Creating global prosperity without economic growth

avatar

Systems Thinking in a Complicated World

by Scott Gast on 21st January 2010

Print Friendly

Most of us – especially here in the US – like to think we’re good at solving problems. We’re a nation of self-described fixers: when waterways weren’t cutting it for transportation, the steam engine emerged. When horses clogged the streets of New York City, Henry Ford and his Model-T redefined mobility. And when we needed something to run an enormous string of calculations, somebody showed up with a supercomputer and then a PC and then a laptop and then a smartphone and then…Yes. We’re proud of ourselves.

This culture of problem-solving is usually framed in terms of progress: a linear evolution of solutions that, as the story goes, will boost us higher and faster toward some kind of techno-utopian space age. And it’s hard to knock that story, because it has produced some incredible outcomes related to health, freedom, education, all the things listed above and more. But I think the world in which this mechanistic, linear, “if this, then that” thinking works is quickly coming to a close. Or, at least, that thinking may need to be applied in a different way. Because as human activity more closely influences ecological systems, and as globalization and our wired-ness weaves our fates closer to the people around us (and across oceans), everything gets more complicated. And connected. And systemic.

Band-Aids vs. Solutions

The problem with linear and mechanistic solutions is that when things get complicated – when the world becomes a dense ball of complexity and interconnection – those kinds of solutions often become Band-Aids that treat the symptom, but miss the root cause.

Here’s an example: I notice my daily to-do list getting longer, but I don’t feel like I’ve spent any less time working. My Band-Aid solution: Buy an iPhone, get a bluetooth headset, and become one of those guys who looks like he’s talking to himself in public. According to the linear philosophy, I’ve stepped up my work efficiency with a needed technological advance. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle, because the causes of my slow workflow are complicated and interconnected. A systemic approach might have me improve my focus, weed out distractions and prioritize. If I buy an iPhone and neglect the real time management issues, I’ve mistaken the root of the problem for the symptom – and possibly even introduced new problems that show up later, like the distractions that come with a mobile internet connection.

The same goes for sustainability issues: we hear “fishery collapse” and frequently start thinking GMO’s and fish farms. Or, in the case of climate change, we look to solar panels, carbon capturing and oceanborne cloud-makers to erase our carbon emissions. But I think these fixes, while contributing to a solution, might cloud the real issue. We’re operating our economies and societies at a scale that’s colliding with natural systems in myriad ways. And the tech fix – while possibly very cool – really only puts off the ways we might need to address that scale issue: reverse overblown consumption, untangle confused price signals, and transform a culture that’s increasingly wired but decreasingly connected.

Toward Systems Thinking

This much is obvious: the society-environment relationship is a complex system. It might even be the most complex system, period. When problems within the system come to our attention, they deserve some serious thinking – not just a wave of the hand, followed by “Eh, technology’ll take care of it.”

Here in the US, many folks trying to formalize that serious thinking are part of an academic field called system dynamics. MIT’s System Dynamics Group, who might be the field’s leading light here in the States, have this to say about systems thinking: “What makes using system dynamics different from other approaches to studying complex systems is the use of feedback loops. Stocks and flows help describe how a system is connected by feedback loops which create the nonlinearity found so frequently in modern day problems.” Stocks, flows and feedback loops. They’re the academic’s way of describing the elements of our massively interconnected world.

The system dynamics approach to thinking about sustainability raises questions about the desirability of infinite economic growth – and connects environmental and social issues, like climate change and a fraying sense of community, back to a misguided sense of progress. System dynamics also puts a finger on inappropriate economic indicators and flawed tax/subsidy flows as structural causes of overshoot – rather than simply a lack of innovations in green tech.

A big part of making a move to systems thinking happen, I think, is to overhaul the notion that our societies and economies exist outside of ecological systems, and re-establish ourselves as citizens within those systems. The physicist/writer/systems theorist, Frijtof Capra, calls that shift “ecological literacy.” Here’s a video of a brief lecture by Capra outlining this “systems nested within systems” view:

Resources

There’s a lot happening around system dynamics these days. It can get a little dry – so beware – but without getting into the technicalities (and I’ve steered clear, mostly), the biggest lesson I’ve taken away from the system perspective is simply that the world is complicated place. There’s rarely a neat and discrete cause of any of our current problems – causes are usually both many and messy. And when a simple explanation is offered, I usually try to dig deeper.

Ok. On to the resources:

Leverage Points blog

A great, great blog about applying system thinking to everyday problems. Topics explored are many – from obesity to personal motivation to Thomas Friedman. I’d check this one out first.

Thinking in Systems

From Donella Meadows, a darling of environmentalism and one of the bright lights of system dynamics. Gets a little dry at points, but a great primer for understanding the systems perspective.

The Limits to Growth

Modern environmentalism was kicked off, at least in part, by this well-known report from members of the System Dynamics Group. The message within the title hinges on the results of computer models that used information about natural resource stocks, ecological functions, human energy and material use, and population growth to predict a kind of complicated collision between human growth and the natural world – which informs our perspective here at PostGrowth.org.

