Tuesday, May 21, 2013 11:19 AM
After the careful removal of two large dams, salmon are returning to Washington's Elwha River.
This article originally appeared at Solutions Online.
As the last block of concrete was pulled from the riverbed, the Elwha River in the Olympic Mountains of Washington State flowed freely for the first time in over 100 years. The river was historically one of the most productive salmon streams for its size in the Pacific Northwest. Four hundred thousand salmon once swam its length each year but, in the century since the dam’s construction, that number had fallen to a few thousand.1 Within months of the dam’s removal, nature has rushed back: over 200 salmon have already returned. The prospect of a river teeming with silverbacked salmon weighing over 45 kilograms each may no longer remain a hazy memory of local Native American tribes.
The Elwha dam removal project stands as one of the first large dams ever removed. The intent of removing the dams is to fully restore the Elwha River ecosystem and its native migratory fish species. In doing so, the Elwha dam project revived the debate of how to balance the conflicting demands of humans for both clean energy and healthy ecosystems. Previously, that debate has been weighted decisively in favor of dam projects. But with a greater understanding of the value of ecosystem services, the Elwha dam project may represent the start of a revolution in how we assess the West’s aging dam infrastructure.2
The Elwha watershed was the traditional homeland of the S’Klallam Tribe, whose culture flourished on salmon from the river, among other natural resources. Against tribal will, construction of the Elwha Dam began in 1910 for the sole purpose of generating the first electricity in the region. The electricity powered several lumber mills and fueled economic development, resulting in construction of a second dam, the Glines Canyon Dam farther upstream, in 1927. The lower Elwha Dam did not have fish passage and the salmon runs declined from 400,000 per year to about 3,000 fish in the lowest eight kilometers of the river. Tributaries in the headwaters of the Elwha River were protected from further development in 1938 with the establishment of Olympic National Park. The impact on the S’Klallam Tribe was devastating for their culture and livelihood. A fishery that could be worth over $10 million was lost. The near disappearance of salmon in the watershed also had a cascading effect on the terrestrial ecosystem, where some 22 species of resident wildlife were affected, and over 90 species of migratory birds. The decomposing salmon carcasses have been shown to significantly contribute to the biomass of the forest itself, accounting for 20–60 percent of riparian biomass.1
The dams also stopped the movement of sediment through the river system, resulting in deposition in the reservoir deltas.1 As a result, the river incised its channel, armored its bed with boulders (instead of sand and gravel where salmon could lay eggs), and reduced the sediment delivery to the coastal environment, causing beach erosion for at least 30 kilometers along the shore.3 Some of the most intense erosion occurred on Ediz Hook, which creates an important lumber shipping port at Port Angeles. From the 1970s through the 2000s, the Army Corps of Engineers spent hundreds of millions of dollars each year to protect the Ediz Hook from erosion.
In 1968 the S’Klallam Tribe and numerous environmental groups tried to stage a comeback by opposing relicensing of the dams by the federal government, citing loss of the salmon fishery, negative environmental impacts within the watershed, and submersion of a tribal sacred site under the reservoir.
But despite the strong case against the dam, the local nontribal community strongly favored relicensing it. The electricity from the dams continued to play an important role in powering the region’s timber-based economy. There were additional challenges in assessing the possible impacts of removing the dam, given the amount of sediment that had built up, and on the potential impact on the City of Port Angeles’ water supply. Even a U.S. Department of the Interior study in 1991, which recommended the removal of the dams, failed to energize foot-dragging state officials and local interest groups. The removal was legislated by Congress with the passage of the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act P.L. 102-495.
However, in the nearly two decades that followed the passage of the 1992 federal law mandating the dams’ removal and the release of funds to begin work, a generational shift took place. Dams—for so long seen as symbols of development and progress—were increasingly being criticized for their social and environmental impacts. The issue came into focus internationally following protests over the forced evictions of hundreds of thousands of people in India and China due to dam projects. In the United States, aging dam infrastructure was pushing local governments to repair or remove many of these structures. The 85,000 large dams in the United States have an average age of 53 years, and over 4,000 of the large dams are considered structurally unsound.4 An additional problem with dams is that, as they age, they fill with sediment, reducing storage capacity.
For these reasons, hundreds of small dams (less than 7.5 meters in height) have been removed in recent decades. With smaller structures, there is little question that rivers can return to their pre-dam flow characteristics.5,6 Successful dam removals and ecosystem recovery have been seen with the Edwards Dam in Maine, and the Marmot and Condit Dams in Oregon. But as the Elwha dam saga continued to rumble into the new millennium, the question remained whether dam removal would be successful for large structures.
A major concern when removing a dam is managing the remobilized sediments from the lake delta, which are now exposed to flowing water. The Elwha River dams have accumulated over 34 million cubic meters of sediment. The reservoirs of the Glines Canyon and the Elwha Dams had no drains and were too large for a single, explosive removal. Each dam had unique characteristics and required its own removal plans, time frames for safety concerns, and strategies for managing the massive amounts of sediment in the reservoirs. Careless removal of the dams could cause large amounts of sediment in the reservoir deltas to flow down the river.7 Even though the Elwha Dam is the older of the two dams, the majority of sediment lay trapped upstream behind Glines Canyon Dam (GCD). Thus the GCD removal progressed slowly in order to manage the sediment through the river system. Further complicating matters, sediment behind the GCD was located in a federally designated wilderness area of Olympic National Park, where machinery is banned.
