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We will succeed or fail—together (II/IV): a systems approach and tenants for a path forward

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By John L. Craig

· 14 min read

This is part two of a four-part series on caring for our built natural environment. You can find part one here, part three here, and part four here.

Preface: COP28

This four-part series was written before COP28, but I believe this series still holds true. It is also not the purpose of this series to recount the details of COP28. They can be found elsewhere (Global Climate Action; Marrakech Partnership; United National Climate Change; COP28UAE, 2023). Regardless of the many criticisms that COP28 received, including that the world is off-track to meet the Paris Climate Agreement, it was a critical step (Caldwell, 2023; illuminem Editorial Team, 2023; Stern, 2023). We should be pleased, but not satisfied, with the outcomes, including probably the primary one to phase out fossil fuels while increasing the use of sustainable alternatives, particularly renewables. Countries and communities must now respond to the outcomes of COP28, an enormous task to be sure (Lovins, 2023; Remblance, 2023). 

The purpose of this four-part series is to discuss some of the aspects of succeeding or failing together in caring for our built-natural environment on Planet Earth.


There are a lot of systems thinkers but two are among my favorites:

  • Edward O. Wilson, a world-renowned scientist of the natural environment (Wilson, 1998, 2012, 2014, 2016, and many others not reflected in this blog)

  • Robert Prieto, a world-renowned engineer of the built environment (Prieto, 2008, 2015, 2017, 2020, 2022a, 2022b, and many others not reflected in this blog)

Another favorite of mine is Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems (2008) a sustainability-focused book and one of the original 1972 The limits to Growth authors. Many others are actively addressing the fundamentals of improving our built-natural environment.

There are also other systems thinking efforts toward more holistic thinking underway. It is encouraging to see efforts on valuing nature, such as a recent agreement by the United States and Australia (Chung, 2022) and others (MacEacheran, 2022; Well Being Economy Alliance, n.d.). Two of the more significant efforts toward more holistic thinking include the National Academies (2022) report with recommendations on taking a systems approach toward a better understanding of the built-natural environment and Gaya Herrington’s (2022) book on five insights from a relook at the original Limits to Growth model which confirmed the original 1972 trend lines. I am especially struck by the latter’s objectivity and clarity. In sum, her five insights are:

  1. We are connected, and acting like we are not has led us to the brink of collapse.

  2. Growth is not a good goal. In fact, it is the cause of society’s problems.

  3. We need to fundamentally change society’s priorities if we want to avoid significant declines in our current levels of well-being.

  4. Time is of the essence to make this change.

  5. The end of the growth pursuit does not mean the end of progress, quite the opposite.

Tenants of a path forward

I have tried to establish this list of tenants that will be needed to engage the challenges of global growth in a meaningful and productive way.

  1. A good faith effort must be made by all, or at least a majority, to avoid the tipping points, which could last centuries, if not millennia (Dixon-Declève et al., 2022).

  2. A clear and straightforward focus must be developed to bring these challenges to the public's attention. The lack of a clear focus, in fact, may be part of the problem in engaging our global society in an acutely focused direction forward rather than for narrow scientific, engineering, or other interests. This is a very difficult task. The world is now replete with conferences, meetings, books, publications, and other venues on a path forward before it is too late. This collection of venues is so vast it is virtually impossible to stay up with, much less digest.

  3. A clear strategy and planning are needed to substantially manage positive and negative risks. Some are asserted by Dixon-Declève et al. (2022) as follows:

    • Ending poverty

    • Addressing gross inequality (Copley, 2022; Gleick, 2021)

    • Empowering women

    • Making food healthy for people and ecosystems

    • Transitioning to clean energy

  4. A program management approach is needed. A program involves interrelated projects combined with a systems approach. The extra investment required to build a more resilient civilization is estimated at two to four percent of global income per year for sustainable energy and food security alone. These “turnarounds” will surely be disruptive, and the likelihood of occurring is not high (Dixon-Declève, et al., 2022).

  5. Priorities must be made. This will be neither clear nor simple, but I would suggest a good starting point is Herrington’s Figure 32 titled “Finance system within ecosystem, stable versus fragile” (Herrington, 2022). I might suggest calling this figure “Herrington’s Hierarchy of our Planet.” This is no great surprise since we all live within our planet’s natural ecosystem.

