+1-631-475-0231 barrister@yannalaw.com


Home » Opinion » Rational Science—Environment » Conceptual modeling of large systems: The “General Systems” approach

Conceptual modeling of large systems:

The General Systems approach

Models and Modeling: The Words

Certain words and phrases such as “systems analysis,” “modeling,” and “models” have undergone dramatic changes in meaning since the AAAS meeting of 1969 when the first effort was made to join ecology with general systems science. It appears that the word model has become such an arcane symbol to a large group of academics that its more precise original meaning has been lost.

Unfortunately, the attitude of the academic modelers is to build an essentially static model where the elements and their relationships are sufficiently well-defined to permit the luxury of study at the time scale within which the academic community operates—from grant to grant. If the elements of a model cannot remain stable long enough for a grant application to be written, processed and funded so that the elements or relationships among certain elements can be studied conveniently within the appropriate ivory tower, then the model is either reworked or ignored.

Political and economic decision makers as well as lawyers, and the general public do not have the luxury of tenure and the time to pursue modeling as a scholarly or intellectual exercise.

Large complex systems can be treated as essentially n-dimensional databases. A pair of elements and a single association between them are a relation. A model is nothing more than the dynamic representation of the web of such relations at a particular moment in time from the point of view of a particular observer considering a particular set of such relations joined temporarily for Models and

Modeling: Real World; Real Time

We must establish a manageable “representation” (a word which can replace the word “model”) of the Earth and its Environment as the complex dynamic General System it truly is. All we need do is identify the elements of the system, characterize those elements in terms of the information they contain rather than the data which can be gathered concerning them, and then identify the associations that exist between each element and some other element of the system. Each pair of elements between which an association can be established becomes a relation and the General System is nothing more than the set of all such relations.

Identifying the effects of a particular decision concerning one or more elements of the system or one or more of the associations between elements or one or more relations within the system first requires the decision maker to accept as a basic policy consideration and to a certain extent constraint upon their freedom to adopt or implement policy decisions, the need to answer the questions, “Effects upon whom? Effects upon what? Effects from what?”

These are not questions which require quantitative answers. In the first instance the issue is not how much of an effect, but where will the effect be perceived. Perception of an effect is more important in many cases than the actual effect, especially when matters of policy are the issue and all of the discussion is essentially speculative.

If the elements of the system are identified, and the associations between elements are characterized then the set of all such identified or perceived relations (defined as a pair of elements and an association between them) becomes the General System. This General System can now be treated as a data base and searched.

As a result, policy makers can immediately perceive the relations which will be affected by any proposed policy should it be implemented. Thus, they can immediately identify constituencies which must be considered and should participate in the decision-making process. Such a conceptual model or representation will also identify the constituent elements of such constituencies and in many cases identify alliances (associations between disparate groups concerned with various aspects of the General System.)

This is a rather wordy circumlocution, but it is a fair description of what we can accomplish.

A Tractable Problem

A Tractable Problem

At the present time, if environmental systems science is ever to achieve its early promise, there is a pressing need to solve a relatively tractable problem which provides an opportunity for immediate feedback during the process of problem identification, model building, data gathering, and model testing. the purpose of a single view by some combination of characteristics of interest to the observer, but not necessarily of interest to anyone else.

I suggest that the effort begin with the creation of a conceptual model of human use of energy and global climate as a dynamic General System. This is an eminently “doable” project thanks to the Internet and the World Wide Web. All it needs is a host (ISP), a home (server), a steering committee (webmasters), some seed money, the will to succeed, and a timetable reflecting the natural, social, and societal rhythms of the systems being modeled.

All aspects of human activity require Energy. Industry, art, and science are all products of a civilization founded on and supported by Energy.

Modeling Energy and Global Climate

Any effort to model human energy use and global climate must be treated as an exercise in information management. We are looking at a mass of information in which each item of data is related in some way to one or more other data items. A conceptual model of
Energy use or any other aspect of our Economy, our Society, or our Planet, as a General System is in reality a hyperbolic relational data base.

Any valid, useful conceptual model should permit anyone, political leader, corporate executive, senior scientist, curious student, or man and woman on the street to start anywhere and thread their own way through the maze of information available about the disparate elements of the General System of concern. As the visitor to the model creates their own personal thread, they cannot ignore the complex interrelationships among and between all of the elements of the system about which they may be concerned.

