Posted tagged ‘politics’

Can Modern Human Beings Inhabit A Sustainable Environment?

April 4, 2015

Change Resistance as the Crux of the Environmental Sustainability Problem
by Jack Harich, System Dynamics Review, 2010, 37 pages

Is it our nature as human beings that we must be so intractable and incapable of change, even against our best interest?

Must the culture to which we belong remain so bent on turning everything into commodities and markets that it becomes less and less possible to live in a decent, dignified way in a healthy world?

Is nature itself doomed by humans unable to get a grip on themselves, like addicts who repeat the same destructive patterns over and over again while constantly talking ineffectually about their plans to get better?

I’ve often wondered about these things, but rather pointlessly without any particular insight, as the world’s stresses mount. But I came across Jack Harich’s paper a while ago, and the analysis he makes of the situation from a systems perspective seemed to actually get at the real difficulties.

I can’t claim any special knowledge about the systems approach, but it does seem to be about the interdependence of things and events.  You can’t look at completely independent elements this way — but what do you know, the world does seem to be wholly interdependent, if not interpenetrating!

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking comes out of General Systems Theory as formulated by the Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1930s and 40s with application to everything from biology to cybernetics to the social sciences.

“Cybernetics” is almost a quaint term to me, probably undeservedly so.  But it seems to go along with images from the last century of revolving magnetic tapes on massive IBM computers, and 1970s talk about feedback loops.

But it is actually about information, in all its aspects, and how it changes and makes a difference in the world about us.  Witness all the gadgets and the distracted people.

And of course it can’t help but bring to my mind the book Psycho-Cybernetics, that wildly popular self-help book from the 1960s by cosmetic surgeon Maxwell Maltz.  (I can still see that cover.)

Actually Maltz’s field, although one might be snide about it, was instrumental in developing what the book tried to say: that only with a positive self-image can one strive towards goals worth having, and be able to correct one’s path along the way. In his experience, many of his patients still felt ugly after his surgical attempts to beautify them.  Although perhaps others benefited enough to pursue goals in life with a renewed self-confidence. He saw human behaviour as a negative feedback, cybernetic system.  (It seems to me, though, that self-clarity is just as important as self-image in any such system.)

This can only be peripheral to Jack Harich’s more academic considerations in his article on change resistance and environmental sustainability, although his approach is all about correcting a path that leads nowhere.  And maybe humanity is coming to have a self-image problem….

The situation is that after at least 30 or 40 years of well-intentioned effort, humans have failed to move towards living sustainably on this planet.  The science of environmental sustainability is unable to solve its central problems. Harich proposes a new paradigm, a new way to think about the problems.  But first we need to understand the “old” way.

The Old Paradigm

He identifies the old paradigm as focusing on “proper coupling” as the central problem to solve. Proper coupling occurs when the behavior of one system affects the behavior of other systems in a desirable manner, using the appropriate feedback loops, so the systems work together in harmony in accordance with design objectives. For example, if you never got hungry you would starve to death…. ”

“In the environmental sustainability problem the human system has become improperly coupled to the greater system it lives within: the environment.”

He notes that in 1972 the publication of The Limits to Growth brought the problem of environment sustainability to the world’s attention and defined the problem as how to devise economic and ecological sustainability that could last far into the future.  How can the ecological and economic systems be properly coupled? More elaborations of coupling mechanisms were proposed such as “a broad natural capital depletion tax, application of the precautionary polluter pays principle, and a system of ecological tariffs.”

In 2007, the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report encouraged governments to create incentives to mitigate environmental problems.  Another way to promote proper coupling.

The New Paradigm of Change Resistance

Harich recounts a discussion years ago over a difficult problem with a young engineer from the U.K., who suggested that if you’ve looked at a problem from every angle and still are stumped, then you probably have a missing abstraction.  Find it, and the problem becomes more solvable, he says.

So to Harich, change resistance is that missing abstraction.  The term describes the tendency of a system to continue its current behavior, despite the application of forceful measures to change that behavior. The main feature of this is that the status quo represents an equilibrium between the barriers to change and the forces favoring change.  And the status quo today, as Harich points out, is an unsustainable world.

When anyone attempts to solve sustainability problems, the system maintains its balance by automatically increasing the barriers to change.

He proposes decomposing difficult social problems into two more workable sub-problems: 1) overcoming change resistance, and 2) achieving proper coupling — that is linking proper consequences to actions, as in universal suffrage or the dangers of smoking tobacco. (His analysis depends on having a relatively democratic society.  Unfortunately, the democratic features of the developed world are also increasingly in question.)

For sustainability, there is obviously massive change resistance.  This indicates, Harich says, an implicit goal of the system in which we find ourselves. He identifies a process of “Classic Activism” which has been long used by citizen groups to solve problems of the common good that governments are not addressing.

