Donella Meadows on Writing for Change

Came across this article this afternoon and it made so much sense to learn from that I thought of sharing it here. Please do read and share with others.

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Dana’s advice for writing for change, whether in an OpEd, article, blog, etc.

BE CLEAR. Be specific, not abstract. Give examples, and be sure your words make pictures in peoples’ heads. Tell stories, give statistics, show the impact of the problem or the solution on the real world. People can form their own conclusions, if you give them the evidence.

USE A HOOK TO THE NEWS. People have to know why what they’re about to read is important. They think the daily news is important, so use that hook, even if you’re not going to talk about the daily news.

WRITE AN INTERESTING LEAD. A friendly editor once blasted me with: “That was the most terrific column you ever wrote, but it had a boring, killer lead.” A killer lead is an opening sentence that makes the reader yawn and turn to the sports page. (E.g. instead of “I have just had the privilege of escorting six Hungarian visitors on a cross-country tour of the United States. All six are agricultural experts. They came to see our farms.” It would have been better to start with something right out of the middle of the story: “The Hungarians thought Burger King was great. ‘So clean,’ they said. When they saw people carrying their own trays, they said, ‘So socialist.’”)

NEVER WRITE IN AN APOLOGETIC TONE, or a defensive one. Never, ever, ever, condescend to the reader. Never present a problem without providing at least a hint of what to do about it. Don’t get people all riled up and then drop them into helplessness.

WHATEVER YOUR SUBJECT, TELL IT THROUGH PEOPLE. Human beings are much more interested in other human beings than they are in ideas. If you care about something, let your care show as well as your objective evidence. If you’re writing about someone else – hero or villain – make that person as real and whole on paper as you possibly can.

BE HUMBLE. You don’t know everything. In fact no human being knows much of anything, compared with the immense wonders and uncertainties of the universe, so keep a sense of perspective. Say just what you can say and no more, say it with the appropriate degree of certainty and no more. That is the hardest lesson for me to follow. It’s a torture every day and a duty, a wonderful discipline and a Zen koan, the bane of my existence and the best challenge of my life.

Re posted from: https://www.facebook.com/DonellaMeadowsInstitute/

Are you too young to be worried about climate change?

Ayesha Banerjee |  Updated: Jul 15, 2016 19:15 IST

Reposted from Hindustan Times: http://www.hindustantimes.com/education/are-you-too-young-to-be-worried-about-climate-change/story-xT8o5uDJ5tDZu2IxgTKGWM.html

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Mihir Mathur demonstrating solar parabolic cookers to villagers in Maharashtra. (Handout)

In the last few years the climate change threat has started to get a little too real to us. Temperatures have more or less stayed above 50 degrees C this summer in parts of India. The country has also been affected by drought for the second year running. “We have already done enough emissions which shall make the (global) average temperatures go up. Climate change is not something which will happen in the future. It is happening right now. April 2016 was one of the hottest months on record. Earth’s average surface temperature has already increased by around 1 degree C compared to pre industrial times and it is estimated that we are headed for up to a 3 degree C rise which could lead to dangerous climate change impact.”

The warning comes from climate change researcher Mihir Mathur, associate fellow, Earth Science and Climate Change Division at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in New Delhi, who is picking up danger signals from planet earth and wants to mitigate the impact. For Mathur, climate change is a personal as well as global issue. Every individual has to worry. “Those who think that it is the responsibility of only governments and researchers to learn (about) and find solutions to climate change are not thinking right. There is no point in having a national or a state level climate policy when people don’t understand its importance or rationale.”

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What is the world going to look like in 2050? Mathur works on developing future scenarios using computer modelling (simulating what happens or will happen in a situation) to understand how policies can bring about desired changes. (Handout)

Surprisingly this researcher in climate change adaptation for policy formulation at the local and macro level comes from a finance background. He received his bachelor of commerce in accountancy from Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara (his hometown), following it up with a master’s degree in finance from the Sadhana Centre for Management and Leadership Development, Pune.

What led to the switch? While working in the stock markets Mathur discovered how fossil fuel depletion would put a limit on economic growth. He asked himself deeper questions: was the nature of this growth sustainable? As he found out more about the interconnections between fossil fuels, emissions and climate change, he felt a “deeper calling to research upon sustainability issues rather than only use my skills in stock markets”. The turning point came when he discovered the issue of oil depletion (popularly known as Peak Oil) which could hit the world much before climate change. Research on peak oil (point in time when oil production peaks and then begins to terminally decline) made him realise that the world was very close to reaching the peak globally and that a systemic shift was needed if the world had to sustain itself. That discovery drove him to take up research on finding solutions to peak oil and climate change.

