Systems thinking focuses on trends that data reveals and then places these trends within the context of a world system model in order to understand where leverage points for changing the behavior of the system might reside. The goal in introducing any change is to create greater resilience and integrity in the system as a whole. Understanding any system’s leverage points and which ones are most likely to create greater integrity in the system, is vital to our ability to live sustainably without crashing and collapsing the Earth’s system. If we don’t achieve this, we threaten the future of our children. Confidence in doing this can come from the creation of a more accurate mental model of how the Earth system actually works. It requires a more complete mental picture of the connections and interdependencies between human population size, energy and its use and pollution/waste.
A helpful way to gain an understanding of systems theory is to consider the following example. Are you part of a family? If so, you will know you live within a complicated and delicate web of family relationships. You will also instinctively know that each family member is capable of producing many unintended consequences through their actions that have the capacity to reverberate throughout that family’s “system”. The sheer complexity of the interchanges within that small group perhaps best explains systems thinking.
Some of the introductory questions we can ask about the world system, comprising both the natural world and the human world are:
- What are the interacting parts and processes of the system that create sustainability or collapse?
- What are the right pathways to develop that will create better processes and behavior leading to greater integrity/resiliency within the system?
- How can we use our knowledge of the existing system, to consciously create the future we want?
Tempting, as it is to use a reductionist approach to find connections between cause and effects, and to look at things in small and manageable chunks, the systems view operates by setting information and data gathered within a larger framework. Many existing environmental problems are with us because solutions adopted, have not taken into account, or even acknowledged, long-term consequences on a larger group of people.
How do we change systems to get less of what we don’t want and more of what we do? This is where an understanding of leverage points in a system becomes important. Leverage points are places within a complex system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything. We understand intuitively where to find leverage points (for example in our world system, “growth” is a leverage point). However, we often try and push change in the wrong direction. A classic case is the current attempt to increase GDP growth to solve large environmental and social problems when rather, re-imagining different kinds of growth (and new measurements for these) is needed, along with accepting that negative growth in some parts of the system are necessary (for example, fishing exhausted or close to exhausted fish species in the oceans). Our mental model of growth as we now conceive it, is inadequate. Currently population and economic growth have environmental and social costs (poverty, and environmental destruction), which are not factored into classical economics (which limits its focus to economic profit and loss) creating distortion and unexpected consequences in the wider world.
We currently problem solve below the level of complexity of the problems we are trying to solve. The human mind while able to understand the movement of behavior through time, prefers to freeze a problem and then dissect it. We approach problems from a linear view and begin to struggle when confronted with complex dynamic behavior that includes more than 2 or 3 dynamic variables. This is why systems constantly surprise us. System thinking tools and computer modeling can help.
In systems thinking, we give up assumptions that someone is responsible for the problem encountered. Rather, problems are a result of the structural dynamics and behavior set up by the system itself. Systems thinking is understanding the relationships and patterns between the different components in a network of relationships. While psychologically it is more comfortable to find a scapegoat, no one deliberately creates these problems. They are systems problems. In other words they are undesirable characteristic behaviors produced by the very system structure we have unwittingly put in place. They only yield to change once we ask ourselves the question, what is the system? Once recognizing this, we can begin to look for ways to restructure.