Most environmental literature, including The Limits to Growth and the IPCC assessment reports can be seen as part of the Classic Activism of finding the proper practices; telling people the truth about the problem and proper practices; and exhorting, inspiring and bargaining with people and groups to get them to support the proper practices.

The Process of Classic Activism Fails

Harich describes how while Classic Activism works on some problems, it has failed to adequately address the global environmental sustainability problem.  His diagrams of the feedback loops at play are fascinating.  (Check out Figure 3 on page 45 in pages 35-72 of his article.)

He says classic activists don’t see the feedback mechanism of systemic change resistance or assume it is only a minor issue, easily solved by overcoming individual change resistance.

He cites an interesting table from Donella Meadows on places to intervene in a system in increasing order of effectiveness.  At the low end are playing around with subsidies, taxes and standards, moving to the higher leverage items of addressing the goal of the system, and even transcending paradigms.

In his model of the process of Classic Activism and its failures, there is no discussion of why social agents are motivated to solve problems and also to resist solving problems.  It’s just how the loops function.

Basic to his discussion is the “common good” as the mixture of “industrial production, social factors, environmental health and other elements that optimizes quality of life for all living people and their descendents.” Hirach writes, “In a common good problem, altruistic activists stand on the side of the truth of what will benefit the common good, while selfish special interests resisting change cannot.”  [ His emphasis.] He goes on: “Overall, one side employs the truth about the need for proper practices while the other side utilizes bold lies, half-truths, spin, sophism, reality as they see it and all sorts of twaddle.”  (Twaddle, I’m sure, is a technical cybernetic-type word….)

But “deception” is a defined term, meaning the act of convincing others to believe what is not true or only half-true, not out of malice necessarily but as a way to achieve the goal of resisting change.  Thus deception is an objective term which describes a certain kind of observed behaviour in Hirach’s model, and which serves to play the largest role in political decision making.

Wakeup Call Catastrophes

He observes that most environmental progress is made piecemeal as a result of some “wakeup call catastrophe” such as the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole or acid rain or the Love Canal. “…Reliance on the use of Classic Activism and wakeup call catastrophes to overcome change resistance will not work, because by the time large enough catastrophes occur to solve the complete sustainability problem, it will be too late.”

As Harich sees it, the main problem for Classic Activism is that change resistance is much more likely to be systemic than local or located within individual agents.

Getting at the Root Cause

The root causes usually identified as important in hampering environmental sustainability such as population growth, economic inequality, lack of cooperation and maladapted values are not the deepest root causes of inability to change.  They are only intermediate and pseudo root causes to Harich.

Harich warns that what he will present as possible solutions “may appear impossible.”  Such impossibilities as universal suffrage and the end of slavery as an institution could be considered similar.

The modern corporation can be viewed as a kind of life form, following the same principles of behaviour that genetic life forms do.  He cites an abundance of literature showing that large for-profit corporations are “now the dominant life form in the biosphere.”

The Goal of the Dominant Life Form on the Planet


The corporations’ goal of maximizing profits is mutually exclusive with the goal of Homo sapiens to “optimize quality of life for those living and their descendents, which includes protecting the environment on which we depend for life.”

This is identified as the root cause of “improper coupling.”

Harich asks us to conceive of the modern corporation being re-engineered to be a trusted servant of Homo sapiens, which historically was the original idea.

The new re-engineered goal would be serving our species as its highest priority, “by optimizing components of quality of life as stated in its charter,” both in general and for specific outputs of the corporation.  Goal achievement would be measured by contribution to a sustainable quality of life index.  Others have already done much work on such an index, Harich says.

“Such an index would be expressed in percent of goal achieved.  A negative amount means a company performed so poorly it should be penalized.  Over 100 percent indicates expectations were exceeded.  The index would be calculated by each company as part of normal accounting.”

This is one suggested approach and will require further experimentation and refinement.  Harich says, for example, instead of an index something called the Triple Bottom Line could be used.

“The new goal must be as simple, unambiguous, measurable, and motivating as the one it replaces: profit maximization.”

Corporation 2.0

He calls this Corporation 2.0 and says it could be introduced on a gradual basis over a couple of decades.  Solving common good problems, because this advances the goal of Homo sapiens, would now benefit the new corporations.

“Imagine what it would be like for large corporations to work as hard to solve the sustainability problem as they have worked in the past to not solve it.”

So all seems to depend on redesigning the modern corporation — and Harich expects “strenuous resistance from the corporate life form to loss of dominance.”

So then he goes on to ask what is the root cause of change resistance to corporate redesign?

“The root cause appears to be deception effectiveness high enough to thwart, weaken, or delay changes that run counter to the goal of the corporate life form.”

