How Might We : Layer The Climate Problem ?

You can’t fix what you can’t discuss

A friend and me have been conversing on how might design make the conversation around climate change more tractable ?

I has posted earlier on a suggested approach : unpack any experience in layers. This is the first step in unpacking big systems — companies, healthcare, education, society. See more here :

The de-construction I did for education proved useful for the friend I’m working on the problem with. See more here :

So we decided to see if we could layer the climate experience. We agreed on a few simple rules :

  1. Any layering must allow us to think about the climate problem in a more coherent way than today. There’s a lot of alarmism today which gets in the way of really thinking about it. The amygdala hijack so to speak.
  2. The layering must also allow us to see connections we normally wouldn’t

After a few weeks of trying different models which went nowhere and the conversation breaking down, we arrived at a critical insight :

The economic system is an overlay to the climate system. A robust model must account for the connection between the economic and climactic systems.

The period of incubation of a few weeks was essential to arrive at this. Based on this, here is a first suggested layering of the climate system :

A first deconstruction of the climate system

Before I explain this — lets talk about what might be a useful way to think about the climate system. i.e. what’s a good

Mental Model

Think of the climate system as spheres within spheres. Each sphere has a collection of resources that it is responsible for managing. To do so, each sphere has its own goals for managing its resources, principles by which it does so, and a natural speed at which it operates.

In a harmonious system the principles of every sphere is in harmony with the principles the other spheres, even though every system is moving at different speeds and pursues different goals. Essentially each sphere inherits the principle of the sphere inside it. This allows all the spheres to mesh with each other and move as one — somewhat like magnetic induction in synchronous motors.

However, as one sphere operates on principles which violate those of the ones below it — the coupling breaks and introduce chaos into the system which affects every other level in the system.

Since each sphere is a complex system unto itself, we first attempt to understand it by the its behaviour rather than its components.

We want understand how a particular system behaves and only then ask what makes it behave this way.

To do this, imagine the system is running at full throttle and visualise what the distribution of resources would look like on the surface of each sphere once.

Do resources cluster together or do they fragment ? Do they form connections between themselves or become islands ? Are resources evenly distributed or do they aggregate unevenly ? Is there diversity in resources or homogeneity ?

How resources are distributed tell us something about the intention of the system and the principles on which it operates.


From the core outwards, lets look at the the layers that make up the climatic system. The language is intentionally simple — we take a beginners mind approach to this conversation. I apologise for any conceptual errors. This is a first cut and I will refine it as I understand more — so I am grateful if you catch it and leave a comment that brings my attention to it.

Radiation System

This system manages the resource of pure energy coming in from the sun. The goal of this system is to keep the earth warm enough. It returns all of the energy it receives from the sun. It does so by the principle of balance. Energy balance in particular. The energy received from the sun is sent back to it via different channels. The greenhouse system by which sufficient heat is trapped on earth is a part of this system. To do so, it works with the ocean and cloud system

Ocean & Cloud System

This system manages the resource of water. The goal of this system is to retain the heat and distribute it evenly across earth. It does so by the principle of Connectedness. The oceanic and cloud systems are connected. The cloud and wind systems are connected by a mechanism we call convection. Both systems use currents — flows in their system to make sure heat is distributed across the earth as efficiently as possible.

This system also respects the Radiation System’s principle of Balance. So if the temperature gets too hot, the mechanism of convection is reversed — what we call condensation along with the direction of flow of water, bringing the temperature into balance.

Earth System

This system manages the resource of carbon : all plant and animal life across land, sea and sky. I count humans in animal life. The goal of the system is diversity and dynamic balance. To achieve diversity the system uses the principle of incremental improvement — what we call evolution, to create enormous variety over time. To achieve dynamic balance, the system uses two principles : recirculation of resources and the predator and prey system.

The recirculation of resources ensures that output of one system is input for the other system. Carbon dioxide and oxygen is recirculated endlessly between plants and animals. There is no notion of waste — which would mean a particular output was produced by not consumed by another system, creating imbalance. The carbon cycle is a part of this system.

The predator-prey system works in tandem with the diversity system. It ensure that populations do not continue to grow without limits due to diversity. And that specimens with the the highest chances or survival from the evolutionary process are left to replicate.

