Getting to 'New Normal'

Getting to 'New Normal'

I'd like to begin by thanking all of you who wrote in with your thoughts and suggestions and to reiterate my desire to keep receiving your ideas. I think the collective intelligence of a sustainability "wiki" will be needed to cut through this Gordian Knot.

Over the last couple weeks, I've heard from folks who are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, those who have traded successful careers for the uncertain pleasures of helping to shape the New Normal, many who agreed that New Normal is a clarion call to get "back to the basics," as well as those skeptical that New Normal is needed or whether it would be embraced by people. Still others provided specific ideas, many of which will be featured in subsequent pieces, so keep it all coming!

I learned a very useful formula from my Columbia Business School professor, Heather Haveman: C = D + V + P. In words: Change results from Dissatisfaction with the status quo, plus a Vision of a better alternative plus a clearly defined Process to move from Dissatisfaction to Vision.

This equation has been guiding my thought process as I attempt to articulate dissatisfaction with our current system of Ego-nomics and generate a new Eco-nomic vision (admittedly a work still in progress). For the next few columns I will attempt to sketch out a Process to get us from Ego-nomics to Eco-nomics that, hopefully, will also shed some additional light on what this alternative system of defining and generating wealth might look like.

I'm going to model my thought-flow according to work done by the late Donella (Dana) Meadows. Dana was involved with the pioneering dynamic computer modeling work through MIT and the Club of Rome that attempted to demonstrate the ultimate results of the interactions between natural and human systems. The results of this work were published in 1972 in the book, "The Limits to Growth" with co-authors Dennis Meadows, Jørgen Randers & William Behrens III. There have been two updates of the original study published: "Beyond the Limits to Growth" in 1992 and "Limits to Growth-The 30-Year Update" in 2004.

I strongly recommend reading these books because they contain a wealth of the kind of integrated thinking that we so desperately need right now. Originally, the Club of Rome believed that there was a serious danger of human overshoot and collapse due to excessive population growth and natural resource constraints. As technological innovation and materials substitution largely forestalled resource availability as a limit to the system, the Club of Rome revisited their analysis and recognized that the more influential limit was the ability of the environment to absorb effluents from our excessive extraction and processing of natural resources.

I was fortunate enough to have Dana as my professor and advisor for three years at Dartmouth College. Dana really taught me how to understand the dynamics of systems and to try and seek out the core places to influence the system. In 1999, two years before her untimely death from cancer, Dana published a piece through the Sustainability Institute entitled "Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System," which built on a 1997 article published in "Whole Earth." The "Leverage Points" article originally contained nine key places to stimulate change, which evolved into 12 leverage points. These 12 types of interventions will form the guideposts for my attempt to articulate a Process of getting to New Normal.

Here are the key leverage points to intervene in a system (in increasing order of effectiveness):

12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards)
11. The size of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows
10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport network, population age structures)
9. The length of delays, relative to the rate of system changes
8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the effect they are trying to correct against
7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops
6. The structure of information flow (who does and does not have access to what kinds of information)
5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishment, constraints)
4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure
3. The goal of the system
2. The mindset or paradigm that the system -- its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters -- arises out of
1. The power to transcend paradigms

Obviously, some of these leverage points are couched in "systemdynamicspeak," which I will attempt to translate to practical examples in subsequent pieces. Thanks for coming on this journey with me.

Rob Watson
Executive Editor,
You can reach Rob at [email protected]

Image CC licensed by Flickr user Joe Seggiola.