The corporations’ have promulgated two high-impact beliefs to further their goal: 1) corporations are good and essential to society’s wellbeing, and 2) growth is good because gross domestic product (GDP) and the stock market are the best indicators of a nation’s wellbeing.

Harich says both points are only half-true.  It is only the production role of corporations that is essential, not the way they are currently defined.  And GDP doesn’t measure quality of life.  Serious disasters automatically raise the GDP as more is spent to reconstruct, for instance.  And the stock market is a kind of con game.

High Deception Effectiveness

But how to overcome the high “deception effectiveness” behind systemic change resistance?

Harich suggest pushing “on the related high leverage point of general ability to detect manipulative deception.”  This might be done by more and better education on how to detect common fallacies (see end of this post for an example); independent political truth rating organizations such as; corporate environmental responsibility ratings; and the use of quality of life and sustainability indexes.

Unfortunately, the current ability to detect manipulative deception is very low.  But if it should ever start to rise, “deception effectiveness” will then start to fall, and the corporations’ two high-impact beliefs will begin to lose credibility.

Hirach points out that worst historic excesses of dictators, kings, warlords and other tyrants were eventually, in a way now intuitively obvious, reduced by the addition of the voter feedback loop.

“This could also be called the ruler benevolence feedback loop.  Is the system missing the corporate benevolence feedback loop?”

*       *      *

In some ways, Harich’s analysis in systems-speak is stating the obvious.  But his approach does have the advantage of providing of a more-or-less objective means of detailed analysis of all the feedback loops that govern our way of life.

In his model, you can add or modify a feedback loop, and observe in a verifiable, repeatable way what kind of impact it might make on the whole system.  It is a quite detailed, technical representation that one should read his paper to appreciate.

You can read more on Jack Harich’s site about the sustainability problem at

And finally, here is a summation of the Truth Test as presented by Robert Gowans and included in Harich’s article as a table:

“Table 3. The truth test

1. What is the argument?
2. Are any common patterns of deception present?
3. Are the premises true, complete, and relevant?
4. Does each conclusion follow from its premises?

The truth test is a simple test designed to tell whether a statement is true, false, or just plain nonsense. This allows voters to tell reality from illusion. They can then answer the question every democracy depends on: Is this truth or deception?

By using pattern recognition you can determine the truth of most political appeals in little more than the time it takes to hear or read them. All that is required is to learn the patterns.”


Note on cartoon source:

From Marc Roberts Cartoons

Totally Benign State Surveillance

July 2, 2013

I read a lot of thrillers, even more than science fiction, and the recent revelations about the the spy agency NSA’s constant surveillance of American citizens and the rest of us have been described in many of them for years.

There have been quite detailed descriptions of the sophistication and methods of such spying in this pulp fiction.  Previously, one might have ascribed the described excesses to novelistic licence rather than of the actual state of affairs which the whistleblower Edward Snowden has now forced the mainstream to consider.

There is a subset of these thrillers that are written by Americans of a jingoistic bent.  They are full of righteous fervor about patriotism and treason, with a worshipful attitude towards The President and the over-riding importance of “national security.”  (These are two words that will in a future time be abandoned for their association with oppression in favor of some other euphemism to cloak abuses of power.)

These are spy and political novels written by blustering proponents of the right wing of American politics, people like Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn, even that skilful self-marketer, Glenn Beck.

I picked up and read one of these thrillers recently, written in 2011-12 well before the recent NSA revelations.  It’s Black List by Brad Thor.  Mr. Thor is often a guest, apparently, on Glenn Beck’s show.

Secrecy, Spying and Technology

But I came to the novel with no preconceptions, and I picked it up because I was interested in how secrecy, spying, technology and “black lists” would be handled in his story.   What caught my attention was  his Author’s Note: “All of the technology contained in this novel is based on systems currently developed, or in the final stages of development, by the United States government and its partners.”

He begins with a quote in his preface:

“[America’s intelligence gathering] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left.  Such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter.  There would be no place to hide.

If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictatorship ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny….”

This is US Senator Frank Church appearing and making a deliberate warning on a TV news show in 1975!  (That reference to telegrams probably gives the era away.)

Counterterrorist as Hero

The novel’s hero is a “counterterrorist” which seems to be an euphemism for a profession of torturing and killing anyone labelled a terrorist.   He embodies cool killing expertise, with an impressive array of weapons, coupled with naive beliefs that those pasting the labels are always right and that due process is a quaint notion.  These appear to be beliefs also shared by the author.

Due to one shadowy and nasty arm of the government plotting against another shadowy and equally nasty appendage, our hero ends up on the Black List.   This list is the official killing list for the government death squads.  The President is involved so it’s all alright.