A conceptual modeling effort can present the relationships between and among the individual and disparate elements of any dynamic General System and provide the public with a way to manage information about some of the most important resources in the world. The same information management technique can then become a “tool” for the people who are responsible for formulating national and international policy for the management of those natural, social and societal resources that are the basis for maintaining and sustaining the ultimate sources of food, clothing and shelter for the peoples of the World.

The conceptual modeling effort I propose starts with the assumption that a model of relationships can be developed if the word “relationship” is loosely defined as any association between system elements (any of which might also be a system in its own right) where a change in one element is associated with (although not necessarily the result of, much less causally related to) a change in the other element.
Such a definition of “relationship” permits the construction of an n-dimensional web of associations which can be considered at any time as a less complicated web of n minus m dimensions for the purpose of considering some subsystem of the original system.
A subsystem may be defined as some set of elements from the entire system with some set of associations among them which have been constrained or bounded in time or space or by some precise functional definition.

Any manageable “representation,” (a word which may be used instead of “model,”) of a real world system sucvh as agriculture or our energy economy or our potable water supply as a complex general system requires an extensive yet quite manageable effort on the part of many individuals. All we need do is identify the elements of the system, characterize those elements in terms of the information they contain rather than the data which can be gathered concerning them, and then identify the associations that exist between each element and other elements. Each pair of elements between which an association can be established becomes a relation and the General Systems  is nothing more than the set of all such relations.

A Conceptual Model of the Earth and the “Environment”

There is an obvious need for a conceptual model which enables us to look at the Earth and the Environment as the complex dynamic General System it really is, not what the academic community, elected officials, and bureaucrats wish it was or might be.
We need to explore the structure of the General System of which we as human beings are but a single element from within the system where we and all the other human beings on earth actually are rather than attempt to impose a structure on a system we do not yet comprehend from without. Certainly the “inside-out” model is less threatening in the social and political sense.

Without a conceptual model from which to extract information about the relationships among the elements of the General System that is the Earth and the Environment, various attempts to increase the production of food, clothing and shelter for the peoples of the world, and the supply of energy and potable water to sustain that production and the societies which depend upon it cannot be objectively evaluated.
Without a conceptual model of the Earth and the Environment as a General System, our Congress and the other legislative and deliberative representative bodies throughout the world will make decisions that irrevocably commit the natural resources of the earth—soil, water, air, land, landscape, habitat, and the gene pool to the inexorable operation of the law of unintended consequences.

This pessimistic view of our present circumstances  is consistent with the rather sad experience of human societies over the last three or four thousand years.

Scientific Research

At the close of World War II there were two models for successful scientific research. The most widely publicized was the Manhattan Project which gave us the atomic fission bomb, artificial radioisotopes in commercial quantities, and large-scale radioactive material handling technology.

Less widely known but of even greater value to civilization was the OSRD (Office of Scientific Research & Development) which was responsible for literally hundreds of practical inventions ranging from millimeter radar and that branch of mathematics we now call Operations Research (OR), to anti-malarial drugs and blood transfusion technology. The list of OSRD achievements is almost endless, but this kind of research and development effort was never continued because the rapidly growing bureaucracy of higher education and government adopted the single-minded Manhattan Project approach as more “efficient.” The unstructured methods of OSRD, driven by field-necessity like the ad hoc methods of the OSS soon became inconsistent with the burgeoning bureaucracy in both Science and espionage.

The catastrophic failure of both American and Soviet institutionalized Science to build a broad multi-disciplinary intellectual base spawning innovation and encouraging inductive leaps and the well-touted “intelligence” failures of the CIA and the KGB are but two sides of the same coin.

The new management books make a great deal about the rediscovery of innovation as the source of industrial progress and the basis for real profit in business and commerce.

Much of the efforts of the educational establishment to develop “generalists” has been nothing more than an excuse to allow people to learn very little of significance about many areas of academic concern and not enough about anything to make a significant contribution to improving the human condition. The free market system has demonstrated that those “management scientists” who taught that managers need only “know how to manage” perpetrated a cruel hoax upon American business and industry. The recent spate of books by management consultants lauding “hands on” management and concern at the top for products and customers is long overdue. Many areas of science are in danger of similarly missing the basic reason for the existence of academic “disciplines” and “departments.”
Yet when you ask university professors, deans, college presidents, and senior faculty members, “What ever happened to the ‘community of scholars’ that was the ideal of a university?” the answer often is, “We don’t know what happened to it or even whether during our lifetimes it ever existed.”

