Tag Archives: systems

What would a sustainable Third Level Campus look like?

Another rehearsal video – this time for a short job talk on ways to address sustainability and sustainable development in third level (a.k.a. post-secondary, higher or further) education.

I advocate an integrated systems approach, where every aspect of the institution is informed by key sustainability competences, and viewed as an opportunity for students to develop these competences.  Communities of practice among faculty, staff and administrators, can help make this possible.

Works Cited and Recommended References

Abdul-Wahab, S. a., Abdulraheem, M. Y., & Hutchinson, M. 2003. “The need for inclusion of environmental education in undergraduate engineering curricula.” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 4(2), 126–137. doi:10.1108/14676370310467140

Bacon, Christopher M, Dustin Mulvaney, Tamara B Ball, E Melanie DuPuis, Stephen R Gliessman, Ronnie D Lipschutz, and Ali Shakouri. 2011. “The creation of an integrated sustainability curriculum and student praxis projects.”  International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 12 (2):193-208.

Barth, Matthias, Jasmin Godemann, Marco Rieckmann, and Ute Stoltenberg. 2007. “Developing key competencies for sustainable development in higher education.”  International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 8 (4):416-430.

Cullingford, Cedric, and John Blewitt. 2004. The Sustainability Curriculum: The challenge for higher education: Routledge.

Jones, Paula, David Dr Selby, and Stephen R. Sterling, eds. 2010. Sustainability education: perspectives and practice across higher education: London ; Sterling, VA : Earthscan, 2010.

Lambrechts, Wim, Ingrid Mulà, Kim Ceulemans, Ingrid Molderez, and Veerle Gaeremynck. 2013. “The integration of competences for sustainable development in higher education: an analysis of bachelor programs in management.”  Journal of Cleaner Production 48 (0):65-73. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2011.12.034.

Meadows, D. 2008. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Merrill, M.Y., Chang, Y., Islam, M.S., 2016. Communities of Practice in Education for Sustainability: A Case Study from Asian Higher Education, in: Sharma, V.K. (Ed.), International Symposium on a Sustainable Future-2016 (ISSF-2016). Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR), Mumbai, India, pp. 127-143.

Merrill, M.Y., Chang, Y., Islam, M.S., Burkhardt-Holm, P., Chang, C.-H., in prep. Education and Sustainability: Paradigms, Policies and Practices in Asia. Routledge, Singapore.

Mochizuki, Yoko, and Zinaida Fadeeva. 2010. “Competences for sustainable development and sustainability.”  International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 11 (4):391-403. doi: doi:10.1108/14676371011077603.

Rieckmann, Marco. 2012. “Future-oriented higher education: Which key competencies should be fostered through university teaching and learning?”  Futures 44 (2):127-135.

Sandri, Orana Jade. 2013. “Threshold concepts, systems and learning for sustainability.”  Environmental Education Research 19 (6):810-822. doi: 10.1080/13504622.2012.753413.

Sterling, Steven. 2011. “Transformative learning and sustainability: sketching the conceptual ground.”  Learning and Teaching in Higher Education 5:17-33.

Wiek, Arnim, Lauren Withycombe, and Charles L Redman. 2011. “Key competencies in sustainability: a reference framework for academic program development.”  Sustainability Science 6 (2):203-218.


A New Type of Thinking

The world we have made, as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far, creates problems we cannot solve at the same level of thinking at which we created them.

Because attribution of sources is a big part of good scholarship, I went looking for the original source of this quote (often phrased differently, but almost always attributed to Albert Einstein).

What I found was things like:

Ah, searching for “Einstein” and “level of thinking” rather than “same level of thinking” turns up a much earlier example from The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Volumes 1-4, which is dated 1969 by google books though these snippets show it contains pieces from 1969 and 1970. The quote, on p. 124, is “The world that we have made as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far creates problems that we cannot solve at the same level as the level we created them at.” It’s prefaced by “Einstein said an interesting thing”, and the same phrase and quote appears in a 1974 book by Ram Dass (who needs his own wikiquote page!), The Only Dance There Is, on this page, so presumably the one in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology is the same piece by Ram Dass.  [http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Albert_Einstein]


In the interview by Michael Amrine titled, ‘The Real Problem is in the Hearts of Men’ (New York Times Magazine – June 23 1946) Einstein says:‘Many persons have inquired concerning a recent message of mine that “a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move to higher levels“.’ (p.7)

The source of that recent message is quoted in an article that appeared the month before titled‘Atomic Education Urged by Einstein‘ where the mircofiche archive copy of the article reports on an appeal by telegram to ‘several hundred prominent Americans’ on 24 May 1946 in a ‘Plea for $200,000 to promote new type of essential thinking’. The telegram was signed by the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists with Albert Einstein as Chairman and the Federation of American Scientists. The text of that telegram is quoted in part and reads:

‘Our world faces a crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing power to make great decisions for good or evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe… a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels… [http://icarus-falling.blogspot.sg/2009/06/einstein-enigma.html]

Of course, one can argue that the words and the source are not as important as the idea conveyed.  That notion that we have to think about things in new ways to resolve major problems is powerful.  I suspect that is why the quote is constantly rephrased and repeated, yet that essential message survives the transformations.

