My Journey of Systems Thinking – Part III

Where did I learn systems thinking? The answer is simple but confusing, even to me. Technically, I learnt it at my post grad college, Sadhana Center for Management and Leadership Development, Pune. This was a subject in our curriculum. We studied it for two years. First year we had systems thinking and then an elective on system dynamics modeling. Sushil Bajpai and Rajinder Raina were our mentors, professors, friends and fellow systems thinkers. They had this impossible task of teaching systems thinking to 160 idiots. When I reflect now I think my performance in class and particularly in exams was below par. That is according to my standards and interpretation. But my mark-sheet tells a different story. May be my professors were liberal, may be they saw something more than what exam results or written answers told them. They had an insight and a foresight on how to identify, nurture interest and develop potential systems thinkers.

But I did not really learn systems thinking alone in my college. I was introduced to it there, I read and heard it there, I also practiced it, applying to some of our corporate strategy cases. I had used it to study Dell company’s strategy on how their business model was different from others. Organised a systems thinking seminar calling the commissioner of Pune plus more audience. Sushil and Rajinder got Shiela Damodaran to Pune to conduct that seminar and we did more stuff.  Linking Vipassana to Systems Thinking, the business model of Dabbawalas to principles of systems thinking. All that was very good but I was not really a systems thinking practitioner back then.

When I joined WOTR, Sept 2009, I worked with Sushil Bajpai and a bunch of brilliant folks there working on really complex social and ecological issues. The project was on climate change adaptation. It had all the elements of real world complexity that one can imagine. It also had institutional complexity which was to dealt with bringing in elements of learning organization pedagogy (more on this later). The project was a pioneering effort in the field of climate change adaptation in India. WOTR had a credible name and evidence in field which made them a potent force for community based natural resource management. But this project was a different animal and it brought in new animals at WOTR. I was one of them.

I learnt systems thinking outside my class room. A lot was learnt by observation and not implementation. For around 2 years, I was a fence watcher. Not committing myself into any one activity of the project but learning and observing about what is going on everywhere and what I think could happen. All these years I had the luxury to learn, read, observe, unlearn, relearn. This opportunity was rare, perhaps once in a lifetime. Did I made most of it? Only time will tell. But I had a ball. We use to have intense practical and philosophical discussions on what is true adaptation, why humans fail to understand how their actions are killing themselves, why peak oil would redesign our lives, would peak water hit us first or peak oil or are we living in an age of peak everything? Lot of systems thinking was used in our discussion. I was a mere spect-actor and Sushil did most of the thinking, talking and doing. It was like we had a high quality TED talk every week, coming from our field experiences and books that we use to read and the project ambitions. We use to be very critical of ourselves, our actions and the project itself. Questioning the sustainability of the institution, the project, ourselves and should we even live in cities anymore? Should we reverse migrate? Those were crazy discussions, beyond office space, at our homes, common meeting places, over beer and biryani.

I learnt systems thinking by looking and observing reality and then linking it with the theory of systems thinking. By reading books, not only on systems thinking but on multiple disciplines. I learnt systems thinking at WOTR, by listening to Sushil, by working on field with the team, by talking to community, friends, remembering the theories of books while seeing real world dynamics unfolding on field. I learnt it by practice but not only through implementation. I saw why and how implementation often is weak in rural areas and how, while I was leading some verticals of the projects, I was still making the same mistakes. I understood the power of the system we are in and how it influences our behavior. How we speak one thing, but do another and then still are unaware.

I think I did multiple post grads while at WOTR from 2009 till 2014. Un-parallel to any other experience. I learnt systems thinking through that journey and the journey still continues bringing in more surprises, twists and turns.

One happening and happy journey, I must say.

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Drawdown, A Book on Reversing Climate Change

Dear Friends,

I am very pleased to share with you the release of book Drawdown by
Paul Hawken. The book analyses and simulates climate impacts (reduction in atmospheric CO2 eq ppm) of 100 climate solutions which if implemented at scale could reverse global warming. I was fortunate to be part of the project and did a fellowship to contribute to two chapters 1) Reducing Food Waste (#3 in climate impact ranking) and 2) Family Planning (#6/7 in climate impact ranking). It was a wonderful experience to be part of the global fellowship and do the number crunching exercises with technical writing.

Source: http://www.drawdown.org/

The book is a first of its kind and a must read for everyone who is interested in sustainability, climate change, business, environment and even those who are climate skeptics. The solutions go beyond just climate change and offers future scenarios which could be useful for development of green businesses. The scope and potential is immense and the time to act is “Now”.

You can know more about the book, its solutions and buy a copy of it from http://www.drawdown.org/.

Please circulate it widely and we welcome your questions, thoughts and critics on the work.

Thank you,
Mihir.

Red alert: Why we need to act now to counter the challenges of climate change

Reposted from FirstPost link: http://www.firstpost.com/living/red-alert-why-we-need-to-act-now-to-counter-the-challenges-of-climate-change-2818634.html 

The current drought affecting 330 million people, the heat wave that is gripping most cities and falling water tables in Delhi, Gurgaon, Bangalore and other parts of India are all indications of what we could expect from our future as humans continue to burn massive quantities of fossil fuel, encroach green spaces to build ever-growing concrete cities. Water tables are declining at alarming rates of 1-1.2 meters a year in the major metros as well as other parts of India. The ratio of trees to humans has fallen to 1:7 in Bangalore as against the desired level of 8:1 i.e. there is one tree for seven humans as against a requirement of eight trees for one human. April 2016 has set the record on fire as being the hottest month globally and the seventh month in a row.

