Video: Sustainable Systems Lecture

Published: June 26th, 2017

Learning about sustainable systems from writings and video lectures of Donella (Dana) Meadows is greatly inspiring, uplifting, and enriching. On YouTube, there is video of Dana presenting a lecture on sustainable systems at the University of Michigan. I believe that this talk was a part of the University of Michigan’s Sustainability Lecture Series on March 18, 1999. The following is a summary of the lecture with links to different parts of the video. I hope that you enjoy listening to her and watching her teach with enthusiasm and passion!

(min 9:06) Dana outlines the three biophysical necessities of sustainability as proposed by Herman Daly: 1) Every renewable resource must be used at or below the rate at which it can regenerate itself. 2) Every nonrenewable resource must be used at or below the rate at which a renewable substitute can be developed. 3) Every pollution stream must be emitted at or below the rate at which it can be absorbed or made harmless. And Dana added one more: 4) To be socially sustainable, capital stocks and resource flows must be equitably distributed and sufficient to provide a good life for everyone. If we wish to create a sustainable world, we must take into consideration and fulfill these biophysical necessities of sustainability.

(min 13:14) Dana claims that we are all producing this behavior of unsustainability with rational, justifiable actions. She states, “we are in a system that is causing us to live in unsustainable ways.” From a systems perspective, we ask ourselves, why are these unsustainable behaviors justifiable and rational? As elements of this system, we cooperate with the rules (either declared or deemed socially-acceptable) and avoid defecting from these rules. Therefore, as Dana asserts, people act in certain perverse ways; these unsustainable actions are not usually the fault of the individuals, with some exceptions. Rather, there is something wrong with the system that causes us to act unsustainably.

(min 22:35) Dana uses the example of fisheries to demonstrate one of the most unsustainable systems and define where the system’s greatest weaknesses are; she also claims that fisheries are the clearest harbingers of what we have ahead of us in other systems. About 18 years later, we are definitely witnessing the type of system collapses that Dana expected.

(min 10:23) Next, Dana outlines the weaknesses in arguments proposed by economists that aim to explain why people will buy less fish if the price goes up (the standard supply and demand curve argument). An unequal distribution of wealth allows those who have more money to purchase fish at higher prices. By supporting fisheries even when the prices rise, more wealthy consumers sustain the fishing economy even as the fisheries themselves degrade. While one could assume that Dana blames consumers for fishery degradation, she quickly follows up to say that the villains of the system are not necessarily the consumers. For example, between technological advances and the market’s system of operation, consumers are simply elements acting within a complex system. In addition, Dana recognizes the bipartisan world in which we live and identifies that sometimes neither conservative or liberal agendas will help us arrive at a more sustainable world. Our societal problems, in general, are much more systemic in nature than certain policies suggest.

(min 18:56) After discussing fisheries, Dana talks about the positive feedback loop of success for the successful, meaning that those who experience success are those who are already successful. The contrary is also true: those who do not experience success are those who are already not experiencing success.

(min 29:21) After examining unsustainable systems, Dana poses the question, “so what does a sustainable system look like?” Sustainable systems have the following characteristics, 1) One or more meaningful, moral, satisfying goal(s); there is a sense of enough. She states that “growth for a goal is asking for unsustainability on a finite planet. Goals must have to do with real human fulfillment, not just getting more.” 2) There are positive feedback loops balanced by negative feedback loops at appropriate scale. 3) The system possesses clean, clear, fast, compelling information flows. 4) We would protect our resource base so that it would be resilient, be able to self organize, and evolve. Dana suggests that we need a cultural commitment to our resource base. She insists, “that’s our life support system.” And lastly, a sustainable system would be socially equitable.

Dana asserts that “mindsets” are above the function or purpose of a system because these mindsets inform the functions and goals created by the players in a system. Furthermore, as individuals (or elements) in a system, Dana says there is very little that we can do. We are forced to be unsustainable. Referencing the way that consumerism works (and using an example of purchasing sneakers made by someone in a foreign country with no workers rights, “the system doesn’t help us to be in solidarity with poor people far away.” When we really begin to have power is when we are at the level of mindset and we start saying, “how is any of our stuff made? How is it helping anybody? That we are using the equivalent of indentured slaves to produce the stuff of the industrial world.”

(min 12:31) When an audience member asks Dana about what we can do as individuals to create a more sustainable world, she answers that we need to ask ourselves the following questions, “Growth of what? Growth for why? Growth for whom? How long can it last? What is the cost to the planet? How much is enough? Paid by whom? And for whom? When will we have enough? Where are we going anyway? Challenge the success to the successful loops. Bring everybody into the process.” In this section she also answers numerous other questions in respect to Cobb Hill, technology, and what it means to be a systems thinker.

(min 4:51) Lastly, as a part of her concluding remarks, Dana rallies the audience’s collective spirit: “Be an irritant to the mindset. Question growth. Question the more… It doesn’t matter where you attack the mindset. It’s all around you. It’s in the grocery store, it’s in the schools, it’s in your home, it’s in your family. You’re never out of shooting range if you want to shoot down the mindset of more, of growth… what I would say is just question it. Observe what comes back at you and question it some more. And start saying, really why do we need more? Really how much is enough? Really who needs more of what? There are people who need more of things. There are. It’s not that we should have no growth. It’s that we should stop worshipping growth, and starting getting smart about how much of it we can have… just go around and question. Just throw questions, do it at the grocery store. Do it wherever.”

When looking at systemic issues, it is so easy to think, “okay, now what should I do?” Dana doesn’t hesitate with her response to this question. She celebrates curiosity. She suggests that it’s important to challenge the world and yet not be too cynical. Rather, we should listen to the world, question it, and then, act.

Warmly, MS

Works Cited

  1. YouTube videos published by Jennifer Lynn on May 8, 2013.
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About The Donella Meadows Project

The mission of the Donella Meadows Project is to preserve Donella (Dana) H. Meadows’s legacy as an inspiring leader, scholar, writer, and teacher; to manage the intellectual property rights related to Dana’s published work; to provide and maintain a comprehensive and easily accessible archive of her work online, including articles, columns, and letters; to develop new resources and programs that apply her ideas to current issues and make them available to an ever-larger network of students, practitioners, and leaders in social change.  Read More

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