The Importance of Policy as Feedback in the Bay System

Assignment 3 – Response to the Bay Game, Second Post on Reactions to Bay Game

If the Bay Game is an adequate representation of the Chesapeake and the systems that bear upon it, then what must be the foremost of reactions to the play of the game is that when we remove ourselves from the “omniscient” aerial and enter into it, much of the knowledge gained from a broader systems view is lost.  Although the preparation for the game – and, indeed, the topics of the course – helped provide a means to see the interactions of the system and how to intervene in it, I must admit that despite my efforts to think broadly and systemically in my decisions, my actions remained largely blindfolded.  I still thought in terms of a system, but one that pertained far more to myself than that of the whole – that of individual finance.  I sat, surrounded by “locals,” who – if I may – were likely as blindfolded: there were connections of substantial importance between us, indeed with the class as a whole, but for all practical purposes we acted as islands.  The conversations I overheard were of financial concern, always.  The conversations I engaged in were financial.  Because it was the foremost graphic on the main screens, the thing for which we each were responsible, and the central means of feedback, the independent balancing of individual budgets seemed to be the driving force of the Bay Game system.

Although this last statement overshadows the fact that I and surely others attempted to meet financial needs while avoiding environmental harm (i.e., I only purchased infill properties to limit impact on existing greenfields), it might be argued that the Bay system is reduced for land developers to the following – with other elements and connections there, but unseen:

Interests of a Land Developer (Individual)

And of course, the impact of multiple islands of land developers acting independently weighs upon the system.  While seamen and farmers have at least some form of feedback loops (i.e., less marine life to harvest, increased need in pesticides/fertilizers to maintain crop harvest), the detrimental impacts of developers remain downstream and largely uninfluential on the rate of new property and land purchases, leaving them seemingly acting as islands without any indication of their larger impact.

Islands of Land Developers, All Acting Independently

However, although I was not fully aware of this while playing the game, I realized during the preparation of these diagrams that the game – and the actual system – does have an important means by which even developers can be informed of their impacts on the bay through runoff and land overdevelopment.  That is, although figures on development’s detriment to the Bay may not be provided, impacts to finances are: through incentives that encourage infill and sustainable development, the government has provided a means by which developers can respond to the needs of the Bay.  Included in annual reports of expenses of land and development were tax breaks or penalties for beneficial and harmful actions, which arguably pushes a developer to choose more wisely in his or her decisionmaking.  As a result, the reinforcing loop of “sales generating the purchase of land to generate more sales” becomes balanced by financial awards or incentives to limit environmental damage to the Bay, modifying the above diagrams as indicated below.  Formerly without visible ways of engaging the larger system, incentives now provide that route, that feedback.

Connection to Larger System for Land Developer

Incentives Provide Link to Larger System (Many Individuals)

If we expand to looking at the Bay system at a larger scale that involves fishermen and farmers before incentives, we can see the feedback loops evident for the latter groups – but not the developers.  The feedback loops that do exist for the farmers and fishermen, however, are as likely to reinforce hazardous or detrimental action as good:

Larger System without Incentives (Reinforcing Loops)

With incentives to limit pesticides, erosion, overfishing, and detrimental development practices, each of these actions begin to be balanced by policy.  Developers are encouraged to build sustainably and in the existing city; farmers are encouraged to minimize erosion and runoff; seamen are encouraged to fish at sustainable rates.  Although there are certainly limitations to such policy, and it proves very difficult to incentivise  in such a way that will maintain salaries and the environment’s health, policy here proves essential to balancing potentially reinforcing loops.  And the most important – the most effective part – of this is that it is directly applicable to finance.

Larger System with Necessary Incentives to Balance Reinforcing Loops

Although the above diagram only addresses indirectly the natural systems that was the focus of my previous diagram (seen here), I would argue that this model more accurately addresses the system of the Bay as defined by potential intervention/problem points.  My understanding of the Bay system is now one of independent actors with independent goals, each of which act primarily in the interest of their financial needs – because it is this that is largely the basis for survival in our society.  It is generally only with adequate wealth and food/supplies that we care for the environment; without this, as is seen in the Bay or in areas of deforestation around the world, we meet our independent, short-term needs before other concerns.  Through incentives that aid in meeting short-term needs, there is a means by which we can begin to break the reinforcing loops that might eventually lead to the collapse of resources and wealth that Meadows warns of.  Although the government that likely supplies these incentives is very much a part of the system in question, it has tools by which these reinforcing loops can be modified, improving the overall state of the Bay.  Without such balancing means, developers such as myself would act without a direct means to be influenced by any detrimental actions, which would lead further and further to the poor health of the Bay.  The model or diagram of the Bay system, thus, must have far greater emphasis on its human players than my previous diagram did, for only through understanding the independent human players in the system can its overall health – human and otherwise – be improved.

Potential Improvements to the Bay Game:

As indicated above, the foremost realization that came from playing the Bay Game was that it is difficult to remind oneself of the broader societal and environmental needs of a system when faced so aggressively with the needs to address financial concerns.  This, of course, is an important lesson to learn, as it helps us keep in mind that without feedback and without financial security, various stakeholders and actors pertaining to the Bay system can and do act independently and in the short-term – as I found myself doing despite preparation for thinking about the Bay as a larger system.  As a result, I would not change the game as it is played; the sense of loss of direction I gained in the game is important to experience.

However, I would argue that feedback remains essential – both for players following the game and for the real Bay actors and stakeholders.  Understanding – indeed, being taught – how the system might be improved is essential – and could therefore change the actions of the players of the game and the fishermen, farmers, developers, etc., near the Chesapeake.  To this end, I propose the use of a program that models the Bay system and all its inputs and connections that allows a single user to control all aspects of the game following a first trial, providing him or her with immediate feedback as to how a single action might impact the health of the bay, as well as the social and financial welfare of Bay stakeholders.  By allowing a person to see the impacts of a single action – and combinations of actions – on these issues, we might be able to better understand how to intervene in the Bay system – something that could be extended to farmers, developers, seamen, etc., in the Bay.  This comprehensive understanding of the interconnections between parts and how to leverage different aspects of the system would aid considerably in addressing Bay issues – and help leave players with a better understanding of how to intervene afterwards if they felt largely unsure, as I did, of how an individual might make different decisions to improve Bay health while addressing financial and other independent needs.

Carolin Horn, Jellyfish Program (Similar Groups Circulate)

Such a program could either be modeled after the existing game, but provide a greater vantage point – or, it could follow a system similar to that posted above and below, a video for which can be found here.  Such a program allows for a user to highlight one aspect of a system and see directly the related systems/connections.  Other related parts group around it, while systems with less or no bearing move away.  By clicking on two parts, the user is able to see the connections between the two elements, which would provide an opportunity to expand what is seen here to include the effects one system or change might have on another system – and what would happen to other subsequent, connected systems.  What results is a highly interactive visual aid that demonstrates what a single choice might affect, and which can serve the basis for other decisions in the intention of improving the Bay.

Carolin Horn, Jellyfish Program (Connections Evident)

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