The effort to develop a conceptual model of the Earth as a General System may very well force the reestablishment of a scholarly community if not necessarily a community of scholars. If the effort accomplishes nothing other than to encourage discourse among scholars of different backgrounds there should be a significant improvement in higher education.

The OSRD Model

Entire industries were born during and after World War II as a result of the OSRD efforts and older, established industries became more efficient and profitable as a result of OSRD contributions. OSRD was the leanest nationwide institution in the history of science and it produced some of the most extraordinary results in the history of human endeavor. There is no reason why this glory cannot be recaptured.
Nevertheless, nothing as fundamental to world peace and international stability as food, clothing and shelter for all the people of the world and sufficient energy and potable water to support their social groupings or societies has received the benefits of such concentrated attention by the academic, scientific, engineering, and intellectual community in America.

A Modest Proposal

One of the reasons environmental policy in general and energy and water policy in particular are in such a muddle is that there is no way of considering, or even identifying the myriad associations among elements of the Earth and its Environment as a General System.

The complex dynamic General System that is the Earth and its Environment may be defined as the set (in the mathematical sense) of all the elements of and relationships between and among those elements of the General Systems we recognize today under the rubric, Lithosphere, Hydrosphere, Atmosphere, Biosphere and the Noosphere (Teilhard de Chardin, SJ) or Psychosphere (Robert Cancro, MD).
Communication among the disparate human elements of the social, political, and economic systems that affect the “Earth and the Environment” as a General System must be improved. Networks among experts concerned with providing sufficient food, water, clothing, shelter, and energy for the peoples of the world must be established forthwith.

The Conceptual Model and Decision Making

The existence of a conceptual model of the Earth and the Environment as a General System, no matter how incomplete, and evolution of that model by OSRD field driven efforts to complete detailed conceptual models of subsystems of the General System model should be enough to influence, if not, direct decision making on a number of land use and resource management issues.

The original purpose of the “Environmental Impact Assessment” required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was to identify the “environmental impact” of a governmental/political decision which might be considered a priori to affect the “Environment.” Unfortunately, no one defined the “Environment” and there were no well-defined, generally accepted measures of “environmental impact.”
In September, 1969, while the late Senator Scoop Jackson of Washington was guiding NEPA through Congress, the Army Corps of Engineers attempt to complete the Cross-Florida Barge Canal linking the Atlantic with the Gulf of Mexico was challenged because it failed to consider the effects of the Canal on the complex Ocklawaha Regional Environmental System which was critical to maintaining the fresh water supply of north central Florida.

By creating a conceptual model of the Ocklawaha Regional Environmental System, it became obvious that the unintended consequences of completing the canal would have a devastating deleterious effect on the fresh water supply of north central Florida. As a result, the cost-benefit analysis justifying the Canal-building effort had to be reworked and the Canal was shown to be of much cost and little benefit.
Environmental systems scientists sincerely believed that the environmental impact assessment process mandated by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) through the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) would consider system wide effects of proposed actions based on well-defined conceptual models. It never happened.6 There were too many academics and not enough environmental systems scientists.

With even an incomplete conceptual model of the Earth and the Environment as a General System, the effects of a particular decision concerning one or more elements of the system or one or more associations between elements or one or more relations within the system can be rationally discussed. Public opinion and media scrutiny will encourage the decision maker to accept as a basic policy consideration and, to a certain extent, a constraint upon the freedom to adopt or implement policy decisions, the need to answer the questions, “Effects upon whom? Effects upon what?”

These are not questions which require quantitative answers. In the first instance the issue is not how much of an effect, but where will the effect be perceived. If the elements of a General System are identified, and the associations between elements are identified and the associations between relations (defined as a pair of elements and an association between them) then the set of all such identified or perceived relations—the data base which is the general system can be searched through rather straight forward methods of relational data base management.

