… a way of talking about “systems thinking”

Linked with Karl-Henrik Robèrt – Sweden, and with The Natural Step TNS.

Excerpts of the ‘SCHUMACHER LECTURE 1995′: … A system, as everyone knows, is constructed according to a set of overall principles. For example, in football there are eleven players in each team. In this game-system, there is one ball, two goals and a bunch of other rules. We don’t approach the referee before the match: “Please could we have fourteen players in our team today . . .?” The players all understand the overall principles of football, and these rules are non-negotiable at least for the duration of the match. There are also people with different skills in the team: a goalkeeper, strikers, and so forth. They work together as an intelligent team because they share the same mental model … // … HOWEVER, THE LAST century has seen a drastically increasing linear flow of materials, powered by fossil fuel sources. The end products from rubbish bins, chimneys, exhaust pipes, drains and sewage treatment works, do not simply disappear – nothing can disappear. Any of this which is not recruited into new resources, by either society or nature, will accumulate as waste whilst at the same time the available resources will diminish.

All environmental issues linked to survival take part in this linear process. Human societies can survive in the long term only if we regain the balance between the consumption and recreation of resource quality.

There are four conditions for achieving this balance within the whole system of ecosphere and society; we can call them system conditions. The first is that we do not take more from the Earth’s crust than is slowly redeposited. If we do, there will be a systematic increase of matter from the Earth’s crust because matter disperses but cannot disappear. To begin with, this matter collects up in products in society, but sooner or later, it will accumulate as dispersed matter in society. Hence, even if we recycle 95% of all batteries containing cadmium, and in each technical cycle only 5% escapes into nature, a time will come when the entire cadmium content from our mines has leaked into nature. In other words, there will be a systematic increase in nature. So the rationale for recycling minerals from the Earth’s crust is that it should lie so efficient that we do not need to take more from the Earth’s crust than is slowly being redeposited.

System condition number two is this: nature cannot sustain a systematic increase of chemical compounds. At present there are around 70,000 of them – PCBs, DDT, dioxins, bromide organic compounds are just a few examples – which cannot be processed by nature because they are foreign to nature. Even such substances that can be handled by nature must not be produced at a faster pace than they can be broken down and integrated into the cycles of nature or deposited into the Earth’s crust. If not, they will continue to accumulate just like the ink in the bathtub. Everything disperses but nothing disappears. The whole global bathtub is slowly turning light blue.

The first two system conditions are rooted in chemistry. The third system condition is physical: we cannot keep on pushing nature away. The physical basis for productivity and biodiversity in nature cannot diminish. We cannot keep putting ever-increasing amounts of asphalt over green surfaces, or allowing forests to turn into deserts, or agricultural soils to be degraded, or harvesting fish stocks faster than they can regenerate. Our health and our prosperity depend on nature’s solar powered capacity to add value by reconcentrating and restructuring dispersed substances into new resources.

So there are three conditions placed on civilization on Earth. We cannot take more from the Earth’s crust than is redeposited again – which is a minimal amount compared with what we are extracting today. Secondly, we cannot emit more waste products than nature can process. And, thirdly, we must preserve nature, at least because it is the only large scale net producer of quality. How can we achieve this? The bottom line, given these three conditions, is that there must be fair use of resources in order to meet human needs on Earth. When one billion people are starving whilst another billion are overproducing disposable plastic bags, this cannot be perceived as efficiency or fairness. People whose basic human needs are not being met will hardly want to hear about system conditions. This is the challenge. The first three system conditions restrict the sustainable resource flows available to society. So, in order to achieve fairness, the available resources must be used with high levels of efficiency and sophistication. We need to do more with less … (Read the whole long article on combusem.com).

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