Jay Forrester, the father of systems thinking

Jay W. Forrester passed away on November 16th at the age of 98.  Few of the readers of The Stream probably have heard of Professor Forrester directly, but all of you who have followed the curriculum that is promoted by the Middlebury School of the Environment will know of his work and influence.  Professor Forrester, an electrical engineer who had insights and interests in both computer science and organizational management, provided the initial intellectual groundwork for the field of system dyna18forrester-obit2-master315mics modeling, the basis for systems thinking.

In his own words, system dynamics “uses computer simulation to take the knowledge we already have about details in the world around us and to show why our social and physical systems behave the way they do.”

Consider the power embedded in this simple idea for how we can protect and restore the environment.  “Knowledge about the world around us,” not in terms of what we wish were true or choose to ignore, but what is actually true.  The actual changes in carbon dioxide concentrations, heat retention capacity of CO2 molecules, health consequences of PCBs and lead, ecosystem consequences of phosphorus and nitrogen … and so on ad infinitum.  “Show why our social and physical systems behave the way they do,” and thus revealing the true leverage points (to borrow a term from Donella Meadows) for bringing about lasting change and sustainability.

As we say repeatedly within the MSoE curriculum, systems thinking is a tool for exploring and understanding how any system works and can be changed.  John Sterman at MIT explained it as such in Forrester’s obituary in the New York Times: “Simulations of dynamic systems are now indispensable throughout the physical and social sciences.  Not just in management, but also, for example, in astrophysics, biology, chemistry and climate change. Jay developed the first model that treated interactions of population, the economy, natural resources, food and pollution in the context of the world as a whole. The work was counterintuitive and controversial, and it launched the field of global modeling.”

We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.  And we also build a better world with the tools that others crafted.  Our debt to Jay Forrester runs deep.

His complete obituary can be read in the New York Times from November 17th.

The coming years in US politics

It’s been almost a week since the US elections.  Although there were numerous offices, from local to federal, represented on our ballots, the office that dominated our consciousness over the last two years was that of US president.  I don’t presume to know how every reader of this blog viewed the results from last Tuesday, but I’m confident that the majority of the readers here were surprised by the results and shocked by the sudden awareness of what the next four years might be like under a Trump administration.  If a Progressive agenda can be described as efforts toward support for peace, justice, and the environment, then Candidate Trump’s campaign can unarguably be described as anti-Progressive.

How well President Trump’s agenda aligns with or achieves what he stated repeatedly during his campaign remains to be seen.  In the last few days, much has been written by better pundits than me about how much of his campaign was merely empty rhetoric, how much Congress will follow his rather than their own agenda, and how much he is really interested in doing the hard work necessary as president.  I have my own predictions, but if last week’s results tell us anything, it’s that predictions don’t really mean a thing.

But what I do know for sure, based on a lifetime of experience that includes the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, is that no one should take last week’s results as evidence that our work is done.  Giving up because “this is not my America” should not be viewed as an option.  If anything, the results call upon us to redouble our efforts, roll up our sleeves, and dig into our work even harder.  Work — and progress — on behalf of peace, justice, and the environment did not halt under previous administrations precisely because people did not stop working toward what they believed in.  They did not stop speaking their truths … and especially speaking those truths to power.  And they did not stop trying to improve their abilities to be effective agents of change.

I say this to all of the MSoE alumni who went through the program thinking that the issues aren’t real and that their engagement as leaders would not really be needed: Take a close look at the US and the world today, and truly understand how much you are, in fact, needed.  Your work is not done simply because you completed the MSoE curriculum.  Your work is just beginning.

And I say this to all of you who are wondering if the Middlebury School of the Environment is really necessary: Take a close look at the US and the world today and ask the question of whether we need more people willing to work effectively and creatively toward a more positive future.  Your answer must certainly be “yes.”

Last week’s results sadden me, but no more so than a thousand other events that have unfolded over the last several years that call into question humanity’s directions in the immediate future.  More than anything, I am reminded of why the Middlebury School of the Environment is so important, and I recommit to redoubling my efforts, rolling up my sleeves, and digging into the work.

Join me.

Are Coastal Defenses Enough?

Connor Pisano (MSoE ’15) recently posted on the social media platform Odyssey an essay about planning for the future of New York City in the face of climate change.  He begins the essay like this:

“As New York City’s coastline communities continue to rebuild four years after being decimated by the powerful storm surge of Hurricane Sandy, the biggest question that remains is: what have we learned? The answer, in short, is: not enough.

Regardless of where one falls on the climate change acceptance/denial spectrum, the events of the Superstorm served as a wake-up call, especially to those who live on the city’s waterfront. Whether you were a wealthy, white business magnate living in lower Manhattan or a poor, black family living in a Red Hook housing project, you were made very aware that the city is not as resilient in the face of extreme weather events as we would like to think. We’ve begun to learn, and accept, that we’re vulnerable.

But where we fall short is in identifying what our true vulnerabilities are.”

Check out the rest of the essay to see the kind of thinking that emerges from the Middlebury School of the Environment!

Calling all MSoE alumni!

We know you’re out there, doing great things and continuing on your path to creating a life of meaning for yourself and the world.  After three summers of MSoE sessions, the number of alumni is starting to grow.  Folks have gone on to graduate school, law school, positions in government, and positions in the private sector.  We have Udall winners, field researchers, journalists, and educators.  And, of course, we have alumni who are still college students and who are interested in connecting with any one of a number of career paths.

It’s time to think about creating an MSoE alumni network.  I’m thinking of something where students could connect with alumni from across the years to ask about job opportunities, advice on job searches, and resources for GSD (“getting stuff done”), as well as advertising and marketing your own initiatives.

