Monday, July 13, 2015

Wicked problems and wicked solutions: the case of the world's food supply

I am back from two days of full immersion in a meeting on something rather new for me: the world's food supply. I am still reeling from the impact. Whenever you go in some depth into anything; you see how immensely more complex things are in comparison to the pale shadow of the world that you perceive in the glittering screen of your TV. Everything is complex, and everything complex becomes wicked once you start seeing it as a problem. And wicked problems usually generate wicked solutions. (image from Wikipedia)

Can you think of something worse than a wicked problem? Yes, it is perfectly possible: it is a wicked solution. That is, a solution that not only does nothing to solve the problem, but, actually, worsens it. Unfortunately, if you work in system dynamics, you soon learn that most complex systems are not only wicked, but suffer from wicked solutions (see, e.g. here).

This said, let's get to one of the most wicked problems I can think of: that of the world's food supply. I'll try to report here at least a little of what I learned at the recent conference on this subject, jointly held by FAO and the Italian Chapter of the System Dynamics Society. Two days of discussions held in Rome during a monster heat wave that put under heavy strain the air conditioning system of the conference room and made walking from there to one's hotel a task comparable to walking on an alien planet: it brought the distinct feeling that you needed a refrigerated space suit. But it was worth being there.

First of all, should we say that the world's food supply is a "problem"? Yes, if you note that about half of the world's human population is undernourished; if not really starving. And of the remaining half, a large fraction is not nourished right, because obesity and type II diabetes are rampant diseases - they said at the conference that if the trend continues, half of the world's population is going to suffer from diabetes.

So, if we have a problem, is it really "wicked"? Yes, it is, in the sense that finding a good solution is extremely difficult and the results are often the opposite than those intended at the beginning. The food supply system is a devilishly complex system and it involves a series of cross linked subsystems interacting with each other. Food production is one thing, but food supply is a completely different story, involving transportation, distribution, storage, refrigeration, financial factors, cultural factors and is affected by climate change, soil conservation, population, cultural factors...... and more, including the fact that people don't just eat "calories", they need to eat food; that is a balanced mix of nutrients. In such a system, everything you touch reverberates on everything else. It is a classic case of the concept known in biology as "you can't do just one thing."

Once you obtain even a vague glimpse of the complexity of the food supply system - as you can do in two days of full immersion in a conference - then you can also understand how poor and disingenuous often are the efforts to "solve the problem". The basic mistake that almost everyone does here (and not just in the case of the food supply system) is trying to linearize the system.

Linearizing a complex system means that you act on a single element of it, hoping that all the rest won't change as a consequence. It is the "look, it is simple" approach: favored by politicians (*). It goes like this, "look, it is simple: we just do this and the problem will be solved". What is meant with "this" varies with the situation; with the food system, it often involves some technological trick to raise the agricultural yields. In some quarters that involves the loud cry "let's go GMOs!" (genetically modified organisms).

Unfortunately, even assuming that agricultural yields can be increased in terms of calories produced using GMOs (possible, but only in industrialized agricultural systems), then the result is a cascade of effects which reverberate in the whole system; typically transforming a resilient rural production system into a fragile, partly industrialized, production system - to say nothing about the fact that these technologies often worsen the food's nutritional quality. And, assuming that it is possible to increase yields, how do you find the financial resources to build up the infrastructure needed to manage the increased agricultural yield? You need trucks, refrigerators, storage facilities, and more. Even if you can manage to upgrade all that, very often, the result is simply to make the system more vulnerable to external shocks such as increases in the cost of supplies such as fuels and fertilizers.