The multiplicity of such ecological stressors could cause a systemic fall in the architecture of our modern life. Our food and water supply, quality of the air we breathe and weather conditions that make life livable are under threat from risks of climate change and resource depletion. Our reckless high carbon progress and complete disregard for natural resources is taking us towards the brink of ecological and economic collapse.

The relentless burning of fossil fuels has led to the tremendous increase in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. Reuters

The relentless burning of fossil fuels has led to the tremendous increase in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. Reuters

Exponential growth in population has put and is putting enormous pressure on an already depleting natural resource base while the process of conversion of resources to economic goods has created vast amounts of pollution leading to climate change. The scale of these challenges is unprecedented, especially for a highly populous and developing country like India.

These challenges will continue to grow as we keep emitting huge amounts of carbon dioxide every year. This relentless burning of our greatest nonrenewable resource, fossil fuels, has led to the increase in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide from 285 parts per million (ppm) in 1850 to400 ppm in 2015. This has resulted in the warming of the planet and Earth’s average surface temperature has already gone up by around 0.85° Celsius as compared to pre-industrial levels.

Taking cognisance of this alarming rise in the temperature, global leaders have been meeting every year, now for over two decades, to decide on what conscious actions each country can take to reduce their emissions. The latest Conference of Parties (COP 21), held in December 2015 in Paris, is considered to be a landmark event in the history of global climate change discourse. It is so because countries have come to an agreement, with many non-legal binding elements, to reduce their national carbon emissions starting from 2020. If they successfully meet their mitigation targets, which have never happened before, then it will restrict the global warming and temperature rise to 2.7° Celsius.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) considers an increase of 2° Celsius as the maximum safe limit to avoid dangerous repercussions of climate change.

With April 2016 recording 1.1° Celsius above the baseline 1951-1980 average, has global warming reached a new normal of increase in temperature of 1.1° Celsius or is it a temporary phenomenon caused due to weather conditions?

The science of climate change is complex. There is huge uncertainty involved in the predictions done by models on global temperature rise. There are a set of scientists who believe the target to limit atmospheric concentration to 450 ppm is optimistic and could trigger a potential snowball effect which can take the temperature rise well beyond 2° Celsius. They advocate for a maximum atmospheric ppm level of 330-350 in order to avoid the irreversible process of the temperature rise. No one knows for sure when the climate tipping points would be crossed. But if we continue emitting carbon the way we have done so far, then breaching the tipping points could be just a matter of time.

With an already warmer planet and shrinking natural resource base, it is in our interest to reduce the atmospheric concentration from current levels of 400 ppm to 350 ppm. What this means, in terms of changing our world and lives, is beyond what we have seen in the global climate change discourse. A conscious mitigation effort, as seen in the Paris agreement, would only reduce the extent of increase in ppm levels or at best stabilise them at higher levels. But to bring it down requires some serious and mass scale redesigning of the systems in which we live. Our transportation choices, what we eat, buy, throw, consume everything would need to undergo systemic redesigning, in fairly quick time. But first, this change has to begin in our minds. If we fail to take it as a personal responsibility and consider climate change as a personal issue, rather than seeing it only as a universal issue, then all policy measures at global or national levels would be futile.

This becomes particularly important since we not only face risks of global climate change but also of running out of local natural resources. While non-renewable resources like minerals, metals, and fossil fuel are bound to deplete because they don’t regenerate, even the renewable natural resources like water, biodiversity, timber etc are under severe depletion. Our disregard for conservation of natural resources poses an immediate clear threat to the sustenance of the human kind and economy.

In order to understand how humans have created an impact on Earth, let us take a look at some of the irrefutable facts.

1) Human being’s population in 1800 was 1 billion. In 2015 global population has crossed 7 billion. We have grown by 7 times in 200 years, doubling ourselves in every 30-35 years. Which other species has followed this trajectory in this time?

2) Fossil fuels are formed over millions of years of biogeochemical process. They are derivatives of ancient sunshine and biomass buried underneath Earth’s surface. We are burning about millions of years of ancient sunshine in 250 years through industrialisation. And we are not finished yet.

3) According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, rapid consumption of natural resources over the past 50 years has resulted in considerable, and to a large extent, irreversible loss of ecological diversity. 18,788 species out of 52,017 so far assessed are threatened with extinction.

4) Since 2000, 6 million hectares of primary forest have been lost each year.

5) Every day species’ extinctions are continuing at up to 1,000 times or more the natural rate. With the current biodiversity loss, we are witnessing the greatest extinction crisis since dinosaurs disappeared from our planet 65 million years ago.

6)In most places groundwater tables are depleting faster than their regeneration rate. Delhi’s groundwater is estimated to be depleting 1 meter a year on average.4000 borewells have gone dry in one month in Bangalore, an increase by 12 times compared to last year.

Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell, says author Edward Abbey in The Second Rape of the West. This quote provides perspective into the human paradigm responsible for our current ecological crises.

Ideally,these indications should be enough to stimulate our common sense in believing that immediate actions are to be taken. Until we work at changing our paradigms and belief systems, we are merely doing window dressing with the hope of expecting systemic change.

Degrowth in atmospheric concentration levels can be achieved, only if we take cognisance of current reality, build harmonious consensus and start putting our act together. We have enough time to act but none to waste.

The author is an Associate Fellow, Earth Science Climate Change division at TERI. All views are personal. 

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