In September 2011 work began on removing both dams. The Elwha Dam was structurally unsound, due to poor construction, and required a complex removal process to avoid a catastrophic failure. First, a cofferdam moved the river to the left side of the dam; an artificial channel cut through the bedrock where the dry right spillway is located. Then a second cofferdam directed the river into the artificial channel for removing water from behind the main dam, which was subsequently removed by jackhammering and blasting. By contrast, the Glines Canyon Dam was structurally sound, allowing for a large jackhammer to be used directly on the dam face. Both dams were removed within 13 months. However, the Elwha Dam was removed first, and muddy sediment poured down the river and into the ocean for the first time in over 100 years. Beaches near the river’s mouth experienced immediate growth, even faster than expected. After the Glines Canyon dam was fully breached, even larger amounts of sediment began moving through the river. Logs and other floating debris created logjams, causing the river to erode its banks and migrate across its floodplain as it had before the dams were installed. Sediment levels are expected to return to normal in one to three years.
Of course, removing the dam was only the first part of the first step of the real goal of restoring salmon fisheries. During the decade prior to removal, scientists surveyed fish populations in the river to inventory populations of native and migrating fish species.7 Fisheries biologists also captured Elwha River fish stock for transport to hatcheries and nearby streams for rearing in order to preserve genetic diversity. The schedule of work during the process of removing dams was periodically halted to protect fish during their seasonal runs, and provided windows for their capture and transport to safe rearing sites. Fish stocks will recover following complete deconstruction of the dams, stabilization of sediment transport, and the recovery of the ecosystem food chain that provides food for juvenile salmon that will grow in the Elwha River before migrating to the ocean. However, even in the short time (less than six months) following removal of the Elwha Dam, some wild salmon found the new habitat and spawned, in spite of turbid water. The premature appearance of the native salmon population is a positive signal forecasting the recovery of the salmon population.
The exposed reservoir lakebed represents another restoration problem. Without vegetation cover, the soft lake sediments are subject to erosion during the rainy season. For approximately 10 years, the Park Service has been collecting and saving native seeds, and rearing plants to revegetate the lakebed. As soon as lake levels were drawn down, crews were planting seeds and seedlings in order to head off invasive species. Luckily, this winter has been mild with few erosive rainstorms, and the seed bank in the sediments produced a nearly continuous cover of vegetation. The invasive species will be monitored in coming years, but the soil was more stable than expected during this first critical year.
The removal of dams on the Elwha River offers a unique opportunity to evaluate the effects of large dam removal and subsequent recovery of formerly productive aquatic ecosystems that supported large populations of salmon and a related complex ecosystem.8 Although intentional dam removal of this magnitude is unique, it could become more common as those in the United States and other nations manage an aging system of dams. An essential step in removing both small and large dams is assessing watershed scale features before and after dam removal. A comprehensive plan designed to evaluate the effects of dam removal on existing fish populations, food webs and habitats, sediment flow, and many other factors is essential before removing dams. Now, we are well positioned to see exactly how the system responds.
- Winter, BD & Crain, P. Making the case for ecosystem restoration by dam removal in the Elwha River, Washington.Northwest Science 82, 13–28 (2008).
- Doyle, MW, Harbor, JM & Stanley, EH. Toward policies and decision-making for dam removal. Environmental Management 31, 453–465 (2003).
- Duda, JJ, Warwick, JA & Magirl, CS, eds. Coastal Habitats of the Elwha River, Washington: Biological and Physical Patterns and Processes Prior to Dam Removal. U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2011–5120(2011).
- American Society of Civil Engineers. 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure (ASCE, New York, 2009).
- Graf, WL. Damage control: Restoring the physical integrity of America’s rivers. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 91, 1–27 (2001).
- Bednarek, AT. Undamming rivers: A review of the ecological impacts of dam removal. Environmental Management27, 803–814 (2001).
- McHenry, ML & Pess, GR. An overview of monitoring options for assessing the response of salmonids and their aquatic ecosystems in the Elwha River following dam removal. Northwest Science 82, 29–47 (2008).
- Poff, NL, Olden, JD, Merritt, DM & Pepin, DM. Homogenization of regional river dynamics by dams and global biodiversity implications. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, 5732–5737 (2007).
Images by National Park Service: Looking over the edge of the Glines Canyon Dam in February 2012, six months after the dam removal project had started and map of the Elwha River watershed in Washington state, where the country’s first large dam removal project was recently completed.
Thursday, May 02, 2013 3:23 PM
As marketing to children intensifies, what can society do?
This article is adapted from Solutions Online and is licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.
A four-year-old arrives at school and starts crying when she realizes her lunch is packed in a generic plastic bag, not the usual Disney Princess lunchbox she so loves. A friend tells her she won’t be able to sit at the princess lunch table—it’s only for girls with princess lunchboxes.
A fourth grader arrives home from school all excited. He has a Book It certificate from Pizza Hut because his mother signed the form showing that he met the reading-at-home goal his teacher set for him. He pleads with his mother to take him to Pizza Hut for dinner that night.
Sixth graders are assigned the task of writing to their principal about something important that they would like to see happen at their school. They decide to ask for school vending machines that sell snack foods and drinks.
Marketing is a more powerful force in the lives of children growing up today than ever before, beginning from a very young age. The stories above provide but a few examples of how it can shape learning and behavior at home and in school. Marketing affects what children want to eat, wear, and play, and with whom they play. It also shapes what they learn, what they want to learn, and why they want to learn. And it primes them to be drawn into, exploited, and influenced by marketing efforts in schools.
What Can We Do?
Many feel that a complete ban on all marketing to children is an impossible dream. But that is exactly what many countries do. Advertising to children is restricted in Great Britain, Belgium, Denmark, and Greece, and totally banned in Sweden and Norway. Studies have recently shown that children in Sweden want fewer toys, as a result. A study proves what companies already know: advertising to children works. Why advertise if it’s not effective? Similar efforts to restrict advertising were attempted in the United States in the 1970s but, unfortunately, failed to pass.