There are other egregious examples of how deeply flawed is the "'look, it is simple" strategy. One is the idea that we can solve the problem by getting rid of food waste. Great, but how exactly can you do that and how much would that cost? (**) And who would pay for the necessary upgrade of the whole distribution infrastructure? Another "look, it is simple" approach is 'if we all went vegetarian, there would be plenty of food for everyone'. In part, it is true, but it is not so simple, either. Again, there is a question of distribution and transportation, and the fact that rich westerners buy "green food" in their supermarkets has little impact on the situation of the poor in the rest of the world. And then, some kinds of "green" food are bulky and hence difficult to transport; also they spoil easily, and so you need refrigeration, and so on. Something similar holds for the "let's go local" strategy. How do you deal with the unavoidable fluctuations in local production? Once upon a time, these fluctuations were the cause of periodic famines which were accepted as a fact of life. Going back to that is not exactly a way to "solve the food supply problem."

A different way to tackle the problem is focussed on reducing the human population. But, also here, we often make the "look, it is simple" mistake. What do we know exactly on the mechanisms that generate overpopulation, and how do we intervene on them? Sometimes, proposers of this approach seem to think that all what we need to do is to drop condoms on poor countries (at least it is better than dropping bombs on them). But suppose that you can reduce population in non traumatic ways, then you intervene into a system where "population" means a complex mix of different social and economic niches: you have urban, peri-urban, and rural population; a population reduction may mean shifting people from one sector to the other, it may involve losing producing capabilities in the rural areas, or, on the contrary, reduced capabilities of financing production if you could lower population in urban areas. Again, population reduction, alone, is a linear approach that won't work as it is supposed to do, even if it could be implemented.

Facing the complexity of the system, listening to the experts discussing it, you get a chilling sensation that it is a system truly too difficult for human beings to grasp. You would have to be at the same time an expert in agriculture, in logistics, in nutrition, in finance, in population dynamics, and much more. One thing I noticed, as a modest expert in energy and fossil fuels, is how food experts normally don't realize that the availability of fossil fuels must necessarily go down in the near future. That will have enormous effects on agriculture: think of fertilizers, mechanization, transportation, refrigeration, and more. But I didn't see these effects taken into account in most models presented. Several researchers showed diagrams extrapolating current trends into the future as if oil production were to keep increasing for the rest of the century and more.

The same is true for climate change: I didn't see at the conference much being said about the extreme effects that rapid climate change could have on agriculture. It is understandable: we have good models telling us how temperatures will rise, and how that will affect some of the planet's subsystems (e.g. sea levels), but no models that could tell us how the agricultural system will react to shifting weather patterns, different temperatures, droughts or floods. Just think of how deeply agricultural yields in India are linked to the yearly monsoon pattern and you can only shiver at the thought of what might happen if climate change would affect that.

So, the impression I got from the conference is that nobody is really grasping the complexity of the problem; neither at the level of single persons, nor at the level of organizations. For instance, I never heard a crucial term used in world dynamics, which is "overshoot". That is, it is true that right now we can produce roughly enough food - measured in calories - for the current population. But for how long will we be able to do that? In several cases I could describe the approaches I have seen as trying to fix a mechanical watch using a hammer. Or to steer a transatlantic liner using a toothpick stuck into the propeller.

But there are also positive elements coming from the Rome conference. One is that the FAO, although a large, and sometimes clumsy, organization understands how system dynamics is a tool that could help a lot policy makers to do better in managing the food supply system. And, possibly, helping them device better ideas to "solve the food problem". That's more difficult than it seems: system dynamics is not for everyone and teaching it to bureaucrats is like teaching dogs to solve equations: it takes a lot of work and it doesn't work so well. Then, system dynamics practitioners are often victim of the "spaghetti diagram" syndrome, which consists in drawing complex models full of little arrows going from somewhere to somewhere else, and then watching the mess they created and nodding in a show of internal satisfaction. But it is also true that, at the conference, I saw a lot of good will among the various actors in the field to find a common language. This is a good thing, difficult, but promising.

In the end, what is the solution to the "food supply problem"? If you ask me, I would try to propose a concept: "in a complex system, there are neither problems, nor solutions. There is only change and adaptation." As a corollary, I could say that you can solve a problem (or try to) but you can't solve a change (not even try to). You can only adapt to change, hopefully in a non traumatic manner.

