This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

"Dana" Meadows Helps Find Purpose and the Plastic in a System of Plastic Pollution

Our MOSS team started with four members, later increasing by one during the Acumen Systems Practice course, a Practical Course to Move from Impossible to Impact. The MOSS Systems Practice team sought a systems model to Address Plastic Pollution in Bangkok, Thailand and I endeavored to map such a system.

Our Systems Practice process in the building of the model, as to be expected considering the size of the team, was internally focused. A previous Social Practice project, on homeless camp food trucks, was more of a hybrid, partially participatory with some internal expertise also provided.

A question raised about the potential of our model to become highly participatory was not able to be adequately addressed. Concerns about the participatory involvement in the creation of the model have been addressed in previous posts. Regardless, there is now an independent, able to stand alone systems perspective, arising from a systems analysis, that can be communicated and evaluated. Except there is still something missing.

First, beyond the limitations of all models, it remains an academic simulation prototype with no connection with actual on-the-ground stakeholders. Second, what has also been missing from this systems analysis is plastic, the actual physical material. Plastic may be implied, alluded to, referred to but it is never actually fully made an integral part of the system. Even the Kumu factor plastic is core material is not about plastic itself but about the relationship of plastic to the systems of plastic production to consumption supply lines and of plastic pollution.

A simple model of the stock and flow of a Plastic Pollution Production System was created, which this post will examine from the perspective of Donella Meadows’ Leverage-Points - Places to Intervene in a System, using a modified version of a basic stock and flow diagram Meadows provided. 

The two plastic pollution models, the Insight Maker Stock and Flow model and the full Enabling and Inhibiting Pathways map through a Kumu Causal Loop Diagram presentation should work together but will be considered separately. The Insight Maker plastic pollution model which has inflows and outflows obeying the rules of conservation and accumulation deals with mostly Physical Change. The Kumu models containing those factors that cause those flows to change involves primarily Information Change. Both maps or models start with the existing state of the system, not a desired one.

Each sector or subsystem of the Causal Loop map influences the Stock and Flow model differently, none have the production of plastic pollution as their express purpose. For each of them, it could be said to be an unintended consequence, giving the false impression that the issue could be addressed with some tweaking around the edges of those systems. It is instead, through a POSIWID lens, the seemingly paradoxical concept of an unintended purpose (function).

The stock of plastic pollution within our Environment is large and growing rapidly. Certain driving factors have likely brought about the current state, such as the rapid expansion of the Thai economy but a desire to compete with other Asian countries such as China may continue to provide additional fuel. Together, the involved sectors of the system create a system of plastic pollution production which means creating a system of environmental destruction.

The basic parameters of the Plastic Pollution Production stock and flow system are Supply (blue flows into blue stock) and Demand (green flows from blue stock), and the percentage of Mismanaged Waste produced (brown flows into brown stock) as influenced by the factors of the Addressing Plastic Pollution in Bangkok, Thailand Kumu project. Changing parameters rarely changes behavior and needs to encourage leverage higher up to be effective which invariably requires outside intervention.

The Plastic pollution system seems to be without physical entities or buffers sufficient to effectively regulate it. Buffers, even when they exist, are usually not easy to change but enhancing the Thailand Waste Management System (75% mismanaged) could be one important step.

Structure especially physical structure is important in regulating a system. The physical arrangement of stock and flows, the ”plumbing” of a system, has a tremendous effect upon how a system operates. Rebuilding can be seen as the only way to fix a system wrongly laid out. Physical rebuilding, however, is one of the slowest and most expensive ways to make changes to a system. Proper design is only a primary leverage point at initial stages, after that, it becomes a matter of understanding limitations and bottlenecks.

The question then is what are the feedbacks to a stock and flow system of plastic pollution? There are seemingly few oscillations in the plastic pollution production/consumption system though there is increasingly in post-consumption.

The most noticeable delay in the system has to do with where the pollution ends up. Rivers and channels can become clogged delaying the flow of plastic pollution into the ocean. Ocean currents determine the time plastic pollution takes to arrive at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

There are few if any negative feedback loops that are apparent. There is no global thermostat for the plastic pollution production system. The implementation of any new negative feedback loops will be relative to the impact it is designed to correct. This can require internalizing costs such as with pollution taxes. Pollution taxes are a means to discourage or recapture, after the fact, the externalized public costs of private benefit depending upon economic elasticity. The full cost of plastic pollution is not reflected in the price of related products. In truth, the cost of plastic pollution is subsidized and deferred for those creating it.

Unfortunately, this can require another type of negative feedback system necessary to bring these changes into effect about and that is a democracy, which is currently under pressure in Thailand.

No positive feedback loops can seem to be found in the system to control plastic pollution. There are potentially positive feedback factors within the plastic pollution production system that could have a greater detrimental effect on the environment, particularly under a Success to the Successful archetype emphasizing growth and disregarding alternatives. Could the positive feedback loops within the plastic pollution production system could be weakened or countered with negative feedback loops?

Information flow regarding plastic pollution is either nonexistent or delayed to such an extent that it has little effect. The inclusion of better information could have a potential benefit and it should be possible to make it real-time information. At first look, it seems an inverted tragedy of the commons providing information regarding the system but without means to address it.

Another factor is determining what are the rules, both espoused and in-use regarding plastic pollution in Bangkok, Thailand. How might restructuring those rules work to mitigate or eliminate plastic pollution? What forces prevent these from being implemented?

The plastic pollution production system, in my view, as it exists does not currently have the power of self-organization within the larger social-economic system, at least not in a manner which is sufficient to change course or the outcomes of the plastic production system at this time. Developing self-organization is an organic process, not an imposed one but is enhanced through experimentation, diversity, and variability and requires resilience and the ability to self-evolve. This is an area in which social entrepreneurship could prove to be helpful but would likely require a Collective Impact approach to be successful.

The final question is what is the mindset or paradigm upon which Thais and everybody else in the world have based their goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters of the systems in which they operate that needs to change in relation to plastic pollution?

Donella Meadows advised us to work with active change agents, and separately in my view, with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded and not to waste time with reactionaries. Admittedly, I have somewhat grammatically changed the emphasis but I have faith the spirit is the same. I don’t have quite as much faith in her advice to keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, at least less than in asserting assurances from the new paradigms but then we have to actually develop and establish them. Only then can we begin to insert people with the new paradigms in places of public visibility and power but then first we need new paradigms on how to insert people in those places of public visibility and power based on those new paradigms.

There's nothing physical or expensive or even slow in the process of paradigm change. In a single individual, it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind, a falling of scales from eyes, a new way of seeing. Whole societies are another matter — they resist challenges to their paradigm harder than they resist anything else. 

Modeling a system can take you outside of the system encouraging you to see it as a whole. If successful then it is your own paradigms that have been changed in a way making it possible for you to help others to change theirs.

Past Posts