Reviewing The Systems View of Life

Zygote Quarterly has just published the review of The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, 2014) that I worked on as a co-author.  Like the other review authors, I think it is a useful and important book.  Capra and Luisi have attempted an integrated review of physical, biological, social and cognitive sciences, with some deep-ecology-inspired philosophy and spirituality thrown in for good measure.  It’s a big deal, and I’d recommend it to most readers.

I was very excited about participating in writing a review for the book, and co-authoring a review with a few other people was a very good process.  But there are things I had to say that couldn’t quite fit into the review we were writing together. Below are a few thoughts I had that were edited down or not included in the review.

Bad Anthropology

I did have some real problems with the book, in particular the chapter called “The human adventure.”  Some of these complaints and caveats were included in the review, but others were not, so I give them in more detail here.  Basically, I could have assigned Chapter 11 in an anthropology class as an exercise in looking for things that are either just plain wrong or open to different interpretations for my Intro to Biological Anthropology classes.

I was disappointed by the internal inconsistencies in Chapters 10 and 11 (“The quest for the origin of life on Earth” and “The human adventure”). As mentioned in the review they use some very linear, deterministic metaphors when talking about organismal evolution, despite their accurate and gratifying note in Chapter 9 that the process is NOT linear and deterministic.  For example,“The human evolutionary adventure is the most recent phase in the unfolding of life on Earth…” (p. 240) seems to imply that it was all leading up to us; “The first human species, Homo habilis, appears 4 minutes before midnight, evolves into Homo erectus half a minute later, and into the archaic forms of Homo sapiens 30 seconds before midnight,” (p. 241) ignores the many side branches of hominin relatives that were concurrent with these species.

This part of the book is further weakened by the fact that the authors chose to ignore many broader ecological contexts in which human evolution took place (not to mention all the other organisms evolving since the earliest eukaryotes). Their summary of human evolution also ignores changes to our scientific understanding of bipedalism and its context over the last decade (particularly in the last five years, including the important Ardipithecus ramidus finds).  Other research illuminating the extent of tool use and social learning in other species demonstrates that bipedalism and the “freeing of the hands” is not a pre-requisite for tool manufacture.  All great apes make tools, including the very arboreal orangutans.  Even species without hands, such as bottlenose dolphins and New Caledonian crows, make and use fairly sophisticated tools. (This was a big part of my 2004 dissertation: Orangutan Cultures: Tool Use, Social Transmission and Population Differences.)

Some other debates in evolutionary anthropology that are neglected include the notion of nuclear families and male provisioning in early hominins (p242-3; this has been contentious since the 1980s, and it’s not going away any time soon – I don’t think what they described as “widely accepted” is in fact widely accepted).  Also  on p243 they talk about Homo erectus as the first to leave Africa at 1MYA, but there is an interesting and more primitive hominin at Dmanisi, Georgia dated at about 1.8MYA that has been widely known by anthropologists since at least 2007 (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v449/n7160/abs/nature06134.html).   Their depiction of European cave art as revealing a recent breakthrough in human cognition is also highly debatable; there is now evidence for other forms of art and similar cultural complexity that predate this in Africa, much closer to the earliest appearance of modern Homo sapiens (a good, accessible reference for this is Shea’s 2011 article in American Scientist www.americanscientist.org/issues/id.11845,y.2011,no.2,content.true,page.1,css.print/issue.aspx).

I went back and looked at a similar chapter that Capra had included in his 1996 book The Web of Life, and found that many of the examples in The Systems View of Life‘s Chapter 11 were taken directly from The Web of Life‘s Chapter 10, “The Unfolding of Life” in a sub-section also titled “The Human Adventure.”  A lot has changed in the field of anthropology in 18 years.  I’m disappointed that this wasn’t updated for the new book.

A Living Book-System?

One other thing that was not included in the final version of the book review was an admittedly half-baked notion of how to make something like a book into more of a living system.  This would have solved the problems, such as those with anthropology described above, by opening the writing up for input from scholars working in each field.