MIT System Dynamics Group

Web page of the founders of system dynamics; contains current papers, a blog, explanations, a cool climate interactive climate model, and helpful links.

Image credit: Flickr/noahsussman. Creative Commons license.

This post was written by

avatar Scott walks, bikes, reads, and lives in rural western Massachusetts. His day jobs have included stints at YES! Magazine, the City of Chicago's Waste to Profit Network, and The Nature Conservancy. He is a graduate of the Environmental Science program at Allegheny College, and Special Projects Assistant at Orion Magazine.

Scott has written 17 posts on Post Growth Institute. Contact Scott

{ 5 comments }

avatar Sharon January 21, 2010 at 19:48

>The same goes for sustainability issues: we hear “fishery collapse” and frequently start thinking GMO’s and fish farms. Or, in the case of climate change, we look to solar panels, carbon capturing and oceanborne cloud-makers to erase our carbon emissions. But I think these fixes, while contributing to a solution, might cloud the real issue. We’re operating our economies and societies at a scale that’s colliding with natural systems in myriad ways. And the tech fix – while possibly very cool – really only puts off the ways we might need to address that scale issue: reverse overblown consumption, untangle confused price signals, and transform a culture that’s increasingly wired but decreasingly connected.

Good point, Scott…I am presently reading a book called ‘Leadership on the Line’, which distiguishes between technical and adaptive challenges [the former is familiar, and already within our repertoire; the latter represents challenges that disturb people’s values, habits etc]. It discusses why this fallback to techfix occurs – in times of adaptive pressures, people want to hear answers, and they want security, from their leaders, and because leadership becomes ‘dangerous’ when encouraging people to face adaptive challenges, all too often we retreat to the technical approach.

This issue has also been raised in a post to The Ecologist a few days ago.

‘None of the various technofixes on offer alter the fact that humanity has to learn to stop living on the last drops of cheap energy, and to start living within its means.’

The question for social change [including sustainability activists] is how can we help people recognise and deal with adaptive challenges?

avatar Jim January 22, 2010 at 11:38

What a coincidence! I was just reading about Jan Tinbergen, the global economist. He wrote the intro to the 1994 Limits to Growth update.

avatar T.R. McGee January 22, 2010 at 14:22

“A big part of making a move to systems thinking happen, I think, is to overhaul the notion that our societies and economies exist outside of ecological systems, and re-establish ourselves as citizens within those systems.”

Well said, and right on point. I think the inherent disconnect (or twisted) relationship we have to the natural world as defined by our industrial mindset creates a framework that ultimately destroys the very living system we depend on for life.

Much of sustainability falls into place when we start to see ourselves as part of the ecological system, and find beneficial ways to support ecological performance.

As a side note – the fastest and clearest connection I have seen for most people is their relationship to food. Food is an ecological service, that for the most part requires functioning relationships to maintain health. The failures of modern agriculture emerge when these relationships fails (factory farms causing increase risk for resistant bacteria for example).

Great Post.

avatar Scott Gast January 26, 2010 at 07:41

Thanks for the comments, all!

T.R: You make a great point about food being one of the most obvious connections between people and natural systems. I think the rising popularity of local/organic food speaks to exactly what you’re saying because eating is such an incredibly sensuous activity to begin with. The mechanized, divorced-from-the-land, factory farm model misses that, and the rediscovery of food as experience is pretty powerful for people. I’ve seen friend’s faces light up when eating an awesome dinner in the same room with the farmers who picked the tomatoes from the vine and raised the turkeys – it’s powerful stuff. The rediscovery of the connection food has to the world somehow feels almost animalistic – and connects with some deeply human bit of us that frozen TV dinners never could.

And that loops back to your point, Sharon, about strategies for making the hard social change happen. If you can connect with people in a way that isn’t just intellectual, but engages senses, provides a meaningful set of values, and is secure and welcoming – then you might have something. Food seems like one pathway for getting there: everyone eats, and everyone likes good food, and everyone seems swayed by a connection to their food.

Understanding the difference between the factory model and the local/organic model is a great intro to the kinds of larger changes related to sustainability, I think. I’ve lived in both urban and rural areas, and in my experience, food is a great way of connecting with the very different kinds of people you find in both places. The urban sophisticate-type might be delighted by farmer’s markets, while a struggling single mom here might want to give her kids healthy food. And a few of my friends from the country love the connection they make with the food/the world through hunting. All expressed differently, but all related to making healthy connections in a time when disconnection is the name of the game.

avatar Joshua January 26, 2010 at 08:28

Speaking of complex systems and our abilities to connect the dots, the new economics foundation just released a new report, “Growth Isn’t Possible,” which essentially shows that in order to stop destructive, runaway climate change we must stop growing our economy. We need something better for the people and the planet. (http://bit.ly/7m5URi)

Great post Scott!

Previous post:

Next post: