Ecosystem Services Partnership (ESP) Conference 2012

Scott Durlacher presenting paper at Portland conference

Scott Durlacher presented the paper at the Ecosystem Services Partnership Conference in Portland, Oregon, US, on August 1, 2012. Click on the photo to watch the five minute video of Scott covering the highlights of the paper and its context. has distilled its central message into one paper: Solving the Sustainability Problem with Root Cause Analysis. PDF The paper is jargon free and an easy read since its target audience is all serious environmentalists.

The key conclusion is that popular solutions don't work because they do not resolve root causes. Instead, they attempt (in vain) to resolve intermediate causes, like externalized costs or the universal fallacy that Growth Is Good.

The analysis found four main root causes. Finding these led to discovery that the environmental sustainability problem is itself a symptom of a deeper problem: the Broken Political System Problem. This is the real problem to solve. Until it's solved the work of environmentalists is largely fruitless. This is a highly controversial and counter-intuitive conclusion, but it's well supported by a mountain of analysis, modeling, references, and examples in the publications at

Using the results of the analysis a solution strategy is presented. Twelve solution elements are required to resolve the four root causes.


Because each solution is aimed at resolving a specific known root cause, you can't miss. You hit the bullseye every time. It's like shooting a rifle close up at a target ten feet away. The bullseye is the root cause. That's why Root Cause Analysis is so fantastically powerful.

Welcome to modern activism:

1. Ready - Define the problem.

2. Aim - Analyze the problem with Root Cause Analysis.

3. Fire - Develop and implement solutions that can't miss.

These three steps are why we designed this button:

Root cause buttons

About the ESP Conference

This is the fifth international conference held by The Ecosystem Services Partnership. See this page for description of the conference. It was in Portland, Oregon on July 31 to August 3, 2012.

This was not your normal academic conference. Only half a day was devoted to papers, so it's not paper centric. Instead, it's centered on working groups. This is an experiment. The idea here is to have:

Small groups working over the course of two days (August 1-2), to solve a problem and implement the solutions [or at least get started] – Working groups are intended to be transdisciplinary, including a diverse range of scientists, policy makers, communicators, and practitioners. They should allow sufficient time for participants to meet and interact to discuss and solve real problems in the field and also to determine how to best communicate the results. Number of participants can range from a few people to a couple of dozen.  There is no specific structure for these working groups - structure should be determined based on topic, participants, and product. Each working group should aim to produce, or start to produce, a product/solution. Working groups will be given a short amount of time on the final day (August 3) of the conference to report their results in plenary.

The Working Group

This was to be a working group led by Jack Harich of and possibly others. Here's the description that was accepted by conference organizers:

Title: Resolving a Key Root Cause with Common Property Rights

This group will be working on a solution hypothesis described in the parallel session presentation (a paper) on Solving the Sustainability Problem with Root Cause Analysis PDF . The hypothesis is that according to root cause analysis, Common Property Rights (CPR) cleanly resolves a key root cause so it should work well.

Here’s our problem to solve in two days:

1. Is the above hypothesis sound? Does CPR resolve the main root cause of improper coupling between the economy and the environment?

2. If it’s unsound or we can’t tell, what should we do?

3. If it is sound, then how can we proceed with iterative refinement of CPR via test implementations until CPR is good enough to solve the improper coupling problem?

4. How can we ensure successful post-conference action?

To initiate a productive work effort we will first review this information:

1. How root cause analysis works.

2. The System Improvement Process (SIP). SIP was designed from scratch to solve difficult social problems. SIP is a wrapper for root cause analysis so that this powerful tool can be applied outside its normal domain of technical and business problems to social problems.

3. Analysis results of applying SIP to the sustainability problem.

4. The key solution element of Common Property Rights. CPR is a systemic approach to sustainable management of ecosystem services in a generic, efficient, self-replicating manner.

5. How CPR can be implemented, with emphasis on the four key requirements for a successful stewardship startup.

Using this as our foundation, the group will then proceed to solve the problem described above.

Suggested Reading Material for Those Attending the Working Group

Try this approximate sequence to make your reading go easier:

1. The glossary entry on root cause analysis.

2. The paper on Solving the Sustainability Problem with Root Cause Analysis PDF . This paper is in progress.

3. The page on The Common Property Rights Project. This gives a complete introduction to Common Property Rights and how this solution element can be implemented.

Then if you want to do some serious preparation, try:

4. The Common Property Rights book.

Working Group Output

33 working groups were proposed. At the conference 6 working groups were scratched due to low turnout. Ours was one of them!

Things worked out just fine, however. Scott used that time to setup materials in the hall, while Jack attended another working group. With this approach we actually made more impact, since we had so many more one-on-one conversations. Jack attended another working group, the one on the Columbia River Basin treaty led by Tom Fontaine of the US EPA.

All in all, the conference was a big success. It was essentially's coming out conference since it was the first academic conference we have ever attended.