All Papers

Journal Papers

2015 - Solving "Locked into a System" Problems with Root Cause Analysis

This invited paper PDF was published in the Spanda Journal in a special issue on "Systemic Change" in June 2015. Here's the abstract:

Presently civilization finds itself “locked into a system” and unable to solve difficult large-scale social problems like over-population, environmental sustainability, recurring wars, and excessive concentration of wealth. Problem solvers, whether they are in NGOs, academia, or government, are unable to reliably effect systemic change on problems of this class. Why is this?

We know from Newton’s third law that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Every effect has a cause and every cause has an effect. From this arises the Law of Root Causes: All problems arise from their root causes. Therefore the reason problem solvers are unable to solve problems of this class is that popular solutions do not resolve root causes. They instead attempt to resolve intuitively attractive intermediate causes, which guarantees solution failure. Unless the laws of physics change there can be no other explanation.

To rectify this situation a comprehensive standard approach to solving problems of this class is proposed. This consists of three tools borrowed from the business world: root cause analysis, process driven problem solving, and model based analysis. The article presents the principles behind the tools and the tools themselves, followed by a sample application of the tools to the most pressing problem of our time: the environmental sustainability problem.



2010 - Change Resistance as the Crux of the Environmental Sustainability Problem

This paper PDF was published in the System Dynamics Review in January 2010. It has served as a bit of bombshell dropped into the placid waters of environmentalism, because it convincingly explains why conventional approaches aren't working. The conventional approach is Classic Activism. The paper describes how the problem solving process of Classic Activism works, where its fatal flaws are, and how that could be easily fixed. How? By switching to Root Cause Analysis.

Here's the abstract:

Why, despite over 30 years of prodigious effort, has the human system failed to solve the environmental sustainability problem? Decomposing the problem into two sequential subproblems, (1) How to overcome change resistance and (2) How to achieve proper coupling, opens up a fresh line of attack.

A simulation model shows that in problems of this type the social forces favoring resistance will adapt to the forces favoring change. If change resistance is high this adaptation response either prevents proper coupling from ever being achieved or delays it for a long time. From this we conclude that systemic change resistance is the crux of the problem and must be solved first. An example of how this might be done is presented.



Papers in Progress

2016 - Taking transdisciplinary research to the next level of process maturity with root cause analysis

This paper PDF is undergoing review and further editing before submission. This paper should be read before the following one.

Here's the abstract:

Despite over forty years of effort the environmental sustainability problem continues to defy solution. Assuming the problem can be solved, this indicates the problem solving approaches employed are in the early stages of process maturity. Of these, the transdisciplinary research process has become a key component of sustainability science. However, there are considerable barriers to successful implementation. Chief among them are the methods selected for problem analysis. The process offers no standard method recommendations based on what has worked before for various situations, as is common in established fields of science. More importantly, present methods do not produce solutions that resolve root causes. This presents a critical knowledge gap because the analysis method, more than any other factor, determines quality of project results. To fill this gap the paper takes a transdisciplinary leap by adapting the powerful business tool of root cause analysis to fit the sustainability problem.


2016 - Drilling Down to the Main Root Cause of the Environmental Sustainability Problem

This paper PDF is undergoing review and further editing before submission. This paper should be read after the one above.

Here's the abstract:

While some progress has been made, the environmental sustainability problem continues to defy solution. We hypothesize the reason is that solutions attempt to resolve intermediate causes rather than root causes, because the root causes are unknown. To rectify this situation the paper presents a comprehensive root cause analysis of the problem. Starting at problem symptoms, the analysis drills down through a chain of three subproblems and their intermediate causes to find the main root cause and its high leverage point. A fundamental solution to push on the high leverage point is presented. The analysis contains novel results that may be of some interest, as they suggest that the sustainability problem can be rapidly solved by application of the same tool that has worked so well for so long in the business world: a formal problem solving process based on root cause analysis.


2014 - Building a Foundational Framework for Sustainability Science with Root Cause Analysis and the System Improvement Process

This long in-depth paper PDF was submitted to PLOS One on February 14, 2014. It summarizes all the research at in the form of principles, our problem solving process, and process application results. If you want to get the latest view of where Thwink is going this is the paper to study. If this is your first Thwink paper, we recommend first reading The Dueling Loops of the Political Powerplace.

Here's the abstract:

Sustainability science currently finds itself unable to solve the sustainability problem. All problems arise from their root causes, which suggests the research challenge is how to perfect a process for applying root cause analysis to the sustainability problem. This paper seeks to help fill this gap by introducing the System Improvement Process (SIP). SIP is a comprehensive analytical framework for solving difficult large-scale social system problems, such as sustainability. The process centers on root cause analysis, and uses problem decomposition and feedback loop modeling to find and resolve the root causes. The paper reports on how SIP works and what a preliminary application of the process found. We conclude that once sustainability science adopts a foundational framework like SIP, it will become able to solve the sustainability problem and will at long last move from prescience to the normal science phase of Thomas Kuhn’s cycle of scientific revolutions.