So here’s the question: What would be the best platform for this?  What social-media applications would you use and would allow the kind of information sharing that a real network service allows?  You all know that I’m not a digital native and that I’m several decades past my undergraduate years, so I am not well versed in what digital environment would be the most valuable for you all to use.  Facebook? LinkedIn? A listserv mailing list?

The goal is for this to be of use to you.  So I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Comment here or reach out to me via email.

Lines are open, and operators are standing by.

Another successful session!

The 2016 session of the Middlebury School of the Environment came to a close on Friday (August 5th), bringing a successful conclusion to six weeks of classes and environmental leadership training for 21 students from colleges and universities all over the U.S.

SoE 2016.closing banquetThe faculty and staff of the MSoE were extremely grateful for the hard work, humor, and personal engagement all of the students brought with them.  In all eight of the courses, all of the leadership workshops, and all of our time together on field trips, the students were amazing.  We only hope that all of them have safe travels home this weekend, and that we have another amazing group of students next year!

And speaking of next year … we’ll be back for the Middlebury School of the Environment starting June 23rd, 2017.  While it is too early to commit to exactly what the course catalog will include, I can promise that we’ll be offering hands-on practicums, interdisciplinary seminars, skills-based electives, and a wide-ranging program of leadership workshops.  I’ll be announcing instructors, courses, field trips, keynote speakers, and visiting practitioners in the coming months as the schedule comes together.  Stay tuned for details about MSoE 2017 … and stay engaged with the world around you!  We live in critical times that call upon all of us to be leaders for positive social and environmental change.  Let’s all do our part to make it so.

And don’t forget to rock on!

Sustainability Practicum (2016) Prompt #4

In a later chapter in his book Flourishing, John Ehrenfeld says that the question of whether one is optimistic or pessimistic about the future is the wrong question. The right question about the future, he says, is, “Are you hopeful?” Why might that be an important question to ask if you are thinking about engaging with issues of sustainability as a young adult?

And what is your personal response to that question. Are you hopeful? If so, why? From what source or feeling do you manufacture your hope? And if not, what motivates you to pursue an educational path that includes an emphasis on a study of the environment even though you are not hopeful for the future?

Provide your answer as a comment to this post. Remember – your comments are public.

Sustainability Practicum (2016) Prompt #3

We began the class three weeks ago with a broad macro-scale perspective on sustainability, and quickly worked toward a micro-scale perspective, focusing on methods directed at small, targeted goals that address specific vulnerabilities for a specific system. Reflect on the pros and cons of these two perspectives. What do we gain and what do we lose by adopting one or the other of these perspectives? What do you think are some solutions or strategies for addressing issues of sustainability that would allow us to retain all of the benefits without suffering from the negative consequences.

 

Provide your answer as a comment to this post. Remember – your comments are public.

Sustainability Practicum (2016) Prompt #2

SP3We have progressed in this course from discussing sustainability in broad conceptual terms to working on specific planning skills, in particular systems mapping and scenario planning. Reflect – using at least one specific example from the readings, your experience, or general knowledge – on your views of how such planning skills can contribute – or not – to developing practical strategies to promote sustainability.

Provide your answer as a comment to this post. Remember – your comments are public.

Sustainability Practicum (2016) Prompt #1

In class on Monday, we began discussion of sustainability by considering the definition of sustainable development offered by the Brundtland Commission (1987) and how it might be revised to take into account its limitations as noted by such authors as Wackernagel and Rees, Ehrenfeld, and Engelman. We went from this …

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Brundtland et al. 1987)

… to this …

“Sustainability means living within the Earth’s biocapacity to allow people and nature to flourish while assuring the ability of all future life to flourish.” (MSoE 2016)

There was general agreement that this definition also had limitations, either in interpretability, emphasis, or completeness … as well as its fundamental syntax.

For your first writing prompt, I would like you to critique (in both positive and negative ways) the definition we created. If you believe it needs improvement, then I would like you to offer and justify a revision for consideration by the class. If you believe it is perfect as it is written, then I would like you to justify that position.

Add your critiques, revisions, and justifications as comments to this post. And remember, your posts can be seen by anyone on the Internet. Please put your best face forward in your writing.

Noah Hutton, Director of “Deep Time”

This summer, the Middlebury School of the Environment will welcome director Noah Hutton for a public showing of his 2015 film, Deep Time.”

Deep TimeThe themes exposed in this acclaimed documentary perfectly blend with those of the MSoE: “Ancient oceans teeming with life, Norwegian settlers, Native Americans and multinational oil corporations find intimacy in deep time. Following up his 2009 feature Crude Independence (SXSW), Deep Time is director Noah Hutton’s ethereal portrait of the landowners, state officials, and oil workers at the center of the most prolific oil boom on the planet for the past six years. With a new focus on the relationship of the indigenous peoples of North Dakota to their surging fossil wealth, Deep Time casts the ongoing boom in the context of paleo-cycles, climate change, and the dark ecology of the future” (adapted from the film’s web site).

Deep Time has been well received by critics and audiences alike.  It won the Special Jury Award at the 2015 Environmental Film Festival at Yale, as well as the Jury Award for Documentary Features at the 2016 Wild and Scenic Film Festival.

We’re excited to have Noah Hutton join us for the screening, which will be followed by an open Q&A with the audience to explore both the subject of the film and the craft of film production.

The screening will be held on July 19th, 7:30 pm in Dana Auditorium on the Middlebury College campus.  The film is free and open to the public, and we hope you will be able to join us.

Sites DOT MiddleburyThe Middlebury site network.