Climate Change and Homelessness Have This In Common – A Systems Thinking Perspective
(Image Credit: Yesica Prado. See this link for more information.)
Climate change and homeless have this in common: both are symptoms. Symptoms of what? A whole host of upstream factors that lead to the downstream conditions of global warming and people living on the streets. They are end-of-pipe issues. (In the case of climate change, it’s an “end-of-pipe” issue in a literal sense.)
The point of this blog, however, is this:
The upstream conditions of climate change are not usually addressed in the same conversation as the downstream conditions, and this true about homelessness as well.
I propose that essentially all conversations about both should occur in the light of full acknowledgement of these upstream conditions. What happens far too often is that discussions about, and efforts to deal with both areas isolate these as issues to be “solved” irrespective of those crucial upstream factors.
In the case of climate change, the upstream conditions are market drivers: for every dollar made there is an accompanying greenhouse gas cost. (Some have discussed ways to “decouple” dollars and greenhouse gas emissions, but so far this remains a hope; possibly, a fantasy, see this New York Times article.) The growth of the economy necessarily means growth of emissions and global warming. I propose that whenever discussing the climate crisis we should also discuss the fact that the growth of the global market economy is the factor driving global warming.
In the case of homelessness, the upstream conditions are the cost of living, and of course, the skyrocketing cost of housing in particular. Therefore, when discussing the issue of homelessness, the rising costs of housing–rent in particular–should be core to the conversation. (See this study.)
I conclude with some suggestions as to what it looks like when we address these outcomes from the upstream vantagepoint.
Though this is not the main subject of this blog, there are also interactions between these two issues. Weather-related disasters are wiping out whole communities of people. Those who have the least resources are least likely to get back on their feet, and are often left homeless. It’s a well-known dynamic of systems that those on the periphery of any system are the first to register disturbance to that system. In the case of modern society, that means low income communities:
It’s an immutable truth of the climate crisis that the most vulnerable are hit first and hardest. At a time of rising homelessness in the U.S. and as climate-related disasters become common — wildfires in California, monster hurricanes that thrash the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, an arctic blast in Texas — the rule holds. (NBC News)
This means that if you are currently homeless a major weather event or other natural disaster is likely to make your life even more difficult than it already is. If you are living a low-income lifestyle, your likelihood of ending up homeless is much greater than if you have access to greater economic resources.
Its pretty easy to imagine why that is. From having insurance in the first place, to access to transportation out of a threatened area, or emergency hotel rooms, or access to capital to rebuild, and just the stress alone, low income individuals and families are in the balance.
The System is Not “Broken”
Many make the mistake of supposing that “the system is broken” when commenting for example on the realities of homelessness (which is particularly acute here in the San Francisco Bay Area). But as systems thinkers are fond of pointing out, current systems are simply doing what they were designed to do.
In the case of climate change, the fossil fuel system was designed to produce profit for shareholders. We can assign judgment and blame all we want, but this basic fact remains. Oil industry people ignored, buried, and more recently, aggressively denied the facts related to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. (There are many sources for this information; here is one from the BBC.) Did they do this because they are denizens of Satan, hell-bent on destroying the world? Likely not. They did this because they were “good citizens” following the dominant narrative that has to do with the virtuousness of making money for one’s self and contributing to economic activity (i.e., the growth of the economy). This remains the dominant directive to this day, despite dire warnings all upside-down and backwards that this is unsustainable.
In the case of homelessness, residential real estate has increasingly become a profit-making system (see this blog). Though I am not a housing policy analyst, it appears as though there has been a shift in the fundamental purpose of the residential real estate market over time.
