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General · 26th January 2011
Ray Grigg
Systemic thinking reveals the complexity of almost everything. A careful and methodical examination of most subjects exposes an intricacy far greater than mere details – how the details relate to each other and conjoin with seemingly diverse factors are as important as the details themselves. Delving into such interactions is necessary to understand the world around us and to manage the outcomes of the things we do.

Consider the ordinary biological act of a man and woman conceiving a child. Thomas Malthus, the 19th century clergyman and political economist (1766-1834), calculated the rate of human reproduction, measured it against the food production of his time, and anticipated an eventual catastrophe as the number of people eventually exceeded their ability to feed themselves. Fortunately, Malthus' prediction did not occur as anticipated because of industrial agriculture, the so-called "green revolution" and the distribution of the food being produced. But our population has risen to meet this increased supply, and an anticipated 40 percent increase in our numbers to about 9.5 billion by 2050 may combine with other factors to confound our ingenuity.

Because systemic thinking explores beyond simplicities to complexities, a study of food production for such an enormous population must also consider the constraints imposed by limited supplies of water, an essential agricultural ingredient that is now becoming scarce as demand continues to rise beyond availability. Oil is another constraining factor. Huge quantities are required for fertilizing, planting, harvesting, transporting and processing. If oil supplies replicate the situation with water, the price of food will rise and the economic costs will unleash disruptive and unmanageable social and political complications.

Soil presents another challenge to global food production. Just as demand is rising, erosion and degradation are reducing the amount and fertility of soil, a handicap that has to be combatted with ever more oil-based fertilizer. Even the anthropogenic increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is changing the way plants grow and produce crops ‹ small increases in carbon dioxide seem to assist growth but do not necessarily yield more of the crops we want from plants. Political and economic stability are also factors that can enhance or curtail food production. Apply systemic thinking to any process and the simple rapidly becomes complicated.

Traditional economic theory, for example, seems to be based on the principle of indefinite growth. Systems thinking exposes the inherent contradiction of perpetually expanding consumption, profit and wealth on a planet of rising populations and finite resources. Logic would argue that some kind of homeostasis or equilibrium must eventually be reached between human enterprises and nature's limits. Indeed, we may now be experiencing this anticipated limit with resource scarcity, habitat loss, species extinction, endemic pollution and global warming, all of which can be taken as indications that we are approaching unsustainable levels of growth. Simple biological and physical limits are defining what we must accept as "sustainable development".

Apply systemic thinking to climate matters and the insights are even more complex and challenging. Our massive carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels are not only increasing global temperatures but are also acidifying our oceans. The same process that is causing extreme weather, inflicting extensive property damage, altering plant growth, creating refugees, instigating social turmoil and inciting political unrest is also impairing oceanic food production precisely at a time when we need to be aiding rather than handicapping its productive capacity. Systemic thinking can help us understand complications, define sustainability and engineer outcomes beneficial for ourselves and the environment that supports us.

If we consider only disconnected details and don't employ systemic thinking, we get misleading answers to simple questions. Why, for example, are parts of North America, Europe and China having such cold winter weather if global warming is occurring? The details seem to contradict the theory.

In keeping with systemic thinking, the answer is complex. Essentially, large areas of exposed ocean from melted Arctic ice seem to have created high pressure bulges of warm air that are deflecting the usual west-to-east "polar vortex", the jet stream loop that keeps cold Arctic weather separated from balmier southern weather. The destabilized and fractured polar vortex is now moving in giant inverted U-shapes, sweeping warm air northward to the Arctic and returning chilling winds southward. These "meridional flows" are becoming more common as Arctic sea ice melts. The result is bitter cold and snow in southern areas. "The jet stream breakdown last winter," writes James Overland of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "was the most extreme in 145 years of record. Loss of sea ice is certainly not the whole story behind cold mid-latitude winters, but it's a constant push in that direction" (Globe & Mail, Dec. 31/10). As parts of North America, Europe and China shiver, parts of the Arctic, such as Iqaluit, bask in temperatures 15°C above normal. The average global temperature continues to rise but the heat gets distributed abnormally.

People who like tradition, predictability and simple answers don't like systemic thinking. Neither do people who place their personal ambitions above ecosystem and societal interests – systemic thinking results in complex insights that invariably challenge narrow biases, discredit shallow perspectives and deflate the credibility of individual certainty.