More restrictions might be on the way in countries like the UK, where a recent investigation into the causes of the 2011 looting found that a culture of consumption, fueled by marketers, played a role in the civil unrest. Early in 2012, the Riots, Communities, and Victims Panel, set up by Prime Minister David Cameron and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, called for action against “aggressive advertising aimed at young people,” citing evidence that “rampant materialism was an underlying cause of last year’s lawlessness.”
The fact that marketing in schools is such an omnipresent and pernicious force in children’s lives makes finding solutions of utmost importance. It is unrealistic to expect that in the current economic times we can make marketing and the influence of marketing in schools go away. But, there is much we can and must do to reduce its harmful impact on children. No one effort can solve the problem; a multifaceted approach is needed. Here is what a comprehensive and meaningful response, directed at children, families, schools, communities, and the wider society, might be:
1. Educate parents, teachers and policymakers about the harm that marketing to children, especially in schools, can cause to children’s development, learning, and behavior. It is only through a change in public understanding of the dangers that we will be able to turn the tide.
2. Protect children as much as possible from exposure to commercial culture. Parents can use strategies at home that reduce children’s exposure to and focus on commercial culture and products, including less dependence on media that has advertising and multiple products associated with it. They can promote their children’s involvement with meaningful real world activities that do not focus on consumption or advertising. One school sent home a letter to parents with ideas for birthday parties that didn’t involve commercial themes like Disney Princesses or fast food chains’ packaged events.
Teachers and school administrators can work to reduce marketing in schools. For instance, they can limit the number of products with logos in school. This might involve setting up rules about what commercial products and logos children bring to school, and coming up with alternative, low-cost strategies to meet the same needs the banned product met. For instance, one early childhood program banned lunch boxes with logos, and sent home suggestions to parents about alternative, inexpensive containers they could use to pack their children’s lunches. One school board created a middle-school dress code that severely limited the size of logos that could appear on students’ clothing because so much bullying and teasing occurred against the children who didn’t have the “right,” clearly visible logos on their clothing.
3. Counteract the harmful lessons children learn from marketing both in and out of school. Teach children about the nature and impact of marketing and commercial culture in age-appropriate ways. Children are unduly influenced by ads and marketing practices directed at them because of how they think and also because of the unrelenting ways marketers capture their attention and loyalty. One teacher designed an activity based on the book Arthur’s TV Troubles by Marc Brown. The teacher asked students whether they had ever been disappointed with something they bought based on an ad. Every child had a story to share. When they wrote these stories down for homework, they produced their best writing of the year! In these days of No Child Left Behind pressures, which have forced educators to focus on the demands of the test rather than on the broad-based learning needs of children, we must convince educational policy makers that children will be more successful learners if they aren’t constantly being lured away from their lessons by marketing.1
Children need to feel safe talking to a trusted adult about what they see marketed at school and beyond and what they think about it, without being embarrassed, ridiculed, or punished. Only by having such conversations can we learn what children think and, in turn, influence their thinking. This does not mean lecturing about what is right and wrong or good and bad, or criticizing children for what they say and think. It means having give-and-take conversations that show we care about what they think and say, and hope they will care about and listen to what we have to say too. This is the key starting point for influencing the lessons that children are learning from marketing in schools.
4. Enact government regulations and policies that limit marketing in schools. Government and policy makers must play a role in limiting marketing to children, even in these harsh economic times. The best way to make this happen will be by providing adequate funding for schools, so that schools do not need to be so dependent on corporations. Great Britain provides the United States with a powerful example for what we can do: in 2006 it established a ban on junk food in school meals.2
One Organization, Making A Difference
Ten years ago, a Harvard academic, a child advocate, and a puppeteer launched an organization named Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC), and it has lead a national effort to police advertising and marketing to children. Based out of Boston, a coalition of educators, health care providers, parents, academics, and advocacy groups take on major corporations that they find are marketing to children, from Pizza Hut and Sunny D to the coal industry and Disney. Started by Susan Linn, a professor, the organization has landed a number of recent victories, including persuading Disney to offer a refund to parents who bought Baby Einstein videos and pressuring Scholastic to stop taking money from the coal industry. Scholastic was forced to drop its curriculum for fourth graders after admitting it was paid for by the National Coal Foundation. The curriculum was, unsurprisingly, one-sided in its endorsement of coal, without any mention of the environmental repercussions or of alternative energies.
CCFC’s current campaign includes a move to pressure PBS to drop its partnership with the fast-food company Chik-fil-A, in which the channel is paid to present commercials for fast food at the beginning and end of its shows. It also wants advertising to be removed from school buses. In an age when it seems even the most well-respected advocacy groups—from Sierra Club to Save the Children—have begun accepting corporate money, CCFC stands alone in refusing to be bought off.
Although there is tremendous work to be done, and the advertising and marketing industry is a financial behemoth to tackle, we believe that children deserve to grow up free of invasive and unrelenting marketing messages that peddle products known to be harmful to the health and well-being of young people. Children deserve the opportunity to explore their creativity without the interference of do-it-for-you toys. They must be able to develop the capacity to make independent decisions, and to enjoy life free from the insecurities and pressures inherent in marketing campaigns. We hope that the United States will follow the lead of other countries and recognize that restricting corporations’ ability to market to children is a healthy and necessary step.
- Defending the Early Years [online]. www.defendingtheearlyyearsproject.org.
- BBC News. Junk food banned in school meals [online] (May 19, 2006). news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/4995268.stm.
Photo by Labpluto123, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, November 26, 2012 4:02 PM
Kalle Lasn is the co-founder of the Adbusters Media Foundation, editor-in-chief of Adbusters magazine, and author of the books Culture Jam and Design Anarchy. Lasn was recognized as an Utne Reader visionary in 2001 for his efforts to reclaim Western culture from the influence of corporations, consumption, and advertising.
