I hate checklists. They check your brain into a small box. You don’t see everything that needs to be seen. You don’t consider the broader system in which the thing you are evaluating exists. You don’t realize the consequences of the “solutions” you come up with. You give up innovative solutions that don’t fit the checklist items. You can’t learn how to be better.

I just read an interesting article by Noam Ross on Why the Ethanol Debate Is Not Helping in Greenbiz, where he argues that the unacceptable green house gas contribution of bio-based ethanol is being driven by the slash and burn practices of the 3rd world, which is an economic issue for 3rd worlders and not an issue for US corn farming per se. He argues the solution is how to find a better way for those poor people to make a living and not to ban corn-based ethanol based on a GHG scorecard.

"Green" scorecards lock in limited solutions. If you fail the checklist of the day, you go immediately to the blacklist. Looking at the broader social and economic systems and root causes involved - and therefore the range of possible solutions - is not tolerated. Instead, politicians and bureaucrats decide what is best on the basis of the latest available snapshot and lock "the solution" into law/regulations.

Except Sustainability (however you want to define it) is massively complicated because it involves potentially everyone and everything. The only way to make headway is to continually collect and share information throughout the interconnected networks of players. Individuals and organizations need to be flexible and robust in responding to new information in ways that are appropriate for both themselves and the future of life on the planet.

Sustainability is all about systems interlocking with systems that are constantly changing and evolving. Somehow they need to work together so that the majority of the people, plants and animals on the planet can survive and thrive. Some will go around, some under, some straight, some up and over, some will invent a totally new way to get there, some will bump into others and get turned around, and some will wait awhile and go after the best way is found by others. No way can we have everyone moving in lock-step or we'll walk off a cliff. Nor can we all afford to wait for a guard at the gate to clear us with his checklist or we'll never get there. (I've got to study up on systems dynamics and chaos theory because I think that's what we've got to deal with.)

I don't mind a list to help people to remember to look at different aspects of problems as a guide, but not a checklist that says you somehow are "done" when you get through the items on the list. You should never be "done." Life Cycle Thinking is the title of this blog - something you need to do all the time based on continuous learning and evaluation of information. Sustainability is not a destination that we'll come to after following a series of directions (checklist) from MapQuest. It's a way of thinking and acting.


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