In The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein demonstrates that racially discriminatory housing policies proactively separated white and black people, which served to reinforce segregation, and the socioeconomic oppressions of nonwhites. The following summation by PBS of a federal housing program paints this picture:
Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, the federal government created programs that subsidized low-cost loans, opening up home ownership to millions of average Americans for the first time. At the same time, government underwriters introduced a national appraisal system, tying property value and loan eligibility to race. Consequently, all-white communities received the highest ratings and benefited from low-cost, government-backed loans, while minority and mixed neighborhoods received the lowest ratings and were denied these loans. Of the $120 billion worth of new housing subsidized by the government between 1934 and 1962, less than 2 percent went to nonwhite families. Nonwhites were locked out of home ownership just as most white Americans were finally getting in. (Ref)
These policies led to society-wide conditions playing out to this very day, such as nonwhites experiencing a disproportionate share of homelessness (ref).
For the purposes of this blog, however, the interesting bit is the fact that the federal government saw the importance of housing to the overall economy, and made homeownership highly accessible…exclusively for the dominant ethnic group of the time, European Americans.
There are a panoply of factors contributing to the housing crisis in the nation, and certainly in California. However, over time the residential housing market has slipped more and more toward the profit motive, and from a systems point of view, it unfortunately makes perfect sense that profit-as-purpose would lead to the situation we are in. An article from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University points out that “Institutional investors own a growing share of the nation’s 2.25 million rental properties.” According to this Bloomberg CityLab article, “More than $220 billion in housing wealth has been transferred from Americans who once owned, or would have owned, homes to large corporations.” (Many of these corporations are overseas.)
If climate change and homelessness are end-of-pipe symptoms of upstream behavior, this means that the only sustainable way to address these issues is to treat the causes. Failing to do so results in more global warming, and more people bled out onto the streets, as we are seeing in both cases.
The problem is, due to climate chaos, it is possible a great portion of humanity will be effectively homeless if we don’t successfully address global warming. Those tents in the feature image of this blog are asking, “Where do we go?” from the perspective of currently homeless people. Climate activists might just as well ask the question with regard to the whole of our species. While those on the fringes of society feel the impacts of disturbance to the system first, unless conditions are ameliorated, the impacts of change hit the whole system eventually. The linear approach to this complex web of crisis is to head out into the countryside, build a bunker and an underground greenhouse, and hope for the best. The systems approach is to build stronger, more higher functioning relationships across a great diversity of people and communities.
“Solving” Homelessness and Climate Change
In the world of systems thinking, there is a tendency to avoid using words such as “solving problem x” because in nonlinear, dynamic systems (i.e., life) there is no “final solution” (unless you count death of the system, which is what we are generally attempting to avoid). We strive to employ statements such as “improving the system,” or “creating learning systems,” recognizing that we hope the system (humanity or a subset) goes on living, which means it needs to continuously adapt to changing conditions, and to do so, it needs to expand its capacity to learn, and effectively take action based on that learning. (All of the systems jargon you may have heard such as feedback loops, emergence, autopoiesis, etc. are important concepts for understanding how that continuous learning and adaptation does–or doesn’t–take place.)
Turning Off the Tap on Homelessness
Nevertheless, the fact remains that we don’t want to be homeless, and we don’t want homeless people out there, either because we are inconvenienced/annoyed by homeless individuals or groups, are concerned and care from a humanitarian perspective, or both.
As reviewed above, there are at least two approaches to the “problem” of homelessness.
1. “Catch” the people who have fallen out of housing, and re-house them. This is the reactive, end-of-pipe approach.
2. Turn off the tap on homelessness; that is, turn off the tap on the conditions in the larger society that lead to homelessness downstream. This is less often discussed, hence this blog.
Make the current purpose of the residential real estate system explicit. (We do this by simply observing what it is that the current system is producing. If the references provided in the 2018 housing blog and in the references above are accurate, the system has been tweaked more and more toward producing profit, and for fewer and fewer individuals.)
Ask ourselves collectively if we are ok with this as the purpose, knowing the natural consequences that flow from the current system, such as increasing homelessness.
Make changes accordingly.
When it comes to what those changes are, ideas that seem “radical” when profit is the purpose turn out to be not at all radical with a humanitarian purpose. For example, abolishing rent all together. I was once at a public meeting where a formerly homeless individual made the following point:
If you don’t own your own home, you are homeless.
As a long-time renter, his comment hit home…as it were. I realized there is a good argument to be made in favor of there being no such thing as “renting” your primary home. Maybe “renting” should only be for vacations? Landlords with mortgages would have to be bailed out, or the lending institutions would have to either absorb the cost or go out of business. Perhaps there could be a transition, where there are no new mortgages for rentals made? (This approach could have profound–profoundly helpful–implications in the commercial sector as well with regard to small, local businesses.)
This argument presupposes that overpriced housing–housing that doesn’t keep up with wages–is the major factor that leads to homelessness. The conclusion drawn is that if this situation were successfully ameliorated the largest upstream contributor to homelessness would be “shut off.”
However, there are other factors contributing to homelessness. A lack of support for micro and small business entrepreneurs, the minimum wage rate failing to keep up with productivity (ref), a lack of accessible (affordable) medical and mental health services of sufficient quality, and of course, natural disasters that hit already vulnerable groups. A number of youth end up homeless due to substance abuse in the family, and a lack of support for families to establish and maintain quality communication and familial bonds (whether parents stay together or not).
Turning Off the Tap on Climate Change
Again, a brief set of ideas for steps, mimicking those above:
Make the current purpose of the global energy system explicit.
Ask ourselves collectively if we are ok with this as the purpose, knowing the natural consequences that flow from the current system, such as increasing global climate change.
Make changes accordingly.
With regard to number 1, I’m going to go ahead and submit that the purpose is profit. Not only is the current global energy system producing profit (for a relatively tiny subset of humans), but the entire global market economy relies on cheap oil, with rare exception. That means your job, my job, everyone’s job is indirectly tied in with fossil fuel. Let’s make this really explicit: OUR ENTIRE ECONOMY IS DEPENDENT ON BURNING ON FOSSIL FUEL.
Again, seemingly outlandish ideas sometimes move to center stage when the purpose is fundamentally altered. One example here is extended producer responsibility. If producers of products are required to attend to the lifecycle of the products they sell from cradle to grave, and legally responsible for those products and their social and ecological impacts throughout that lifecycle, much of what is on the market today would go away, or be dramatically altered. (On a related but in some ways contradictory note, see the Right to Repair movement.)
But take heart. The global market economy actually has a purpose: the growth of profit. I believe it is reasonable to question the validity of this purpose, and to suppose that it can be altered. Stopping global warming immediately requires nothing less than altering the very purpose of our entire economic system as a whole. Given that we in the industrialized West have put the economy at the center of our society, this means massive alterations to the very fabric of our entire society.
From a systems thinking perspective, here is Nigel Topping sharing “3 rules for a zero carbon world” on TED.
The Answer for Both is the Same if You Go Far Enough Upstream
Movements such as Just Transitions take things a level higher than what I am suggesting above. They propose that we enter at the level of mindset and worldviews (as indicated in the helpful illustration on their website), the highest echelon on Meadow’s hierarchy of intervention or influence. Worldview is, according to Meadows, the top. Therefore, it is high enough upstream that the downstream outcomes naturally include a sustainable economy, in addition to successfully dealing with the climate and housing. This is an excerpt from the website linked above:
Just Transition is a vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes, and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy. This means approaching production and consumption cycles holistically and waste-free. The transition itself must be just and equitable; redressing past harms and creating new relationships of power for the future through reparations. If the process of transition is not just, the outcome will never be. Just Transition describes both where we are going and how we get there.
If modern society were to take this approach, many of our most challenging issues would be ameliorated, and dramatically so. All of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of 2030 are achievable with this approach. The high bar set by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the Earth Charter are met with this approach. Why? Because, as indicated by Meadows, all else flows from the worldview.
But is this realistically possible? The internal shift necessary to get to this different worldview is enormous; really, it is extreme.
