Stuck in a loop: understanding feedback to plan for the future

We’re stuck in feedback loops that mean things are going to change; we need to get ready. Steve Johnson

Just as 40 years ago Australia was a very different place from the Australia of today, the Australia of 2050 will be different again. If there are aspects of Australian life that we’d like to hang on to as we face the changes ahead, we shouldn’t do it by trying to prevent or avoid change. Instead we have to build our capacities to adapt and transform in the face of change.

The changes we are making to the planet affect our lives, and will continue to affect the lives of our children and grandchildren. This is a feedback loop: we change the planet, and those changes have consequences that change us (either here and now, or elsewhere later). If we want the things that we care about to last in the face of global change, it’s helpful to understand feedback loops that accelerate or impede change. In our highly connected world, this feedback is common. We ignore it at our peril.

Some feedback loops reinforce and accelerate change. For example, once the majority of people around you have chosen to buy a mobile phone it becomes really hard for you to thrive without one, so you too buy a mobile phone. This makes it even harder for others to live without one. The net result is a rapid social change.

Some feedback loops weaken or impede change. For example, you might think that changing engine technology to increase fuel efficiency would lead to reduced demand for petroleum. But studies have pointed to “affluence” feedbacks, whereby the gains made in engine efficiency have been taken up in building higher performance vehicles and including extras such as air-conditioning. Changes that might have reduced total vehicle fuel demand have had a minimal effect on our total fuel use.

Vehicle fleet fuel usage is “resilient” to changes in engine fuel efficiency. In this way “resilience” can be desirable or undesirable, and is not an end in itself. Rather, a resilience perspective offers some useful understanding at a system level.

A set of feedback loops underlie changes in Australians’ health, driving inexorable gain in weight and the growing prevalence of obesity-related diseases such as diabetes. If we gain weight it becomes harder to exercise, so we tend to reduce activity levels, so making it harder to lose weight. Psychological impacts of weight gain include depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and guilt, which in turn are linked to eating for comfort, increased alcohol consumption and increased lethargy, all of which reinforce weight gain. Efforts to drive less and walk more are at odds with the reality that workplaces are rewarding long hours of sedentary work and our work and social interactions rely on a high level of rapid personal mobility. Together, these and other powerful influences have been referred to as an “obesogenic environment”.

Once you understand these system-level drivers you realise that well-intentioned public health messages imploring us to “do the right thing”, “eat less” and “exercise more” are relatively powerless compared to the strength of other forces at work. It is possible to assert our own choices in this environment, but it can require a level of time, effort, foregone income and persistence that is not required if we simply align ourselves with “the way things are”.

Anticipating and assessing all the potential shocks or system changes in store is not possible. We will never know about all potential tipping points of rapid change. Yet some qualities, like human health, confer desirable resilience to changes of several different kinds.

It is helpful to adopt a practical, working assumption that our well-being is not possible without a foundation built upon various forms of wealth – human, social, built, natural and knowledge capital. With this assumption, it is possible to consider some of the feedback loops that erode or build these forms of wealth, and identify governance approaches that help or hinder adaptation and transformation.

A good start is to look at what we measure and strive for. If we are limiting ourselves to seeking short-term economic efficiency at each stage in our food production chains, important environmental, social and health impacts are invisible to us. By paying attention to a richer suite of impacts and consequences, we put in place an important feedback loop: a learning loop. In a world where decisions have unanticipated consequences, learning loops help us build our options for creating environmentally sustainable and socially equitable ways (not prescribing any single way) of living.

Nicky Grigg was lead author for a group exploring resilience as part of the Australian Academy of Science project “Australia 2050: Towards an environmentally and economically sustainable and socially equitable ways of living”.

The Australia 2050 project for the Australian Academy of Science has just published Phase 1 Negotiating our future: Living scenarios for Australia to 2050 which emerged from 35 scientists working together to explore social perspectives, resilience, scenarios and modelling as pathways towards environmentally and economically sustainable and socially equitable ways of living. Phase 2 of this project on creating living scenarios for Australia is underway.