Life Webs

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Input and output

I have had a checkered career. At one point I was an economist. At another point I was a systems analyst. At a third point (actually, several of them) I was an operational manager or management analyst. All these jobs involve similar world views, or at least a similar view of human activity. It’s linear: you put something in at one end, stir it around a bit, and something of greater value pops out the other end – like a goose eating grass and laying golden eggs.

Input ==> process ==> output

Economists focus on output. Mostly, they try to maximize output by devising signals that induce people to feed the proper inputs into the machine and stir them around in the proper way. A few economists, especially those in what used to be called “command” (i.e. socialist) economies, are interested in inputs, too (there is a branch of economics called input-output analysis). But I never met an economist who saw the “process” as anything but a black box labeled “current technology.” Economists don’t care much about what happens in the transformation.

Systems analysts, to the contrary, focus almost entirely on processes, or algorithms. They spell out processes in fantastic detail, with multiple branching pathways that allow for every imaginable scenario, intended or unintended. However, the inputs and outputs are often black boxes for them just as the processes are for economists. “Garbage in, garbage out,” is an old saying among systems designers – meaning, “Don’t blame my process if you aren’t getting the results you want.”

Managers have a more balanced view, which makes their job rather more interesting. They’re responsible for creating outputs, but they also have to assemble the inputs (including human effort) and decide which processes to use.

Not everyone thinks this way. The helping professions aren’t quite so linear-minded. (Recently, I tried to explain the input-output mode of thinking to a teacher of emotionally disturbed children, and she asked me, “So in my job, what’s the input and what’s the output?”) Artists, too, are granted exemptions.

But in the workaday world, for the most part it’s input – process – output. A long time ago (in my role as a management analyst) I asked a tax auditor to explain her job to me, and she said something like, “I take this piece of paper from this box, I check the ratio between this and that, I add up these two numbers to see if they equal that number, and then I put the paper in that box over there.”

What’s wrong with this type of thinking? Work does, in fact, involve processes, and processes do – or at least can – add value to inputs. And the incremental value is what sustains us.

Here’s what is wrong: There is never just one output. There are always multiple outputs – some we are aiming for and others we are not. Doctors call unintended consequences “side effects,” and economists call them “externalities.” These are obviously loaded terms, because they make unintended effects sound insignificant. But the side effects of a medicine can kill you, and the externalities of an economic process can render the world uninhabitable.

Moreover, there is never a single process. Each process is part of a larger cycle, all of which support one another. A cycle that isn’t part of a mutually supporting cycle of processes is ultimately not a sustainable process. We have to think about where the inputs are coming from.


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Something is wrong with this way of thinking

Last year, I interviewed an executive of a global manufacturing company that won an award for sustainability. The company had trained its managers about ecological issues (“Some of them thought global warming was only a problem for the polar bears,” the executive told me) and encouraged them to meet ambitious “green” targets. The factory managers responded by massively reducing fuel and water consumption and substituting clean alternatives for many of the noxious chemicals they once used.

I was impressed. I’m still impressed. Then the executive told me one of his factories actually increased its greenhouse gas emissions. Why? It had turned off its diesel-powered generators and hooked up to the electric grid – and in southern China, where this factory was located, the electric utilities generate most of their power with coal.

“Why did you let them do that?” I asked.

He explained, “It reduced the pollution from sulfur dioxide even though it increased greenhouse gases. Also, if a country is run correctly, switching to grid power should be the right thing to do [because utilities should be able to generate cleaner power than local diesel generators]. But China is using coal, and influencing the government there is way beyond our plan.”

Well, yes, but…

Here’s another example closer to home – in fact, it is my home.

Five years ago, my partner and I left New York City and moved 100 miles upstate into the Hudson Valley. He had always wanted to design and build a house, I had always wanted to have a garden, and miraculously, the timing was right for both of us.

We were interested in building an energy-efficient house, and so were our contractor and architect. The state of New York was interested, too – in order for us to get a building permit, the architect had to certify that we met state standards for energy efficiency.

After reading a good deal and talking to people, we selected an unusual construction method – insulated concrete forms – along with radiant floor heating and an electric boiler. The house is half buried in the earth, and its footings reach down below the frost line. The thermal mass of the concrete slab, walls and roof help stabilize the building temperature. “We should be able to heat this place with a candle,” my partner said.

The good news is that the house doesn’t require air conditioning or even a fan in the summer. The earth does keep it cool. But in winter, we use about twice as much heat as, in theory, we should. We suspect this means the slab is not well enough insulated – but in fact, we just don’t know.

In addition, concrete has environmental problems. We knew it had high embodied energy because of the heat used to turn limestone into cement, but we hadn’t realized the decomposition of the limestone also releases vast quantities of carbon dioxide. The building may have to last 500 years to justify the energy that went into building it – and we don’t really have 500 years to spare.

Of course, stick-built houses have environmental impacts as well, as do any other types of construction, and there’s no clear way to compare them.

Why do good-faith attempts to change one’s interactions with the world – to be more responsible citizens – lead to confusion and frustration?

The problem isn’t lack of concern or even lack of resources. Rather, something is fundamentally wrong with the way most of us think about these issues. This blog will outline what’s wrong with the approach we’ve been using and present examples of more productive approaches.

This is a process blog. As I begin, I have a hazy idea of what’s wrong and only the vaguest notions of what’s right. I’m hoping the blog will record an increase in clarity and understanding over time, but I can’t promise that it will. If nothing else, it will record what I’m thinking, doing and learning in an attempt to reach clarity and understanding.