  6. Meaningful metrics must be developed. I say meaningful because everything that can be measured is not important, and everything important cannot be easily measured. Recently, NASA space satellites are tracking 50 super emitters around the world (Greicius, 2023; Hartono, 2022). Some metrics being used are not accurate and therefore misleading and not very meaningful to developing a sustainable built-natural environment (Elgin and Rangarajan, 2022; Boudreau, 2022). This is highly problematic. Still, accurate and meaningful metrics on the health of our natural environment must be weighted equally, or higher, to the built environment on which it depends. They must reflect reality, not wrong, misleading, or inaccurate metrics that only make the task more difficult, if not impossible. This also includes a standard definition and understanding of terms (Jones, 2022; Savini, 2022).

  7. Above all, action must be taken in conjunction with feedback loops to measure progress and enable adjustments to align the way. Without action, it is just a lot of talk. Dixon-Declève et al (2022) provide a pretty common-sense list of actions for our future which I have adapted.

    • Reduce polarization.

    • Share wealth more fairly.

    • Act in the interests of future generations.

    • Change how you measure progress, value, well-being, and nature over financial growth.

    • Engage citizens about what really matters in society…most don’t read papers and books on our planet’s dilemmas.

    • Send unequivocal signals to markets on long-term commitment and investment transformation.

    • Join the movements and do what you can in your own life.

    • Vote for politicians who value the future.

    • Start conversations and efforts in how our global society and planet can be improved.

    • The need for meaningful feedback loops has already been mentioned but bears repeating. These are needed to measure progress and adjust as needed to achieve priorities and goals.

    • Finally, as feedback is received, adjust actions as needed to achieve the stated priorities and goals.

One of the most salient, simple, and summarized rules for a healthy, built-natural environment is from Donella Meadows et al. (1972), and this still speaks true today.

  1. Renewable resources should be used no faster than they can regenerate.

  2. Pollution and wastes shall not be put into the environment faster than the environment can recycle them or render them harmless.

  3. Non-renewable resources shall not be used at all, and renewable substitutes should be developed.

  4. The human population and the physical capital plant must be kept at levels low enough to meet the first three conditions.

  5. The previous four conditions must be met through processes that are democratic and equitable enough that people will stand for them.

In theory, the United Nations seems the right governance body to lead this work. The UN’s work is meaningful to our global society and planetary ecosystem, including 17 ambitious sustainability goals developed in 2015. These goals were targeted to be accomplished by 2030, and some progress has been made (United Nations, 2022, 2023). These goals are:

  1. No Poverty

  2. Zero hunger

  3. Good health and well-being

  4. Quality education

  5. Gender equality

  6. Clean water and sanitation

  7. Affordable and clean energy

  8. Decent work and economic growth

  9. Industry innovation and infrastructure

  10. Reduced inequalities

  11. Sustainable cities and communities

  12. Responsible consumption and production

  13. Climate action

  14. Life below water

  15. Life on land

  16. Peace, justice, and strong institutions

  17. Partnerships for the goals

However, the UN (by design) lacks the authority to bring all nations in line with what is needed, and it is a fantasy to believe otherwise (e.g., United Nations, 2022). Thus, it is an open question whether the myriad efforts currently underway will succeed in mitigating the growing impacts on our global society and ecosystem or whether a new form of governance should be developed. Will each country rise to the occasion (Searcey, 2022; Office of Science and Technology Policy, 2022; Greenfield, 2022; Frazen, 2022; Meyer 2022)? Will companies force the needed change (Weston, 2022; Schneider Electric, 2022; World Economic Forum, 2022)? Will we find common ground and work together to resolve our collective issues (Sarkar, 2019)? Will people around the world force and guide us, from the ground up, to a more sustainable built-natural environment (Meadows, 1994; Wahl, 2020)? What is fair and equitable responsibility (for example, Ghosh et al., 2022)? How will the public and private sectors work together in resolving this existential crisis? These are all critical but unanswered questions. As it is, efforts are largely fragmented while many are doing the best they can.


There is a lot of work to be done, individually, societally, and globally. The simple and unavoidable truth is that whatever the future holds, we will succeed or fail together.

“There are no separate systems. The world is a continuum. Where to draw a boundary around a system depends on the purpose of the discussion.”

— Donella Meadows

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

John L. Craig is a senior leader in engineering, construction, transportation, and the natural environment to improve people's lives, the economy, and the environment. He has led multibillion-dollar megaprograms in the public and private sectors, including joint ventures, public-private-partnerships, international consortiums, and joint and multinational operations.

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