Systems thinking and the global prolematique


Richard Moore

On the linkedin system, there is a discussion going on around the question, “Are there too many people in the world?”. I joined in that discussion, and it soon became clear that the real topic was, “How can we achieve sustainability?”, and the participants wanted to approach that question from a systems perspective. The population question is simply what got the conversation started.
As I looked over the posts that made up that discussion I saw nothing but confusion, mixed in with buzzwords about systems, chaos, etc. And lots of complicated diagrams that only added to the confusion.
So, taking a break from my local activities, I figured it was worth posting something to that discussion. That is below, FYI.
It is easy to confuse complexity with systems thinking. The word ‘systems’, like ‘math’, seems to intimidate most people. By making things as complex as possible, people feel more comfortable about being confused. And confused they remain. That ‘Obesity’ diagram is a perfect example of this phenomenon. 

As regards the Humanity-Earth system, the best work has been done in the domain of localization. For example, the 1996 anthology edited by Mander and Goldsmith, “The case against the global economy, and for a turn toard the local”. And for background there’s the all-important classic by Lappé, “World Hunger: twelve myths”. Also Chossudovsky’s, “The Globalization of Poverty”, and Douthwaite’s, “The Growth Illusion”. 

When economics is localized, people can, and typically do, organize their activities in a sustainable way. The feedback loops are visible, and the consequeneces of decisions soon become apparent. People know that spoliing their own nest does not make sense, and when that nest is local they can act on that common sense. 

The localization movement generally, and the Transition Towns movement in particular, are motivated by considerations of the Humanity-Earth system. The initiatives include buying local, local currencies and credit systems, developing local production, creating worker-owned co-ops, minimizing dependency on non-local resources, etc. For those who want to  bring the Humanity-Earth system into balance and synergy, the localization movement is the best place I know of to apply your energies. It is the best ‘systems lever’ available to us.

The concept of localization is at the center of dealing with the Humanity-Earth system, and it is also at the center of dealing with the Humanity-Politics system. In this regard, Leopold Kohr’s, “The Breakdown of Nations”, is very informative. This is the book that inspired Schumacher’s famous, “Small is Beautiful”. Kohr’s work, however, is much more comprehensive and insightful. 

The smaller the political unit, the more feasible it is for democracy to be achieved. By democracy, I do not mean the farce that is called democracy, that we use in the West. I mean instead a governance system that is responsive to the needs and will of the people. 

In understanding the operation of systems in the real world, one of the most critical factors to observe is who controls that system, who has their hands on the system’s levers. Even without analyzing the system in detail, one can conclude with reasonable confidence that the operation of that system will serve the interests of those who control the levers.

The levers of the global system are in the hands of financial elites, through their agents, the central banks and the IMF, backed up by their enforcement arm, the Pentagon and CIA. The interests of these elites are totally contrary to our interests. Among these elites, the two world wars are celebrated, because they were immensely profitable, and because they killed off lots of ‘useless feeders’, ie lots of us. 

Spending energy analyzing global economics is non-productive for two different reasons. First, because we have no ability whatever to influence that system. And second, because local economics is where sustainability can be most readily achieved. Even if a real global democracy were somehow acheived, localization would still be the appropriate focus of economic reorganization, in the pursuit of sustainability.

Although localization is the most promising movement going at the moment in the West, it suffers from an unfortunate blind spot. It is focused entirely on the Humanity-Earth system, and is ignoring the Humanity-Politics system. The movement envisions each community moving toward local sustainability, but it fails to envision the potential of localization to bring about political transformation.

Just as localization has the potential to achieve sustainability — one community at a time — it also has the potential to achieve democratic empowerment, one community at a time. In our communities, we all share a common interest in improving the local quality of life. It is possible locally to overcome the false divisiveness of left vs. right, in the pursuit of our common interests. In our communities, it is possible for an inclusive, united, Will of the People to emerge. 

If economics becomes sustainable in each locality, then the global economy automatically becomes sustainable. Similarly, if a united Will of the People emerges in each locality, it becomes possible to move toward democratic governance generally. If there is a functional electoral system in operation, election of genuine representatives of the people becomes a no-brainer. If a dictatorhip is in operation, then general strikes, universal civil-disobedience, and other regime-toppling mechanisms can be pursued. 

Only when we control the levers of the system, can our ideas have any effect.
subscribe mailto:

2012: Crossroads for Humanity:

Climate science: observations vs. models

related websites: