Talking About Systems: looking for systems in the news (and not)

The Next Big Thing

Thanks to fellow children’s author, Joyce Ray (Feathers and Trumpets, A Story of Hildegard of Bingen, fall, 2013 Apprentice Shop Books) for inviting me to participate in the online literary blog called MY NEXT BIG THING. 

The blog is a series of questions about works-in-progress and not yet published titles. Many national and international writers have participated in this. It gives readers a glimpse into the working life of a writer. Part of the fun is tagging someone else. It is with great delight that I will be tagging two other writers at the end of this post.

What is your next BIG THING?  My NEXT BIG THING is a picture book  about the early life of R. Buckminster Fuller. “Bucky” as his family and friends called him, was an American architect, inventor, systems theoriest, poet and teacher best known for his invention of the geodesic dome.  Bucky was born “cross-eyed and near blind”, a condition that would shape the way he saw the world for the rest of his life. In his eyes, his steel tricycle, hard and cold to the touch, blended with house and the yard. Nothing was separate.  Everything and everybody seemed to Bucky to blend into something else. As an adult, he would never lose that awareness that the earth was tightly connected into one complete whole.  If he ever needed a reminder of that, he could simply take off his glasses “to see what I saw when I was four and a half years old.”   Most of the book focuses on the summers he spent on Bear, a speck of an island 10 miles off the coast of Maine in Penobscot Bay.

 What is the working title of your new book? I’m working on that right now.  He was perceived as quite the troublemaker as a kid, so I might work that into the title.

Where did the idea come from for the book? I took an Outward Bound trip in my twenties, and after spending three nights, four days on solo, I became fascinated by living systems, how they work, their patterns, how I’m part of them.  As I began to studying in the field of complex systems theory, I discovered Bucky alongside Ludwig von BertalanffyJoanna Macy, Donella Meadows, Elise Boulding, Russ Ackoff, Peter Senge and Fritjof Capra, and other systems thinkers. He has always fascinated me. Now that I have children, I want to share some of that fascination with them and other kids.

What genre does your book fall under?  A non-fiction picture book biography for ages 6 and up.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?  Oh, who would play the young Bucky?  An undersized boy, with coke-bottle glasses, a larger than normal head and owl-like eyes?  That’s a great question. If Jonathan Lipnicki was still a young kid, he’d be perfect.  I loved him as George in Stuart Little. 

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?  On a small island off the coast of Maine, young Bucky Fuller discovers an infinite curiosity about the universe that changed the way many people think about this planet we call earth.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?  I am still writing it.  I’m lucky to have met Gini Cunningham, an amazing storyteller and coach at a Jay O’Callahan workshop.  Gini keeps me following the thread of what’s alive in the Bucky story.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? I really admire Thomas Locker’s book about John Muir,  John Muir: America’s Naturalist (Fulcrum Publishing, 2003).  It’s beautifully written and illustrated and gives you a sense of how Muir’s young life helped to shape the adult he became.  Similarly, Amy Ehrlich’s story about Rachel Carson, Rachel:  The Story of Rachel Carson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2008), is another inspiring picture book biography.

 Who or what inspired you to write this book?  As I said early, Bucky was a near-sighted, under-sized kid with bottle thick glasses.  He got into trouble a lot, in part because he literally saw the world differently.   His father died when he was 12; he was kicked out of Harvard, twice. Yet from a very early age, he was a keen observer of nature who dared to ask unpopular questions if what he was being told didn’t match his own experience.  He would invent ideas, mostly inspired by his observations of nature, that have been used for decades.  I admire how he picked himself up and found his way in the world.  I want kids to have a champion.  Just like Bucky, you have something special in you too!

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?  Back in the late 1960’s, Bucky helped spark the current environmental movement with his book, “Operating Manuel for Spaceship Earth.”  He reminded us that we are all passengers on this spaceship we call “Earth”. How will we take care of it?  He also coined the term “synergy”.

What else are you working on?   Well, I have another children’s book called When the Wind Blows.  It is being illustrated by the amazing Jana Christy and will be published by Putnam in early 2014.  It’s a very sweet, rhyming picture book that follows a brother and sister on a windy day.

Now, it’s my honor to tag and introduce you to two other writers with BIG THINGS in the works Jacqueline Davies and Corey Rosen Schwartz.  