It respects the previous systems principle of connectedness — the structure and design of all its resources has built into it and amongst it tremendous interconnectedness.

Oddly man, violates both of these core principles. Man violates dynamic balance by creating systems where the output of a system is unusable by any other natural system, and in many instances actively harmful to it ( violating recirculation of resources ). Man also violates dynamic balance by creating systems which a predatory in nature, which do not give sufficient time for the prey population to recover to healthy levels ( violating the predator-prey system ).

Livelihood System

We now move to the realm of man made systems.

This system exploits the resources of the Earth system. The goal of the system is to improve man’s own living conditions. The principle by which it achieves this changes over time.

To begin with man used the organising principle of Co-operation : operating together with. This respected the Earth System’s principles of diversity and dynamic balance. We worked with what the Earth system gave us and took as much as we needed, when we needed it preserving dynamic balance. We respected the Earth and Cloud systems principle of Connectedness : men were largely equal and non-hierarchical allowing for uniform connectedness.

With time this organising principle changed to Cultivation : Co-operation with Accumulation. This created the notion of stock and allowed us to “save for a rainy day” while working with the rhythms of nature. This respected dynamic balance since all resources recirculated and periodic pestilence respected the predator-prey system. However it violated the principle of diversity as we made specific choices on what to cultivate.

Here’s what wikipedia has to say about it :

It is now clear that agriculture was adopted despite certain disadvantages of that lifestyle. Archeological studies show that health deteriorated in populations that adopted cereal agriculture, returning to pre-agricultural levels only in modem times..largely due to a decline in dietary quality that accompanied intensive cereal farming

This also violated the Earth and Cloud system’s principle of Connectedness: Stock got associated with Status and resulted in hierarchy in society. As we know very well — hierarchy creates a dis-connection between people. What we call a class system.

The Class system was possibly the first man made system that operates outside of natural principles : the first un-natural system.

Violating the organising principles of a higher order system ( or a sphere below it ) affects every aspect of a lower order system ( or a sphere above it ). Like earthquakes affect everything on the earth’s surface.

As we disconnected from the Earth System, we also disconnected from ourselves. A theme that expressed itself in everything that came after.

As this organising principle changed to Exploitation — making the maximum possible use of the resources available, without concern for its replenishment — we emphasised Accumulation over Co-operation. As a race, we were taking more and making more. It also emphasised Predator over Prey. We did not give the Earth system’s resources sufficient time to recover to healthy levels. Oddly, we did the same to ourselves —we called it Slavery. And later Factory Workers.

Over time, The increased making developed fully into a dominating principle : Accumulation. We became defined by how much and later what we accumulated. By this time we were in full violation of the principle of Connectedness and the principle of Dynamic Balance — and both its operating systems — recirculation of resources and the predator-prey dynamic. We had stopped the recirculation of resources and we operating purely on the prey dynamic.

Over time, the increased taking developed into a dominant organising principle : Competitiveness. Accumulation by itself was not sufficient. It mattered that we direct this accumulation at someone. At this point we were in full reversal of the Principle of Co-operation.

Oddly though, while we have violated the principle of Dynamic Balance we are still operating under the full force of the principle of Evolution. We see this in the fact that the competitive-ness respects the evolutionary principle. We recognise and respect people who have survived, or more accurately evolved to thrive within the competitive system. They are resilient. They are stars. And by definition untouchable.

Being in full reversal also means we are as far as we can go from the principle of Co-operation and Dynamic Balance.

From here everything we do will have increasing respect for the source principle of Co-Operation and Dynamic Balance, until we are in full agreement with these source principles. In doing so, we will also be in full agreement with the higher order principle of Connectedness. This will of course be subject to the principle of Evolution — we will see this only in increments.

We see the first step back to Co-operation and Dynamic Balance — Entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurs embody Connectedness mixed with Competitiveness. We see in them the push and pull of opposing organising principles. While they thrive in networks of co-operation, they operate on principles of competitiveness. They operate in the world of Dynamic Balance. They feel the most at ease when everything is in motion in just the right way.

This the world of Flow — the full reversal of the world of Stock.

The opposite of this world is that of large companies. Big companies operate on the principle of competition, but they thrive on domination — the opposite of co-operation. For you to win, I have to lose. Winner takes all is the underlying message. Not so different from wars. This is the world of stocks — of people ( read as an army of sales people) and financial resources ( read as cash stockpile). To win you have to own big.

By contrast, entrepreneurs are forced into a world of flow. They do not have stocks of people or financial resources. They depend on co-operation to get what they need — co-operation of venture capitalists gets them the funds, co-operation of their customers gets them their sales as well as their future customers. They live in webs of co-operation.

While entrepreneurs still use the term competition ,
what they are really doing is differentiation.

Reversal of the organising principle means reversal of the underlying systems. The whole machinery essentially moves in the opposite direction. Let’s work with the assumption that Co-operation has the underlying systems of Diversity and Dynamic Balance. Competitiveness has basically flipped both these systems resulting in Homogeneity and Static Balance. These will get flipped back to their original states, in increments.

This means that we will see increasing Diversity in all aspects of human lives, in increments. There is evidence of this in all man made endeavours — from the type of employees to the type of products and the type of consumers.

Lets further assume that Dynamic Balance itself has the underlying systems of Recirculation of Resources and the Predator-Prey system. Competitiveness has stopped the circulation of resources and caused accumulation instead. It has also flipped the Predator-Prey system to a Predator-Only system.

Flipping back to Dynamic Balance from Static Balance suggests we will move from accumulation of resources to circulation of resources and then recirculation of resources in increments. We see the second step already : collaborative consumption.

And that we will move from a Predator-Only system to a Prey-Only system, before we move back to the Predator-Prey system. We see the second step here as well: the increased and undeniable power of the consumer to shape new models of business and directly impact business. The power of the citizens collective to attain freedom in Arab Spring and make injustice undeniable in Occupy Wall Street.

Over time we expect we will see increasing connectedness across all aspects of human endeavour — flipping all existing systems based competition and its into co-operation, reversing all of their organising systems along the way. Education systems come to mind.

We should also see new embodiments of co-operation as accumulation slowly reverts back to flow. Large disconnected entities in intense competition with each other should be replaced with smaller, densely connected entries in intense co-operation with each other.

There is probably an evolution to entrepreneurship we can’t see yet. How will entrepreneurial companies operate in networks of co-operation from the current principle of competition ? There may be some clues in how creative teams function though — units on movie sets in particular. There are already some signs of what the organising systems that make co-operation work might be like. But its early days yet.

Economic System

The economic system manages all forms of value created by humans. The goal of the system is growth — increasing value over time. It does so by the principle of Flow. Economics has a deep understanding of flows of value across scales. It can do so at very small scales ( micro economics) as well as very large scales ( macro economics ).

Because it inherently deals with flows, economics is fundamentally in agreement with the principle of co-operation of the Earth System and the principle of connectedness of the Ocean and Cloud system. However, given that it sits on the Earth system, it has inherited the the current man-made principle of competition. This means its understanding of flows is based on a deep understanding competition. Over time, as the organising principle changes back to co-operation it will need to revise its understanding to base it on a deep understanding of cooperation.

The first step is the inclusion of qualitative attributes to support quantitative attributes, supporting a new systemic conception of life. Fritjof Capra talks about it eloquently here ( more on this in Changing the Measure of Value below ).

Caveat : I’m not an economist, so I may be expressing a naive designer’s view here.

Financial System

The financial system manages the flow of capital across all forms of human activity that create it. The goal of the system is to maximise profit. It does so by the principle of Returns.

Being a flow system, it too is naturally in agreement with the principles of co-operation of the Earth system and the principles of connectedness of the Ocean and Cloud system. However, the goal of maximising profit leads to a behaviour of accumulation, with the flows accumulating unevenly into the hands of a few people or nations. This system too has inherited the underlying principle of competitiveness which leads to this behaviour.

As we slowly reverse back to co-operation we should see newer behaviours in the financial system which reflect the underlying principles of co-operation : diversity and dynamic balance — based on systems of recirculation of resources and prey-only systems. The goal of such a system would be to maximise spread, rather than profit.

