The use of Graphic Visualization in Environmental Problem Solving
Graphic visualization can be critical to an effective discussion of environmental systems, phenomena, or problems. Graphics help to orient participants in the discussion to the various points and relationships within the system. A graphic can provide an understanding of process flow, with the advantage of helping to highlight where points of failure might occur or the circumstances and practices surrounding a failure.
Use of a graphic to understand an environmental issue has the advantage of helping users to define the system and the boundaries that they will draw around the issue at hand. This can have several positive effects, like helping to understand the underlying and/or existential factors that help to bring about an environmental problem, and may serve to highlight how structural change may address a problem in a better or more comprehensive way than a simple quick fix or “band-aid” solution would. Sometimes a direct resolution to a problem is only a partial solution, and a graphic can help identify the proximate or ultimate factors that help construct the situation and may be central to addressing it in totality.
I had a professor in my undergraduate studies that taught about communication in organizations. His class was essentially an indictment of the traditionalist “paternal hierarchy” of the majority of Western businesses, NGOs, and even governments. His critique was a powerful one because hierarchy tends to beget hierarchy; if there is a problem within a system, the traditional model demands creation of a new rule, law, structure, bureau, department, or administrator with the explicit responsibility of addressing the newly perceived problem. The crux of this critical view of hierarchy is that adding more hierarchy to solve a problem that was the result of the existing hierarchy rarely serves to actually address and resolve the issue. It demands additional costs, assumptions, structures, and efforts to address a problem that might not have actually ever been a problem if the underlying structure is the cause of contention. The bottom line is that the creation of new layers of accountability and subordination weakens the competitiveness of the process, business, or organization in question because of these extra costs. This leads to the “top-heavy bureaucracy” that is so often bemoaned for its inefficiency. This professor drew a critical comparison between Western modes of structuring organization--with sometimes over a dozen layers of subordination under a single figurehead--to Eastern modes of structuration which seek to minimize hierarchy and often operate with only two or three layers of subordinates under a central authority. The argument follows that Eastern businesses were more competitive and offered lower prices, at least in part, to this simplified structure. Graphic depiction of an environmental problem as a multi-layered structure can serve to highlight the weakness or true need for adding yet another layer of accountability to the hierarchy.
A graphic visualization approach can also have important inherent limits. While a conversation led without the aid of graphic depiction might wander aimlessly for a time, it may well wander into areas of observation or criticism that a graphic depiction would exclude from the discussion entirely. I think this is the most significant weakness of a graphic model approach to discussing environmental problems. Once you construct your graphic depiction or model, it will often limit the discussion within the boundaries of that model. Related to this is the danger of committing errors in building the graphic representation, and the possibility of invalidating your conclusions due to an error in the conceptualization of the model. Additionally, there are increased costs in energy, time, and expertise involved in constructing a complete graphic model and simultaneously trying to avoid the sorts of omissions or errors of attribution or causation that might have snuck into the graphic depiction of the problem.