For one, it requires that we admit that we care for one another, out loud and in public, and that we are willing to put that care first, before profit, before ego, before everything else. Just that by itself stops us in our tracks. Genuine care and love for others is often seen as “nice but not required,” “unrealistic and weak,” and sometimes, “an obstacle to real progress.”
Second, as much as we would like to think that incremental changes toward sustainability are possible, I’m afraid that is a catastrophic misreading of reality. The reality is that putting human and ecological well-being first would utterly turn our economic system upside-down. Its probable that many would suffer–again, those at the fringes–in the short and medium term while we were trying to work out a system that will sustain everyone and the biosphere in the long-term. Millions of jobs would be lost. Millions of much better, healthier, more socially just jobs would also be made, but the coordination and thoughtfulness required for a well-executed transition is…well, its the largest challenge we’ve ever faced as a species. (This article discusses a potential way forward that might be somewhere in between, Computer Models Of Civilization Offer Routes To Ending Global Warming.)
Third, is it too late? Do we have enough time? As articulated by David Attenborough in both his 2020 and 2021 documentaries A Life on Our Planet and Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet, the impact of humanity on the entire Earth dwarfs any other animal of any kind, ever. (Not counting microbes and fungi.) Yes, we have to try. But I submit that we need to be as realistic as possible about just how bad it really is. Telling ourselves “It’s easy being green!” or “You can have your consumer lifestyle and save the planet!” creates confusion we can’t afford.
The Way Forward is Essentially Spirituality, and Systems Thinking
Where does that leave us? It leaves us needing to seriously consider the possibility that our capacity for caring for one another and putting planetary well-being for current and future generations above material goods and services is actually more compelling to most individuals than we tend to tell ourselves. I don’t know if that is true, but I do believe it’s a worthy bet.
A genuine reflection on the purpose of any given organization will very often reveal a purpose divergent from the stated mission. We have to forgive ourselves and one another when, for example, the purpose of an NGO has become something other than helping the homeless, and instead is about job security for the executive director, or some kind of pet project on the part of a founding board member. We may even need to forgive oil company executives–not necessarily legally, but in our hearts–so we can get past the anger and on to the clear thinking of dramatically altering our economy.
Care for one another, and forgiveness of ourselves and others tends to flow more readily from a spiritual rather than a materialistic perspective. The mind alone can’t make this leap. We have to reference something larger than ourselves–the Universe, God, the Creation, etc.–to find the perspective to let go of our fear, anger and confusion and take these big steps.
One of the biggest steps is learning to look at the system to see what is actually happening, rather than figuring out who is to blame, tempting though that may be for the mind. Again, that doesn’t mean “letting people off the hook,” rather, it entails an ability to “hold the one and the many,” as articulated in the systems thinking mini-course. For instance, this person or group is responsible for actions against the well-being of all, and they are a part of a larger system that holds a central purpose wildly divergent from social and ecological wellbeing. The linear aspects of our mind have a hard time holding this complexity of “yes, and.”
Another big step–perhaps the biggest–directly follows from this. It’s the necessity of moving from the “me” to the “we.” That’s what Just Transitions asks us to do; indeed, is predicated on. That’s what the UN SDGs requires, as with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Earth Charter, and many other sacred documents. “We” are homeless, and housed. “We” are knowingly contributing to climate change, and desperate to stop it. We are all guilty and innocent. Yes, and.
We will know we are taking climate change and homelessness seriously when our news feeds routinely tell us the status of these issues, rather than the Dow or the S&P 500. We will know we are taking these issues seriously when we know what our banks are investing our money in, and approve of those enterprises. (I.e., when people have ditched JPMorgan Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America, the top four institutions financing fossil fuel. See page 11.)We we will know we are heading in the right direction when youth such as Greta Thunberg are no longer out there telling us point-blank that we’re failing, and instead are telling us that we are in fact on a sustainable course.