This article originally appeared at
Solutions Online and is licensed under Creative Commons.
Founder and editor of Adbusters magazine, Kalle Lasn is largely credited for conceptualizing and starting the Occupy Wall Street protests in Zuccotti Park, New York, which eventually spread around the world. His new book, Meme Wars, aims to reinvent the study of economics. Here, he talks to Solutions about his vision for the future.
You have been trying to change consumer culture for years. How did the idea for Occupy Wall Street begin?
It began in early 2011. It was percolating in 2010. We were excited by the anarchist action in Greece and discontent among young people in Spain, and the Arab Spring began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, and we saw how young people in Egypt were using social media to get tons of people out to the streets and pull off regime change. Our brainstorming sessions at Adbusters began and we said, “We need a regime change in America as well.” Not hard regime change like Egypt where dictators were torturing people. We are after a soft regime change. We felt the heart of American democracy and found that, in Washington, DC, things were rotten and corporations were getting their own way with lobbyists and money power. Wall Street people have created a global casino, and meanwhile young people are having a hard time finding jobs and are losing their houses. So let’s try to create a Tahrir Square moment in America.
How do you feel about how the protests ended? Did they flame out, or was it a success? What lessons were learned?
It was a huge success. A lot of people say, “They never came up with demands.” But here is a movement of young people who felt their future didn’t compute, and they fought it in a horizontal, leaderless way, and they launched a national conversation in America and in Canada, and last October the conversation went international. So a few hundred people in Zuccotti Park launched a huge international debate about the future and that’s as good as it comes.
Now, we know it’s winding down, and there’s a big question mark: can we keep this going, and morph into new strategies, and still command attention with the world? And I believe we can. This movement has long legs and a core impulse—this feeling among hundreds of millions of young people that their lives will be full of ecological and political and financial crises, and they can’t aspire to the lives their parents had, unless they stand up and fight for a different future. I don’t think anything can stop these young people and I predict we’re going to move away from large occupations of parks and we’ll have surprise, one-day occupations of banks and corporations and the economics departments of universities, with more and more people talking about the Robin Hood tax and high frequency trading and bank reform and campaign finance reform. These surprise, one-day occupations will start popping up in cities everywhere. This movement will fragment into a million projects.
What are members of the movement talking about now?
[...] Back in 2008, when the financial meltdown happened and caught all the classical economists by surprise, there were a lot of bioeconomists and ecological economists waiting in the wings, hungry to shift that paradigm. And there will be a revolt of students against their professors. And we may find ourselves next year with hundreds of students occupying the economics departments of their universities. It wouldn’t just be a policy shift like taxing the rich. It would be a shift in the fundamental axioms of economic science and a tinkering with the bedrock of our economic system. The next generation of economists would have a totally different worldview.
What should the new economic outlook be?
Ecological economists and the movement started by Herman Daly and others. There are already ecological associations and a journal. The natural world is the main part of this ecological paradigm and the money economists are just a subset. It would be a reversal of roles. It could give birth to a generation of barefoot economists with their feet firmly in the real world.
Herman Daly and Robert Costanza, both founders of ecological economics, are on the Solutions editorial board. Robert Costanza is our editor in chief.
I hope you tell them that from my perspective their ideas are reaching fruition, and I wish they would encourage their followers to be more aggressive. Suddenly, old and young people are pushing against the system and it’s time for ecological economists to stand up and be counted and not just play academic games in the background. Joseph Stiglitz actually went to Zuccotti Park and gave a talk. We need more of that. We need them to champion their paradigm.
We also don’t have full cost accounting. There is a dream among Occupiers to have a global market where products show their ecological cost, which would reflect their true cost. They will find that the price of cars goes up and bikes goes down. Maybe that McDonald’s napkin could suddenly have a certain price to it. And apples from New Zealand would have a different price. How much does all that stuff from China going to Walmart truly cost in environmental damage?
Given that populist anger had brewed for years among America’s middle and lower classes, why didn’t this sort of activism start earlier?
The moment wasn’t right. Something heaved back in 2008, when the meltdown happened. Something heaved again when the young people of Tunisia and Egypt stood up. This feeling that the young people have in the pit of their stomachs doesn’t compute. This is really sinking in with a vengeance now. If the global economy keeps tanking, we may be in for some version of the 1929 scenario, and a lot of these projects and paradigm shifts, and the dismantling of the global casinos, and Robin Hood taxes, and the radical transformation of businesses—they may well need that kind of crisis to be implemented.
Imagine that the Occupy movement achieves everything you think it can. What does the world look like after this ultimate success? How long will it take to get there?
It’s all about producing a different type of human being. Like the Occupiers who slept in the park. Their cynicism dissolved and they were engaged and they merged into this different kind of human being. They were alive and alert and energized and this is what it’s about. This movement will be a success if it can produce a new generation of young people who are fighting a good fight and can do what needs to be done. It’s going to take an eternity because the human project never ends. We are at a tipping point right now. This feels like one of the biggest tipping points. We have never faced the possibility of ecological and physical and political crises all swirling around each other and ready to swoop down on us and create a nightfall. Not just a 1929 scenario, but a 50- to 100- or 1,000-year blockade. It’s totally in the cards. I hope this Occupy movement will give impetus to young people and make them fight harder to avoid the pitfalls of humanity.
Image: Banksy Balloon Girl by Stew Dean, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, October 12, 2012 10:29 AM
Matchbox mini traffic jam. Photo by Daniel Dionne, licensed under Creative Commons.
This article originally appeared at Solutions Online.
The road construction project around the local
rotary had been going on for over a year. As a result, the whole town was
cranky. One afternoon, my son and I drove the rotary just before 5:00 p.m.,
along with throngs of irritable commuters, anxious to get home. Tempers were
short and the sound of car horns pierced the air. Pointing to the tangle of
traffic in front of us, my then four year-old asked: "Mommy, what happens
when everyone says me first!?"