Kuhn CycleHere's the key diagram:

"Figure 10. The Kuhn Cycle of Scientific Revolutions. All scientific fields begin in prescience. Some eventually advance to normal science. Thereafter they stay there, with the exception of occasional scientific revolutions that go through the steps of the Kuhn Cycle. It is in these revolutions that science makes its greatest leaps forward."


Update - Rejected. Due to our mistake, the paper was too long for its category. It was also too long for the type of papers PLOS One likes to publish. The editor made many thoughtful suggestions.



2013 - The case of the missing root causes

This note PDF was submitted on October 29, 2013 to the notes editor at the System Dynamics Review, after discussion with four system dynamics experts: Bob Eberlein, George Richardson, Jack Homer, and Kim Warren. This is a note rather than a paper, so it's short, as you can see by the very short abstract. Update - The editors rejected the note on the grounds that it was more a research paper than a note. It will be heavily revised and resubmitted as a paper.

Here's the abstract:


Too often the root causes of a problem are not in a system dynamics model. This tends to lead to solution failure. Let’s examine an important case of this phenomenon.


Here's the key diagram in the note. The argument revolves around this diagram.

A system thinker's view of solving a public interest problem



2013 - Endogeneity considered harmful

This paper PDF is in the first draft stage. It is undergoing expert review before submission to the System Dynamics Review. Update - The experts gave some tremendously helpful feedback. The paper will be drastically revised. This has already begun. The first step was cleaving off a big chunk of the paper into the above note.

Here's the abstract:

In a classic software engineering piece titled Go To Statement Considered Harmful, Edsger Dijkstra showed a cherished practice was harmful rather than helpful. The go to statement, while seemingly highly useful and thus widely used, in practice was counter productive because it caused more problems than it solved.

This paper makes an analogous claim, that reliance on model endogeneity is harmful in some cases, such as problems so difficult a missing abstraction is preventing correct analysis. Why? Because on this class of problems, endogeneity (the requirement that dynamic behavior must arise from within a model’s boundary) does not tend to ensure a system dynamics model contains a problem’s main root causes, even if the model generates the “right output behavior for the right reasons.” This paper explores why this is so and, just as Dijkstra did, offers an alternative.



2013 - Finding the Fundamental Forces of the Sustainability Problem with Root Cause Analysis

This paper PDF is the best overall introduction to's research results. The paper was submitted to the Global Environmental Change journal on June 6, 2013. Sadly, it was rejected due to being too broad and not enough evidence. Hmmmm. It will be reworked and submitted to another journal.

Here's the abstract:

What is it science doesn’t understand that is preventing solution of the sustainability problem? This paper argues the answer is the fundamental forces causing unsustainable and sustainable system modes. Until these forces are understood and solutions are based on that understanding, the world will remain locked in an unsustainable mode.  

In order to understand these forces this paper presents the System Improvement Process (SIP). SIP is a tool for scientists. SIP allows the powerful business tool of Root Cause Analysis to be applied to large-scale social problems like sustainability. By using SIP to systematically construct a model of the root cause forces keeping the world locked in an unsustainable mode, analysts will be able to engineer the fundamental solution forces for breaking mode lock-in and shifting the system to a sustainable mode.

The paper presents a universal model of how the fundamental forces of social problems work, how SIP works, and what analysis of the sustainability problem using SIP found. An important conclusion is that a promising class of solutions exists that has never been tried.

The paper discusses the root causes and solutions for the Broken Political System Problem. Below is an extract from the paper:

Broken Political System Problem



2013 - Solving the environmental proper coupling subproblem with Common Property Rights

This paper PDF was submitted to Ecological Economics on August 19, 2013. It was rejected and has been submitted to Global Environmental Change.

Here's the abstract:

This paper extends a previous paper: Finding the Fundamental Forces of the Sustainability Problem with Root Cause Analysis (Harich & Bangerter, n.d.). That paper presented a comprehensive process for solving the sustainability problem as a whole and an overview of process results. The sustainability problem was decomposed into four smaller subproblems. One was the environmental proper coupling subproblem, in which the world’s economic system is improperly coupled to the environment. This paper presents further detail on what process execution found for that subproblem.

Our analysis found that the root cause of improper coupling is not externalized costs, as is widely assumed. Instead the root cause appears to be high transaction costs for managing common property sustainably. This explains why conventional solutions like prescriptive regulations and market-based instruments (because they are designed to internalize externalized costs) fail to work as well as they theoretically should. It also explains why the solution proposed in this paper, Common Property Rights, could work.

