Wildfires: When Sparks Lead to Flames Across Systems

Canadian wildfires are ravaging millions of hectares of forests prompting the evacuation of thousands of people and smoke plumes that are affecting millions. It’s a case study in how we address the psychology of climate change, invoke systems thinking about health, and apply what we know about design to it all.

In a recent interview on CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition, Dr. Melissa Lem spoke about the various issues she sees in her family practice tied to wildfire smoke and health. She painted a picture of a remarkably complicated set of issues that influence the health and wellbeing of her patients (and the public).

Dr. Lem is the President of The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and focuses her research and advocacy on understanding the links between the environment and health. This year’s wildfire season and its scale, scope, and spread has thrust group’s work into the spotlight. For good reason, too.

For those unaware of the situation, wildfires in Canada have already burned more than 15 times the annual average of forest area. The season isn’t half over yet.

Dr. Lem’s interview points to the myriad ways that we directly and indirectly support causes of wildfires and climate change, while failing to respond to the health issues that it produces. It is a multi-layered problem with many wicked aspects to it.

Given the size and scope of the issue, this can’t be ignored because there’s no escaping air. It also provides us with an ideal case study in climate change and its complex consequences.

Causes, Consequences and Prescriptions

I had a conversation with someone last week who questioned whether climate change was behind the weather patterns that have contributed to the Canadian wildfires. This was not a climate change denier, rather something who wasn’t sure the cause and effect relationship between one thing (fires) and changes in the climate. After all, we’ve always had hot and dry years. Just listening to the stories my grandparents would tell me about the 1930’s and you’ll know we’ve had drought with hot and dry weather before — for years on end.

This is what makes climate change so tricky. Complex problems are non-linear in their trajectory, meaning there isn’t a straight or consistent line between activities and their outcomes. What we’re facing right now is a culmination of time, patterns of above-average temperatures mixed with below-average rainfall for years on end. Within this sequence, we still have cool, wet periods of weather and some notable spikes in temperature. But overall, the trend is toward an increase in the factors that contribute to wildfires.

For a psychological perspective, there are many things at play. First, we tend to misjudge the role of outliers in our assessment of risk. We place outsized emphasis on certain notable events and discount the effect of others. Second, like the apologue of the frog or lobster in the boiling pot, perceiving slight, gradual average changes over a longer period of time — especially when punctuated by extremes. Third, our perception of climate change is often tied to specific extreme or notable events at the risk of failing to see the small changes over time that support the big events. For example, we might notice hot or cool daytime temperatures, but ignore higher night-time lows. Or a week of cloudy days with drizzle on and off might feel wet, when the overall rainfall is actually quite low.

Lastly, our perceptions of climate change are now tangled up with media messaging from around the world of various quality, validity, and salience. Are we talking about polar bears losing habitat, electric cars, recycling, or extreme weather? If you are in New York City, do you think of forests in Northern Alberta as an issue to be concerned with? I am sure that the Norwegians experiencing Canadian wildfire smog don’t dwell on that.

Herein lies the heart of the problem: all of this is connected. What wildfire smoke does is show us how.

From Forest Fires to Organization Operations

There is little difference between the wildfire situations in Canada and organizational operations. The effects of policy decisions from our governments, business leaders, and investors all contribute subtly to how we run our organizations. Leadership decisions — how we engage our teams, treat our employees, and interact with partners — all are systems-level signals. We see the effects of low-trust in organizations when they face challenges that require staff to put in their best work. Low morale, low trust, and disengaged workforces are like the wildfire smoke: they are residual effects from many decisions, small and large.

Trust is an area where organizations have an opportunity to leverage their strengths and create resilience in the face of complex change. With so much churn in markets, funding and policy landscapes, combines with the disruptive forces of AI, economic instability (e.g., interest rates and inflation), and climate change, trust in systems is going to be affected. Trust can be designed into our organizations.

Consider the following:

  • Failing to be transparent in communicating with staff about key strategic decisions.
  • Not matching strategic intent or priorities with actions.
  • Neglect of well-being concerns among staff (especially post-pandemic) including not providing adequate resources to cope with burnout, lack of connection, trauma.
  • Failure to acknowledge stress on leaders in the organization.
  • Absence of planning (strategic foresight) for future disruptions or meaningful consideration of STEEP-V (social, technological, economic, environmental, political, and values) trends and patterns.
  • No psychological safety.
  • Disconnection between the mission, vision, and execution of strategy.
  • Misuse or absence of context-appropriate evidence to support decision-making

These may be relatively small matters in some cases, but they can build up. They can create the kindling for a wildfire in an organization given the right conditions. It behoves leaders to know if this kindling is present and understand the situational conditions that could ignite it. This might also include monitoring the environment to see where other fires are burning in your sector.

This is metaphorical, but not fantastical. Take the ongoing issue of returning to workplaces (offices) post-pandemic. Many organizations are having their staff return to the office because it is what is being done in their sector, not necessarily because it’s better for staff and the work. There are strong arguments for returning to the office and arguments against it, but only if you know what work you are doing and the connections between activities and outputs. Many organizations do not. Especially in cases where staff have shown an ability to perform well in a distributed model and express a desire to work in either a hybrid or remote context, this helps create kindling. It degrades trust and wellbeing.

Seeing Future Fires

Build in foresight. Invest in strategic design that links together foresight, evaluation, and sensemaking. A design-driven approach connects what the organization does, sees, and wants to do together with data, strategy and good design.

Take a strategic design perspective and ensure that you have set up your organization to align with its values, mission, resources, and expectations. Just as real forest fires are started by ignorant human activity due to lack of awareness and understanding, so is the misalignment problem. Many organizations are not designed for what they aspire to. They get exactly the system they are designed for (even if it’s not the one they want).

Invest in wellbeing and trust as your conerstones.

These three things can put you in Smokey The Bear’s good books. Only we can prevent forest fires.

Image Credit: roya ann miller on UnsplashMarek Piwnicki on Unsplash and Mike Newbry on Unsplash

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