There's just enough time

In response to the question, “is there still time for a transition to sustainability,” John Sterman cited Donella Meadows,

The truth of the matter is that no one knows.

We have said many times that the world faces not a preordained future, but a choice. The choice is between different mental models, which lead logically to different scenarios. One mental model says that this world for all practical purposes has no limits. Choosing that mental model will encourage extractive business as usual and take the human economy even farther beyond the limits. The result will be collapse.

Another mental model says that the limits are real and close, and that there is not enough time, and that people cannot be moderate or responsible or compassionate. At least not in time. That model is self-fulfilling. If the world’s people choose to believe it, they will be proven right. The result will be collapse.

A third mental model says that the limits are real and close and in some cases below our current levels of throughput. But there is just enough time, with no time to waste. There is just enough energy, enough material, enough money, enough environmental resilience, and enough human virtue to bring about a planned reduction in the ecological footprint of humankind: a sustainabil­ity revolution to a much better world for the vast majority.

That third scenario might very well be wrong. But the evidence we have seen, from world data to global computer models, suggests that it could conceivably be made right. There is no way of knowing for sure, other than to try it.

2 thoughts on “There's just enough time”

  1. Many thanks Tom for bringing the topic up. Mental models are more drivers of our behavior (individually and collectively) than we are aware of. Mental models are part of our culture, and the underlying patterns of behavior are seldom questioned, rather taken for granted.

    In 2002 something strange happened, and I became part of something bigger. In a magazine, while living in Dresden, a promotion CD about the new BMW Mini slipped out of my hand. “BMW Mini, interesting!” I thought by myself, having sold my last car back in 1998, and using bike, and public transport ever since. It turned out that later that year I joined the team to build up BMW’s new plant in Leipzig. Only over time I realized that the creation of this plant had a deeper story, that BMW almost vanished from the car maker scene, after buying ROVER (in a last attempt to gain reasonable size to compete with other car makers) and the accompanying problems. As problems decreased, and MINI got more and more interest by buyers, and the car market getting ahead, there was a decision to be made, extend current facilities or build a new plant?

    What seemed like a crazy idea, and in a country with extremely high wages (Germany, even though in Eastern Germany wages are still lower than in Western Germany) this seemed like an impossibly scenario with a positive outcome.

    Why was it successful? Why did we ramp up from 0 to 700 cars per, outpacing the quality standards set in under two years (1. BMW series 3 sedan delivered on May 1st 20005)?

    Our plant manager, Dr. Peter Claussen, had a vision to make it possible that all of us could play to their inner strengths, putting people from very diverse backgrounds on the core teams. Building on the past, when Saxony, and the adjacent German states, had to cope with lack of quality material, supply stuck on the road, and mismanagement. The colleagues I got to know mostly came from Eastern Germany, and they had the “we can solve it with the given resources” attitude.

    What seemed like an impossible task, for my department, the vehicle distribution, for example with only two people on the core BMW team (compared to a much higher team for similar output of cars in other plants), and an external service provider was possible, even at short time.

    The reason for that was a clear set shared vision of where we had to go, and a fair amount of freedom within the limits given by regulations, internal rules.

    This might seem out of scope, and connection to the sustainability issue on large scale, however this is for me one of these examples when mental models can be overruled in a positive way, by freeing up people to set their inner strengths, networks, skills, and knowledge to play.

    Certainly this can be enlarged, and scaled up across disciplines – which is my deep belief, based on actual experience in various other fields.

    System dynamics can play a major role to make that a reality, as it enters into current curriculums at schools, and universities using Jay W. Forrester’s “Road Map” course material (translation in various languages may be still necessary, and with Pegasus Communication as the publisher of many great system dynamics, and systems thinking literature gone out of business, it needs new visionary people, and players to harness the small seeds of success, and Jay’s vision for the next 50 years of system dynamics.

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