Seen in this sense, the best way to tackle the present food supply situation, is not to seek for impossible (wicked) solutions (e.g. GMOs) but to increase the resilience of the system. That involves working at the local level and interacting with all the actors working in the food supply system. It is a sensible approach. FAO is already following it and it can insure a reasonable supply even in the presence of the unavoidable shocks that are going to arrive as the result of climate change and energy supply problems. Can system dynamics help? Probably yes. Of course, there is a lot of work to do, but the Rome conference was a good start.

H/t: Stefano Armenia, Vanessa Armendariz, Olivio Argenti and all the organizers of the joint Sydic/FAO conference in Rome


* Once you tackle the food problem, you can't ignore the "third world" situation. As a consequence, the conference was not just among Westerners and the debate took a wider aspect that also involved different ways of seeing the world. One particularly interesting discussion I had was with a Mexican researcher. According to her opinion, "linearizing" complex problems is a typical (and rather wicked) characteristic of the Western way of thinking. She countered this linear vision with the "circular" approach that, according to her, is typical of ancient Meso-American cultures, such as the Maya and others. That approach, she said, could help a lot the world to tackle wicked problems without worsening them. I just report this opinion; personally I don't have sufficient knowledge to judge it. However, it seems true to me that there is something wicked in the way Western thought tends to mold everything and everyone on its own image.

** In the food system, the idea that "look, it is simple: just let's get rid of waste" is exactly parallel to the "zero waste" approach for urban and industrial waste. I have some experience in this field, and I can tell you that, the way it is often proposed, the "zero waste" idea simply can't work. It involves high costs and it just makes the system more and more fragile and vulnerable to shocks. That doesn't mean that waste is unavoidable; not at all. If you can't build up a "zero waste" industrial system, you can build up subsystems that will process and eliminate that waste. These subsystems, however, cannot work using the same logic of the standard industrial system; they have to be tailored to operate on low yield resources. In practice, it is the "participatory management" approach, (see, e.g., the work of Prof. Gutberlet). It can be done with urban waste, but also with food waste and it is another way to increase the resilience of the system.


  1. Dog math:

    If a dog has three bones and a bureaucrat takes away two, how many fingers will a bureaucrat have left?

    I imagine bureaucrats generally embrace a mantra of more is always better. Since efficiency and resilience often are inversely related to each other, resilience I expect is more ignored than understood by bureaucrats.

    And that is the Dog-ma for the day!

  2. Forests Vs. Food

    Collapse Data Sheet

  3. Ugo,

    Where do you think our(the human animal)population is going? Is it likely that we can maintain it in a sustainable manner ,or are we looking at a managed decline or a catastrophic crash or even an increase into the far future in the love of Jebus and all his wonderful little demons and goblins?

    I'm of the opinion that damage to the carrying capacity(through over-exploitation and damage to self-sustaining system,like the climate) is so bad, that along with the inevitable decline of fossil fuel inputs and zero political will to actually do anything about it,we are in for a hard landing ,to say the least!

    1. My impression is that we are in a bad condition of overshoot. So, population will have to go down. How fast and how much, however, is a difficult question. There is the "Ireland model" (population halves in a few years) and the "Tokugawa Japan model", where population gradually adapts to its limits and stays there. My impression is that the adaptation doesn't have to be catastrophic, but it is also true that some people seem to be working hard at obtained exactly that (wicked solutions)

  4. "Something similar holds for the "let's go local" strategy. How do you deal with the unavoidable fluctuations in local production? Once upon a time, these fluctuations were the cause of periodic famines which were accepted as a fact of life. Going back to that is not exactly a way to 'Solve the food supply problem.' "-UB

    The trick is to develop local food production methods which consistently produce food of high quality with low inputs of fertilizer and water. AKA, HYDROPONICS & AQUACULTURE.

