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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: We’ve weathered the storm, now it’s time to move forward – thoughtfully

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The questions have changed, and so must our decision-making process.

We’re past the crisis stage of COVID-19. Novel news stories are creeping above the fold on the front page. Like a summer wildfire, the controlled chaos of the initial response is ending. The emergency declaration expires Monday, with public attention turning to containment and recovery.

Decision-making during an emergency is focused on survival. And we did it. Gov. Jay Inslee rightly called for an emergency shutdown when the virus flared up in a nursing home in Kirkland. We flattened the curve and didn’t overwhelm our health care system. Yay for us! Now what?

We reallocate resources to prepare for the next crisis, whatever it is, and figure out how to live with the return of infectious disease to Western society. Reductionist decision-making won’t get us there. While it’s useful for simplifying complexity in the face of a single overwhelming threat, sustainable public policy requires holistic decision-making.

It’s a process developed in the modern era by Allan Savory, an ecologist, winner of the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge for developing “the most comprehensive solution to a pressing global problem.” He is president and co-founder of the Savory Institute. Holistic decision-making has always been closely associated with grazing as a tool for managing healthy grasslands. My husband and I studied with Allan in New Mexico and Zimbabwe.

Previous AP reporting in this newspaper has covered the approaching crisis in Africa. It’s easy to gloss over reports from “over there” without personal connections. Zimbabwe and other underdeveloped nations don’t have the ability to throw money at an economic pandemic. Their health care systems are easily overwhelmed. This isn’t a statistic for us: My husband spent the night in the hospital in Victoria Falls. They are underfunded even when they aren’t competing with wealthy nations for ventilators and PPE.

Allan’s daughter, Sarah Savory, is a teacher and author working on promoting the holistic decision-making framework for urban dwellers and public policy decision makers.

“Lockdown means something very different for us in Zim. Many people will starve,” Sarah said in a recent Zoom conversation.

She sees the challenge of reductionist thinking from her home in Harare, where the hazards of importing “cut-and-paste” solutions from the West are creating new crises.

“We are getting ourselves into increasing conflict, experts arguing about what to do, each championing different solutions in their ever-narrowing areas of expertise,” Sarah wrote in a recent email. “We are trying to deal with and mitigate each of our problems in isolation of each other, as if they aren’t connected in any way. ALL our problems are connected. Intricately.”

Reductionist decisions rely on a mechanistic worldview, in which problems are treated in isolation and solutions engineered without considering what Sarah calls “the knock-on consequences.” Holistic decision-making reverses the order of the process by starting with defining a holistic context. Anyone who’s worked in an office full of inspirational Steven Covey posters will recognize this as “begin with the end in mind.”

Public health epidemiologists have the luxury of focusing on a single goal – reducing COVID-19 exposure. Immunologists focus on vaccines, physicians on treatment, economists on business impacts, civil libertarians on dangers of intrusive governance. None of them has the whole picture.

A holistic context statement paints a picture of the desired future, perhaps something like this: Washingtonians want a sustainable society in which individuals freely pursue their happiness while caring for others around them; that’s economically resilient and able to weather each crisis as it comes; and that exists in a healthy environment where food production and wildlife are in harmony across the most ecologically and culturally diverse state in the nation.

Not driven by fear. Not driven by any one special interest. Recognizing how differences in the ecology of the state in physical and social climate may mean an action applicable in one area cannot be cut and pasted across the state without unintended consequences.

The holistic management decision-making framework uses a series of seven testing questions to compare any proposed action – continued economic shutdown vs. reopening a specific sector, for instance – to how well each action on the whole moves toward a detailed vision for the future. The process teases out the ecological, financial and social cost and benefits.

The most important part of holistic decision-making happens after the plan is made and implemented. Assume you are wrong, monitor for the first signs you need to correct course, and be ready to replan. If the wildfire picks up momentum, a wise fire boss has kept back fresh reserves ready to act.

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