negative that use of these ‘miracle’ substances is no longer permissible. The promise of plastics has led to the mass murder of marine life and widespread deterioration of terrestrial ecosystems, making it another material headed for oblivion. The convenience of fossil fuel use has led to the ultimate threat to life on Earth – Global Warming.
The introduction of the ‘Green Revolution’ in the mid-1960s enabled Punjab and other states in India to literally save the nation from starvation, but within 50 years, it has left these states with poisoned soils and water bodies, loss of soil fertility and declining crop productivity, explosion of cancer and other diseases, rampant unemployment and drug use and a general breakdown of social systems.
Every day, we see the conflict between different sets of otherwise desirable social objectives where policies designed to solve immediate problems end up creating bigger problems later. Free electricity for farmers leading to over-irrigation and unnecessary contamination of aquifers; building of ill-planned overpasses leading to even greater traffic congestion; promotion of biofuels leading to competition with food crops, irrigation water and forests – these are all common examples of counter-intuitive and countervailing impacts of well-intentioned but narrowly conceived decisions.
Could any of these unintended outcomes have been avoided? Given the complexity of human and social systems and the inadequate state of scientific knowledge, perhaps not all. However, it is becoming clear that we need better tools to minimise such mistakes in the future. Such tools are in their infancy but becoming more available because of academic research and some corporate application.
Redefining Progress: Beyond GDP and Growth
Despite several decades of advocacy for alternative economic models, global and most national economies are still ruled by a virtual total reliance on the paradigms of GDP and economic growth. All measurement, analysis, tracking and subsequent communication is based on the flawed and highly limited index of gross production and the bulk of subsequent policy formulation is aimed at how to accelerate its growth.
Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that even fundamental issues such as growth of joblessness, resource depletion, environmental destruction or community vulnerability hardly figure in national policies.
Policies to promote GDP growth tend automatically to focus the minds of policy makers on increasing investments and providing incentives to industry, urban and other infrastructure, mining and resource extraction – implicitly promoting increased resource use and producing more waste and pollution i.e. encouraging more of the ‘bads’ that actually need to be reduced.
Globalisation in the sense of international economic integration has brought with it many goods and bads of its own. Growing trade, transfer of technology, movement of skilled professionals and the exchange of knowledge have all contributed to improving the lives of people in many countries. At the same time, rising inequity, lopsided accumulation of wealth and the concentration of economic and political power that comes with it, has now started to limit how much integration will be tolerated, either by the poor or the rich.
Mechanisation and digitalisation, including robotics, artificial intelligence while delivering great improvements in lives and opportunities are now threatening jobs, making it necessary to question the future of work and accelerating the need for alternative sources of taxation.
The major guzzlers of material resources are construction, infrastructure, transportation, industry and energy production. Together, these account for the bulk of the major raw materials used in the economy: steel, cement, aluminium, copper, sand, clay, etc. Agriculture is a major consumer of fresh water, energy, phosphorous, and other minerals. It has now become apparent that the goods and services provided by these sectors could with improved technologies and logistical systems, be provided with far lower inputs than they do at present, thus resulting in far less geophysical damage and also producing much fewer wastes and pollution. The cumulative impact of doing so on maintaining biodiversity is a huge additional bonus.
Thus, while GDP and other conventional indicators of economic progress will no doubt continue to be important inputs for decision-making, we now also need to incorporate measures of other social and environmental outcomes of economic activities to obtain a better understanding of what is the degree of genuine human progress. This, science, often termed ‘full-cost accounting’ is still in its infancy and needs to be rapidly advanced if costly, possibly irreversible changes in the biosphere that sustains us are to be avoided.
Cure or Prevention?
Despite received wisdom, we continue to think of implementing end-of-pipe solutions rather than mitigating causal factors.
Systems thinking provides policy makers the framework and a toolkit to understand seemingly disconnected effects of actions; and why for example, solutions in the short term (such as focusing only on cash crops) in later years exacerbate the very problems (farmers’ financial security) they were designed to solve. We urgently need to strengthen our nation’s ability to build the skills of our policy makers, planners and programme implementation personnel. In summary,
- Deep linkages exist across sectors, geographies, social and institutional systems.
- Ignoring these inter-linkages leads to outcomes that diminish the value of development interventions.
- Frameworks for policies, laws and regulations and implementation processes must be designed to generate synergies among these components, minimise trade-offs and reinforce sustainability.
- A systems view is essential for promoting resource and energy efficiencies, healthy local economies and equitable and fulfilled societies over the long term.
- To achieve this, requires a paradigm shift in mental maps of our development planners and implementers, which needs Systems Thinking Skills Systems Modelling Ability.
