Critical Systems Thinking

Previously, Western scientists often assumed that they could understand systems just by analyzing their parts; however, it gradually became clear—in practical fields from medicine to wildlife management to business management—that this often led to unintended consequences.In medicine, it is understood that treating diseases by managing symptoms is not as desirable as treating the disease itself; that’s partly because symptomatic treatment with pharmaceuticals can produce side effects that can be as distressing as the original disease symptoms.Systems thinking has a pre-history in indigenous thought (, or “All are related,” is a common phrase in the Lakota language).

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In my admittedly partial judgment, some of the smartest people I’ve met happen also to be among the more pessimistic.

(One apparently smart expert I haven’t had opportunity to meet yet is 86-year-old social scientist Mayer Hillman, the subject of this recent article in .) In discussing climate change and all our other eco-social predicaments, how does one distinguish accurate information from statements intended to elicit either false hope or needless capitulation to immediate and utter doom?

A brick wall, in contrast, doesn’t have the characteristics of a system: it may have a boundary, but there are few if any meaningful ongoing inputs and outputs, information flows, or feedbacks.

The global climate is a system, and climate change is therefore a systemic problem.

This has powerful implications for addressing climate change, because it suggests that subsidizing renewable energy or taxing carbon is a fairly weak way of inducing systemic change.

If we really want to address a deeply rooted, systemic problem like climate change, we may need to look at our society’s most fundamental paradigms—like, for example, the assumption that we must have continual economic growth.Some non-systems thinkers have proposed solving climate change by putting chemicals in the Earth’s atmosphere to manage solar radiation.Because this solution addresses only part of the systemic problem, it is likely to have many unintended consequences.And, in cases where pessimistic outlooks do seem securely rooted in evidence, how does one psychologically come to terms with the information?Systems Thinking First, if you want to have an accurate picture of the world, it’s vital to pay attention to the connections between things. Evidence of failure to think in systems is all around us, and there is no better example than the field of economics, which treats the environment as simply a pile of resources to be plundered rather than as the living and necessary context in which the economy is grounded. This single crucial failure of economic theory has made it far more difficult for most people, and especially businesspeople and policy makers, to understand our sustainability dilemma or do much about it.Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the field in which systems thinking is most highly developed is ecology—the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments.Since it is a study of relationships rather than things in isolation, ecology is inherently systems-oriented.Donella Meadows, who was one of the great systems thinkers of the past few decades, left us a brilliant essay titled “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.” There are places within every complex system where “a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” Meadows suggested that these leverage points have a hierarchy of effectiveness.She said that the most powerful interventions in a system address its goals, rules, and mindsets, rather than parameters and numbers—things like subsidies and taxes.Systems thinking would suggest very different approaches—such as reducing fossil fuel consumption while capturing and storing atmospheric carbon in replanted forests and regenerated topsoil.These approaches recognize the role of inputs (such as fossil fuels), outputs (like carbon dioxide), and feedbacks (including the balancing feedback provided by soil carbon flows).


Comments Critical Systems Thinking

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