We already see prey-only systems : crowdfunding is now mainstream and an accepted part of launching new products. We are seeing early experiments in circulation of resources — the different forms of capital being employed from angel funds to patient capital. However, most of it is still based on the principle of Returns.

Diversity will affect both the circulation of resources and the organising principle. As we experiment with and diversify into different forms of capital, for example reputation , we will increase the circulation of resources. As we experiment with and diversify the principle of Returns, we may in time, arrive at a newer principle more aligned with co-operation.

Yunus talks about measuring investment not by the returns but the number of times the investment has been recirculated — i.e. the number of lives it has managed to impact. This may be too advanced for all but the most wealthy investors.

We need to evolve systems incrementally — we need to discover ways to increase circulation before we move to recirculation. An incremental step in the direction might be to diversify returns to include monetary and non-monetary returns. One that encourages monetary investment, but accepts mixed forms of value as returns. Value can be quantitative, but it can also be qualitative.

Social return on investment seems an increment in the right direction. A indicator would be that the nature of investment would lead to increased co-operation between both parties. Would you invest in make-a-wish if the returns included one make-a-wish for your child for every cycle of investment ?

We see early experiments in return on investments in crowdfunded platforms like Kickstarter. Here’s one. Check out the rewards section :

Changing the Measure of Value

Measurement of value is in fact the responsibility of the economic system. The financial system simply inherits the higher order systems understanding of it. One increment in the right direction might be to diversify how the economic system measures value : The Gross Domestic Product.

Here’s what wikipedia has to say about it under Limitations :

So what are we to make out of the periodical pronouncements that the economy, as depicted by real GDP, grew by a particular percentage? All we can say is that this percentage has nothing to do with real economic growth and that it most likely mirrors the pace of monetary pumping. We can thus conclude that the GDP framework is an empty abstraction devoid of any link to the real world.

What it suggests is that it is measuring only a particular kind of flow : monetary flow. The first increment then would be to diversify the definition and include non-monetary flows in its computation. Gross National Value rather than Gross Domestic Product.

Given that it the Economic system operates under the Earth system, any measure must respect its higher order principle: Co-operation. This would suggest that any measure must indicate whether or not there is increased co-operation.

One possibility is the inclusion of WellBeing as the counterpart to Productivity. Gallup’s book and its five dimensions Career, Social, Financial, Physical and Community make it clear that non only is it quantifiable, it is universal. See more on their site as well as their Well-Being index.

Wellbeing counteracts the force of productivity. High productivity with low wellbeing = low Gross National Value. It means your people are still operating under the Predator-Only dynamic. Over time, this will allow us to acknowledge other forms of value or if you prefer wealth : career options, social inclusion, financal security, physical energy, community contribution.

As we increment through this we will then find a new balance where Wellbeing and Production balance each other in some countries and Wellbeing dominates Production in others.

Can you imagine living in a country where wellbeing dominates over production ? If you could, would you go back to a country where production dominates wellbeing ? If not you’ve already flipped to the world of co-operation.

Now to find a way to make it real.

Back to Climate

So based on this deconstruction, here is an alternate formulation of the climate problem :

We humans, in our quest for livelihood have violated natural principles of the Earth, Ocean and Cloud system which kept the planet in dynamic balance. What we see today is the outcome of these violations over a period of time. These violations are in the forms of principles which are not aligned with how nature works. Sometimes we have flipped a principle, other times we have gone to far on one side of what was a delicate balance.

Nevertheless, earth as a system has a few principles to which we have been subjected all this while. This has ensured that, regardless of our ignorance, we will eventually return to a state of dynamic balance. Not without pain though — the systems we have created which stand in violation of natural principles need to either adapt, or become extinct. However we can acclerate the process of restoring balance. There are underlying principles which if embodied can speed up the process considerably.

However doing so, requires us to learn to operate a new way. Not with force and predatory instincts as we have been used to, but with cooperation and prey instincts, something we knew a long time ago but have forgotten. This means deep changes, but we have the force of evolution to guide us. Small incremental changes based on natural principles are enough. Someone else will pick up where we left off, so long as the principles endure.

To quote Jonas :

Are we being good ancestors ?