This is a guest article by Sophie Laggan.
As complex beings in a complex world, life can become overwhelming at times – we lose our way or can’t quite figure out what’s going on. But fear not, there is a way to train our brain so we can start to see complexity with fresh eyes and put things in a new perspective. Known as ‘systems thinking’, it can help activists and people working for change to understand their role as leaders of an emerging future.
Two types of thinking
There are two types of thinkers in this world. Most people are event-orientated thinkers, seeing the world as a collection of parts and events. They believe every cause has an effect, so if you want to solve a problem, you find the cause and fix it. Put another way, we should use spanners to engineer a solution when the machine isn’t working. When applied to global environmental problems, event-orientated thinkers see people’s misbehaviour as the cause. This thinking leads to ‘classic activism’ where we plead with people to be nice or to write laws that tell people what to do. We try to tinker with the system rather than transform it.
The other kind is a systems thinker. They see an interconnected world full of interconnected feedback loops. These loops can become bigger the more we encourage them, until we reach a critical threshold and they are broken. The results can be positive, like women earning the right to vote, or negative, like the loss of biodiversity.
Peter Senge said in his book, The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook:
Systems thinking [is] a way of thinking about, and a language for describing and understanding, the forces and interrelationships that shape the behaviour of systems. This discipline helps us to see how to change systems more effectively, and to act more in tune with the natural processes of the natural and economic world.
Therefore flapping our wings to cause a tornado is only helpful if we first understand feedbacks.
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What systems thinkers are particularly good at is identifying patterns, how patterns lead to trends and how trends can influence the future. If the patterns they see could be leading to unsustainable behaviour then they step in to change them and highlight the countertrends that can tip the balance.
Among activists, myself included, unsustainable behaviours are those that come from anger or anxiety. We either run around like a bull in a china shop hitting all the bad things and hoping they’ll go away, or curl up in a ball and become incapacitated. These behaviours are rooted in fear – fear of the unknown, or fear of others and their reactions – and if we do not become aware and change them, they will likely lead to burnout. And they are becoming more pronounced as the world becomes more complex. Unless we move beyond fear, then the pursuit of justice/happiness/a higher purpose will be more arduous.
One tool to overcome fear is to learn to think in systems by incorporating the five principles below into your everyday practice. This takes time and on-going learning, but if we can find time each day to connect-the-dots between our thoughts and actions then the payoffs greatly exceed any costs.
1. All parts of a system are interconnected
What we do affects others and the environment, as well as ourselves. Or in the words of naturalist John Muir: “when you tug at a single thing in the Universe, you find it is attached to everything else”.
Ice melt in the Arctic is a useful example here. Through our actions, we are increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and therefore global temperatures. Higher temperatures cause more summer ice melt and increased dark:light surface ratio. A darker surface increases the heat absorption capacity of the planet and stimulates more ice melt. Because sea ice cannot recover to the same thickness over winter, we can expect ice-free Arctic summers by 2050. Ice has a high albedo – reflectivity – so when this decreases it further exacerbates climate change.
But tools to engineer solutions – to tell people to pollute less or enforce companies to plant more trees – will not solve the root cause of pollution and deforestation: consumption. And the event is not isolated; it has global repercussions. For instance, because melted sea ice is fresh, not salty, it may weaken the thermohaline conveyor, part of the circulation which transports nutrients around the globe. These changes also affect our weather system, marine life and Arctic people’s livelihoods. The list goes on.
2. The structure of a system determines its behaviour
The government, corporations, our families, jobs, etc, all structure how we behave. The norms and rules of these institutions shape our culture, which most see as functioning for our benefit. However, these structures grew from the collective decisions of just a few powerful groups, influenced by a prevailing model of economic thought. This thought has mistaken humans as self-interested, rational consumers (as opposed to altruistic, enlightened activists). It has assumed that if we can calculate prices so that supply and demand exist in perfect balance – ‘Pareto efficiency‘ – then this will solve all of our resource problems – natural, human, monetary, infrastructure and information. But this falls short of accounting for social and environmental factors, like the health of workers or the environment.
New ideas and ways of organising are starting to emerge that incorporate society and the environment, and shift us away from the free market and towards a more localised economy that consumes less, but we have to get behind these alternatives if we want to move things along. To do so requires that we let go of our past consumer selves and move from ‘ego-system’ awareness to ‘eco-system’ awareness – by seeing and acting from the whole.
