Learning About Sustainability from Pigs and Trash

Cairo Trash Pigs.jpg

Gregory Bateson once wrote in The Ecology of the Mind, “Lack of systemic wisdom is always punished.” Unfortunately for those who might learn from the bad consequences of such failures, the evidence frequently comes much later and escapes notice. The relationship between ill-considered actions and the collapse or serious malfunctioning of the system they perturb is often tenuous and the delay for the response to appear too long to make the connection clear. Such is the case with climate change. It has been excruciatingly difficult to make a convincing case linking greenhouse gases and temperature rise to the general public for this reason.

Occasionally we can observe a systems failure infolding right before our eyes. Or more accurately read about such a case. A few days ago, the New York Times published a story about the mess that followed the killing of all the pigs in Cairo purportedly to avoid swine flu, even though no direct link between pigs and humans that become infected has been established. In a cascade of causal loops, the slaughter of the pigs destroyed the ability of the informal garbage collector sector to get rid of the organic portions of household waste. So after stripping out anything of value, the garbage has been left to rot on the streets. That’s the technological story, but not the whole story.

The “official” waste collection program in Cairo was contracted to a multi-national firm, unnamed in the Times story. They imported a system found in many places around the globe—placing collection receptacles at strategic locations, creating another system failure, but this time cultural, not technological.

Cairo’s garbage collection belonged to the informal sector. The government hired multinational companies to collect the trash, and the companies decided to place bins around the city. But they failed to understand the ethos of the community. People do not take their garbage out. They are accustomed to seeing someone collecting it from the door.

For more than half a century, those collectors were the zabaleen, a community of Egyptian Christians who live on the cliffs on the eastern edge of the city. They collected the trash, sold the recyclables and fed the organic waste to their pigs — which they then slaughtered and ate.

After the fact, the government claimed that the reason for the slaughter of all the pigs was to clean up the zabaleen’s neighborhood. It really doesn’t matter what reasons are given for an act that causes a system to collapse. For those that study public administration, such failures are endemic in highly bureaucratic organizations, such as exist in Egypt.

There’s another important lesson here. The informal system of the zabaleen was self organized and relied on local knowledge. I would imagine that it evolved over time with the actors learning as they worked. Trying to replace this system with a system that was developed in a vastly different culture ignores the complexity of socio-technical systems and is asking for failure from the start. Sustainability is a property of such a complex system, but of global systems that are much more interconnected and span many places and cultures. We in the United States and the rest of the modern world are ignoring Bateson’s words in our attempts to solve climate change and other aspects of unsustainability with disconnected, culturally deaf and blind, largely technical remedies. We are indeed likely to be punished.

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Sergio bastos said:

hi John, Great Book! What an impact in me. Thanks!

Chapter 8 in your book is particularly sharp. I had marked it with page side notes all over ...

One aspect critically important for designers as follow: " ... shifting the primary mode of understand and action from purely "rational/positivism" to experiential/pragmatic as way to find sustainable and humane solutions..."

Some how I found this TED video that show interesting experiential/pragmatic possibilities... hope you like it...

It is quite impressive this TED presentation from Merril -- a '09 graduate MIT PhD ... Siftables redesign elegantly the reflective experience so necessary for pragmatic learning when acting-in-the word.

Check the site linked below... http://siftables.com/

Sergio Bastos
I Help the shift to Collaboration Solutions