    You also use methods of food storage which are not energy intensive, solar oven drying of meat, air drying of fruits etc. This gives you a buffer against famine if for some reason your food production system breaks down in a given year. In a closed system this is unlikely to come from drought, since you recycle most of the water through the system. Where it can come is in contamination in your system, which has to be flushed and you'll lose probably 3 months worth of growing when this happens. So you also want 4-5 independent systems running using separate water reservoirs and separate tubing and pumping.

    Peter (one of the Diner Founders) lives in Ocean Falls, BC and grows 80% of his nutritional needs inside his house hydroponically. He accumulates the remainder fishing and crabbing. He also maintains a raised bed Greenhouse with another friend in the community. They have almost Zero input on the food level from the external world, and their community is only 23 people.

    To set up these systems, it has been necessary to get some things from industrial culture (tubing, pumps etc), but once you acquire them they last a long time. Producing them is not that energy intensive either, so they can be around a while longer. Also, many of these parts can be scavenged either from car junkyards or abandoned McMansions.

    It can be done. It HAS been done.


  5. An outstanding essay, Dr Bardi!

    How do you plan for the unplanned? How do you provide a rational response to an irrational question? Even phrasing the question is wicked. In “Go and catch a falling star”, John Donne (1572-1631) wrote of it:

    Go and catch a falling star,
    Get with child a mandrake root,
    Tell me where all past years are,
    Or who cleft the devil's foot,
    Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
    Or to keep off envy's stinging,
    And find
    What wind
    Serves to advance an honest mind.

    In the Classic Spanish drama “La Vida Es Sueño”, in 1635 Calderón de la Barca addressed it better, in Segismundo’s famous soliloquy but I have never encountered a decent translation of the critical part.

    A thought. I have noticed that some people who have lived and worked a while in a foreign land for a few years and then returned home, are likelier than most to be able to hear the mermaids singing. (Have you lived and worked abroad?)

    1. Oh, yes.... I was discussing with someone, just yesterday, about our school system. And she noted that our schooling system is geared up to destroy creativity as much as possible. It is true, and the more we move onward with trying to "fix it", the more we transform it into a horrible, bureaucratic, stifling system. It seems to be unavoidable: I was talking about "wicked solutions"? Yes, indeed......

    2. Hi David,

      Could you please elaborate on this "A thought. I have noticed that some people who have lived and worked a while in a foreign land for a few years and then returned home, are likelier than most to be able to hear the mermaids singing"?

    3. By “mermaids singing” I refer to perceiving significant truths that are not subject to Popperian falsification. Science and logic should be considered as the minions and not the masters of wisdom.

      My wife and I lived and worked in Mexico City for a half dozen years. One of my clients was a high executive in ICA, a Mexican engineering and construction conglomerate of international reach. He had lived and worked in Chicago (my home town) for a number of years. He took back with him more than a taste for steaks grilled rare, deep-dish pizza and a loathing for lights in Wrigley Field. He understood Mexico and its people not just from being Mexican himself but from having lived and worked in the US and becoming pretty thoroly americanized in the process, so he could see Mexico from the inside and the outside.

      Around that time, in a moderate-sized city in northern Mexico, there were three candidates for mayor. Each one had lived and worked in the US (as undocumented field workers, yet). They represented the three main political parties. Of radically different political orientations, they still developed visions for their city that, paraphrasing St Paul, were not so much in conformity to the city’s difficult realities but upon transformation of those realities. And their visions were not all so dissimilar. (The elected mayor was assassinated not too long after taking office.)

      I cannot speak for myself. Too close to the subject!

  6. In your perceptive (as always) report, you write:

    "What do we know exactly on the mechanisms that generate overpopulation, and how do we intervene on them?"

    I think we know all we need to know, and have known since 1798. The problem is, we really don't like what we know, and so seek multiple ways to deny it. We are in overshoot, as you remind us, and that is not a problem, it is a predicament. One that only Nature can resolve, and do not be deceived - resolve it she will.