Jacqueline Davies:   I first met Jackie at her Rising River writing retreats and I was hooked.  She is as good a writing coach as she is a writer.  Jackie has been writing stories for children for over a decade. Her first book, Where the Ground Meets the Sky, was published in 2002. Four more books quickly followed: The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon (2004), The Night Is Singing (2006), The House Takes a Vacation (2007), and The Lemonade War (2007), which became available in paperback in 2009. Also in 2009, two more books were published: Tricking the Tallyman and Lost. Her newest book is the sequel to The Lemonade War.  Check out her third book in the series The Lemonade Crime.  My kids loved the whole series!

Corey Rosen Schwartz:  I met Corey through an on-line auction to raise funds for those impacted by Hurricane Sandy.  Little ones who like a lot of action, will love her fractured fairy tale, Three Ninja Pigs.  Corey just lets loose with her rhyme and you can tell she loves what she does!  If you like to rhyme or want to learn, her blog The Meter Maids, with Tiffany Strelitz Haber, is wonderful.


 

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Protecting “Connectivity”

I’ve heard of child protection, human rights protection, even princess protection (one of my daughter’s favorite movies).  Recently I discovered the phrase connectivity protection.  I admit, that’s not a phrase you hear everyday. At least not yet.

As applied to wildlife conservation,  connectivity protection refers to a massive, coordinated effort to “connect the dots” or  linkages between protected areas of land.  The result is the creation of the first animal protection corridor of its kind in the U.S. 
This “corridor” consists of 5,000 miles worth of conservation lands from northern Alaska’s Brooks Range down through the Canadian and American Rockies into northern Mexico.  One happy recipient of this movement is the Pronghorn  (a close relation to antelope), who has been traveling the same migration path for the past 6000 years.

Now a movement called the Western Wildway Network, this initiative is the brainchild of Michael Soule, and is described in the book The “Spine of the Continent” by Mary Ellen Hannibal.

What delights and inspires me is how this act of “connectivity protection”  is being achieved. Scientists, wildlife agency officials, grassroot organizers and citizens – who could easily act as adversaries – are working together to protect migration routes of a host of species, including Grizzly bears, jaguars, caribou, elk, beaver, fox, mink, coyote, the Pronghorn and more.  What can we learn from this robust example of connectivity protection?

What other complex issues would benefit from the know-how and spirit of this initiative?  My initial thoughts turn  to local and national initiatives to address carbon pollution, food system security and rising rates of childhood obesity.

What if, taking a page from connectivity protection, we more habitually ask, what interconnections need to be preserved or renewed, in order to achieve ________ (fill in the blank:  resilience, sustainability, health, etc.)  

 

 

*To learn more about this movement, see.“Spine of the Continent” talk by Mary Ellen Hannibal:  http://fora.tv/2012/12/04/The_Spine_of_the_Continent_Wildlife_from_Yukon_to_Mexico

 

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Balaton Diary: A Letter to My Children

A week ago today, I attended the  Balaton meeting in Hungary.  For four days, I was immersed in heated discussions with scientists, modelers and researchers from around the world about the current and future state of our planet.   Now back home, I wrestle with other challenges:  how to get one kid to soccer, another to the orthodontist, while sitting still long enough to sew a stuffed bear with the third. 

To weave these two worlds together, and to make sense of the sometimes heady Balaton presentations, I decided to write home to my children about the days’ events.  I share with you here, one of those letters.   It is an honor to attend the Balaton meetings and to share these reflections with you.  Happy Reading.  

Momma’s in Hungary, Again!

Dear Jack, Teddy and Anna,

As I write to you, I’m looking out on the still, blue-grey waters of Lake Balaton.

This is the largest freshwater lake in Europe and it’s stocked with fish — grass carp, silver carp, marble carp, catfish, pike perch, and lots of different whitefishes. Once in a while, you might even see an eel.  So Jack, you need your fishing rod!

A view of Lake Balaton from Hotel Szemes

 I want to tell you about the meetings we’ve had here.  You might wonder:  what could 50 people from 23 countries, ranging in age from 22 to 82, all have in common?  And what could they possibly talk about for five days in a row!?

It’s actually simple.  We all really, really love life, and in particular, life on this planet.

