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Opinion

The greatest failure of thought in human history

To solve climate change, we must overcome "systems blindness."

By Bob Doppelt / August 27, 2008



Eugene, Ore.

"Cap and trade" is the rage today as a primary solution to global warming. But the European Union's struggle with this approach indicates it has an uncertain future. This is because global warming, at its core, is not a technology or policy problem. It is the greatest failure of thought in human history.

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Attempts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions will fail unless people first alter their thinking and behavior.

Earth is warming because humans, primarily in industrialized nations, suffer from systems blindness. We have failed to recognize the effects of our insatiable use of fossil fuels, massive resource consumption, and huge emission of waste, including greenhouse gasses, on the ecological and social systems we depend on for life. That blindness threatens all life forms today and in the future.

Overcoming systems blindness requires a shift to what can be called "sustainable thinking." A growing number of private and public organizations and everyday citizens have shown that it is possible to think sustainably. They use a four-step process: discover, dream, design, and act.

Their first step is to discover the greenhouse gas emissions produced through all aspects of their activities. They start by assessing the emissions directly produced through their home and business energy use, travel, and waste. They then identify the emissions they create indirectly, including those generated throughout the entire life cycle of the goods and services, including food, purchased or used.

Discovery is often a life-changing experience. People become aware of the profound impacts of their activities on the climate and other people.

Albuquerque, N.M., and Portland, Ore., have completed greenhouse-gas "inventories" of the amount and sources of emissions generated directly through internal city operations and by the broader community. Some cities have begun to assess the emissions from products manufactured elsewhere that are used locally.

Xerox and DuPont are just two of the many private companies that use "life-cycle assessments" to quantify their carbon footprint.

Regular people are also doing it, such as those that attend the Climate Master program developed by my organization at the University of Oregon. Through this 10-week program, participants are taught how to think systemically and discover the full range of their emissions. Small towns such as Corvallis, Ore., big cities such as Denver, and individual groups in Maryland are now considering launching Climate Master programs.

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