I was used to his asking questions. Typically,
Jack asked about categories (“Animals aren’t people, are they?”), or how things
work (“Why do bees kiss the flowers?”) or facts (“How hot is the center of the
earth?”). This question was different; this one had to do with causes and
consequences. I considered talking to him about the cost of maximizing
individual gain, but held back and asked instead, "What do you think would
happen if everyone said me first!?”
He pressed his nose against the window, paused,
and said, “Well, there might be a lot of accidents. Or maybe even a huge
"Can you think of other times when everyone
says me first?" I was thinking about overfishing, gas guzzlers, and our
overcrowded community pool.
Jack responded, "You know how you said it's
not good to let the water run when we brush our teeth, ‘cause if everyone did
that the reservoir would go down?’ Well, it's kind of like that."
At the age of four, he was aware enough of the
general notion of systems – two or more parts that interact to form a whole –
to make a complex observation: the rotary and the reservoir were common
resources. Like water, air, and playgrounds, these are resources that many
people use, and for which no individual is solely responsible. Moreover, in
asking the question, “What happens when everyone says me first!?” he
recognized the impact of individual decisions on the larger whole. Without
knowing it, he stepped right into the middle of the greatest dilemma in
commons-related issues: each individual action is defensible on its own, but
they can combine to have a devastating impact on the larger whole.
Many children intuitively grasp the nature of
systems, as Jack did. They can see, for instance, how a common but limited
resource, such as water, air, land, highways, fisheries, energy, or minerals
becomes overloaded or over-used, and how everyone experiences diminishing
benefits. However, these children don’t always have many opportunities to
develop those insights into a systems awareness that will serve them all their
lives. Parents, educators, and other adults can help them learn to “connect the
dots”: to see beyond the surface, to recognize interconnections and dynamics
among people, places, events and nature, and to begin thinking about how to use
those interconnections to improve their world.
Where do our children learn to think this way? How
do you nurture a child’s natural intelligence about systems and help him or her
to become systems literate? How can you confirm for your children what they
already know: that their world is interconnected and dynamic, a tightly woven
web of related, interacting elements and processes, and as such, is indeed
meaningful? How can this insight become an underlying learning aesthetic with
which they can build their lives?
Why Systems Literacy Matters
Children today are growing up in a world in which
oil spills, global warming, economic breakdowns, food insecurity, institutional
malfeasance, biodiversity loss, and escalating conflict are commonly at the top
of the news. For children to make sense of these trends, they must become aware
of the causes and consequences in a slew of interconnected systems, including
families, local economies, the environment, and more. Ideally, we want our
children to take what author Edith Cobb, author of The Ecology of
Imagination in Childhood, calls “a reticulate approach”1
(resembling a net or network) to knowledge and sense-making.
To be literate means to have a well-educated
understanding of a particular subject, like a foreign language or mathematics.
In many fields, the knowledge must be both comprehensive and abundant enough
that you are capable of putting it to use. Systems literacy represents that
level of knowledge about complex interrelationships. It combines conceptual
knowledge (knowledge of system principles and behaviors) and reasoning
skills (for example, the ability to see situations in wider contexts, see
multiple levels of perspective within a system, trace complex
interrelationships, look for endogenous or “within system” influences, have
awareness of changing behavior over time, and recognize recurring patterns that
exist within a wide variety of systems).
When people aren’t literate about systems, too many human activities are
like those cars jammed into the roundabout: unaware of the pattern that
connects them and, thus, prone to exploitive and destructive results. Systems
literacy is a prerequisite for realizing the kinds of aspirations that people
increasingly have in an interconnected world, but that seems impossible to
achieve from a fragmented point of view. As the poet, novelist and essayist
Wendell Berry puts it, “We seem to have been living for a long time on the assumption
that we can safely deal with parts, leaving the whole to take care of itself.
But now the news from everywhere is that we have to begin gathering up the
scattered pieces, figuring out where they belong, and putting them back
together. For the parts can be reconciled to one another only within the
pattern of the whole thing to which they belong.”2
When children learn about systems and become more explicitly systems
literate, their worldview shifts. In The Power to Transform, Stephanie
Pace Marshall explains that the value of nurturing systems literacy comes from
“the power of an alternative worldview.” She continues, “When we perceive and
experience wholeness, we are transformed. We no longer see nature, people,
events, problems, or ourselves as separate and unconnected.”3
One natural consequence is greater compassion for others. This is a part of
peoples’ makeup that can get suppressed by the prevailing culture in many
places, but that can be uncovered and drawn out by experience and learning.
When children look for the connection between themselves and other people,
places, events, and species, they no longer feel like outsiders looking in at
others’ worlds. They are now insiders, experiencing the connection to “other”
as the farmer is connected to the soil and the salmon is connected to the
Another consequence is that children start to see themselves as part of,
rather than outside of, nature. Imagine that a 12-year-old, living in a
suburban village, is presented with two pictures of a lawn. The first is filled
with wildflowers and looks somewhat messy and random. The second is lush,
green, neat, orderly, well-groomed, and obviously well-fertilized. Which is
more beautiful? The second image, of course, represents the way that a
beautiful lawn is conventionally expected to look in many communities, and many
12-year-olds would pick it, but a systems-literate student might well prefer
the disorderly lawn. He or she would know that that the lawn worked
with the landscape’s natural processes, encouraging a diverse group of plants
and animals to grow, maintaining its own ecological balance, and adding little
or no waste to the ecosystems around it. On the other hand, the orderly,
straight, groomed lawn could only survive by contradicting natural processes.