Policy makers can immediately perceive the resources and relations which will be affected by any proposed policy should it be put into effect. This will clearly identify constituencies which must be considered and should participate in the decision-making process. In many cases it will identify alliances (associations between disparate groups concerned with various aspects of the General System.8
It is just such freedom from the need to take a formal position on any matter that characterizes a conceptual systems modeling effort. The purpose of the conceptual systems modeling effort is simply to identify relationships. It is not necessarily to quantify the relationships or even define them precisely, merely identify the existence of some relation between particular system elements or groups of system elements.

The conceptual modeling effort itself is an exercise in consensus building among the disparate human elements of the overall General System, and among those individuals who are particularly concerned with specific and therefore, of necessity, limited, aspects of the General System. Just by assembling a group of individuals from diverse backgrounds for the purpose of discussing the relationships among the elements they each recognize as components of the General System which is the Earth and its environment and with which they are personally and professionally familiar eventually forces each individual to consider their relationships with the other individuals at the same meeting and the relationship of their discipline with the disciplines and outlooks represented by each of the individuals at the meeting.
The more individuals who assemble in groups for the purpose of building this relational conceptual model of the Earth and its environment as a General System and the more complex the existing relational model which serves as a starting point for each discussion at any particular meeting, the richer the modeling experience.

Since the bounds of the model are undefined and the extent of the relationships unknown a priori, the conceptual systems model building effort is always a process in being, a continuous effort to identify relationships among the determinable elements of what may very well be an extraordinarily complex, dynamic and indeed chaotic, system.

The conceptual systems modeling effort is a general case of the Delphi method and initially the freedom to talk about relationships among the elements of the system as impersonal objects provides the participants in the conceptual modeling effort with a period of interaction at the highest professional level without the need to be concerned with personality or, as the psychologists might say, “role-playing.” Eventually, as the participants in a particular effort become more comfortable with each other as individuals and realize that they are essentially noncompetitive in the context of the conceptual systems modeling effort, personal relationships may evolve. Inevitably the conceptual systems modeling exercise promotes increased understanding and awareness among experts who might only rarely join together in any common professional exercise.

The conceptual system modeling effort is a continuing process the purpose of which is to uncover more and more relationships even though they may not be quantified or even if they are non-quantifiable. The conceptual modeling effort may even identify a limiting parameter in particular subsystems and thereby point the way for more precise quantitative modeling and drive and focus scientific investigation in the laboratory or in the field. Eliminating the need for numerical precision improves the flow of collaboprative comnceptual modeling by encouraging scientists to report their information in qualitative terms without the need to associate their status and reputation with the accuracy and precision of their numerical estimates.

Since the relations which exist between and among elements of the Earth and its environment as a General System are not necessarily well-behaved functions (in the mathematical sense that a function is a relation in which every element in the domain of the function is related to one and only one element in the range of the function), there is little value in pursuing the precise quantification of either system elements or the parameters by which they are usually characterized. Qualitative expressions (large, small…) and order (greater than, equal to, less than) are really all that is necessary for quantifying relations within a general system at the conceptual level.

Why are conceptual models of complex systems necessary?

First, a sobering tale of what can, and usually does, happen when all the elements of human interaction or interference with complex natural systems are not considered at least at the level of a conceptual model.

In the early 1950s, it came to the attention of the World Health Organization (WHO) that the Dayak people in Borneo suffered from malaria. WHO had a solution: they sprayed large amounts of DDT to kill the mosquitoes which carried the malaria. The mosquitoes died and at first malaria declined. Unfortunately, however, there were side-effects. First the roofs of the Dayak houses began to collapse upon their heads. It seemed that the DDT was also killing a parasitic wasp which had previously controlled thatch-eating caterpillars. Worse, the DDT-poisoned insects were eaten by geckoes, which were in turn eaten by cats. As the cats started to die, the rats flourished, and the people were threatened by outbreaks of sylvatic plague and typhus. To cope with these problems, which it had itself created, the WHO had to parachute live cats into Borneo.

The true story of Operation Cat Drop—now nearly forgotten at the World Health Organization (WHO)—illustrates why “vision across boundaries” is so important. If you don’t know how things are interconnected, then a solution can cause more problems than it solves. On the other hand, if you understand the less than obvious connections between energy, water, agriculture, transportation, security, and economic and social development, you can often devise a solution to one problem that will promote solutions to many more problems at little or no extra cost.

