Open Thinkering


Tag: climate emergency

TB871: Vicious cycles and causal loops

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

Activity 2.14 asks us to take the following diagram and create two separate causal loop diagrams signalling the ‘vicious cycles’:

A circular diagram titled "AMAZON RAINFOREST DIE-OFF" explains the cycle of degradation with a central image of a burnt forest and surrounding text indicating escalating environmental damage due to rising temperatures, increased wildfires, tree deaths, and decreased rainfall.
Taken from module materials (The Open University, 2020)

I had a quick look at the ‘answer’ after creating my two loops below, and they’re presented separately. But I still prefer my version:

Causal loop diagram. First loop showing reduction in number of trees leads to less water in air, and less rainfall, leading to drought, and so fewer trees.

Second loop shows days of drought leading to increased number of wildfires, which releases more CO2, and therefore increases average global temperatures, and therefore increases the number of days of drought.


Hope vs optimism

Last night I went to a local climate action reading group. As I have learned to do, I listened to what was being said before speaking, noticing the word ‘hope’ had come up a number of times. I wondered out loud whether hope was something that we needed to have to respond to the climate emergency?

Another word that you could use instead of hope is ‘optimism’. Semantics, maybe, but the way that I understand hope is that you’re looking to other people to save you. ‘Optimism’, on the other hand, is something that you generate yourself, intentionally. As Gramsci put it:

You must realize that I am far from feeling beaten…it seems to me that… a man out to be deeply convinced that the source of his own moral force is in himself — his very energy and will, the iron coherence of ends and means — that he never falls into those vulgar, banal moods, pessimism and optimism. My own state of mind synthesises these two feelings and transcends them: my mind is pessimistic, but my will is optimistic. Whatever the situation, I imagine the worst that could happen in order to summon up all my reserves and will power to overcome every obstacle.

(my emphasis)

In other words, having a clear-eyed picture of what is going on (pessimism of the intellect) can be useful in summoning up an internal state to do something about it (optimism of the will). This then enables us to band together to enact change, rather than simply picking through various bits of climate news for the things which are ‘hopeful’.

I’m an admirer of Adam Greenfield’s work, and was delighted to have the opportunity to interview him last week for our podcast. I took along his article from last year about ‘Lifehouses’ and read the first half of this bit to the group:

Here’s the crux of it: local communities should assume control over underutilized churches, and convert them to Lifehouses, facilities designed to help people ride out not merely the depredations of neoliberal austerity, but the still-harsher circumstances they face in what I call the Long Emergency, the extended period of climatic chaos we’ve now entered. This means fitting them out as decentralized shelters for the unhoused, storehouses for emergency food stocks (rotated through an attached food bank), heating and cooling centers for the physically vulnerable, and distributed water-purification, power-generation and urban-agriculture sites capable of supporting the neighborhood around them when the ordinary sources of supply become unreliable.

He continues:

The fundamental idea of the Lifehouse is that there should be a place in every three-to-four city-block radius where you can charge your phone when the power’s down everywhere else, draw drinking water when the supply from the mains is for whatever reason untrustworthy, gather with your neighbors to discuss and deliberate over matters of common concern, organize reliable childcare, borrow tools it doesn’t make sense for any one household to own individually, and so on — and that these can and should be one and the same place. As a foundation for collective resourcefulness, the Lifehouse is a practical implementation of solarpunk values, and it’s eminently doable.
Formally, the infrastructural services I imagine Lifehouses offering are distributed, as opposed to centralized, which makes them robust to the kind of grid failure we’ve been experiencing more and more often.

As I walked home from the group, I reflected on the scale of what we need to achieve as a species. Even if everything pumping out emissions shut down tomorrow, there’s already enough carbon in our atmosphere to mean that we’re in serious trouble.

I can see why the original title of Greenfield’s new book was Beyond Hope: Collective Power and Mutual care in the Long Emergency. Although the revised title is snappier, I’m convinced that we require does, indeed, require going ‘beyond hope’. Perhaps I need to resurrect something like (although someone is now squatting that particular domain)

Update: a follow-up up post over at Thought Shrapnel thanks to Will Richardson, who left a link in the comments section below: Hope vs Natality

Image: DALL-E 3

I’m not flying any more

Update: a lot has happened in the world since I wrote this post. I’m still committed to reducing my environmental impact, but a blanket ban on flying just places too many of the world’s problems on my own shoulders.

Flight departures board with all flights cancelled

I have decided that I’m not going to fly on aeroplanes any more. We’re in a climate emergency, and this feels like an appropriate and proportionate decision to make in response.

The last time I flew was in March 2020, coming back from Belgium. In the three months prior I’d also been to Kuwait City, Barcelona, Reykjavik, and NYC. Given the glamour traditionally associated with international flights, it’s difficult to talk about this in a way that doesn’t sound like humblebragging. But I don’t particularly like flying: I don’t like airports, I don’t like not being able to stand up and move around regularly, I don’t like the recycled air, and I don’t like the food. What I do like is travelling to new places and meeting people face-to-face. From now on, with no planes, that’s only going to happen via train or automobile.

There are, of course, people who have flown a lot more than me, but if we look at the big picture I was definitely in the top 10% of flight-takers, and some years (like the one I spent 24 hours in Florida) I would probably be in the top 1%.

Prior to the pandemic, if I wanted to be paid for speaking at an event, I had to be there in person; remote keynotes were not very common, and where they did happen, they often commanded a lower rate. These days, especially as people realise the environmental impact of travel, I suspect that might have changed forever. At least I hope so.

This decision, of course, not only affects me professionally but personally as well. Team Belshaw enjoyed holidays in New England and Iceland in 2019 — two places it’s very difficult to get to from the UK other than by air. We’re also quite fond of Gozo, a little island just off Malta that we’ve visited six times in the last decade. Regardless, we’re going to have to find new places to holiday. At least, if I’m tagging along.

It’s important to note that while this decision may constrain the decisions other members of my family can make, I am not making decisions on their behalf. When I stopped eating meat in 2017, the rest of my family continued until my son came to his own decision to stop in early 2020. It was his prompting that got us both to stop eating fish in February of this year.

There is one exception to this decision: health emergencies. If a friend or family member is seriously ill, I will take the fastest form of transport to go and see them. Likewise, if I am seriously ill and need help in a specific place, I will consider flying for treatment.

Other than that, I’m done. I’m writing this mainly to point to for those who may ask me in future to attend an event that would have only really been feasible for me to fly to. But I’m also writing it as a public declaration to keep me honest when I see cheap flights advertised. (How can the UK government seriously be cutting air passenger duty after declaring a climate emergency?!)

So if I’ve sent you a link to this post because you’ve invited me to an event or gathering, thank you. I’m not declining to come because I don’t want to attend, but because, as Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”