  7. At conferences like this it is of course taboo to mention the possibility that mass famines are already inevitable during this century, that as a species we are already so far into overshoot that even wise food-related policies implemented immediately will only soften the blow.

    My 1st thought is population control, and although the food predicament cannot be solved without a global population reduction policy, it is already too late to solve the global human population problem in a simple manner. There was a demographic study done not long ago which concluded that even with a 1 child per family policy (?not sure if this is what the study assumed?) maintained worldwide, there is so much demographic momentum in the system that it would take past the year 2100 to actually be significantly effective in reducing global population. I did not really believe the study because it contradicted all of the systems dynamics studies that have population going down much sooner, due to great increases in death rates.

    The problem of course is the sheer number of young persons in nations in Africa for example. Because the birth rates are so high, the population distribution is skewed towards the young, the opposite of what you see in places like Japan. Most of those young persons in African countries will live awhile, and they will be having children in the meantime.

    Discussions on controlling population are mostly academic activities. No significant international cooperation can be expected on this issue. Instead, I anticipate seeing an epidemic of failed states occurring in the next 2 or 3 decades, and within those failed states I expect that there will be some sort of catastrophic human die-off, due to famine, disease, violence and other factors such as a collapse of the mental health of the population with increases in substance abuse, suicide and other dysfunctional behavior.

    As I see it, several problems need to be tackled together to reduce the severity of the global human die-off:

    conservation of resources
    cooperation between nations and between regions within nations

    What chance is there that enough influential people will wake up and acknowledge this?

    Persons I thought of off the top of my head who could contribute insight to our current predicament with regard to food resources:

    Vandana Shiva
    Lester R. Brown
    David Holmgren
    Dale Allen Pfeiffer

    1. You are correct in saying that the question of population control is something discussed only among academics and, by definition, ignored. It is interesting, however, that the Chinese government has been able to implement a serious birth control policy; they needed it, and they got it. BUt that model seems to be impossible to be exported in the western world. So, our leaders seem to be intentioned to leave the ecosystem solve its problems by itself. And, unfortunately, the ecosystem does not show the characteristic we call "compassion".

    2. I continue to be amazed that active population decrease has not become a military activity, yet.

    3. In the "global conspiracy theory" crowd (Alex Jones is a representative example) you hear about the "New World Order" and their supposed population reduction plans. If the United Nations team of demographers are correct, such ideas are sheer paranoia. Furthermore, most businesses benefit from population increases, at least up to a point. It increases the potential number of clients or consumers. You hear this sort of thing even from national leaders such as Erdogan of Turkey, who goes so far as to consider it treasonous to promote birth control in Turkey :

      "Himself a father of four, Erdogan has urged married couples to have at least three children, pushing his message bluntly on every platform"

      The humane way to decrease population is through birth control. If the military gets involved with this, I shudder to think what methods they might use.

    4. Take note of US Presidential Precandidate Jeb Bush's saying that to grow the US economy, more hours must be worked. He may not recognize it, but that statement means hiring the unemployed, and/or the employed working more hours, and/or increasing population (immigration, higher birth rate). None of these approaches improve the lot of us Hoi Polloi. They all improve the wealth of the One Permillers (the 1‰ers, not the 1%ers).

      This Mr Bush appears to have intelligence and education and to be uninterested in using either. And maybe I am mistaken as well as uncharitable.

  8. Ugo
    I agree about FAO and with your excellent reminders of ‘what gets left out’.

    A small parable from early 80s Afghanistan: many of the world’s key crop genetic resources exist as ‘land races’ distributed among ‘traditional’ farming ‘systems’. I emphasise the term ‘systems’ because however fragile and recent they do resemble in some ways adapted ecosystems.