At this point the book itself is something of a dead organism, no longer able to dynamically respond to its surroundings (more like a stone than a dog – and can we please transform that otherwise useful distinction between reactions and responses on page 136 to something that doesn’t involve kicking dogs!).  Would this work embody the idea of a living system more readily as some kind of ongoing, tightly controlled wiki, with carefully managed permeability (like the crucial cell membrane), accepting certain incoming additions or replacements of information and rejecting others in order to maintain integrity and exhibit development through interactions with its environment? Such a work (no longer a book, but a kind of intellectual organism), if structured and nourished by careful systems thinkers, could prove even more useful than the book in its current form.

In other words, is there an transformation whereby a “book” can become more biomimetic, and operate in ways that reflect the cognitive and metabolic processes of living systems?

In the conclusion of our review in Zygote Quarterly, we do make a suggestion that readers find ways to engage with the work.  One option is online communities.  I set up a discussion group on Goodreads as one possible forum for this.

I met one of my dearest friends, the late Judy Bloomgardener, when I attended a talk that Fritjof Capra was giving at Bookshop Santa Cruz for the release of 2004’s The Hidden Connections. Judy was making her way through the rows of folding chairs, leaving fliers for starting a discussion group around the book.  I don’t think I actually talked to her then, but I did call the phone number on the flier and join the group.  We continued to discuss that book and many others, with groups as large as a dozen and as small as just the two of us.  These are some of my fondest memories, and I wish I had been able to talk with Judy about this book, too.  I encourage you to read it, and talk about it with your friends.

Quality quantification? Comparing Asian Countries

In her recent, brilliant (as usual) video, “The Story of Solutions,” Annie Leonard admonishes that we should stop relentlessly working toward MORE and start emphasizing BETTER.

Trouble is, how do we locate BETTER?  How do we know if we’re moving toward or away from that goal?  How do we get the feedback we need, in a way that will be convincing to people across the ideological spectrum?  In other words, how do we measure our progress in ways that allow for useful comparison?  Here’s what Donella Meadows had to say on the subject:

Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.

Our culture, obsessed with numbers, has given us the idea that what we can measure is more important than what we can’t measure. You can look around and make up your own mind about whether quantity or quality is the outstanding characteristic of the world in which you live.

If something is ugly, say so. If it is tacky, inappropriate, out of proportion, unsustainable, morally degrading, ecologically impoverishing, or humanly demeaning, don’t let it pass. Don’t be stopped by the “if you can’t define it and measure it, I don’t have to pay attention to it” ploy. No one can precisely define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can precisely define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist. [from D. Meadows, “Dancing with Systems” 2002]

And yet, I’m a science nerd.  I ♥ numbers.  Can we get numbers, even with fuzzy definitions, just to give us some way to compare over time or across cultures?  If natural selection works by amplifying positive deviance, and we seek to emulate this most successful biological process, then we need a way to recognize those bright spots on the fitness landscape, so that we can foster them and encourage their replication.  We need feedback to know if we’re moving toward our goal of BETTER.  And, to quote Meadows again:

If the goal is defined badly, if it doesn’t measure what it’s supposed to measure, if it doesn’t reflect the real welfare of the system, then the system cannot possibly produce a desired result.  Systems, like the three wishes in the traditional fairy tale, have a terrible tendency to produce exactly and only what you ask them to produce. (Thinking in Systems: A Primer, p. 138)

There are several indices out there that purport to measure something about our well-being and progress.  I’ve written before about the idea of Gross National Happiness. I’ve been investigating other available measures in relation to my current project to promote Education for Sustainability in the sixteen countries that represent half the world.

What is it that could be BETTER in this vast and complex system?  I’d venture almost everything in the nested sets of human economic, social and environmental interactions.


These interdependent and interpenetrating systems interact in complex ways (go ahead, say that three times fast).  As discussed previously, economic aspects of these systems tend to be the first ones measured, because money is by its very nature quite amenable to counting.  There have also been some interesting attempts to measure global environmental health, and even to express environmental health in economic terms.  And there are some widespread attempts to measure things like social well-being, especially in terms of freedom. No such index is without controversy; all have limitations in terms of data validity, not to mention the challenges associated with trying to quantify important qualitative values (basically attempting to scrute the inscrutable).  Nonetheless, they are a place to start, so I’ve started there with my attempts to compare the current status of my sixteen countries.  Below are my tabulated results, with color coding to help our primate optics detect patterns more readily.  Click the link or image for the Excel spreadsheet.

Asia Economic Data by Country

First up, the oh-so-quantifiable economic measures.  The classic and deeply problematic way of representing the economic status of a country is its Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  To even begin to be a useful basis of comparison, this must be expressed in some kind of per capita way (otherwise, the fact that China’s GDP is so much bigger than Brunei’s is almost entirely attributable to the fact that there are over 3000 Chinese citizens for every single Brunei citizen). But as we move into the relationship between economic and social factors, another glaring discrepancy becomes obvious: the distribution of the wealth represented in the GDP is far from equitable.  Just how far is indicated by another index: GINI, utilized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).  A higher GINI coefficient indicates a more dramatic difference between the few rich and the many poor in each nation (Wikipedia is a good starting place for not only the definition and calculations, but also the limitations and controversies).  Also, GDP and GINI notoriously neglect certain aspects of what are usually considered important goals in economic development (e.g. health, education).  So UNDP factors those into another measure, the Human Development Index, which can then be further adjusted for inequality, to give some sense of progress (or lack thereof) toward the Millennium Development Goals.

Asia Economic Data by Country
Asia econ data table

Asia Political Ratings by Country

The above economic indices are also, of course, measures of social relationships in some sense. The following data and rankings move more explicitly into the social and political realm.  (One could argue that HDI more properly belongs in this set.) I’ve included a quick-and-dirty summary description of each country’s political system (thanks Google), and some indices related to freedom, as a shorthand for some of the crucial social systems at the national level.  Sadly, Gross National Happiness has not yet been measured for most countries.  There are lots of other things I could include here (dominant religions, years since independence from colonial powers, etc.); feel free to suggest other useful comparisons in the comments.

Asia political data by country Asia social data table

Asia Environmental Ratings by Country

These are ratings that are more specifically connected to the human impact on the rest of the biosphere.  As they are in the realm usually investigated by the natural sciences (e.g. population biology, forestry and ecology), they are again more quantitative.  One particularly interesting rating is the Happy Planet Index, an attempt to measure the environmental efficiency of human well-being.

Asia Environmental Ratings by Country

Asia enviro data table


Qualities of a Global Citizen Game Changer

I’m grateful to be enrolled in the pilot of a new Pachamama Alliance initiative called GC101.  We had our first virtual meeting a couple of hours ago.  They asked us to post this somewhere for discussion, and they were cool with me posting it on the blog.

Qualities of a Global Citizen/Game Changer

Thomas Berry says the Great Work of our time is to carry out the transition from the current period where humans are a devastating presence on the Earth, to one where the human presence is mutually beneficial to the planet and the entire community of life—a mutually enhancing human/Earth relationship. To do this we need to undergo, at both an individual and collective level, a fundamental transformation – a virtual reinvention of what we consider a human being to be.

The Pachamama Alliance believes that this great work requires a critical mass of conscious, committed individuals working collectively to “change the game.” As a “game changer/global citizen,” you embody and/or aspire to these qualities:

1. You see the human family, in all its diversity, as an integral component in the whole of the web of creation, and are committed to building a society that reflects and reveres the sacred and interconnected nature of all life.

2. You stand for and act from a grounded and informed vision that a sustainable, just and fulfilling future for all beings is urgent, possible and essential.

3. You recognize that the universe is friendly and that the evolutionary force that put the stars in motion is moving through us, and is a dynamic, self-organizing process whose grace and guidance we can trust.

4. You realize that the human role and responsibility now is as an evolutionary activist, intentionally engaging with the momentum of evolution to shape the future as it is being brought into being.

5. You understand that the collective transformation of our society requires a completely new definition of what is possible in being human, and requires that we inquire deeply into questions such as: “Who am I, really?” and, “What is my relationship to the whole?”

6. You recognize that the social injustice and environmental exploitation in our world are not the “natural order of things,” but rather, are the logical outcome of intentionally-designed systems of power and privilege that operate economically, politically, socially, and technologically to perpetuate inequitable access to resources and opportunities.

7. You are able to discern the cultural stories that perpetuate inequity and concentrate power and privilege, and you live from and share new stories that create the paradigm for a just and sustainable future.

8. You are no longer “food” for the system. Your actions and interactions move in the direction of undoing rather than consciously or unconsciously being complicit with existing systems and structures that perpetuate an unjust, unsustainable, unfulfilled world.

9. You seek to engage in effective personal and collective actions that strike at the root causes of the global crises, and you involve others in taking those actions as well.

10. You experience being an integral member of a vast and growing evolutionary movement toward reconciliation and wholeness.

Questions, comments, concerns, suggestions?  I guess I’m not a full-fledged Game Changer quite yet, but I’m happy to carry that aspiration on my path as an “evolutionary activist.”  How about you?