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Why Systems Thinking?

By Karl North | January 23, 2014

My explicit focus on systems thinking in writing and teaching comes from an awareness, spreading slowly through the knowledge business, that it is an essential approach to all inquiry intended for application to real world problems. For its importance to be taken seriously and applied to all important issues in everyday life, systems thinking needs to be presented explicitly and formally for a couple of reasons:

None of the pertinent issues of the day – mounting global financial fragility, economic stagnation, resource shortages, ecological destruction, food shocks, critical infrastructure fragility, climate change, rising evidence of stress in human behavior – can be adequately understood without a complex systems perspective. Indeed, many systems thinkers see these issues as related, constituting a convergent ‘perfect storm’ whose prolongation is guaranteed to derail industrial civilization. They have come to see that the causes of this predicament can be traced to technologies and other interventions that are the outcome of reductivist thinking.

For the above reasons, systems thinking urgently needs to be presented formally as a re-education in how to think and make decisions. Many useful systems thinking learning tools exist; what they tend to have in common is an emphasis on seeing broad webs of causal relationship, and on using graphic tools to reveal parts of those webs that are often hidden from view. Here is an example of one of these graphic tools, intended to show a critical web of causal relations that connects to the variable of oil production and depletion:

Called causal loop diagrams because they trace cause and effect over time and show feedback loops and their effects, such figures are dense with meaning. While all the meanings are not evident to the untutored, it is not difficult to learn how to read these diagrams and create them to share systemic insights with others. My paper Introduction to Systems Thinking explains how to read and create causal loop diagrams. An explanation of the above example can be found in my essay, The Case for a Disorderly Energy Descent. The example shows how diagramming the appropriate systemic context can provide insights into the way changes in a single variable (in this case oil production) can cascade through a feedback structure, accelerating other changes along the way that, without a systems picture, one might easily ignore.

“Ecology” as a Systems Thinking Paradigm

Another, somewhat less formal approach to learning and promoting a systems perspective is to broaden the meaning of ecology (as many systems thinkers have) so that it becomes a worldview or umbrella meta-discipline that encompasses all fields of inquiry. This should hardly be a stretch; it simply brings up to date our manner of inquiry to fit our modern scientific understanding (since at least Darwin) of the interdependent way the world works. In this view, the human species and inanimate substances are studied as integral elements of ecosystems, subject to the same rules. Also, as we now know, how things change over time in these complex systems is not self-evident; hence systems thinking requires an understanding of broad causal networks that inevitably overlap artificial disciplinary boundaries and historical timeframes.

Ecology thus defined encompasses the biological, social and physical sciences, in fact all other fields of inquiry. And even social science now needs to include what are often downplayed as humanities (arts, history, philosophy, religion and ethics), a view of the importance of these aspects of human society that is a normal rule and working practice in anthropology. Like formal systems science, ecology writ large is by nature transdisciplinary: it assumes the potential for cause and effect in both directions among elements of the real world that in formal schooling are mostly studied in isolation.

To be blunt, to truly grasp the new worldview and apply its approach to inquiry of any kind we must unlearn much of what we absorbed in school, often imposed unconsciously by a framework of education that distorts subject matter by teaching it in separate silos. All the newer, ‘hyphenated’ subjects – biochemistry, biophysical economics, social ecology, political economy, evolutionary psychology, intellectual history, etc. – have been but baby steps in this new direction.

The view of ecology as the mother discipline is more subversive than it first may appear. Assumptions unquestioned in one field of study are now overturned by empirically discovered rules of nature of long standing in another field. For example, both the law of carrying capacity in ecosystems (including those managed by us), and the laws of energy and matter that are the accepted standard in the physical sciences demonstrate that unlimited growth in anything, an assumption that still underpins conventional economics, is impossible! Historians know that most civilizations collapsed by ignoring the limits to growth. Evolutionary biologists know that most species that ever lived are now extinct, often by ignoring the limits to growth. Physical scientists respect the laws of energy, matter and entropy (the laws of thermodynamics) according to which the continued use (for growth) of anything that exists in finite amounts leads to dissipation, where the resource can no longer be recaptured and used for growth. As a result, when a key resource is no longer economically accessible, growth stops and entropy proceeds unchecked, causing system decline.[i]

In another example, people trained in the physical sciences tend to dismiss the importance of religious or other belief systems not based on empirical evidence. But anthropologists know that since scientific knowledge still provides a far from complete understanding of the complex systems we live in, nonempirical ‘knowledge’ will always serve social cohesion and psychological integrity by filling the knowledge gap left by science. These are not trivial functions but examples of lessons learned in one field that need to be accepted in others.

In sum, when all fields of inquiry are forced to coexist under the same umbrella, assumptions dear to separate disciplines will be exposed to healthy reexamination. While the ecological worldview threatens embedded disciplinary vested interests, we should see such threats as delivering benefits. As Thomas Kuhn made clear in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, such a paradigm shift is always painful, but when a worldview no longer makes sense of what we presently know, it is time for a new one. However, as Kuhn also said, when a new framework for inquiry becomes necessary, the old one is not completely rejected; much of it is often subsumed within and adapted to the new way of doing science. Thus the systems approach to problems of science does not reject reductive ‘lab science’ methods. Instead of loose canons spawning destructive technologies, they are tamed as tools in the greater goal of studying problems in their appropriate systems context.

Systems thinking is the new scientific paradigm. Already it includes a well-developed theoretical framework of concepts that can guide and sharpen practice. As a formal meta-discipline it is known as complexity or systems science. In ecology it is known as systems ecology, pioneered by the Odum brothers and their intellectual progeny: C. S. Holling, L. H. Gunderson, Charles Hall and many others. Hopefully it will spread fast enough to save the resource base of human civilization from its destruction by the technological products of the old reductivist way of doing science.

[i] Regarding the raw materials consumption/depletion chart, the question, “How many years left?” is misleading in the extreme. As with the question of oil reserves, the depletion of any finite resource begins to negatively affect our economy long before affordably accessible reserves are gone. The effects of the peak oil have been felt in the US since domestic production peaked in 1970. Now that US imperial power is in decline and the US must compete for raw materials on a more level playing field, its economy feels the consequences of rising mineral scarcity even before global production peaks. This is the case with a number of materials in the chart, like copper, phosphorus and coal. The reason is that because the easiest material is extracted first, scarcity caused by rising costs of extraction occurs before the production peak. The costs are not only rising, but rising at an accelerating rate, revealing that their cost/scarcity is currently driven by a positive feedback loop.

Topics: Core Ideas, Social Futures, Peak Oil, Relocalization, Systems Thinking Tools, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “Why Systems Thinking?”

  1. Brian Miller Says:
    April 30th, 2014 at 7:52 pm

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    September 26th, 2014 at 12:49 am

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