It would require ongoing management and its continued success would lead to a
variety of unintended negative consequences: greenhouse gas emissions from the
lawn mower, use of fossil fuels to make chemical fertilizers and treatments,
the death of beneficial insects from pesticides, the added economic costs of
lawn supplies and maintenance, the stress it puts on the family’s budget, the
removal of some plants while allowing others to overrun the ecosystem
(potentially causing the need for more pesticides), and the run-off of
chemicals into local water sources with unknown effects.
As they grow up and learn about the economy, climate, education, energy,
poverty, waste, disease, war, peace, demographics, and sustainability, children
who are systems literate will tend to look at all these issues as interrelated.
From the systems perspective, nothing stands alone: my climate is your climate,
your infectious disease is my infectious disease, your food shortage is my food
shortage. Systems literacy makes people less likely to blame a single cause for
challenges and problems. Instead, it becomes a habit to look for recurring
patterns that exist among a wide variety of systems, to seek out indicators of
interrelated causes (knowing that very complex causes can leave deceptively
simple tracks), and to anticipate how the functioning of a living system will
change if a part or a process is changed. Systems thinkers recognize that big
actions can have small consequences – and vice versa. They seek diversity,
knowing that living systems depend on the variety, complexity, and abundance of
species to be healthy and resilient. They look for closed loops of production
and consumption, where waste from one source can be “food” for another. They
question the assumption that bigger is always better.
Paying attention to living systems also raises awareness of the Earth’s (or
biosphere’s) pace of change, often in stark contrast to the hurried,
mechanistic pace of the technosphere. Systems literacy makes it easier to see
the commons: the shared gifts of nature such as water, air, land, fish, and
also the shared efforts of our communities, upon which we depend, and for which
we are all responsible.
Learning about systems, and about living systems in particular, can help
children come to a deeper, more compassionate, more accurate, and more
sustainable sensibility about what is beautiful, what is peaceful, and what is
Changing the Learning Aesthetic
When we ask students to move beyond simple, linear explanations of causes,
we are asking them to be literate about systems. Yet most adults in the U.S., including
most industry and government leaders, were not explicitly taught skills related
to seeing systems of multiple causes, effects, and unintended impacts. Rather,
people were taught that the best way to understand a subject was to analyze it
or break it up into parts. Research in dynamic decision making shows that when
adults are faced with dynamically complex systems – containing multiple
feedback processes, time delays, nonlinearities and accumulations – performance
is biased and suboptimal.4
Herein lies an intriguing opportunity. When it comes to developing greater
literacy about systems, most adults are learning along with their children.
Rather than an obstacle to children’s learning, this could be a major asset.
For most students, co-learning (with parents, teachers, or peers) offers a
chance to take an active role and develop higher-order skills such as critical
and divergent thinking, analysis, synthesis, and problem solving.
Most classroom structures today do not encourage system literacy. While the
world is becoming increasingly more complex, educators can find themselves
continuing to fragment knowledge and real world problems through
compartmentalized curricula; science is taught in one class, math in another,
English in another. Courses in natural science focus on the material world,
while courses in the social sciences focus on the social world, and neither
class acknowledges the intensive, ongoing ways in which these two worlds
influence each other. When we talk to children about issues, such as climate
change, terrorism, and water use, we can raise their awareness of the material
and social worlds, bringing together insights from history, biology, and
literature, as well as the daily newspaper. Most importantly, we can come to
richer understandings by tapping into the experience and insight that children
already have. Conversations with Fritjof Capra helped me clarify this division
between the natural and social sciences. According to Capra, “this division
will no longer be possible, because the key challenge of this new century – for
social scientists, natural scientists, and everyone else – will be to build
ecologically sustainable communities, designed in such a way that their
technologies and social institutions – their material and social structures –
do no interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life.”5
Everyday Ways To Foster Systems Literacy
Some experts in the field have argued that, because systems operate in
non-linear ways that can be difficult to assimilate, systems thinking requires
access to advanced training in complex systems theory, system dynamics, and
agent-based modeling. Certainly, these fields of study can help people move
beyond natural, intuitive understanding of systems to more expert levels of
systems literacy. At the same time, there is a growing body of research
(including my own research with 10- and 11-year-olds) that shows that many
students intuitively “think about systems,” both natural and social, without
any formal training and long before they’re ready for graduate school. Children
as young as four and five show a capacity for understanding systems behaviors,
which suggests that systems thinking may be part of a child’s innate
intelligence that is “corrected” by adults who have been taught to
R.W. Kates and C. Katz studied three-to-five year olds and their
understanding of the hydrologic water cycle. These researchers found that “some
sense of cycles” (e.g., the domestic water cycle and the cloud-rain cycle)
existed among the four-year-old children, while the five-year-old group
described “a more complex and extensive hydrology.”7
Piaget, who was familiar with Austrian-born biologist Ludwig von
Bertalannfy’s notion of “open systems,” recognized this natural systems
intelligence when he observed: “There is in the child…a spontaneous belief that
everything is connected with everything else and that everything can be
explained by everything else.”8
We see this natural intelligence in young people who partake in role-playing
games such as Dungeons and Dragons and computer games like Zoo
Tycoon and SimCity. In the thick of this “play,” children track
numerous interdependencies, manage large amounts of data, and anticipate
unintended consequences. In play, they flex their systems thinking muscles.