    Geoffrey Hawtin I think it was (I hope he will forgive me if I am wrong or badly paraphrase his position) who proposed about that time a modest ‘resilience’ model for Afghanistan suffering serious war damage to otherwise traditionally resilient regional farming systems. Local crop land races could be re-established from the undamaged areas. If I remember correctly, he did not suggest the introduction of ‘Western’ farming methods with their high dependence on expensive industrial inputs. Nor did he include the then latest ‘hot topic’ of GMOs. Of course such recovery did not happen to any useful extent. Further damage, opium cropping for Western trade etc. seem to have left fewer options to adapt to present or future local conditions. There are by accounts many hungry people in Afghanistan who hang on to their semi-subsistence productive resources by their finger nails.

    You touch on urbanisation, which has seen unprecedented expansion in the last decade or so. I tried to make a case writing 20 years ago that it was essential not to ‘pauperise’ (that is destroy the economic rationale of peoples’ livelihoods) those in the vast rural hinterlands especially in Asia, in order to feed the emerging urban populations. Such ‘balance’ has clearly not been achieved.

    Population overshoot has in the past been partly reconciled by migration and in the last two centuries by urbanisation. Migration as in China’s urbanisation has continued apace in the last two decades. The Great Age of Migration however is possibly yet to come as the great networks of industrialisation and rural hinterlands further interact. Your reminder of the limits to fossil fuel resources and present trends is timely.


  9. -- Assessing agricultural risks of climate change in the 21st century in a global gridded crop model intercomparison

  10. Yes, the challenges of dealing with such a complex system are daunting, but that does not change the fact that they have to be tackled, otherwise we're toast.

    There is one aspect of the problem that's overlooked here though. It's absolutely true that if we suddenly decided to move to a sustainable state, that would be extremely complex and difficult to accomplish in practice. But this is primarily because of human behavior factors and it assumes the same human behavior as now.

    However, without a fundamental change in human behavior, nobody will ever even try to move to a sustainable state on a global scale. So basically, the elimination of the source of many of these problems is a prerequisite for even starting on that path, in which case many of those problems would not appear.

    Human behavior is not changing, of course, so the system will keep evolving as it has so far, with predictable consequences.

  11. Glad to see you gleaned so much from a two-day conference Ugo. However, as I have said many times:
    "If YOU would have listened to US forty-five years ago, WE wouldn't be in trouble TODAY."

    The complexity of the problem is not new. Neither is the penchant for simple solutions. However, you are STILL on the wrong track with your own penchant for systems theory, systems dynamics, and systems solutions.

    Let's bump it up to the next level, based on over 45 years of dealing with this very problem in "the belly of the beast" right here in the USA. A person needs to change their mode of dealing with the problem in order to properly analyze it, theorize, and find solutions. You cannot do this by going to meetings or conferences. You cannot do this by having a nice office and publishing articles. You cannot do this without sacrifice and manual labor. In point of fact, unless you have your hands in the soil every day, you cannot even analyze in the proper context or come up with viable solutions.

    Collapse is in our future. Everyone has to actually get off their bottoms and sweat for their solutions. If you want a starting point, I have two books available on Amazon. However, they still require sweat and adaptation to changing conditions on the ground. There is no other way.

  12. The problems of food are easy: plant seeds and care. Visqueen and PVC pipe make this possible in winter. Read about Findhorn Garden in Ireland about how they did this in terrible soil conditions. Life creates life. Create an ecosystem of care and you can fix the problem.

  13. To put the food problems into perspective, consider that hemp seeds are the single best plant source for protein and oil, however, huge lies that "marijuana is almost as bad as murder" were able to criminalize all cannabis cultivation in most places in the world for decade after decade.

    Money controls food, which then controls people. Of course, that merely illustrates the overall WICKEDNESS of both the problems, and the greater WICKEDNESS of their "solutions." The human world actually and necessarily operates according to the principles and methods of organized crime. The only genuine solutions inside that situation must be better organized crime. However, the established systems have developed to become a core of organized crime, surrounded by layers of controlled opposition, in which context the enforced frauds that control the public "money" supply then control the food supplies, which overall control the people ...