The Recent Past

The new evidence of environmental archaeologists is especially sobering. The history of cities has been associated with the history of repeated ecological disaster. The growth of cities has engendered rapid regional deforestation, the depletion of groundwater aquifers, accelerated soil erosion, plant genetic simplification, periodic epizootics among pest species and animal domesticates, large-scale human malnutrition, and the development and spread of epidemic disease.

In many cases the individual elements of ecological decline have been linked in positive feedback processes, which reinforced one another and led to precipitous collapse of particular cities. The ecological impact of warfare and the preparation for warfare has been devastating in all ages.

Demographic historians have added further details to the picture of repeated ecological disaster painted by environmental archaeologists. Human populations have demonstrated again and again the long-term regional tendency to expand and collapse. These undulating patterns referred to by demographers as the “millennial long waves” (MLW) appear to be manifest in both the old world and the new.

Two patterns are discernible across all cases despite the considerable differences between each region. First, the human population is both highly unstable and highly resilient. There is considerable variation in the amplitude of the population waves and therefore human populations cannot be considered stable in regional terms. Moreover, the population is resilient in the sense that in “bounces” back from demographic catastrophe with an even stronger surge in reproductive performance.

The second phenomena of the MLW on the regional level is that the frequency between their occurrences is successively shortened. Thus, populations seem to be collapsing and rebounding at higher and higher levels more and more frequently as we approach the present.

When we move beyond the regional evidence to a global scale, another important pattern emerges. Human populations seem to expand in spurts, corresponding to the quantities of energy they are able to harness with their available technology. This may emerge as a new way of stating the Malthusian theory of population limit. Thomas Malthus pointed out that while populations tend to grow exponentially [16] the food supply tends to grow only arithmetically. As a result, populations are ultimately limited, according to Malthus, as their reproductive performance outstrips the food supply needed to keep them alive, and there are periodic widespread famines.

Since Malthus we have come to realize that “food” itself is really a form of captured solar energy that humans can assimilate to maintain themselves and do work. If we build upon this observation to reformulate Malthus’ observation in terms of energy instead of food itself, we can see that human populations tend to expand to the levels supported by the supplies of energy that they can mobilize with available technology.

The industrial era in world history marks an unprecedented period in human evolution from this perspective. Never before have global populations experienced such high rates of growth for such sustained duration, reaching a worldwide climax with an average annual population increase of 2% during the decade from 1965 to 1975. What is even more striking is that the pattern of distribution of this burgeoning population is one of rapid relocation into massive urban agglomerations. In 1700, less than 10% of the total world population of 700 million lived in cities. By 1950 a full 30% of the global population lived in cities. In North America the urban proportion of the population had reached 64% by that time. In 1700 only a few cities in the world had populations of 100,000 people. By the 1900s, more than 40 cities in the world had populations of 500,000 or more. Of those, only 16 cities had populations over 1,000,000. By now, however, in less than 100 years, there are nearly 400 cities with more than 1,000,000 residents.

While some technoboomers and inveterate optimists suggest that newly planned cities might prove to be more energy and resource efficient, this kind of rapid urbanization has historically been accompanied by accelerated resource depletion, increased contamination of air and water, and a decline of public health and welfare. In this large-scale process of global urbanization, the “good life” for some has generally been purchased by the increased misery of many more.

The rapid growth of the world’s population and its even more rapid urbanization since the end of World War II have meant than more and more food has had to be produced on less arable land. While new land is still being brought into agricultural production, the amount of arable land per capita has begun to decline on a global basis. This is a very ominous trend, and in certain areas seems to be irreversible.
The primary reason why famine is still a relatively local phenomena is that new, petro-intensive forms of agriculture have come to dominate global food production. Crops have been bred or engineered; crop losses and damage have been reduced by petrochemical pesticides and fungicides; competing weeds have been reduced by petrochemical herbicides; and aridity problems have been overcome by using fossil-fuel-driven pumps to extract fossil water from underground aquifers. The increases in food production needed to support recent population growth and accelerated urbanization have been made possible through a more intensive use of non-renewable resources (topsoil, groundwater, and petroleum) in a worldwide agricultural economy that can temporarily ignore groundwater contamination by pesticide residues and fertilizers, and salinization of irrigated regions and tolerate a rapidly declining crop genetic base.
In just fifty years humanity has transformed global agriculture from a net source of captured solar energy into a net energy sink.

