Lessons from nature


Loopy feedback

I used to deliver teacher training in a country which will remain nameless. I was training teachers to develop plans for their environment centre...during the training I would dramatically reveal a new word - monitoring. Yes I know, not such a new word but you'd be surprised how many people forget. I'd give the example of driving a car...you regularly check in your rear view mirror and stare at the road ahead scanning for problems and guiding your car on the correct side of the road. You might even have a map with the towns you pass through marked. The driver monitors all these vital signs to monitor progress to prevent disaster.

A slightly silly example, but what about in the big wide world? We do monitor plenty of things however one seems to get all the news - GDP. Have you ever watched the news without a financial report? Or a politician promising to reduce GDP? But GDP is a strange measure. When the Exxon Valdez disaster took place the clean up cost billions of dollars, money spent into the economy that actually increased GDP, a good thing! Surely there are better measures?

How well does GDP forecast ecological problems? Economics largely sees the environment as an externality, something that if free and does not need to be costed into their models. It does not place a value on ecosystem services and social welfare. Some branches of economics are starting to do this, but I am getting off my point about monitoring.

We monitor to get feedback, information that tells us whether we are traveling in the right direction or not. In economics and business these feedback loops are fast and tight, that is they are measured over a short space of time and have limited criteria. If you are only interested in how much money your investment is making what do you care of the long term damage to ecosystems? Feedback in nature often much more long term and usually slow. Watch the journey of a carbon atom as it falls from the sky in a raindrop, get taken into a plant, passes into soils, is compressed into rock and submerged until it emerges millions of years later through a volcano. Seriously, no one expects us to count that sort of feedback but this is critical to addressing climate change. Overfishing is another recent example where feedback was ignored for too long until fish stocks of some species collapsed.

Unless we take feedback loops seriously we are likely to become one of the coffin ships that sailed the seas until the Plimsoll Line was introduced saving thousands of sailors lives from their care-free capitalists owner in the 19th century. Are their better ways to gather feedback and steer our 'ships' in the 21st century. Here's a few:

All these offer a ecological and social Plimsoll Line. Whilst not perfect they offer a more realistic measure of the economic, social and ecological resources that are necessary for a good life. Rather than only chasing economic growth which leads to so many social and economic problems, why not use measures that what we really want - a good life.

Author: Richard Date: 01.07.2013