For field work, Mathur has to interact with farming communities to find out how weather variations challenge their agriculture decision-making. He studies how weather forecasts and agriculture advisories (sent by the India Meteorological Department and other private players) are helping farmers cope with these variations. He also works on developing future scenarios using computer modelling (simulating what happens or will happen in a situation) to understand how policies can bring about desired changes. A modelling project was recently completed where he developed an urban model using system dynamics modelling (understanding complicated problems using mathematical modelling techniques) to understand city futures, how cities would grow in future and factors limiting their growth.

Solutions for human beings to adapt better to the changes in weather and climate could be social, financial, environmental, economic etc, so his research is, in a sense, interdisciplinary. His research findings help improve the body of knowledge on climate change and are likely to contribute as inputs for development planning and policy planning.

Mathur has been part of one of the biggest climate change adaptation programmes in India, implemented by Watershed Organisation Trust in Maharashtra, MP and AP, covering more than 50 villages. For him it was an experience to learn how rural India understood climate change and the practical challenges it faced while moving towards adaptation and mitigation measures. He feels the whole project was a success as they were able to implement renewable energy solutions at scale, generate livelihood opportunities, do watershed development work, promote water budgeting and management, develop biodiversity registers, create disaster risk reduction plans, install automated weather stations for real time weather data at village level etc.

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Mihir Mathur: Happy to make the switch from the stock market to research on finding solutions to peak oil and climate change. (Handout)

More recently, Mathur has been practicing system dynamics modelling to better understand how social, economic and environmental systems function and interact with each other. The idea is to understand and present the complexity of real life systems to academia, policy makers, researchers and everyone else. “Through the modelling,” he explains “ I am able to show how seemingly different sectors interact with each other and intervening in one sector could create a cascading impact on other sectors. An increase in the water supply for a city would lead to increase in demand for electricity (through pumping etc) which in turn could lead to increase of power supply which again could lead to increased water consumption for electricity generation. And that’s not all, increase in water consumption could lead to increased waste water discharge and without any increase in sewage capacities it could lead to water borne diseases. This is a hypothetical scenario but it’s clear that it is impossible to understand the dynamics of the real world without going through the process of studying their interlinkages.”

When it comes to global negotiations on climate change, Mathur says India is not going wrong as the country’s per capita emissions are very low as compared to developed nations. It is not fair to expect India to go on an aggressive mitigation strategy at the cost of development which has yet to cover all of its people. However, a low carbon development vision would definitely mitigate emissions and achieve sustainable development. As India’s geography, cultures, ecosystems, agro ecological zones are very diverse it is almost impossible to have one strategy that fits all. To have bottom up development planning and integrating it with the top down climate change vision is a challenge. India has developed State level Action Plans on Climate Change and also has City Resilience Plans which are to get integrated with City Development Plans and Master Plans. Results, however, will only be visible in the future. India does have policies in place but to implement it and achieve the desired results at scale has been a problem. Mathur feels India’s greatest strength is its network of villages and if sustainable development is achieved in the country’s six lakh villages then the country could achieve its development and climate goals with much ease. Along with India’s focus on smart cities, it is important that the villages are not left out as they form the base of the country’s pyramid.

Models of a city that he has put together reveal that the quality of life in cities is going to deteriorate very soon (in some places it already has) mainly due to rising environmental pollution. While many of them may continue to choose to live in cities with a deteriorating quality of life, there would come a tipping point where cities become unattractive and people would start searching for other places to relocate. “I have heard of such discussions already taking place among people living in big metropolises,” Mathur says.

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Mathur interacting with farmers as part of his field work. (Handout)

Thus, he hopes that through his modelling work someday he will be able to develop tools to enable effective decision making (at the government or global level) for climate change planning.

Climate change, in 20 words is

Non normal variations in rainfall and temperatures with shift in seasons and increase in frequency of extreme weather events

Institutes where you can study

TERI University (http://www.teriuniversity.ac.in/)

Indira Gandhi National Open University (http://www.ignou.ac.in/)

Indian Institute of Forest Management (http://iifm.ac.in/)

Centre for Environment Education (http://www.ceeindia.org/cee/index.html)

Skills needed for the job

Liking for quantitative and qualitative analysis, good communication skills, openness for learning new things, honesty, curiosity.