Opportunities for nurturing systems literacy in children are all around us,
from the classroom and the playground to the car, the library, the dinner
table, a school garden, the bath, and the grocery store. With a thoughtful
guide, the great outdoors offers a fertile classroom for understanding the
interrelationships and dynamics of species. Time in nature is not just healthy
(as Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the
End of Nature-Deficit Disorder, reminds us), it is also important if we
are to learn to live sustainably with our natural environment. Buckminster
Fuller, the American engineer, systems theorist, author, designer, and creator
of the geodesic dome, also pointed to the concept of nature-as-teacher: “I am
confident that humanity’s survival depends on our willingness to comprehend
feelingly the way nature works.”9 Why not encourage the
seven-year-old child, enthralled with the life cycle of a butterfly, to explore
other “life cycles?” Or wonder, with the 10-year-old fishing enthusiast, how a
worm in the garden may be useful for his next fishing trip, but also useful as
a soil tiller and a potential food source for a hungry robin. In these ways, we
can give children direct experiences with unadulterated nature so that they, as
Masanobu Fukuoka, farmer, and author of The One-Straw Revolution
urges, “… can instinctively understand what needs to be done and what must not
be done – to work in harmony with (nature’s) processes.”10
Here are some other examples of conversations and activities that can help
young people become more systems literate:
Help children to connect the dots.
Set an example: talk about relationships, not just things. Instead of simply
saying, “That’s a brown chicken,” point out that the chicken lays eggs and eats
the insects in the farmer’s garden. Recognize and encourage the child’s natural
tendency to see a network of possible causes and consequences. Ask the child to
draw the connections he or she sees among cars, air, plants, and people.
Simple cause-and-effect diagrams can help to reveal the patterns underlying
sticky problems. For instance, think of an ongoing household battle. Perhaps
your son hates to clean his room and you really don’t like to ask him to clean
his room. Throughout the week, you remind him about the chore. Your son
resists. By the end of the week, your frustration is boiling over. Finally, you
threaten a week of no TV and your son relents. When he shows his clean room,
you are happy. But the next day, with the pressure off, he slowly reverts to
his old habits. Mid-way through the week, you feel your frustration build
again, this time with more pressure.
One way out of this dilemma is for you and your son or daughter to sit down
together, and each draw simple diagrams showing the situation as you see it.
By connecting the dots, both sides can see that you’re caught in a closed
causal loop. It is a balancing feedback process, a set of interactions that
return a system – like your body, an ecosystem, market systems—back to a state
of equilibrium. By their very nature, they are goal-seeking, working to bring
things to a desired state and keep them there.
Once you see this pattern, you can look for ways to break it. One strategy
is to revisit and reset the goal. Perhaps your standards as a parent are too
high – you’re looking for the pristine child’s bedroom that one might see in House
and Garden—while your child’s are too low. Can you develop a “maintenance”
goal that both parent and child agree upon? Since that may not be enough to
overcome this ingrained systemic structure, can you also add in a link to the
system, such as planned clean-up time twice a week, to achieve the maintenance
Talk about change over time.
Trace and anticipate changes over days, months, and years. For example, a child
may notice the slow decay of a fallen tree in a park or in the back yard. Or
you may point out less obvious changes, such as the changes in a pasture when
chickens are allowed to roam free.
You can work with your child to draw simple line graphs to track behavior
over weeks or months – anything from the levels of happiness at school to the
money in your savings account to the number of beavers in the pond. Once you
have a graph and you can see some behavior rising, falling, or oscillating,
ask: what set of interrelationships might be causing this pattern?
For a personal demonstration of change over time, encourage children to find
a “sit spot” where they can focus on some outdoor phenomenon, returning on a
regular basis to see how it changes. Examples might include a tree with leaves
that turn color, a pond whose water level rises or falls, or a place with a
barometer and thermometer. Encourage them to leave a small notebook near their
sit spot so they can keep track of the changes they observe over time.11
Look for the patterns that repeat.
When a child observes drivers’ behavior at the traffic rotary being similar to
people letting the water run when they brush their teeth, or that the growing
conflict between two kids at school is similar to the escalating conflict
between two nations, compare those patterns. Give your own nicknames to the
patterns you see. For instance, you might call that escalating conflict
“snowballing,” and then when a fight between siblings begins to escalate at
home, you can ask, “Are you snowballing now yourselves?”
Many Dr. Seuss books, like The Lorax, The Sneetches, and The
Butter Battle Book, have great examples of balancing and reinforcing
When there’s a case of bullying at school, try to talk about the perspectives
of the aggressor, the target, the teachers, and the bystanders. Create a role
play so the students can act out the situation or problem from different
perspectives. What new ideas or insights come from changing some of the
situational factors – such as how close they stand to each other when they tell
Anticipate unintended consequences.
Take a rubber band and stretch it, saying, “Let’s have some fun and see how far
we can stretch how we look at time.” Unstretched, the rubber band may represent
a day; stretched, it may represent five years into the past and five years into
the future. By doing this, we are asking the young person to adopt what
sociologist Elise Boulding called, “the extended present,”13 a view
of time that extends the present to five, 50 or 200 years ahead and behind. For
example, disposable diapers take between 100 and 500 years to decompose. Talk
about the fact that no one knows exactly how long it takes, because no one has
lived long enough to see it happen. The extended sense of the present is
particularly appropriate for living systems, because many living systems, both
natural and social, don’t generate a full cycle of behavior over short time
intervals. You won’t understand the seasonal cycle of your garden, for
instance, if you observe it for only a day or two.
Think like a bathtub.
Make it a game to look for things that build up or accumulate. A bathtub for
instance, accumulates water. System dynamicists call these accumulations
stocks. Trees, fish, people, goods, good will, money, the national debt—these
are all stocks. The rate at which the stock changes is its flow.
Challenge children to think in terms of stocks and flows. For instance, you can
ask: If the water is draining out of the bathtub twice as fast as it is flowing
in, what happens to the level of the water in the tub? (The answer: The level
goes down!) What if the amount of CO2 emissions flowing into the atmosphere is
flowing in at twice the rate that it is being drained out (through, for
example, carbon sinks)? What happens to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere?