“Delphi” Methods and the Earth Systems Science Effort

Discussions of “sustainability” present a singular opportunity for application of Delphi Methods, or at least some resort to Delphi techniques. I have taken the liberty of consolidating a variety of sources dealing with the theoretical foundations of Delphi in order to briefly summarize the basic philosophical foundation underlying the method and techniques. I have further taken the liberty of directly focusing some of the theoretical material on the sustainability question. The paraphrases and oversimplifications are my fault not those of the distinguished sources from whom I appropriated the material.

The Evolution of Delphi

Project Delphi was the name given to an Air Force-sponsored Rand Corporation study, starting in the early 1950’s, concerning the use of expert opinion. The objective of the original study was to obtain the most reliable consensus of opinion of a group of experts to the selection, from the point of view of a Soviet strategic planner, of an optimal mix of U.S. industrial targets and the number of A-bombs required to reduce the American output of war material by a prescribed amount.

The Delphi method and process proceeded by exchange of a series of intensive questionnaires interspersed with controlled opinion feedback. The alternative method of handling this problem at that time would have involved a very extensive and costly data-collection process and the programming and execution of computer models of almost prohibitive size.

The original justifications for this first Delphi study are still valid for many Delphi applications today when models require so many subjective inputs that unverifiable opinions and personal judgments become the dominating parameters.

The Delphi Method

Delphi is a method for structuring a group communication process to allow many disparate individuals, as a whole, to deal with a complex problem. To accomplish this “structured communication” Delphi provides feedback among individual contributors of information and knowledge; assessment of the group judgment or view; opportunity for individuals to revise views; and some degree of anonymity for the individual responses.

It is not, however, the explicit nature of the application which determines the appropriateness of utilizing Delphi; rather, it is the particular circumstances surrounding the group communication process necessarily associated with those circumstances. One or more of the following properties of the application indicates a need for employing Delphi methods and techniques:

  • The problem does not lend itself to precise analytical techniques but can benefit from subjective judgments reached through collective effort.
  • The individuals needed to contribute to the examination of a broad or complex problem have no established history of adequate communication among themselves and may represent diverse backgrounds, experience, and expertise.
  • More individuals are needed to consider the problem than can effectively interact in a fact-to-face exchange.
  • Time and cost make frequent group meetings economically inefficient and the associated transactional-costs of such meetings prohibitive.
  • The efficiency of face-to-face meetings can be increased by a supplemental group communication process.
  • Disagreements among individuals are so intense or so politically sensitive or emotionally charged that the communication process must be refereed and some measure of anonymity assured.

The heterogeneity of the participants must be preserved to assure validity of the results.

Early non-military applications of Delphi methods and techniques

The early success of environmental litigation as an effective driving force in American society; and the evolution of the environment movement out of the DDT litigation of 1966; as well as the successful management of the Agent Orange litigation from 1978 when it was begun, through May of 1984 when it was settled, are both examples of the practical applications of Delphi methods and techniques to the resolution of complex legal issues in the context of social, political, economic, and legal uncertainty.
Delphi methods are among the most cost-effective and economically efficient procedures for reaching consensus on complex and controversial matters. The Internet and the World Wide Web have made them even more appropriate.

As a method which can involve many more people than can be effectively brought together at a conventional committee meeting, a Delphi effort would be a practical way to reach out and establish the broadest base of support for consensus on meeting the needs of society in the context of sustainable energy and potable water.
The concerned and knowledgeable individuals who would be required to provide the human intelligence, input from experience, and emotional energy necessary to reach a national consensus on how to meet the needs society for energy and water are already involved. The only immediate action required is implementation of telecommunications, teleconferencing, and appropriate computer management systems and some preliminary guidelines in order to define the kind of consensus sought.

The Delphi Process

The Delphi Conference, or Realtime Delphi provides the monitor teams with the secure and reliable telecommunications/internet support a computer service center and the software necessary to compile and distribute individual comments, group consensus and a forum for disagreement. The Delphi Conference turns the process into a into a real-time organized communications system with all the flexibility of a “chat room.”.
Modern Delphi efforts pass through four distinct phases:

  • Exploration of the subject under discussion. Each individual contributes additional information they believe is pertinent to the issue.
  • Reaching an understanding of how the group views the issue; determination of what matters the members agree or disagree about and what they mean by relative terms such as importance, desirability, or feasibility.
  • If there is significant disagreement, then that disagreement is explored to bring out the underlying reasons for the differences and to evaluate them.
  • A final evaluation occurs when all previously gathered information has been initially analyzed and the evaluations have been fed-back to the respondents for further consideration.