The author rails against the arbitrary and manipulated nature of this list, and all of the technology brought to bear to fulfill its mission, such as that of the NSA which we’ve all recently learned about.  They’ve got the wrong guy, our hero!

However, when the shadowy limb of the government our hero favors finally prevails, our hero gets promoted to carrying out the requirements of the new slightly edited Black List, and is proud to do so.  The President is involved so it’s all alright.

This is a sad story, on so many levels.

Many know of President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell speech in 1961 about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex.”  Apparently, he earlier intended to make it the “military-industrial-Congressional complex.”

Here’s how it’s explained by professor Melvin Goodman, a man knowledgeable of the history of American policies:

“The actual drafter of the speech, Ralph E. Williams, relied on guidance from Professor [Malcolm] Moos.  Milton Eisenhower explained that one of the drafts of the speech referred to the “military-industrial-Congressional complex” and said that the president himself inserted the reference to the role of the Congress, an element that did not appear in the delivery of the farewell address.

When the president’s brother asked about the dropped reference to Congress, the president replied: ‘It was more than enough to take on the military and private industry. I couldn’t take on the Congress as well.’

In addition to the Congress reference, an entire section was dropped from the speech that dealt with the creation of a ‘permanent, war-based industry,’ with ‘flag and general officers retiring at an early age [to] take positions in the war-based industrial complex shaping its decisions and guiding the direction of its tremendous thrust.’

The president warned that steps needed to be taken to ‘insure that the ‘merchants of death’ do not come to dictate national policy.’ “

In line with this and coming back to more current events, I was taken by this comment on the Edward Snowden affair and its aftermath by “mallius62” on a Canadian news site:

I don’t know why people aren’t in the streets screaming, fists in the air and fighting for their rights.

Oh wait… I do know.

People have been cowed. You read/watch/listen to the news and think, wow, that sounds serious. Then you go about your business believing that some entity within the government apparatus will kick in and make things right. After all, that’s what the government is for… right.

Well the government has been co-opted by the intelligence community that’s reliant on public money to exist. This massive apparatus lobbies the government for more funding to continue to show better profits. The lobbying comes in the form of warnings and dire predictions about the future.

A good warning can put their stock up a quarter point.

This part of the military industrial complex enjoys a circular flow of money/control/manipulation of and by elected officials.

All to dial in the American mind to draw specific parallels that keep the money rolling.

The purity of the soldier.

The perfection of the flag.

The glory of the Constitution.

The American security.

And of course, American exceptionalism.

To hold these (truths) as closely to their profits as they can while denying complicity to the heinous actions that accompany them is a careful web of deceit.

Thus goes the empire.  As they continue to take your rights, they will expand the system of control.  And the public pays to build their cage.

Cone of Silence

I always develop a rueful smile when I hear well-meaning citizens and spineless politicians who should know better say something like:  “Well, if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have to worry.  I hope it helps the guv’mint catch all them damn terrorists out there.”

On the one hand, it sounds like such folks would not object to having a government camera in the polling booth to record their actions at the next election, purely for their own safety of course.   On the other, there is the myth of the ubiquitous terror network, like KAOS on the old Get Smart TV show.  (I think I may need a Cone of Silence as an alternative to my head in the sand.)

There are obvious nuts and bad people with vendettas, religious obsessions and greed causing violent havoc from time to time in North America.  But if there was a real, substantive well-organized group beyond the Mafia and drug gangs, our society would be in tatters, depending as it does on fragile and vulnerable infrastructure around water, pipelines, transportation and electricity.  But terrorism is constantly being raised as a bogeyman justifying the cage.

Snowden himself outlines the danger:

“Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re being watched and recorded. …it’s getting to the point where you don’t have to have done anything wrong, you simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life.”

Given that the United States is willing to imprison its own citizens at a higher rate than anyplace else in the world and has created and expanded the secret functions of the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI (which now runs drones in the US), the CIA and JSOC to name only a few, what kind of place would you say it is now?

I’ve long thought this quote summarizes the issues well:

“In a free society, citizens are entitled to know more about the government than it knows about them; in authoritarian regimes the reverse is true.”

— JR Finlay



Additional notes:

I’ve written about some of this in a more general way before, in the post Subversive Fiction.

For more detail on the National Security Agency’s plans to make its surveillance even more penetrating, check out this article from Wired earlier this year:  Connecting the Dots on PRISM, Phone Surveillance, and the NSA’s Massive Spy Center.

This lengthy article outlines the development of the NSA’s new data centre in Utah and the history of deception by some of America’s top officials.

And finally, as another sad note, here is Barack Obama in 2007 about the Bush Administration:

“This Administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand… That means no more illegal wire-tapping of American citizens. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists… We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.”