(The answer: the amount increases, which is actually what is happening today)
Stocks and flows play a key role in generating some of the most perplexing
dynamics we encounter. Studies of the pesticide DDT, for example, have shown
that while DDT evaporates from the surface of plants and buildings over six
months, it remains in the tissue of fish for up to 50 years. The amount of DDT
in fish tissue is a stock with very slow outflow. We need to understand these
accumulations to understand the source of many of the major challenges we face
today—economic, social, and environmental.
When we look at stocks and flows we understand, for instance, that a deficit
(the rate at which a country borrows money) is a flow and the national debt is
a stock. We understand, as well, that taking the national deficit down to zero
doesn’t necessarily mean that we will get rid of the debt. We also understand
that carbon dioxide stocks in our atmosphere will continue to increase if the
rate at which carbon dioxide flows into the atmosphere is greater than the rate
at which it drains out—an important insight in the application of carbon
From Awareness To Action
With the help of adults, children’s intelligence about systems can be
developed further, into models of better problem definition, problem solving,
and design. This enables them to analyze and act in informed ways; aware of
recurring patterns, they will be less likely to react viscerally and
ineffectively and more likely to understand the patterns of behavior. They can
use this understanding to correct their own actions, anticipate unintended
consequences, and help others operate more effectively.
When children are systems literate, they help their parents learn, as well.
For example, they can talk about and make visible "commons dilemmas"—those
conflicts that arise around shared resources for which everyone is mutually
My four-year old at the rotary is now a strapping 13 year-old. Not long ago, he
ended up in a not-so-playful snowball fight with his brother. I took each one
aside to find out what was going on. They both told a similar story: A cutting
comment from one led the other to comment back, which led the first boy to
poke, the second boy to squash, and then prompted both to an out-and-out
battle. This was an example of the common pattern called escalation. Feeling at
my wit’s end, I quickly sat them down and sketched a diagram that looked like
“Look,” Jack said, “it’s a figure eight lying on its side. That’s infinity.
This thing could go on forever.”
“And just keep getting worse,” his brother groaned.
As we talked about it, we realized together that the growing conflict was
driven by each one trying to “out-cool” or “top-dog” the other. The more “cool”
behavior one kid put on, the more the other wanted to squash it. Suddenly, they
saw themselves as part of the “system,” rather than separate from it. They
“got” that blaming each other wasn’t going to solve the problem. When they
could see how their actions were actually fueling the actions of the other, with
the help of a simple picture, they then could talk about how they might break
the cycle. When I asked what they could do differently, the answer came easily.
The poker would lighten up on the poking, and the squasher wouldn’t squash so
The rotary, of course, has long since been fixed; traffic is back to normal.
In our family, we try to do our part to solve the problem of the commons.
Though I still rely on the car to drive to soccer practice, we walk to buy
groceries and we share eggs with neighbors from our own chickens. We try to
talk in ways that make it easier to connect the dots in everyday situations. A
common phrase in our house these days—what if everyone did that?—is
our way of attempting to magnify the consequences of our individual actions so
that we can imagine the broader impact.
Everyone is born with a natural intelligence about living systems. With just
a little effort, you can encourage that natural intelligence in young people
and remind them that their world is interconnected and dynamic, a tightly woven
web of nature, people, issues, and events, and as such, it is both purposeful
To learn more about fostering systems literacy in a variety of settings,
see: Tina Grotzer’s Learning Causality in a Complex World: Understandings
of Consequence (Lanham, MD: R&L Education, 2012); Daniel Goleman, Lisa
Bennett, & Zenobia Barlow’s Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating
Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence (San Francisco:
Jossey-Bass, 2012); and Draper Kauffman’s classic text, Systems 1: An
Introduction to Systems Thinking (Waltham, MA: Pegasus Communications,
1980). Invaluable online resources include: The Waters Foundation (www.watersfoundation.org),
The Creative Learning Exchange (www.clexchange.org), and The Center for
systems educator, and award-winning author. She works
with people of all ages to develop an understanding of living systems to
improve learning, decision making, and design. Linda’s work has appeared in
numerous journals and magazines, including "Highlights Magazine for
- Cobb, Edith. The Ecology
of Imagination in Childhood. (New York: Columbia University Press,
- Berry, Wendell. The Way
of Ignorance and Other Essays. (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005.
- Marshall, Stephanie Pace. The
Power to Transform: Leadership That Brings Learning and Schooling to Life.
(Danvers, MA: Jossey-Bass, 2006).
- Sterman, J. Learning in and
about complex systems. Reflections: The Journal of the Society for
Organizational Learning. 1: 24-49 (2000).
- Capra, Fritjof. The
Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living. (New York:
- Booth Sweeney, L &
Sterman, JD. Thinking About Systems: Student and Teacher Conceptions of
Natural and Social Systems. Systems Dynamics Review 23(2-3)
- Kates, RW & Katz, C The
hydrolic cycle and the wisdom of the child. Geographical Review
- Piaget, J. The Language
and Thoughts of the Child. (New York: Humanities Press, 1959).
- Edmonson, Amy. A Fuller
Explanation: The Synergetic Geometry of R. Buckminster Fuller.
(Pueblo, CO: EmergentWorld Press, 1987).
- Fukuoka, Masanobu. The One-Straw
Revolutions: An Introduction to Natural Farming. Trans: Chris Pearce,
Tsune Kurosawa & Larry Korn. (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1978).
- Young, J et al. Coyote’s
Guide to Connecting with Nature for Kids of all Ages and their Mentors.
(OWLink Media Corporation, 2008).
- Booth Sweeney, L. When a
Butterfly Sneezes: A guide for helping children explore interconnections
in our world through favorite stories. (Waltham, MA:
Pegasus Communications, 2001)
- Boulding, Elise. Education
for Inventing the Future, in Alternatives to Growth I: A Search for
Sustainable Futures. (Ballinger Publishing, 1977).
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