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Gulf Oil Leak: A Systems Thinking Perspective

June 30th, 2010 1 comment

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by isee’s consulting & training partner Chris Soderquist

Oil on a Pensacola FL beachIt’s been a little over 10 weeks since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that has resulted in a constant flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.  Oil is now beginning to impact the economy of the Florida coast.  Some estimate that the disaster could cost nearly 200,000 tourism jobs.   Efforts  to remove the impacts on the environment, including a massive rescue of manatees could cost billions.  The ability to truly restore the environment to pre-April 20 conditions is beyond that of mere mortals. It is an event truly unprecedented.

Who’s to Blame?

The current media focus has centered on an activity I refer to as the Find the Knucklehead Game. The idea is that there must be someone out there to blame, tar and feather, and that if we just remove the idiot from the system we’ll never have this problem again. Finé. Complete. Case closed! (And there was great rejoicing…)

However, if we begin to apply the systems thinking paradigm, there’s another analysis that might suggest we are in a long-term trend that is still just ramping up – and that if we don’t take action soon the impact on the economy and environment may be much worse.

A Systems Thinking Perspective

Two of the skills required to practice systems thinking are Dynamic Thinking and 10,000 Meter Thinking. If we look at the history of oil extraction from the balcony, as a long-term trend over time, we see something that may be quite useful. Let’s apply a concept developed by Charles Hall (SUNY-College of Environmental Science and Forestry) called EROI (“energy return on investment”).  EROI is the ratio between the energy we receive – to run our transportation system, heat our buildings, run electricity generators – and the amount of energy required to get the raw material out of the ground and process it into usable form. In the early 20th Century, oil was easy to extract. In many places it was just below the surface in the wide open fields. The EROI was 100:1 in 1930 – 100 units of energy received for 1 unit of energy extracting/processing. Since then there has been a marked decline, and as the United States passed peak oil production (the maximum production rate) in the early 1970s, and as we’ve begun importing most of our oil, the EROI for oil in the US is approximately 20:1.

Charles Hall's Energy Return on Investment Graph

Charles Hall's Energy Return on Investment Graph

Why the marked decline? Because the purest, easiest to extract/process oil has likely been found and burned (leading to too much in our atmosphere, but that’s another point). We now need to go to more distant places (no longer fields) – offshore, into the Arctic – to find oil. Often the oil is no longer in purest form; converting the “oil goo” from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada is a prime example.

Continuation of a Trend

Using the systems thinking perspective, we may conclude that the “event” of Deepwater Horizon is an inevitable continuation of a trend (that includes the Exxon Valdez). And that the trend is likely to get worse as our need (thirst) for oil increases – which will occur as developing nations continue trying to catch up to the developed world, and as we hope for “economic recovery.”

This leads to several questions in my mind.

  1. If it’s true that the easiest to extract and process oil has been found and used, what’s this indicate about the risks we’ll incur as it requires increasing effort to get oil in the future? More deepwater drilling? Environmental degradation/damage to get oil like tar sands extracted?
  2. How much oil really is left – how long will we continue to have this cheap resource?
  3. Further, if we are facing increasing risks and costs for every unit of oil we acquire, when will that begin to have severe impacts on our economy (as the per unit cost of the stuff we love – iPods, cars, flying to Europe – increases, the profit margins of our globalized corporations will decrease)?
  4. And when will we decide that we need to develop a way of living that is independent of this resource? To recover from our “addiction to oil.”

How Much Oil Is Left?

I’ve developed and published an isee NetSim model that you may use to explore questions regarding how long the resource will last and the implications of the economy on that length. You may explore it here.

"How Much Oil is Left?" online simulation

Ultimately, we need to stop the Find the Knucklehead Game and instead recognize that it is we – in the collective sense – that are responsible. Not just for the recent disaster, but the long-term trend and its consequences (including the unintended consequences of climate change). The system is behaving as it is designed. It is up to us to design a different system!

“Tracing Connections” book honors Barry Richmond

June 17th, 2010 7 comments

Barry RichmondBarry Richmond was the founder of isee systems and pioneer in the field of systems thinking.  When his life was cut short by a sudden fatal heart attack, Barry was in the prime of his career and the systems thinking community experienced a collective sense of loss and grief.

Barry was fully engaged in bringing systems thinking to everyone.  He saw how this powerful way of thinking could help people to better understand society’s most pressing issues and make the world a better place.  Barry saw K-12 education as one of the keys to creating a better world.  He spoke often about educating young people to become ”systems citizens” and preparing students for the complex problems they would have to face.  Much of his time was devoted to training teachers to incorporate systems thinking into curricula and pedagogy.

A couple of years ago, Barry’s daughter, Joy Richmond, began spearheading an effort to create a book in honor of her father.  Joy invited a group of us together to talk about some ideas for the book and come up with a plan to make it happen. The first idea we discussed was writing the book that Barry himself had intended to write.  Barry left plenty of notes and even had a working title for a book about systems thinking called Traces.   We all agreed that it would be much too daunting to try to write a book for Barry, so we decided to have a book written in tribute to Barry by friends and colleagues who share his passion for systems thinking.

Steve Peterson, Corey Peck and Khalid Saeed were all part of that original discussion and eager to contribute by writing a chapter.  Each had a story to tell about using Systems Thinking in their work and why it is so important in an increasingly interdependent world.  What better way to honor Barry than writing a book that helped get the word out about systems thinking!

Shaping the Book

Lees Stuntz, Executive Director of the Creative Learning Exchange, was also in on the discussion and excited about asking educators influenced by Barry to contribute their stories. Before we invited other authors however, we wanted to provide some guidelines that would tie the book together and give it a more meaningful context.  I think it was Steve who came up with the idea to use the critical thinking skills first outlined in an article Barry wrote for the System Dynamics Review titled “Systems Thinking: Critical Thinking Skills for the 1990s and Beyond”.   We agreed the systems thinking skills would provide a good foundation for the book and each author could then choose a few of the thinking skills to emphasize when telling their story.

Tracing ConnectionsCountless hours of writing, editing, and designing later, Tracing Connections: Voices of Systems Thinkers was born.  Published in partnership with the Creative Learning Exchange, proceeds from the book will fund scholarships that offer learning opportunities for educators to use systems thinking and system dynamics in K-12 education.  The response so far has been excellent and we are pleased to be funding scholarships to help educators attend the ST/DM Conference later this month.

A Chapter for Everyone

What is especially nice about the book, is that you don’t need to read each chapter in sequence.  Since the authors’ experiences range from education and research to business and public policy, there’s sure to be a chapter for everyone.  Click on the link below to view the chapter by Frank Draper titled “Teaching by Wondering Around: Learning About the World Naturally”.  Frank tells a wonderful story about how Systems Thinking has transformed the way he teaches science to high school students.  After reading it, you’re going to wish you could enroll in one of Frank’s field science classes at Catalina Foothills school district in Tuscon, Arizona.

Teaching by Wondering Around by Frank Draper

Animal Temperature Model

Table of Contents with full list of chapter titles and authors

For more information or to order a copy of Tracing Connections, visit http://www.iseesystems.com/tc