The Depth of Our Systems

Image by Josie Welsh – 2011

My wife and I have an ongoing, light-hearted, disagreement about our approaches to sustainability. I’m careful about disagreeing with her, because she’s pretty sharp, and I’m usually proven wrong when I disagree with her. However, on this one, I’m blazing my own path. Her argument is common. I hear it all of the time, from people of all different backgrounds. She likes to take personal responsibility for living in the way that she feels is sustainable, and I tend to focus on the really big picture systemic failures of our institutions. She buys the high-efficiency light bulbs, the cloth grocery bags, and the high-efficiency appliances. I, well, I mostly complain about the failures of our institutions to move on issues of sustainability. I read a lot about it, take classes, and being a designer, I try to incorporate it into my professional work. I do fully support her in her efforts, because they are in the right direction, however, her decisions feel insignificant when we are in desperate need monumental, landslide changes. I know, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Ghandi said it, I know. I get it. The republican friends of mine suggest that the market place will change if consumers change what they want….yeah, right. I’m not that nieve.

I’m a designer. I see the power of marketing to direct what consumers want. Billions of dollars are spent every year on marketing, whose sole purpose is to define/direct what people want to buy. There is a whole technology to marketing that tracks everything you buy, and knows what you need, before you even know you need it. When you go to Target, or Wal-Mart, well, they knew you were coming, and they pretty much know what you want to buy. But, that’s a whole different blog post….

My question is, why is it so hard to live my own principles, rather than that of the large institutions? I wrote a little about it, yesterday, in the “Wishful Thinking” post.  Societies create man-made systems (bubbles) to live within, frequently being separate from the impact of nature. Society strongly discourages living in a way that is inconsistent with the accepted norms. The thousands, upon thousands, of systems that we engage everyday are set up with particular rules that we generally need to follow. Stepping outside the bubble can be costly, inconvenient, and puts an individual at a severe disadvantage in most aspects of life. Living in the bubble is not a matter of personal choice. Laws and regulations define what you are allowed to do, and going against the grain can land you in jail with heavy fines.

Systems, be it legal systems, business systems, social systems, building systems, or environmental systems, are interesting things, and have similar properties worth understanding. Donella Meadows defines a system as, “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something.” She continues to say there is, “an integrity or wholeness about a system and an active set of mechanisms to maintain that integrity. Systems can change, adapt, respond to events, seek goals, mend injuries, and attend to their own survival in lifelike ways, although they may consist of nonliving things. Systems can be self-organizing, and often are self-repairing over at least some range of disruptions. They are resilient, and many of them are evolutionary. Out of one system another completely new, never seen before imagined system can arise.”

Systems are everywhere. Our bodies are a great example of an integrated, living, dynamic, complex system. A bicycle, or a tornado, is a good example of a non-living system. Systems are nested and networked together. Your body has hundreds of systems within it, and they are all working in cooperation to keep your body working as a single organism. A temperate rainforest is a system, with tens of thousands of systems working in cooperation, which allows the forest to be a healthy single organism. Of course, the rainforest is a component of the biosphere as well.

There are political and economic systems, transportation and power systems, as well as social and family systems, and many, many thousands more.

Most of the modern ideology, including the industrial revolution was created out of the idea that an object is the sum of its parts. We’ve worked very hard to fragment everything and understand the pieces so that we might be able to reassemble them into a coherent, meaningful whole. We keep looking deeper and deeper to find some essential truths about the way the world works, and we never seem to get there. We never seem to answer life’s big questions. The problem is that, in reality, an object is more than the sum of its parts. If, for example, you considered the human body by breaking apart all of the major systems, then started studying the heart, lungs, bones, and brain, you would learn a little about a human. But then you’d break down the organs into tissues, and the tissues into cells, and the cells eventually into molecules. You’d keep digging deeper, breaking the molecules into single atoms, then into sub-atomic particles, looking for that underlying truth that will make sense of everything. Unfortunately, when you get to quantum physics, all of the normal rules go out the door, and everything gets really strange. Particles can be in multiple places at the same time. Particles can move and not move at the same time. What have we learned about being a human?

Unfortunately, not enough.

Once we’ve broken our bodies down and studied each part, would we expect to see humans build great cathedrals? Would we expect great paintings, or weapons of mass killing? Would we expect to see expressions of pain, compassion, and love that happens millions of times throughout the world everyday? The answer is simply no. It is because there are emergent properties that come out of a complete and healthy system, that can’t be expected by studying the parts alone. Systems are actually more than the sum of their parts. For example, a heart has a unique purpose beyond what its cardiac tissue, nerve tissue, and blood tissue understand. The heart has an additional purpose of supporting the rest of the circulatory system, while the cardiac tissue in the heart is only concerned with the health of the heart itself.

A bicycle, as another non-living example, is a system with a very particular configuration of parts, and a defined purpose. The components have a specific relationship with one another to be considered a bicycle. The components alone cannot achieve the purpose of the bicycle, unless the relationship between the components is correct. You can’t study just the parts of a system and understand what the system does. You must focus on the relationship between the parts as well, and look for patterns that might clue you in to its purpose. Quantum mechanics actually suggests that there are nearly no parts at all, and that all we have are relationships. Have you ever wondered how far they can keep dividing particles up and finding smaller, and smaller pieces?

So, humans are systems, living among systems. To keep our larger ecological systems healthy we know that we need to do our part, just like the heart and the bicycle wheel must do their part. However, our systems are not set up correctly. Our transportation systems cover the landscape in concrete and asphalt, and belch too much CO2 into the air. Our electricity comes from coal, our food comes from fertilizer, which comes from oil. Our “waste” is everywhere, including the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Almost all of our infrastructure and institutionalized systems have been created without consideration for the health and well-being of the larger ecosystem that we are a part of. Clean air fills our lungs, and rain falls from the sky to water our crops. These things are essential to our lives. They are the result of other systems, that are doing their jobs well, for our benefit. We are failing to do our job, therefore we are hurting the whole.

I feel that the bulk of the responsibility to fix our environmental problems falls into the hands of those who design major systems. That would be policy makers, executives, designers, engineers, and others. Our socio-economic-political system has created a bubble that doesn’t allow me to easily be sustainable. I’m penalized for rubbing against the grain. I can do the small things at home, that will make a tiny difference to the world’s environmental problem, but changing transportation systems, economic and regulatory systems, and education systems will make major, long-lasting contributions to our survival. The infrastructure and transportation within our cities should be coordinated with systems ecologists to understand how to gracefully integrate man-made systems into natural systems in a mutually healthy way. It needs to be required by our governments, not because it is a moral issue, but because it is a safety and welfare issue for the larger organism that we live within, and therefore for ourselves.

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