Taking a systemic perspective

This is the fifth in my latest series of blogs devoted to exploring how we can raise our game to address effectively the key challenges of our times, especially the need – locally and globally – to advance ecological sustainability and human dignity. Since the last blog I have been working mainly on two sets of issues: building the sustainable and inclusive city; and implementing inclusive education. On the former, discussed further in the June 2015 blog, I have been privileged to work with civic leaders in Puebla (Mexico) as they seek to mobilise multiple initiatives to advance their vision of Puebla para todos (Puebla for all). On the latter, I am just completing a new pamphlet with my Canadian colleague, Gordon Porter, addressed to the need for transformation in educational systems if inclusion is to be more than tokenistic.

In both cases, and even more in the global challenge of addressing climate change discussed further in the September 2015 blog, we clearly need a systemic perspective to understand the complex processes at work and to generate strategies for sustainable change. My own thinking on this has been greatly assisted by the overview of recent developments in modern science, provided by Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi in their excellent book The Systems View of Life.

Capra and Luisi, both eminent scientists in their own fields with a strong commitment to interdisciplinary studies, pursue three ambitious and inter-related aims. First, they provide a succinct overview of emerging ideas, starting from the transformation of the Newtonian understanding of the world with relativity and quantum theory but going on to explore recent developments , especially in biology and ecology. Second, they integrate many of these ideas into a unifying vision, as in the book’s title. Third, they explore the implications of this new perspective for our efforts to find sustainable solutions to the major interconnected problems of our times, especially the global crises in economy and ecology.

Summarising the new science is perhaps beyond the scope of a short blog but they report the really exciting advances, for example, in biology and cybernetics which give new meaning to the idea that ‘the whole is more than the sum of the parts’; in our understanding of life as the capacity of cells and larger structures to make themselves from within; in ecology which increasingly sees evolution as the result of cooperation and altruism among organisms living in close association; and in the application of these ideas at the global level in the notion that the Earth as a whole is a self-organising, living system in which all life has co-evolved over our planet’s vast history. Much of this is illustrated in ways which convey a deep sense of the beauty and harmony of the natural world.

Perhaps few of us will fully follow all the science but Capra and Luisi draw all this together to show clearly how modern science has transformed our understanding. They distinguish between the previous mechanistic view, dating from the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th Centuries (and still visible, for example in medicine and economics) in which nature is regarded as a perfect machine, governed by exact laws of cause and effect, and where we can understand the whole by reference to its parts. This world view has been, and continues to be associated with the illusion that mankind is the master of nature rather than an intrinsic part of it. This view is not only unfounded but dangerous given our technological capacity for destruction, whether through nuclear war or climate change.

They argue instead for a radical shift in perspective to the systems view of life which integrates across both disciplines (exploring the biological, cognitive, social and ecological dimensions of nature) and levels of activity (from the most simple living cells up to the planet as a whole). In this new world view, the perspective is shifted from the parts to the whole: throughout the living world we find systems nesting within larger systems and what we call a ‘part’ is just a pattern in an inseparable network of relationships. Moreover all living systems share common properties and principles of organisation. Thus in thinking holistically we need to focus not on ‘objects’ but on relationships, patterns and contexts. Here the new science converges with the wisdom of various spiritual traditions, especially Buddhism, and is grounded in a philosophy which acknowledges the inherent value of all life.

One obvious practical implication is that our survival depends on political, business and civil society leaders demonstrating ‘eco-literacy’ and therefore that education in the wisdom of nature should be central to the curriculum (both what we learn and how we learn it) for all of us, with a strong focus on experiential learning (for example, through developing and studying the school garden).

The most important application of the systems view of life is in addressing the global economic and ecological crises of our Century, systemic problems par excellence. The current version of global capitalism is driven by an eco-illiterate belief in unlimited growth on a finite planet, corporate domination and casino finance. We see the ecological impacts in resource depletion, environmental degradation and irreversible climate change as well as massive and growing inequalities between a small elite (‘the 1%’ or perhaps even ‘the 0.1%’) and the rest of us.

Instead we need to create a new economic system which is both ecologically sustainable and socially just. As participants in this system we need to find satisfaction not in excessive material consumption but rather in human relationships, community and enjoyment of nature.

Capra and Luigi identify key elements in these systemic solutions: reshaping the economic system and its regulating institutions; developing alternative energy strategies, for example based on wind power and hydrogen fuel cells; generating the food we need through a renaissance in organic farming; and designing our living arrangements in tune with the flows of the natural world as we already see in eco-cities with their car free city centres, re-emphasis on walking and cycling, green spaces and enhanced opportunities for building community.

With nature as our mentor, another world is possible.