Envisioning Carbon Neutral Villages

I am very pleased to share my paper on Envisioning Carbon Neutral Villages published in Current Science Journal. 

This is an outcome of my 5 year engagement of working closely with rural communities in India for a climate change adaptation programme. It had 10+ thematic areas of research and intervention. I focused on local money flows, climate risk impact assessment, carbon neutrality, livelihood resilience and alternate energy. 

This paper integrates all those thematic interventions, through a systems thinking approach, and positions them as enablers for transiting towards carbon neutrality. These interventions qualify as mitigation and adaptation both. Thereby, it also breaks the stereotype of ‘either/or’ and highlights the synergies between mitigation and adaptation.

It presents a scenario where social, technological and environmental interventions could potentially mitigate emissions, strengthen sinks and ultimately enable them to reach equilibrium.

With the risk of ‘runaway climate change’ increasing, I personally think lot of bottom up pilots need to be done in order to demonstrate that carbon neutrality could be achieved. Relatively soon and we need not wait till year 2100 (as science and models suggest). 

It is the need of the hour! By design or destiny… 

I hope you like reading the paper!.

Paper Link: http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/110/07/1208.pdf  

Presentations

These are a set of presentations on various topics which I have presented at different forums. It is being made freely available for non commercial use and source attribution would be highly appreciated. For any questions, clarifications or corrections please write to me.

Source: Presentations

The Idea of Localisation

Here is a note on my views of localization and why it is an effective way of achieving a sustainable society.

I welcome reader’s comments on this.

Vision: Communities thrive on resilient exchange of local goods and services in sustainable ecosystems for their overall well-being.
Mission: Enable social transformation towards more localized economy through regeneration and conservation of ecosystems and creation of local green jobs

Why go local?
Many reasons,
a. Learning is a feedback process. Behavior would modify if we receive feedback on our actions in relatively short time. Eg. While driving a vehicle the speedometer provides a feedback, similarly the fuel gauge also provides a feedback where we can take proactive steps to refuel in time. On these lines if our daily actions start providing us with feedback it will help us to be aware of the consequences our actions would have and affect behavior modification. Hence, it is important to collapse the space time between cause and effect. This is not possible if distant actions affect remote communities and ecosystems much beyond the temporal and spatial boundaries of the people living in those places. This delay creates blindness and hence restricts their learning process and awareness towards the consequences of their actions. The large delay involved between the unsustainable consumption practice and its impact on environment could very well close the window of opportunity where proactive actions could be taken to recover the situation or adapt to it. Thus it is important to go local and as much as possible have a close loop economy where what goes comes back in relatively short time. This could enable a self-governing system.
b. Complexity needs to be managed and harnessed. Tools which help us analyze data and make sense are good to understand situations which we don’t know. But at least here we are aware that we don’t know. Hence, it can be known through use of methods, tools, technology etc. But what happens when we don’t even know that we don’t know? The current situation of climate change, ecosystems degradation, governance issues, and economic uncertainty is interrelated, interconnected and interdepended in nature. I am not very sure how the tools which we use to understand complicated stuff would work in this complex situation. Hence, if the world is banking on technology, mathematical modeling and other forecasting tools to help us understand what we don’t know then it could be a recipe of disaster. The world has become too interconnected for us to comprehend its mischievous nature. Thus we need to decouple and start working with subsystems. We have to first make it manageable and then harness the complexity involved in it. Thus, going local is more manageable to develop models of change which may get adapted when the time comes.
c. Many subsystems make up the entire system. Top down approaches for development and policy often get disconnected with the local context. Hence set of best practices does not account for local diversity rather it relies on standardizing practices and one size must fit all type of approach. Rather a bottom up approach which self optimizes itself over a period of time would ideally take into account the local diversity and priorities. Policies and practices evolving from ground could have more acceptance and endurance as compared to top down planning.
How to go local?
a. Local but not isolated. Going local does not imply cutting ourselves from the external environment. It does not imply boycotting or living on isolated territories. In fact 100% local would not allow for risk transfers to take place through exchange of resources. Thus, it is only advisable to have semi closed economy where local substitution takes place for goods and services which are consistent with local priorities and are feasible in the near term.
b. Import substitution. Participatory appraisal would be the key for deciding on what to substitute, what resources are required for that substitution to take place, what their state is and how to maintain or achieve the desired state.
c. Green jobs. In most likelihood the state of local ecosystem and ecosystem services would be below the threshold for their sustainable consumption. Thus, it could very well be the case where regenerating and conserving ecosystems becomes the immediate action and people, institutions engaged in these activities earn their livelihood by providing their services. These could also be termed as local green jobs. It is of utmost importance that they earn through regeneration and conservation of ecosystems since this would provide them immediate incentives instead of motivating them for long term anticipated benefits.
d. Local currency. If green jobs are to be paid then a local revolving fund where the medium of exchange is not rupee but a local currency which cannot be used outside the locally decided boundaries but can be used for purchase and sale of local goods and services can be established. This initial infusion would then keep revolving within the community through exchange and transaction of local goods and services. But we will have to put more thought on the design of such a system.
e. Building credibility. Going local may not be the solution to all the problems and that’s not the idea of localization. It has to be seen as a systemic response to the multiple stresses of resource depletion, climate change and macroeconomic oscillations. The objective is to establish a proof of concept and test our assumptions in a safe manner. Most of our learning would come from failures and the pedagogy would evolve as we keep experimenting. Hence, the project should be done in the spirit of experimentation and not to prove success. We should seek to build credibility of the approach/concept and enhance our own understanding in an evolutionary manner.
f. Safe fail approach. It is only ethical that the size and nature of interventions should be such that even if they fail they don’t hurt the community or cause long term damage. They have to be small, diverse and must be developed in participatory manner.