Common Property Rights is a comprehensive solution for managing the world’s common property sustainably. It consists of seven components corresponding to the same seven components comprising the world’s Private Property Rights system. This allows Common Property Rights to achieve the same low transaction costs for management of common property that Private Property Rights has long achieved for private property, and thereby solves the environmental proper coupling subproblem at the root cause level.



2010 - Accelerating the Evolution of Common Property Rights

This paper PDF is about half done but on hold. Here's the abstract:

The sustainability problem may be viewed as a case of institutional failure. There is no standard institution capable of sustainably managing the world’s common property, which is those natural resources people use (and too often abuse) in common. An illustration showing The Evolutionary Tree of Property Management Solutions is used to explain this failure. The paper argues that property management systems are historically evolving and that a new institution (called Common Property Rights) for managing common property sustainably is slowly spontaneously appearing. We conclude this evolution can be accelerated and would help greatly in solving the sustainability problem.



Conference Papers

2013 - Part 1: Does “Implementing Solutions for Sustainability” put the cart before the horse?

This paper is not yet written. It will be presented at at the US Society for Ecological Economics Conference, Burlington, Vermont, US, June 9 to 12, 2013. Here's the abstract:

The theme of USSEE’s 2013 conference is “Building Local, Scaling Global: Implementing Solutions for Sustainability.” This paper argues that this theme, while laudable, is premature because conventional solutions are not based on root cause analysis (RCA). Conventional solutions are in fact based on approaches like modeling of direct causes, incremental improvement, comparative analysis, and expert opinion. These approaches appear incapable of solving the sustainability problem, as demonstrated by the seemingly unstoppable rise of the world’s ecological footprint, now at 50% overshoot. Why is this? Because focusing on solutions before root causes are known puts the cart before the horse.

This paper discusses what RCA is, how RCA is used to extraordinary success in business, and how RCA could be applied to the sustainability problem. The central challenge is developing a suitable “wrapper” process for RCA. A wrapper packages something to make it transportable, cohesive, and useful. Business has long used RCA wrappers like Six Sigma and Kaizen. But even though ecological economics “was born as a problem-based approach to socio-ecological concerns,” it has no RCA wrapper that would allow RCA to be applied to the sustainability problem and thus serve as an effective foundation of “a problem-based approach.”

To fill this gap and serve as an example of what’s possible, has developed a wrapper for RCA called the System Improvement Process (SIP). SIP was iteratively developed and applied over a seven year period. Four main root causes were found, along with twelve proposed solution elements for resolving the root causes. Analysis results contain a high degree of novelty since it appears these root causes have never been explicitly identified before, which means the process has led to discovery of an entire class of solutions that have never been tried.

(This paper is part 1 of 3 in a series by



2013 - Part 2: Finding true north at the EPA with root cause analysis

This paper PDF will be presented at at the US Society for Ecological Economics Conference, Burlington, Vermont, US, June 9 to 12, 2013.

To our surprise, this paper was rejected for the conference. It has been changed slightly so that it's not Part 2 of a series and has been submitted to Sustainability Science. Update - The paper was rejected. The reason was "there is not enough new analysis or insight." Hmmmm. We sure don't see it that way.

Here's the abstract. Note the final sentence.

In 2010 the U.S. EPA underwent a fundamental change in mission by “recognition that the goal of sustainability is our ‘true north.’ ” Subsequently in 2011, at the EPA’s request, the National Research Council completed a study known as the “Green Book.” Its purpose was to “provide an operational framework for integrating sustainability as one of the key drivers within the regulatory responsibilities of EPA.” The book describes the framework and recommends that the “EPA should adopt or adapt the comprehensive Sustainability Framework proposed in Figure S-1.”

This paper analyzes the Sustainability Framework and concludes that as presently de-signed it is not capable of achieving its stated goal. The steps and tools described in the Green Book are for solution “assessment and management.” Assessment is inspection, so this is an inspection driven process. It will tend to drive research toward the same class of popular solutions that for over forty years has failed to solve the sustainability problem be-cause as the part 1 paper explains, popular solutions do not resolve root causes. Further-more, as this paper explains, you cannot inspect quality in. You can only build it into the product in the first place.

To fix these flaws and allow the EPA to “adapt” the Green Book framework so that it has a high probability of success, this paper presents the Quality Driven Framework. This framework, as well as most of the main points in this paper, has broad applicability to any environmental agency, not just the U.S. EPA.



2013 - Part 3: Thriving (and not just surviving) in the Anthropocene with Common Property Rights

This paper is not yet written. It will be presented at at the US Society for Ecological Economics Conference, Burlington, Vermont, US, June 9 to 12, 2013. Here's the abstract:

The Geological Society of America titled its 2011 conference: “Archean to Anthropocene: The past is the key to the future.” The Anthropocene began in earnest with the Industrial Revolution, so if we can understand what triggered that system mode change then perhaps we can proactively trigger the next one: the Sustainability Revolution.