3. System behaviour is an emergent phenomenon
Parts and events are constantly changing, so it is better to look at interconnections. Our present behaviour is shaped by the past as well as the interconnections we have with other resources (the parts) and events. When we choose to get angry in a queue of traffic, for example, it is because we associate the experience with negative emotions. To change the behaviour, we must change our emotion and act on happiness: “I will let the person pull into the queue as it may make them happy, and I will smile while doing it”. Try it a few times, and observe how it affects the rest of your day.
When you change your behaviour, the system is able to self-organise and adapt to the new information. You never know how you may have influenced that other person with your behaviour. Systems have inherent uncertainty, and we can never expect to predict outcomes – but we can map out scenarios based on our behaviour. If we act cautiously, and act in kindness, it is unlikely we will recreate the behaviour that got us into this mess.
4. Feedback loops control a system’s major dynamic behaviour
When a person goes to their first activist meeting and becomes inspired to act, new neurological pathways form. They might exchange numbers with people, propose ideas and sign up to events. If they don’t go back and repeat the activity they won’t form these potential feedbacks. They might lose that initial energy and no longer choose to go to meetings. So long, activist. The same goes with that smile. When we meet someone new, we may have only one shot to make a connection. But often, we let that fear hold us back rather than spending time with them; showing them we care. If we didn’t, we might be surprised how these actions will change how we behave in other parts of daily life.
5. Complex social-ecological systems exhibit counter-intuitive behaviour
Intuition alone is not enough to solve things. What we need is analysis. And this needs to involve as many perspectives as possible, as we only have partial knowledge of the system. For some, non-conventional teachings from Buddhism and permaculture, as well as personal stories from a wide variety of people, may help us to shake off our egos. As may contemplative practices that encourage us to slow down. Mirabai Bush has co-created a Tree of Contemplative Practices that is a particularly useful resource for all those wanting to analyse their own thoughts and actions, as is the podcast on which she features: On Being. I call this personal analysis ‘spiritual resilience’. It has resulted in the near elimination of my anxiety and is slowly helping me to get over my fear of speaking effectively with people in positions of power.
Let’s get political
Politics is essential to effective change, both internally within our organisations, and across-scale with different stakeholders. However, just because we live in a democracy doesn’t mean everyone feels they can voice their opinion. Do your meetings allow everyone to contribute; are they comfortable; are all voices at the table? Do you use language that reinforces the inequalities you are seeking to resolve?
If you prevent others from contributing then you close down possible connections in your network. Scott Santens offers a useful analogy:
a bunch of trees is not just a bunch of trees, but an ecosystem full of emergent properties that would not arise from a single tree or from just as many trees entirely separate from each other.
Our activist networks contain all the resources we need to create change. If well connected, they can distribute information, for instance, to others, and increase our resilience. In the soil, these interactions occur when mycelium threads (activists) emerge from fungi (meetings/protests etc) and communicate with plants (new innovations) to ensure they obtain all the nutrients they need. Above ground periodic disturbance offers opportunities for new plants to exploit niches; much the way social enterprises emerge when concentrated power is released from the state or corporations. Are you starting to see the patterns? Rainforests owe their diversity to the functioning of its network and the occasional disturbance.
How the world ought to be
Having described how the world works, it is time to explain how it ought to be, based on observations of the emerging future. Previous systemic transformations have been bloody and built on compromise. Today they are being steered by activists that tap into hindsight, insight and foresight, to create and own a future that will remain within a safe and just operating space for humanity. Most scholars, politicians and sci-fi novelists talk of a high-tech future, as this is what they see unfolding – it is an exponential curve that they can help engineer. However, this may not be safe or just on a planet of finite resources.
Our current institutions are unable to distribute resources evenly, and are faced with ongoing austerity. Community-based alternatives, on the other hand, are much more able to listen to local needs, or changes in the environment, and adapt. This is the future we should be fighting for, and it is one that uses hope rather than fear as a primary motivation. In my city of Bristol, we have community-supported agriculture, community kitchens, community cafes, and cooperatives for energy, housing and food, with some workplaces introducing a trust-based model of decision making known as ‘holocracy‘. We need more of these, as well as the kind of community asset transfer that is happening in Totnes, and more time and investment from the public in terms of using local currencies and volunteering their time to these initiatives.
Time to emerge
But an alternative is emerging. Our job, if we want to be agents of change, is to move beyond fear by spreading hope for the future, supporting alternatives and empowering others to help take the lead in the ways they know best. If we start by exploring our internal feedbacks and how to break them, we can emerge from our cocoons as systems thinkers and flap our wings to widen the impact of this tornado.
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