The new paradigm thinking that is based on Systems Thinking for Sustainable Development compels users to seek direct-indirect, spatial, temporal, sectoral and hierarchical linkages in policy strategies and solutions. It widens perspectives and induces decision makers to look critically at the indicators of development beyond the traditional economic and growth measures of GDP. These are the areas that the Development Alternatives Group seeks to explore and implement.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Ashok Khosla is Chairman of the Development Alternatives Group, a consortium of social enterprises based in India whose mission is to create technologies, businesses and markets for large scale generation of sustainable livelihoods. Earlier, he was Director of the Office of Environment, Government of India, and Director, Infoterra in the United Nations Environment Programme. He is President of the Club of Rome and has been a Member of the Governing Bodies of the World Economic Forum in Davos, IUCN, WWF, IISD, the Stockholm Environment Institute, WETV and several other Indian and international organizations. He was Special Advisor to the Brundtland Commission and Chairman of the NGO Forum at the ‘92 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. He has been board member of many government, industry and NGO bodies in India, including the National Security Advisory Board, the Science Advisory Committee to the Cabinet and the National Environment Council. Emails: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org. Websites: www.khosla.in, www.devalt.org, www.tara.in.
Guiding the Evolution of Social Systems
Originally published by
Medium, 5 September 2017
under a Creative Commons License
We need to learn how to see hidden patterns of cultural change.
It is currently impossible to guide the evolution of entire societies. Yet this is exactly what humanity needs the ability to do in these turbulent and dangerous times. The litany of threats is well known—global warming, political corruption, conflicts and war, extreme poverty, extremist ideologies, and more—all intensifying in the waves of exponential change that now dominate the patterns of global change in the world.
Here is my bold claim: We can do the impossible. We CAN guide the evolution of entire social systems.
And in these troubled times when the future of humanity and the vast biodiversity of Earth is now in jeopardy, we must do this impossible task. In the rest of this essay, I will explain how we can do this very thing. You may be surprised to learn that the impossible is merely a condition of the present that need not continue to describe our capacities as educated people living out a mission to heal the world.
First, a concept from psychology that will be necessary for learning how to guide our cultural evolution at large scales. An affordance is any action on the environment that is possible for someone (or something) to perform. A familiar example is your hand’s ability to grasp things that are the right shape and size. The human hand has the “affordance” of grasping beer bottles, coffee cups, the arm of a chair, a lover’s hand, and anything else that fits the criteria of graspability for primates like us. Note how the boundaries of possibility are determined by the traits of the object under consideration (the hand) as it relates to its environment (anything that the hand might grasp).
Concept of Affordances
Using this concept of affordances, we can see that humanity currently lacks the traits that would be required for us to take collective actions at the societal scale—thus our inability to tackle the climate crisis as we feel powerless to stop the next hurricane, wildfire, or drought along with all the other problems mentioned above. Our inability to deal with systemic crises like this is the logical consequence of societal traits being inadequate to the task at hand.
Herein is where the magic hides. Alter the traits of an object and you will update its affordances. Figure out what humanity is missing in its bag-of-tricks for social change efforts and you have a design challenge capable of making the impossible possible. This is exactly what I have been working to create for the last 15 years, alongside thousands of other systemic designers working on global problems in the 21st Century.
An article published in 2014 titled Evolving the Future: Toward A Science of Intentional Change offers a good starting point for seeing which cultural traits humanity is missing. The authors have all become collaborators and friends on my learning journey to birth the field of culture design. They set out to explain how contextual behavioral science can be integrated with cultural evolutionary studies to give entire societies the possibility of guiding how they change across time.
Among the things we currently lack (and can create) are:
- Clarity about the “selection mechanisms” that reveal cause-effect relationships for social change.
- Whole-system understanding about the drivers of social change.
- Testable set of variables about the functional relationship between behavior and outcome for social issues.
- Modeling and simulation tools to study the dynamics of evolutionary change for entire societies.
- Integrative knowledge from all relevant fields (sociology, psychology, biology, ecology, economics, history, etc.) brought together as frameworks for action.
- Weightings for how different “levels of selection” shape societal outcomes (e.g. How much does family influence behavior? The municipal government? Trade associations? Religious groups? Federal government?).
If we can learn concretely how a cultural system evolves, it becomes possible to design effective interventions. And when our interventions fail we can clearly discern why they didn’t work as we continually learn and improve.
The only way to guide the evolution of social systems is to understand how they evolve with scientific rigor and practical clarity. We don’t currently know how to do this. But all the pieces are in place for such a synthesis of knowledge and practice. It is incumbent upon us to complete this synthesis before it is too late. If you have read this far, you know how late in the game it is. We have passed at least four of the nine planetary boundaries that define a safe operating range for global civilization—meaning we are now in overshoot-and-collapse with all the lag times and tipping points involved in such an exceedingly complex web of interconnected systems.
In other writings, I have explained how important cultural evolutionary studies is now that humanity is in the Anthropocene and how we must learn to grapple with its full complexity. This requires us to learn how to see the hidden patterns of cultural change and guide the evolution of social sciences writ large. You can follow these links to learn more.
For now, I will end by saying that the impossible is upon us. We must create new conditions that define what it is possible for us to collectively do. Time is of the essence and everything we hold dear hangs in the balance.
Onward, fellow humans.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joe Brewer is a change strategist working on behalf of humanity, and also a complexity researcher, cognitive scientist, and evangelist for the field of culture design.