Why Models are Wrong and still Useful!

Reflections from the Q&A session at INSEE conference presentation on system dynamics and on occasion of completion of 1 year of system dynamics work at TERI.

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We always use models. Sometime we know that we are using them while most of the time we are not aware about it. Here is an example. When you go to buy something for a friend or family member how do you make a decision on what to buy? Suppose I go to a shop to buy a shirt for my father, I create a mental image of him in my mind. It is a model. I use it to see if the shirt will suit him. I am now creating simulations. Based on the results of my mental simulations I take a decision of either to buy the product or not. Is my mental model right? No. It is a reflection of reality. My image of my father is a partial reflection about him. But it is still useful. I cannot do away with it. Does that effect my decision? Yes. At times when I am not sure about how the shirt will look on my father, I ask the shop keeper if he would exchange it. On other days, I would shortlist the shirt and say I will come back with my father. What is happening here? I don’t have enough confidence on my mental model. But I am still using it to make a decision. It all depends on what model we have the highest confidence upon. We use them all the time. Even better, I would prefer to have my sister, mother or wife with me to make the decision of buying the shirt. I would consult them. I would want them to use their Mental Model and share their simulation findings with me. I am testing and validating my model. Does this make my model right? No. But it helps improve my understanding of my model. It helps me to make an informed decision. I use my mental model and other’s models to arrive at a conclusion. At times it works, at times it does not. My father may not like the shirt, or he may like it or we may not like it as much as we thought we would. But does that mean that we don’t use our mental model and simulation for making a decision? No. We all use models all the time, Knowingly or unknowingly.

The real question to be asked is whether we are aware of the fact that we do so. Do we have easy access to the assumptions which go in creation of our mental models? Do we communicate them well to others while making a decision or a policy? What tools can help us elicit our assumptions and create a schema of our mental model so that we can share it with others and so do they?

I believe the answer to the above questions is the use of system dynamics. It is a tool which can help us improve our understanding of our mental models and open it up for others to review and improve. This in turn improves our understanding of the system we are dealing with for effective decision making and policy planning.

Does this mean that we shall find solution to all the problems? No. Does this mean that our model shall be right? No.

But it would allow us to test our assumptions and improve our decision making process. Simulations also give us the power to understand the unintended consequences of our actions. At the end it can improve our confidence levels on the model which we shall use to make decisions.

Further reading on Models and System Dynamics:

http://web.mit.edu/jsterman/www/All_Models_Are_Wrong_(SDR).pdf

http://www.systemdynamics.org/

http://mitsloan.mit.edu/group/system-dynamics/

http://xmile.systemdynamics.org/