    "In a complex system, there are neither problems, nor solutions. There is only change and adaptation."

    In the case of human civilizations, there will be possible "change and adaptation" of the existing systems of organized crime, whereby the governments have become the biggest forms of organized crime, controlled by the best organized gangs of criminals, the biggest gangsters, that currently happen to be the international banksters. The food supply is being controlled by the monetary system, in order to control people, therefore, the food supply is based upon being controlled by integrated systems of enforced frauds, within which context the historical situation with respect to hemp seeds illustrates that overall pattern.

    The current food supply system is based on the long history of Neolithic Civilizations being based on backing up lies with violence. The future food supplies will end up being based upon how those existing systems eventually "adapt and change." Of course, without some series of political miracles, the most probable futures are for the existing kinds of runaway, excessively successful, systems of enforcing frauds to go through some series of psychotic breakdowns. To cope with that in any genuinely better ways requires that he first step is to face that the WICKED problems are due to the triumphs of the methods of organized crime controlling civilization, while the second step would be even more WICKED solutions which could only be realistically based upon better organized crime.

    It is not possible for human beings and civilizations to not have some death control systems, which then back up the debt control systems, through combined money/murder systems, which then control access to resources, such as to food. The existing systems are the most entangled in absurdly backward ways as was possible to develop, due to the history of warfare being organized crime on larger and larger scale, where the history of successful warfare placed a premium on deceits and treacheries, which then became the foundation for financial successfulness to become based upon enforced frauds, within which context it was possible for things like hemp seeds to be totally criminalized in most places, for decade after decade, despite the facts that hemp seeds are in every way the single best source of food for people.

    As we run into resource limits, we will be forced to change and adapt ... However, the existing systems are based upon the methods and principles of organized crime, being operated by the best available professional liars and immaculate hypocrites regarding those necessarily existing social facts, which makes both the wicked problems and their even more wicked solutions INTENSELY PARADOXICAL!

  14. Bravo, Ugo!

    For me this is far more than another essay on the global food supply. You have used food supply as a starting point to explore some fundamental system issues that are consistently missed by "solutionistas" in all domains.

    this is a brilliant collection of essential insights into complex systems. You've distilled out some truly fundamental ideas.

    » Wicked problems generate wicked solutions (i.e. trying to solve a wicked problem usually makes it worse.)

    » "Population" is not the same thing as "the number of people."

    » "Calories" are not the same thing as "food."

    » Domain experts are universally unable to comprehend the full scope of the complex system their domain is a part of.

    And my personal favourite:

    » "In a complex system, there are neither problems nor solutions. There is only change and adaptation."

    My lay understanding of complex systems is informed by the work of people like Catton, Tainter, Norbert Wiener, H.T. Odum, Donella Meadows, Marvin Harris, George Mobus and yourself. This essay is yet another pointed reminder of how much further we have to go to understand how the world really works, and where human beings fit in the eternal process of change and adaptation.

    Thank you!

  15. Population is the most popular sustainability discussion on the internet these days and perhaps this is totally appropriate. However, one thing that annoys me is that whenever any article is published on how to improve our sustainable behaviours at least one person responds to the effect: 'There's no point in changing policy or behaviour unless we deal with the population issue'. The implication in there is always that there is a grand or simple solution to population and if we just pressed that button most of our sustainability issues would vanish.

    I wouldn't for a moment understate the importance of population as an issue, but have come to a personal conclusion that much of the population hammering is a way of expressing grief: "I'm really shocked sad that I am forced to change my behaviours and that my comfort zone is challenged and if only there weren't so many resource consumers in the world all of this stress would be unnecessary".

    Of all the pressing issues that we have to deal with, population is probably the most complex and one that can least be resolved via easy solutions.

    Thanks Ugo for a very impressive article.

  16. Can we reasonably assume there's a "good" solution?



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)