It’s so tempting to say “Global warming caused superstorm Sandy.” And it is so easy to counter with “Storms like Sandy happen. You can’t say that global warming caused a particular storm!”
Much human folly nowadays comes from believing that identifying a direct cause for some social or environmental problem tells us what we need to know to “fix” it.
Unfortunately, when we’re dealing with problems in a complex system – like a society or our global climate – its causes (and “fixes”) are not simple, linear and direct. They are numerous, nonlinear, indirect, many-faceted, contextual. And they almost always include us and many aspects of our lives, individually and collectively.
So how do we talk about “causation” when we’re dealing with complex systems?
In the article below, George Lakoff introduces the term “systemic causation” as an alternative to “direct causation”. Megastorm Sandy gives us good occasion to explore this new term. So what does systemic causation look like in the case of Sandy?
Human economic and energy systems work in concert with the sun to add an estimated 400,000 Hiroshima bombs of heat into the global climate system every day ( http://bit.ly/400kHiroshima ), thanks largely to our carbon emissions and the feedback dynamics they trigger. That heat, working with weather and water systems makes superstorms like Sandy much more likely. Not only superstorms, but tornadoes, floods, droughts, mega wildfires, record setting temperatures, giant hail, and other extreme weather phenomena, as well strange climate-related disorders in crops, forests, oceans, insects, wildlife, glaciers, populations, economies…
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told President Obama during Sandy that “We have a 100-year flood every two years now… Anyone who thinks that there is not a dramatic shift in weather patterns is denying reality.”
Although we can’t say that “Sandy was directly caused by climate change” we can definitely say that “Sandy was systemically caused by climate change”. Climate change, in turn, is systemically caused largely by our use of fossil fuels, which in turn is systemically caused largely by our economic system and its feedback interactions with our political and governance systems (from money in politics to popular demand for “jobs” rather than a healthy commons and gifting, sharing, and community resilience systems that serve us all). All those phenomena are systemically caused by cultural narratives which assume our separation from and dominion over nature, and the fact that our collective ability to create and use powerful technologies far exceeds our collective ability to perceive and respond to the multiple consequences of those technologies.
Having the right language helps a lot. The phrase “systemic cause” helps us clarify what’s going on so we can respond wisely to the challenge of “climate disruption” (another usefully descriptive phrase). The notes above show that there are many points of potential intervention at many levels of systemic causation.
There’s an example of the value of languaging that I find provocatively revealing: the naming of “gravity”. Before Newton, apples (and other objects) just “fell”, and scientists like Galileo explored the laws governing this “falling”. Newton framed this falling as a force and applied the name “gravity” to it. So after Newton we could explore “force of gravity” that pulls objects like apples towards the earth (and vice versa). That opened up new conceptual territory that Newton mapped mathematically, resulting ultimately in today’s fabulously useful satellites and even astronauts walking on the moon. We wouldn’t get satellites and men on the moon from “apples fall”.
But notice that most of us still think that objects fall… and that the sun rises and sets (instead of the earth turning)… and that when we drive our cars, the most important thing happening is that we’re getting where we want to go (rather than influencing the climate and the designs of city planners).
All of which is fine until you put powerful technologies in our collective hands, and then it starts to generate folly. So:
Part of wisdom is learning or creating language
that provides the perspective we need
to clarify our relationships with our complex world
so that more of us
can be more successful and happy
more deeply and farther into the future
The language of systems thinking helps a lot.
PS: My new grandaughter will be growing up in the destabilized climate we have been making for her. She’ll be 88 in the year 2100. I can’t imagine what her personal experience will be like during that time. I hope that sometime during her lifetime she will be able to actually experience the foundations of a better world that we will be making for her and with her. I hope more people will join in actively creating that better world now that it is becoming crystal clear that our economic, political, governance, media, and technical systems (among others) need radical evolutionary transformation into something far more wise than we have now. She would be grateful, I’m sure. On her behalf, I want to thank you for whatever work you are doing to help co-create that better world.
by George Lakoff, Reader Supported News
Phi Beta Iota: There is a difference between natural system causation augmented by human systemic causation that creates recurring disasters such as storms; and human system apathy or corruption that converts any given diaster into a catastrophe. Global warming aka climate change is indeed aggravated by man, but also proven to have been a natural cycle pre-man. Global warming is perhaps ten percent of Environmental Degradation, threat #3 after poverty and infectious disease. Absent a strategic analytic model, and a commitment to both understanding how all things relate, and understanding the true cost of all things, makes most pontification about global warming a waste of time and energy. Until every citizens understands that Exxon and others of their ilk externalize $12 in costs to society and the future for every gallon they sell below true cost, nothing will change.