While the written word does allow for emotional content, the Delphi process acts to minimize the feelings normally communicated by tone of a voice, gestures, or the look of an eye.
Although Delphi seems like a very simple concept that can easily be employed, there have been notable failures particularly in the area of military and government policy. Some of the reasons for the failures have been:

  • Imposing preconceptions of a problem upon the respondent group in the form of limitations of the extent of the exercise and/or constraints upon discussion.
  • Not allowing consideration of diverse and controversial perspectives about the problem.
  • Poor techniques of summarizing and presenting the group responses.
  • Failing to assure common interpretations of the evaluation scales utilized by the participants.
  • Ignoring or failing to explore disagreements so that an artificial consensus is generated.
  • Underestimating the demanding nature of a Delphi and failing to allocate enough human and economic resources to the effort.

There is probably no more likelihood of misinformation in a Delphi summary than in a typical group study report, however, misunderstandings may arise from differences in language and logic if participants come from diverse cultural, social or academic backgrounds.
The Realtime Delphi is conceptually analogous to a randomly occurring conference call where a written record might be automatically produced. Within the context of the normal operation of these communication modes in the typical organization—government, industrial or academic—the Delphi process appears to provide the individual with the greatest degree of individuality or freedom from restrictions on their expressions.

Immediate Application

I suggest application of Delphi methods at this time because the real needs of society for energy and potable water represent a multi-dimensional problem that is both ill-defined and lacks a significant amount of data, much less information, on which elected officials and the Courts can base decisions that will have long-range impact. The problem of meeting the needs of society for energy and potable water in sufficient quantities and at reasonable cost involves substantial conflict among competing interests and has significant emotional, social, political, and ethical characteristics, as well as economic meaning to all the parties involved.
There is, however, a unique opportunity for the scientific community to facilitate a full, fair and complete discussion of the issues which can serve as model for resolution of similar problems in resource management and allocation throughout the remainder of this decade.
It is also an opportunity to spur scientific research and investigation in a variety of fields involving the Earth Sciences, the Life Sciences and the Physical Sciences as well as the Social Sciences and Philosophy.

I suggest Delphi to the group as a way of broadening membership in the group of scientists, legislators, judges, and other citizens who will eventually have the responsibility for making the decisions that will irrevocably dictate our energy and water policies for the millennia.
One of the most perceptive insights of modern systems analysis has been the demonstration that systems are most stable and collective judgments most informed and least precipitous the greater the opportunity for dynamic, interactive, positive and negative feedback opportunities operate among the disparate elements of any complex system. There is, of course, no more complex system known to natural science or philosophy than a group of individual human organisms attempting to reach a consensus.

A New Institution

We must replicate the successful methods of the OSRD and bring them to bear on the production and distribution of food, clothing and shelter throughout the world. Since it appears that nothing is going to come from the academic community in time to accomplish anything useful, and as our time runs out, I propose that we establish an Earth Systems Science Institute or National Academy of Earth Science outside the traditional institutional structures of our Colleges and Universities.

The Institute or Academy should function largely as did the central administration of OSRD during World War II. Its work should be driven entirely from the field and by the demands of those concerned with Earth and the Environment at the working level whether industrial corporations, business organizations, consumers or governments.

The central Institute or Academy management team would consider each problem presented and identify the areas of academic, scientific and industrial concern and interest the experts in these areas who might be able to contribute to solution of the problem. The principle function of the Institute or Academy would be to enlist the support of these experts in solving the problem and to define the nature of the solution required to meet the goals of the entity which brought the problem to the Institute or Academy.

There are only a few narrow windows in history through which great projects can be launched and civilization advance. It appears we may be doomed to the fate of other civilizations whose bread baskets turned to deserts and whose greatness turned to ashes.

Paraphrasing the Bard, I must remind you that “the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves;” and “there is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at its flood leads on.” The dire consequences for all if we miss this tide should be obvious to those who witness the plight of not just the Third World, but the malnourished, poorly clothed, ill-housed poor people in American today and the struggle of the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to emerge from the feudalism of twentieth century totalitarianism. Let us at least make an effort to do it right one more time