Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Complex vs Simple: Thinking in Systems

There are two basic ways to see things: as simple issues with only two ways to see them or as complex issues that deserve our attention and understanding.

Simple sees things only in black and white and avoids colours and shades of grey. Simple is good to grab people’s attention but it doesn’t sustain it.

Simple thinks there’s only two choices when there are many.Too much simplification leads to polarization as well as to prejudice and hatred, and ultimately to social fragmentation and war.

Simple thinks that the easiest way to solve problems is to get rid of people. Joseph Stalin, one of the worst mass murderers in history, said: “No people no problems.” You can see that same kind of frightening stupidity in racist rants about undesirables, and illegal immigrants. You can also see it in people who say the earth would be better off without humans.

Life is simple if you just consider it to be about birth, marriage, and having children. But it’s complex if you consider that everything living is connected to everything else.

The economy exists, and society exists because they are systems. They are not simple. And that means that our response to them cannot be simple either.

Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain back in the 1980s, once said: “ There is no such thing as society”

I know that society is a real thing because it has effects: we are who we are, with the language, customs, food, and clothing, and livelihoods that we have because we live in certain kinds of societies.

So much of what we do we do in groups. We are defined in many ways by being in these groups, in effect being in society. Yes we are individuals, but we couldn’t be who we are without the cooperation and trust of countless others. Without our parents to raise us; Without our peers to play with us when we were children and work with us when we are adults; Without our teachers to teach us.

I can’t help feeling that Margaret Thatcher denied the reality of society, because she didn’t want to face the moral questions that become relevant with the existence of society. Moral questions such as: How much is too much? Why is there inequality and what should we do about it? How can we as a society facilitate citizens to reach their fullest potential as human beings?

Like society, an economy is a real thing too, a system made up of billions of human parts. And the regional economies, the national economies, and the global economy all have huge effects on people and on nature.

When it comes to understanding systems, understanding how much is too much comes to the fore. The human economy cannot grow indefinitely because it depends on the earth, which is finite.

According to many politicians, economists and business leaders the present global economic system, is the best system possible because continued economic growth will lead to everyone’s eventual betterment.

But to do it justice we need to look at economic system as a subsystem within the larger biosphere of living ecosystems. Our ability to survive depends not only on non-renewable resources such as metals and fossil fuels that are priced in markets, but it also depends on renewable resources that are not priced in markets.

I am talking about agricultural soils, clean water, and the ability of earth’s water and atmosphere to to absorb pollutants and recycle life’s vital molecules. All of these are renewable resources, but it takes time for the earth to renew them and the exponential growth of our global economy is surpassing that ability. These unpriced renewable resources are fast becoming non-renewable because the growth in human populations and economies is depleting them.

The problem is that many economists do not perceive that the global economy is a subset of the earth’s ecosystems. Therefore, they do not see that “How much is too much?” is a pertinent question to ask. And because vital ecosystem services, which we all depend on, do not have prices, economists don’t see any evidence for their depletion.

Global warming is the clearest evidence that our global economic growth has surpassed the earth’s ability to absorb our increasing output of stuff. It also suggests that other physical limits to economic growth are not far behind.

Human systems work by rules and by market forces. Rules tell us what behaviour is expected or prohibited. Rules also determine the relative size and direction of market forces. Change the rules and you change the incentives behind production and consumption. But, to be successful something more is needed because there are some very big players, for instance, fossil fuel corporations, that don’t want those rules changed.

It is no coincidence that people continue to deny that global warming is caused by human activities. To accept the facts of global warming would be to recognize that our present economic system needs to be overhauled. In other words, we need to change the rules so that the depletion of soils, clean water, and clean air are taken into account. And the most efficient and effective way to do this would be to put a price on carbon emissions. By doing that we could use the efficiency of the market system to change people’s behaviour so that we can keep living on this earth indefinitely.

There’s the thing - as individuals we are just a tiny part of so many human and non-human systems. It’s the systems that have such powerful effects.
To start the process of building truly sustainable societies means first rethinking where we are going and then planning how to get there. We can’t change the system only by exercising individual consumption choices. We gain the power to change through joining organizations. We are most powerful exercising our rights as citizens to inform ourselves and to participate in decision making and planning for the future.

Economies and societies are our living systems. Their continued existence depends on earth’s ecosystems to support them. We cannot survive without oxygen, clean water, a liveable climate and a thriving and diverse biosphere.

If we think too simplistically, that it’s only about individuals, property rights, small government, and "free enterprise", we ignore the fact that our economic system is just a part of an even greater earth biosystem. We need to take this inherent complexity into account if we are to ensure our continued survival.


  1. Hi Charles

    your blog just made my day... Brilliant Just Brilliant. I was about to respond to a discussion in Linked In and it would have taken me just about ALL day to write what you already have. Luckily someone linked to your blog and I was able to read it.

    I have been working for the last wee while trying to help people understand exactly the points you have raised AND realising this. helping things evolve as positively as possible.

    Keep up the drumming .. I'm a keyboard (synth) man myself.. Don't do kayaking (had a few scares when I was younger) but I still climb and XC Ski.

    Thanks again for the great thoughts



  2. Thanks Andy. You also made my day. I made a few grammatical corrections to the piece and your comment has got me thinking about writing a new post on this subject.

  3. Charles ... I have/am put (ting) together a network of people ... they don't all share the same ideas about HOW to build a better future but they all care about "building a better future" and for me that is the important connection.

    I learned that I'm simply not clever enough to know: (1) what IS going on and (2) what will happen. But collective enquiry can help navigate this tricky journey together.

    I believe encouraging people to DO and then share is important, we can learn for our individual and collective mistakes.

    Anyway have a look at this http://andyferguson.net/ it's just starting/getting going but already we have one significant breakthrough in the Environmental arena. Through a headed discussion we were able to motivate someone to find a solution to 2 problems at once -waste and energy. There are some other early wins.

    I am really interested in how individuals/society can develop alongside economic and environmental realities... (PEE)

    I hope to be able to get people like you involved in writing for the blog as (1) I can write but it's not what I do best (2) I'm a great publicist and networker and I want the network to become a place people can share, critique and develop ideas and tangible solutions to the emerging challenges in ... (PEE)

    Writing is a gift and storytelling is our most powerful way of teaching, educating and influencing others. I know that I could simply get people to go to your blog ... as the Prof had me do but (as well) it would be helpful if we could "package" it with other complementary ideas/writing ...

    We need a discussion, we need others challenging us to ensure the lessons are useful ... I try to be personally Authentic, Authoritative and Approachable .. I hope the network can grow to encompace many people who can share their AAA's with others.

    Anyway, well done again for the blog, I hope i can develop a connection with you ... I'm also on Linked IN http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=473519&trk=tab_pro if you want to know more.

    Very best regards