|November 1, 2002: Here's
a simple game that makes a not-so-simple point.
a line, with several friends. Each of you hold your right
index finger out in front of your body. Now place a long stick
across all of your fingers, balanced upon them. Your collective
goal is to lower the stick to the ground. There is only one
rule. Each finger must remain in contact with the stick at
all times. If anyone's finger looses contact with the stick,
you must raise the stick back to the starting level and begin
According to Dennis Meadows and Linda Booth Sweeney, who
include the game in their book, The Systems Thinking Playbook*,
groups of people following this rule almost always raise the
stick instead of lowering it. As each player works to keep
in contact with the stick the group as a whole pushes steadily
in the direction opposite to its goal.
This might sound like a silly exercise, but it makes an
important point. We can agree to rules that seem to make sense,
we can follow those rules, and we can still have outcomes
no one wants or even anticipates.
In my column last month (Deadzone
Economics), I described such a system -- commodity
agriculture. Individual producers compete to stay in business
by attempting to produce more commodity for less cost. As
everyone produces more, the price per bushel falls, and to
maintain the same income the producer must grow more or cut
costs. Production goes up, and costs go down, but since land
stewardship or contribution to community does not count as
a benefit in this equation, and since damage to the soil or
to the watershed does not count as a cost, environmental and
social indicators decline while "efficiency" rises.
The solution seems simple. Change the rules, so that all the
costs and benefits society cares about factor into the economic
decision making. Charge for the destruction of biodiversity
or the degradation of water quality. Reward good stewardship
and contributions to local community.
The exact solutions are local matters. They will be different
for soybeans than for corn, and different for codfish than
for tuna. The knowledge of people living and working in these
systems will be central to the design of policies that allow
these systems meet their environmental and social goals.
But, even before we come to implement specific policies,
there are challenges to overcome. For those commodities sold
into global markets it is not a simple matter to change the
rules to take social and environmental goals into account.
If a pollution tax raises the price of corn in the US, multinational
grain buyers -- caught up in their own competitive dynamics
-- will feel themselves forced to buy from other producers,
in places that do not account for environmental degradation.
As long as the buyers are intent on buying the cheapest commodity,
growers in one region cannot afford to improve the rules of
their systems unless growers in other regions take a similar
step. This sets up the system for what some have called a
"race to the bottom", with no one able to improve
the system rules on their own and everyone experiencing pressure
to push costs off onto the environment or onto workers and
A system is primed for this problem when the reach of buyers
is broader than the decision-making boundaries of producers.
Solutions will require reducing this asymmetry, either by
limiting the reach of buyers or extending the solidarity of
You hear more in the news about the first option. That is
a part of what the "anti-globalization" movement
is about--changing the rules of the largest economic system
so that people are able to take steps to make their local
economies serve them better. This is critical work -- no system
can be healthy if the rules at one level create pathology
at another level.
But there are other possibilities that need our energy too.
Governments from producing regions could commit to policies
that incorporate social and economic goals on a multi-national
scale. If all the corn producing regions of the world did
this, it would no longer matter that multi-national commodity-buying
corporations shop for the cheapest grain. Wherever they turned
they would find local economies that were accounting for the
full costs of grain production.
The corporations that buy and process commodities -- corporations
made up of people who don't set out to degrade resources or
communities -- could also come together to find solutions.
Because a relatively small number of companies buy any one
commodity this is a practical possibility. The corporations
could agree to raise minimum environmental and social standards
and take the steps towards these standards together, paying
the full costs together, with none of them at a competitive
Can commodity producers, or governments, or competing corporations
come together to end the race to the bottom? That is a huge
dream, and one that may seem to require more cooperation than
our world can muster right now.
On the other hand, it is a dream that is rooted in the reality
of our planet. We are one people, living together on one small
world. Sooner or later we are going to have to embrace this
fact. Anything less means sitting back and waiting for the
race to the bottom to reach its final destination. All of
us need to demand that the governments we empower and the
corporations we buy from end the race to the bottom now, while
there is still time.
For more information on the Systems Thinking Playbook
Beth Sawin is a mother, biologist and systems
analyst who lives in Hartland Vermont and works at Sustainability
Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
to receive a monthly column on systems and sustainability.
Previous columns by Elizabeth Sawin
- OCTOBER 1, 2002: Dead
Zone Economics: When are we going to start
making healthy soil and clean water part of the economic
equation for successful farming?