Go Fish . . . within the carrying capacity.

August 10, 2009

Michelle Knapik, Environment Program Director


The Dodge team is still on its summer quest for knowledge (inviting you to peer in as we peer out, particularly as we think about philanthropy and sustainability), and our latest conversation with Jaimie Cloud, Founder and President of the Cloud Institute took us behind the thinking – as in brain science and mental models – that influence our ability to create new ways of being (i.e., pathways to sustainability).

CLoud Institute

Part of our quest has us steeped in the questions of how one defines sustainability and creativity, and we have been reading grantee musings regarding the intersection of these concepts (starting Monday, August 17th, we will bring you a 3-part series on this subject), but for purposes of this exchange, let’s focus on sustainability as the Cloud Institute looks at it — as thriving within the carrying capacity of the systems on which we depend.

As a species, you might think that the collective “we” would act in our best interests and live within system carrying capacities, but alas, our human race (particularly the industrial and post industrial Western world) developed mental models that have led to unsustainable behavior. How do we go about changing this thinking? Given that Jaimie Cloud has been a pioneer thought leader in the field of educating for sustainability for more than 15 years, it will be hard to do more than scratch the surface here, but there are a few tasty morsels of information that might have you challenging yourself to play the “fish game


The “fish game” is a simulation which explores mental models behind common consumption decisions, such as maximizing gains in the short run without regard for longer term implications; focusing on individual rather than collective benefits; ignoring our dependence on Nature; exhibiting an unwillingness to work together; and making random decisions instead of developing a sound strategy with the future in mind. During the fish game simulation, sustainability is explored in terms of environment, social justice, equity, reciprocity, and intergenerational leadership. Players also evaluate their own “entrepreneurial mindset and its key characteristics such as perseverance, risk taking, self efficacy, taking responsibility, systems thinking, opportunity recognition and value creation.” [the following paragraph was modified from a story by a Cloud Institute intern] Most of the enlightened evaluations, however, come after you have played the fish game and “crashed the system” (i.e., over fished to the point where the fish cannot recover). Mind you, nearly everyone (including marine scientists and leading policy advocates) crashes the system the first time they play.

Jaimie knew we wanted answers to the “how do we avoid crashing the system” question, so she also helped us examine ways to transition to “new mental models for a sustainable future” (mental models such as “live by natural laws,” “healthy systems have limits” (and that we can “tap the power of limits”), “we are all in this together,” “reciprocity,” and “we are all responsible”). We also dwelled on the concept that creating new thinking (as in creating new neural pathways) starts with a vision of a sustainable future.

Not surprisingly, youth get there faster than adults. Jaimie noted that the Brower Youth Awards shines a light on some of the best and brightest young systems thinkers. The story from Jessie-Ruth Corkins is quite compelling – she sparked a sustainable heating initiative in Vermont that has had wide ripple effects (the videos from this link are a must see). Adults can get to new mental models too, but we need a good 3 to 5 years before we fully supplant our old mental models.

The transition to new mental models is based on experience, storytelling, asking different questions and engaging in the creative process. To this end Dodge is funding the Cloud Institute to lead “NJ Learns: Schools & Communities that Learn Together for Sustainability,” which is part of the Society of Organizational Learning’s (SoL) national learning community on this topic.

A big part of this work is “getting from resignation to inspiration.” As Jaimie notes, we need to look for entry points that help people identify with what they know (anchor to their traditional wisdom), prototype the new behavior, then reinforce it (a deeper exploration of the brain science can be found in a book by Peter Senge entitled Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future). This process will help us “create the conditions for systems on which we depend to thrive indefinitely.”

Like John Ehrenfeld’s focus on “flourishing” in his book Sustainability by Design, Jaimie posits a positive future. It is up to us (foundations, organizations, schools, businesses, individuals, etc.) to help with the paradigm shift. This brings to mind a saying that I’ve seen on t-shirts and bumper stickers: “shift happens.” I think it is clear, though, that when it happens, it is not by happenstance. What role are you playing as we try to envision and act our way to a sustainable future?

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