Expired · 2nd January 2011
We could fix – and more importantly, avoid – many of the environmental, social and even economic problems confronting and threatening us if we could change the way we think. Such a task is not as daunting as it may seem. We already have the necessary skill; we just have to exercise it more regularly. Put simply, we have to be a little more rational and objective – some people would say pragmatic but a deeper explanation lies in systemic thinking.
Systemic thinking attempts to understand the world and ourselves by placing detailed issues and problems within the context of broad experience. Insights about questions and solutions are gleaned by amassing information from a wide source and then discovering the patterns that emerge.
This is the basic strategy employed by modern science. Raw data is gathered and studied from entire structures, then conclusions are drawn from the way the data coalesces into meaningful order. Details to be studied are isolated by hypotheses that become tested theories – until new information contradicts these theories and replacements have to be devised. Isaac Newton's Law of Gravity, which was inspired by the fall of the apple, also applies to the motion of the sun, moon and planets. Thus knowledge progresses and deepens, allowing us to acquire considered and intelligent insights about the world and ourselves. The process works best when it does not personalize information, when we remove our wants, prejudices and pre-conceptions from the collection of evidence.
This process seems obvious today. But it wasn't always so. Indeed, for much of the history of Western culture the process was reversed. Ancient thinkers began with preconceived notions or principles based on self-interest and then they would fit the details of experience into these apparent truths. Such a style of thinking still persists. In other words, we often think and behave in ways that do not correlate to the reality confronting us.
In the 15th century, when Leonardo da Vinci attempted to understand by placing evidence ahead of philosophical and theological principles, the idea was revolutionary and threatening to the entire way of thinking and understanding. "First I shall do some experiments before I proceed further," he wrote, "because my intention is to cite experience first and then with reasoning show why such experience is bound to operate in such a way. And this is the true rule by which those who speculate about the effects of nature must proceed."
The institutions of his day were worried about the consequences of this kind of thinking. Where would this search lead if it were not guided by essential principles, established tradition, solid faith and absolute precepts? To the existing convention of understanding, systemic thinking was a path to anarchy and pandemonium, an adventurous and irresponsible expedition into the unknown and the unpredictable. In short, it was disruptive and dangerous.
History has come some distance since the 15th century. Science and its empirical methods have revolutionized the world and brought immeasurable benefits to humanity. We have evolved from blood-letting to laser surgery, from witch-burnings to evidence-based investigation, from monkish scribes to high-tech photocopiers, from horse-drawn carts to stratospheric airplanes. Systemic thinking has brought us a comfort and plentitude that far surpassed the ancient dreams of the wealthiest nobility.
But, for all these changes, some things have changed very little. Although systemic thinking is the guiding principle underlying today's science and technology, much of our understanding and behaviour is still guided by blind beliefs and faulty assumptions. The highly vaunted "common sense" that is so broadly accepted as self evident is often, after careful scientific scrutiny, neither evident nor sensible.
This is the crux of the problem obstructing our ability to confront the major environmental issues of our day. The systemic thinking of science – the careful gathering, collating and examining of vast amounts of evidence from many sources – is in collision with the beliefs and assumptions we have made about the natural world and how we are to behave in it. We think we are too insignificant to be altering the climate of the entire planet. The oceans are too vast for us to be increasing their acidity. Massive species extinction cannot be occurring because each of us notices little change. We are so small and the world is so large that we cannot be altering the basic operation of its biosphere.
The particular perspective available to each of us from our own limited experience is perceived from a locality too narrow to discern the trends that are shaping the environmental health of our entire planet. As individuals, we usually lack the perspective to recognize the cumulative effect of our personal behaviour being amplified by the millions or billions of others doing the same things. And our assessment of the changes around us is often inaccurate because we still hold beliefs and assumptions that no longer correlate to evidence.
Thus we need the systemic thinking of science to relate the details to the whole so we can each reach the comprehensive insights we need to make the necessary alterations in our individual behaviour. As the world continues to shrink and our collective impact on it continues to grow, we really have no other practical option but to think bigger and less personally.