This paper proposes that the key precondition for the Industrial Revolution was a sufficiently mature private property rights (PPR) system. The PPR system contains seven main components including for-profit corporations, prices, and expenses. PPR allowed the Industrial Revolution to sweep the world and has proven itself to be the most efficient system known for management of private property.

The environmental sustainability problem can be seen as a case of inefficient management of the world’s common property. So what might happen if we exploited the very strong analogy between private and common property management, created the mirror image of PPR, populated it with non-profit stewardship corporations instead of for-profit corporations, and called it Common Property Rights (CPR)? If the past is the key to the future, then CPR will do for common property what PPR has done for private property and trigger the Sustainability Revolution.

The paper presents the analysis leading to these conclusions along with how PPR and CPR could work analogously, how an inevitable side effect of a strong PPR system is environmental unsustainability, and finally how CPR can eliminate that side effect because CPR properly couples the human economy to the greater system it lives within, the environment. This proper coupling is the long term goal of ecological economics. CPR can achieve this goal quickly, reliably, and efficiently because it resolves the main root cause of economic improper coupling, as identified by the root cause analysis described in the part 1 paper.

(This paper is part 3 of 3 in a series by



2012 - Solving the Sustainability Problem with Root Cause Analysis

This paper. PDF is jargon free and an easy read since its target audience is all serious environmentalists. Scott Durlacher presented the paper at the Ecosystem Services Partnership Conference in Portland, Oregon, US on August 1, 2012.

Here's the abstract:

Countless solutions to the sustainability problem have been tried over the last forty years. While there have been some small successes, the overall problem remains unsolved. The global ecological footprint is at 50% overshoot and rising, with no credible solution in sight. Why is this?

Because popular solutions do not resolve root causes. Root cause analysis has worked spectacularly well for business problems. So why can’t it work for public interest problems?

All problems arise from their root causes. For example, consider the autocratic ruler problem. The root cause of despicable autocratic rulers like kings, warlords, and dictators was that there was no easy way for an oppressed population to replace a bad ruler with a good one. Democracy resolved the root cause with addition of the voter feedback loop. If you’ve spent decades trying to solve a problem and have failed, then the only possible reason is failure to resolve root causes.

This paper presents the results of a seven year root cause analysis of the complete sustainability problem. A formal problem solving process was developed specifically for this problem. Process execution identified four main subproblems. This is critical. The right decomposition can change a problem from insolvable to solvable, because you’re no longer trying to solve multiple subproblems simultaneously without realizing it.

For each subproblem the analysis found a main root cause, a high leverage point for resolving the root cause, and one or more solution elements for pushing on the high leverage point.

The key solution element is Common Property Rights. This is a systemic approach to sustainable management of ecosystem services in a generic, efficient, self-replicating manner. Common Property Rights are the mirror image of Private Property Rights, so they promise to be just as generic, efficient, and self-replicating.



Thwink Papers

2005 - The Dueling Loops of the Political Powerplace

This paper PDF was written in a paper style format due to its use of a simulation model. It was never met to be published in a peer reviewed journal. Instead, it was designed to be easily read by the non-specialist.

Over the years this has been the most influential single publication on the entire website, by far. The paper, using a simple simulation model that most readers can follow, lifts the veil on how the world's democratic political systems really work. They don't. They are too easily exploited by powerful special interests, notably large for-profit corporations. How do they do it? Why do the exploiters have an inherent advantage that those working for the common good have been unable to counter? What can be done to solve this rather important problem? How does the Dueling Loops model explain the left/right political spectrum, the one that appears in all democracies?

The answers are all there in the paper.

Here's the abstract:

Most effort on solving the sustainability problem focuses on its technical side: the proper practices that must be followed to be sustainable. But surprisingly little effort addresses why most of society is so strenuously resisting adopting those practices, which is the change resistance or social side of the problem.

This paper presents a root cause analysis of the change resistance part of the problem using a simulation model. The model shows the main source of change resistance lies in a fundamental structure called The Dueling Loops of the Political Powerplace. This consists of a race to the bottom among politicians battling against a race to the top. Due to the inherent (and well hidden) advantage of the race to the bottom, it is the dominant loop most of the time, as it is now. As long as it remains dominant, resistance to solving sustainability problems will remain so high they are insolvable.

The analysis has, however, uncovered a tantalizing nugget of good news. There is a promising high leverage point in this structure that has never been tried. If problem solvers could unite and push there with the proper solutions, it appears the change resistance side of the problem would be solved in short order and the Sustainability Revolution would begin.


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