What is Systems Thinking?

The following is a little snippet of something I am working on for the Llanfyllin Transition Project Handbook:

When we think about our position in the world, especially in Western societies, we tend to think of ourselves as somehow separate and distinct from nature. We live our lives in a human-made bubble. This idea is most clearly expressed in our culture’s binary distinction between nature and culture, between the wild and the domesticated. This perceived divide between ‘us’ and the rest of the natural world has had an enormously destructive impact on our planet. Our assumed dominance over nature has led us to plunder the Earth’s natural resources, to destroy vast swathes of wilderness, and to decimate whole populations of plant and animal species – all because of our own self-imposed distance from the natural world, and our self-elected dominance over it.

All of this can be understood as resulting from a form of reductionism – the notion that we can better understand and control the world by breaking it down into individual component parts. For example, forests become ‘trees,’ which then become ‘wood,’ which we can use for our own purposes. When we enter into a reductionist mode of approaching nature we ignore fundamental connections between these component parts. By breaking nature up into commodities, we destroy a complex whole. In our desire for oil (as a component-commodity of the natural world), for example, we have tended to ignore the negative impacts of extraction processes on other components of the natural world. Think, for instance, of the destruction of precious habitats for the extraction of oil from tar sands in Canada, where focussing on just one part of the whole (oil) has led to the collapse of other interrelated parts (woodland habitats, animal species, plant species, and so on).

We can express this situation in a simple formula:

Nature/Culture Divide + Reductionism = Ecocide.

Systems thinking is one method by which we might be able to overcome our culture’s dominant destructive attitude to the natural world. Although there were precursors to systems thinking throughout human intellectual history, we can trace its current popular formulation to the writings of the physicist Fritjof Capra, perhaps most famous for his synthesis of quantum mechanics and mysticism in the book The Tao of Physics (1975). Drawing on his background in quantum mechanics and theoretical physics, Capra came to the conclusion that reductionism fails as a mode of interpreting the natural world, which, contrary to the old Newtonian view of physics, does not consist of mutually distinct ‘objects’ (e.g. atoms as simple balls of matter), but actually is much more accurately described in terms of systems of relationships, processes and networks of interrelated, and interdependent, parts.

“The new vision of reality we have been talking about is based on an awareness of the essential interrelatedness and interdependence of all phenomena – physical, biological, psychological, social and cultural. It transcends current disciplinary boundaries and will be pursued within new institutions” (Capra, 1985, p 285).

Key to this new vision of reality is the system, very simply defined as set of things working together as parts of a complex whole. The idea of systems derives from observation of the natural world, and indeed from ourselves – human beings are complex systems too!

“Living systems are organised in such a way that they form multi-leveled structures, each level consisting of subsystems which are wholes in regard to their parts, and parts with respect to the larger wholes. Thus molecules combine to form cells. The cells form tissues and organs, which themselves form larger systems” (Capra, 1985, p 27).

Perhaps the clearest example of the kind of system Capra is talking about is the ecosystem. Broadly defined, an ecosystem is a community of interacting organisms (plants, animals, etc.), in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment (air, water, soil, minerals, etc.), interacting as a system.

If one element of the system is damaged, removed or destroyed, all of the other component parts will fail too. This is precisely what has led to the current crisis facing our global ecosystem today. The underlying philosophy of the industrial revolution was one of mechanism, reductionism and human dominance over nature. Natural resources were seen as independent commodities, the extraction of which had no consequences for the rest of the environment, so we had no qualms with mining coal, chopping down ancient woodlands and replacing them with factories and refineries.

Similarly, human beings were viewed as separate from the environment, above it almost, so that the pollutive byproducts of our industrial activities were somehow thought to have no direct impact on surrounding plants, animals, or even other human beings. This we now know to be entirely false, and yet incredibly we continue to perpetuate an outmoded worldview – as though we are separate from our ecosystems and our actions have no consequences. The adoption of a systems view and a re-awakening of our intimate inter-connection with the natural world, might assist us in realising the error of our ways and point us in new directions for change.

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