In our own ways, each of the scientists, teachers, consultants, writers, modelers (I’ll explain that later), and students who come to the Balaton meeting, are passionate about helping the world see:

1.  itself as a living, interconnected system.

2. the need to take a long-term view, and

3. the power of focusing on positive change. 

Each morning, three or four Balaton members give presentations to the group. Then in the afternoon, we break out for “free” time, which might mean smaller presentations or meetings with different members, a walk along the lake, or even a volleyball game (these Balatoners are competitive!).

Growth on a Finite Planet? 

Dennis Meadows spoke on the first morning about the environment and the economy.  Funny how you often don’t hear those two words in the same sentence.  (Dennis  founded the Balaton Group with Dana Meadows more than 30 years ago.  If you’re curious, you can learn more about Balaton’s history). Dennis opened with this question: can we satisfy our growing needs – our need for goods and services — on a planet with limited resources?

It’s a good question.  If you look at three of his powerpoint slides (see below), you can see the point Dennis is making:  consumption, population and our ecological footprint (our demands on nature) are all increasing. Yet our planet’s resources, such as oil, are limited.



In his talk, Dennis reminded us that we live on a planet that is controlled by balancing feedback loops. We’ve talked about these loops before. Remember that conversation about predator-and-prey relationships?  Wolves and elk, or hawks and mice?  It’s the relationship that control the size of both animal populations, keeping both in check so one population doesn’t become too small or too large.

These controls (or balancing feedback loops) are everywhere in nature.  If a palm tree grows beyond its normal height, it will simply topple over, ending the growth of the tree. When these controls no longer function in the life of cells, for instance, the result is cancer, an endless multiplying of cells.

If you think about it, where are the balancing feedback loops in your life? You play hard in a soccer game and then you rest and you’re ready for the next game.  That would be a good example.  What if you didn’t rest though?  Eventually, you’d be so low in energy you wouldn’t be able to play.

That’s what Dennis is saying is happening to our planet.  But of course the consequences of the planet not being able to bounce much are much worse.

So, how can we live and grow, within the means of nature, what some scientist have begun to call planetary boundaries?

That’s the BIG question. And we should keep talking about this. They’re starting to round up some Balatoner’s for a volleyball game near the lake so I’d better wrap up for now.  Here’s a quick summary of what makes me hopeful that we’ll be able to find a way to answer Dennis’ opening question:

Modeling:   Bert DeVries and Harald Sverdrup are working to create WORLD models, computer models of the earth as one system.  According to Harald, these models can help us to “recognize that we have limited resources. When we do that, we can then work toward managing our common resources so there will be enough for all.”  The biggest ah-ha for me from these models?  We need to pay attention to phosphorous.  Without it, the whole link of food–> to people –> work –> wealth breaks down.

Get the Whole Community Involved:   Vala Ragnarsdottir is doing some exciting and important work with whole communities to model and better understand their food systems.  And Beth Sawin inspired us all as she shared her experience using a computer simulation (C-Roads) to support country leaders and other decision makers as they make decision related to greenhouse gas emissions.  Beth reminded us two key leverage points in addressing climate change:  population and consumption.

Dare to think change is possible:  I was thrilled to hear Colleen Kohlsaat talk about the ways Levi Strauss is cleaning up production of its t-shirts and jeans using life cycle assessment and other sustainability practices.

Colleen Kohlsaat, Jamila Haider, Momma and Karan Khosla, celebrating Balaton 2012

And then there was Phonchan (Newey) Kraiwatnutsorn, who showed us how Ashoka fuels the flame of passion for  positive transformation among young changemakers.  And so much more!

In many ways, these talks were filled with what Dana Meadows called “unpleasant truths.”  The reality of not living within the means of our planet are quite serious.  Yet, when I think about the three of you, I feel hopeful.

Here is what I wish for you, and for all the young people on this planet:

•   Learn the fact about our finite planet.

•   Get comfortable discussing uncomfortable ideas.

*   Stay curious about this question:  How can we live and grow, within our planetary boundaries?

We can talk about this more over dinner, when I get home.

Love you,

Momma

PS:  Did you feed the chickens today?

 

 

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My thanks to Dennis Meadows who graciously granted me permission to incorporate slides from his 2012 Balaton address – Reflections about Resource-Capital-Finance Interactions  – into this blog post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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