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The Eleventh Commandment

Posted by Daniel Hoornweg on July 27, 2023

The Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not distort, delay, or sequester information

Dana Meadows, likely the world’s most appreciated systems engineer and champion of sustainability, suggested an Eleventh Commandment: Though shalt not distort, delay, or sequester information.

What if Exxon, and its brethren fossil fuel companies agreed to disclose their climate models when asked back in the 1970s? What if Coke and Pepsi, along with Proctor and Gamble and the plastics industry, did not create and finance trade associations to lobby against refillables and packaging regulations, but rather helped municipalities enact comprehensive waste management programs that focused on waste minimization? What if the auto industry fully disclosed how heavier, larger vehicles kill more people, and how personal automobiles erode public transit and catalyze sprawl, while benefitting from enormous financial subsidies?

Countries also transgress the Eleventh Commandment. For example, initially obfuscating the treatment of Indigenous communities and turning a blind eye to colonial practices like slavery. Or throwing up roadblocks to meaningful consultation and freedom of information requests. Or perhaps distorting budgetary processes such that the full costs are not shared with the public, while growing deficits and deferred maintenance are passed on to future generations.

Dana Meadows goes on to say, “You can drive a system crazy by muddying its information streams.” This is where we are on the global response to climate change. First, we had the deniers and delayers. Then we had those chiming in that it would be too expensive or too difficult to change. Fudging and ignoring available information. And now we have the response of many Canadians and others arguing, “we are less than 2 percent of the problem, why should we do anything if China or the US, or maybe now, India, does not move first.” This conveniently muddies the water in that person-for-person Canadians generate more greenhouse gases than almost any other country, and our historical cumulative emissions are among the highest in the world.

Information needs to be treated like oxygen, necessary for all, an inalienable human right: A government and corporate responsibility. Another quote from Dana Meadows, “99 percent of what goes wrong in systems goes wrong because of faulty or missing information.”

As we face humanity’s biggest challenge ever – getting our planetary systems back to some sort of sustainability – we need honest and fulsome information. Fortunately getting good information is easier than ever. With remote sensing, the internet and now burgeoning artificial intelligence, the chances of collecting and disseminating information are good.

“Though shalt not distort, delay, or sequester information” may sound preachy, but ignorance and misinformation hurt everyone, especially the poor and disenfranchised, and our fellow species. Clear and credible information helps the planet and everything living here.


Filed under: Sustainability 101