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.

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.

The paper attempts to explain why conventional approaches to solving the sustainability problem 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.

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.



Journal Papers in Progress

2016 - Cutting through the Complexity of Social-ecological Systems with Root Cause Analysis

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

The extreme complexity of large-scale social-ecological systems (SESs) has, in many cases, prevented their dynamic behavior from being sufficiently understood. To cut through the fog of complexity the paper presents a comprehensive analytical framework based on root cause analysis. The premise is that all problems arise from their root causes. The framework reduces the baffling complexity of an SES problem to its essential causal structure by systematically finding the problem’s root causes and ignoring everything else. Once the root causes and their high leverage points are identified, solutions may be developed to push on those points. The framework is flexible and may be applied to any member of the class of difficult large-scale social system problems, including the looming crisis of the 21st century, the global environmental sustainability problem. This paper focuses on that problem.


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

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

While substantial progress has been made, the environmental sustainability problem, and the climate change crisis in particular, exhibit a strong pattern of repeated solution failure. We hypothesize the most productive reason is that solutions attempt to resolve intermediate causes rather than root causes, because the root causes are so difficult to find they have not yet been discovered and consensed upon. To begin filling this gap the paper presents a comprehensive root cause analysis of the environmental sustainability problem as a global whole. Our main conclusions contain a note of cautious optimism. It appears the problem is solvable and may be solved relatively quickly, because a high leverage point exists that has not been pushed on before by solutions in a focused large-scale manner. These results hold rich implications for further research.


Conference Papers

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.

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.

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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