Spring 2012 Graduate Seminar: Systemic Actions and Impacts

Spring 2012 Graduate Seminar: Tuesday, 3:00 –
4:30, Room TBA

Seminar on
Systemic Actions and Impacts (CCN:


Daniel Kammen1 & George Lakoff2

1Energy and
Resources Group and Goldman School of Public Policy

2Department of


language in the world has in its grammar a way to express direct causation. No
language has in its grammar a way to express systemic causation. Yet systems
are central to our lives in many ways. A well-functioning system is
homeostatic, self-correcting. Systems typically have feedback, both positive
and negative. Feedback can in some cases become uncontrollable and
catastrophic, as in global warming and the global financial crisis. Systems may
not be linear: small causes can have huge effects. They may not be local: causes
can have effects over long distances. Systemic effects can cross categories:
health is about much more than health care. A system as a whole can have


effects on us as individuals are everywhere. This has arguably always been the
case, but today it is increasingly seen as a symptom of an increasingly and
accelerating pace of scientific, technological, social, economic and
environmental change.  Examples include: the
tragedy of the commons; the complexity of identifying a specific causal action
in the failure/performance of the electricity grid; the drivers and impacts of
climatic change; the proliferation of environmental non-governmental
organizations in barely a decade from a few to well over 100 million today; the
loss of control of personal data in an IT connected world; the largely
unfocused anger behind the global financial crisis; Occupy Wall Street/We are the 99%, and other non-local trends that
dramatically impact the lives of individuals from the most remote villages to
the world’s mega-cities. 


seminar is about systems, their importance and how we can comprehend them. It
is run by a physicist involved in energy issues and a linguist/political
theorist, both of whom are conversant with neural and cognitive science. We will
look across disciplines at our understanding or lack of understanding of these
issues.  The course will integrate
examination of seminal works and individual or collective original student
research projects.



Bela Bánáthy
(1996) Designing Social Systems in a
Changing World
(Plenum Press: New York).

Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1950), "An
Outline of General System Theory"
, British
Journal for the Philosophy of Science
(No. 2).

Sacred Ecology (Routledge, Boulder, 2008).

Fekert Berkes and I.J.
Davidson-Hunt (2010) “
Innovating through commons use:
community-based enterprises” International Journal of the Commons, 4 (1): 1-7.

Lakoff (2008) The Political Mind (Penguin).

Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1999) Philosophy
in the Flesh
(Basic Books).

Ferguson, The film, Inside Job (Sony

Ray Ison Systems
Practice: How to Act in a Climate-Change World
(Springer, London, UK,

Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L.
, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, Limits
to Growth.

Study Group, The Future of the Electric
(MIT Energy Study, 2011).

Koch, The Quest for Consciousness (Roberts
& Co. New York, 2007)

Damasio (1995; 2005) Descartes’ Error

Olson, The Logic of Collective Action

Graeme D. Snooks (2008)
"A general theory of complex living systems: Exploring the demand side of
dynamics", Complexity,13,