Overcoming Systems Stupidity

Readers of mine with sufficiently long memories may be wondering if the evening news somehow accidentally got swapped for archived footage of a performance of that durable Sixties folk number The Merry Minuet, with its lines about rioting in Africa and global mayhem in general. Certainly that was the thought that occurred to me as news from Egypt and Tunisia jostled the category 5 cyclone (we’d say "hurricane" on this side of the planet) that just walloped Australia, and the far more modest but still impressive winter storm that’s sweeping across America as I write this.

Looked at in isolation, each of these stories are business as usual. Political turmoil in Third World nations is common enough, and big storms are a fact of life in Australia as well as the United States. Still, it’s exactly that habit of looking at news stories in isolation that fosters the blindness to history as it’s happening that I’ve discussed here repeatedly. Remember that the world is a whole system and put the news into context accordingly, and troubling patterns appear.

Let’s start with the revolution in Tunisia and the ongoing turmoil in Egypt. Behind the explosion of popular resentments that’s putting once-secure governments at risk is the simple fact that in both countries, and across the Third World more generally, people are having an increasingly hard time getting enough to eat as food prices climb past records set during the last spike in 2008. Plenty of factors feed into the surge in food costs, but one major factor is a string of failed harvests in some of the world’s important grain-producing regions, which in turn has been caused by increasingly unstable weather. Pundits in the US media talk earnestly about the end of an era of cheap food, but what that means in practice is that over a growing fraction of the world, incomes are failing to keep pace with food costs, and as the number of hungry and desperate people grows, so does the pressure toward political explosions.

The context of this week’s two big storms is just as easily missed from media reports. For more than a decade now, the insurance industry has been warning that the annual cost of weather-related disasters has been rising at a dramatic rate – fast enough, according to a study released early last decade, that it will equal the gross domestic product of the entire planet by 2060. (Take a moment to think through the implications of that little detail; if the entire economic output of the world has to go to make up for repairing the costs of weather-related disasters, what about the other things economies are supposed to provide?) Here again, there are plenty of factors feeding into that soaring economic burden, but the destabilization of the world’s climate is one major factor. Whether or not dumping billions of tons of CO2 every year from our tailpipes and smokestacks is the sole cause of this destabilization is really beside the point; if you happen to be sitting next to a sleeping grizzly bear, the fact that the bear may have its own reasons for waking up in a bad mood is not a good argument in favor of poking it repeatedly with a stick.

Now of course the American way of life, and more generally the way of life common to most of the world’s industrial nations, might best be described as an elaborate arrangement to poke nature’s sleeping bears with as many sticks as possible. The business-as-usual end of the green movement has been insisting for decades that we can stop doing that and still maintain something like a modern industrial society, but whether or not their elaborate schemes for doing this could work at all – a complicated question I don’t propose to address here – the political will needed to do anything of the kind went AWOL at the end of the Seventies and hasn’t been seen since. Thus the most likely future ahead of us is one in which sleeping bears keep being poked with sticks, and increasingly often rouse themselves to bash in a head or two: in less metaphoric terms, that is, a future in which increasingly unstable climates load additional burdens on the global economy and drive a rising tide of political unrest that will probably not remain restricted to comfortably distant continents.

The fact that we don’t normally put the events of the day into their proper contexts, and draw such logical conclusions from them as the inadvisability of poking bears with sticks, has a context of its own. It can be credited to the simple fact that Americans are stupid about systems.

There’s really no gentler way to put it. Week after week, I can count on fielding at least one comment insisting that my post is just plain wrong because science, technology, progress, the free market, the space brothers, or some other convenient deus ex machina – you name it, somebody’s probably invoked it in an email to me – will allow Americans to continue to extract an ever-increasing supply of energy and raw materials from a finite planet without ever running short, and find places to dump the correspondingly rising tide of waste somewhere or other without having it turn up again to give us problems. Now of course it’s possible that some of that comes from bloggers-for-hire pushing the agenda of some corporate or political pressure group – there’s a lot of that online these days – but the illogic is pervasive enough in our culture that I suspect a lot of it comes from ordinary Americans who basically haven’t yet noticed that the world isn’t flat.

Watch what passes for political and economic debate in America these days and you can count on hearing much the same thing. Take "sustainable growth," the mantra of a large fraction of the business-as-usual end of the green movement already mentioned. Even the most elementary grasp of systems theory makes it instantly clear that there’s no meaningful sense of the adjective "sustainable" that can cohabit with any meaningful sense of the noun "growth." In a system – any system, anywhere – growth is always unsustainable. Some systems have internal limits that cut in at a certain point and stop growth before it becomes pathological, while some rely on external limits, but the limits are always there, and those who think there are no limits to a given pattern of growth are deluding themselves. Mind you, such delusions are always popular – the tech-stock and real estate bubbles that enlivened economic life in the United States during the last decade and a bit are good examples – but the consequences, when growth crashes into the limits that nobody saw coming, are rarely pleasant.

The fixation on the fantasy of perpetual growth is only one of the system-related stupidities that infest contemporary American public life, though it’s arguably the most egregious. I’ve commented before in this blog about the way that popular attitudes assume that raw materials appear out of Santa Claus’ sleigh when wanted and then simply "go away" when we’re done with them. For a good example, consider the way that the American livestock industry pumps animals full of chemicals that make them gain weight at an unnatural pace, and then feeds meat from those animals to people. Does anybody wonder whether these same chemicals, stored up in animal tissues and thus inserted into the human food chain, might have anything to do with the fact that Americans are gaining weight at an unnatural pace? Surely you jest.

A basic grasp of systems thinking would make it easier to get past follies of that sort, but that same grasp would also make it impossible to pretend that Americans can go on living their current lifestyles much longer. That’s an important reason why systems thinking was dropped like a hot rock in the early 1980s and why, outside of a narrow range of practical applications where it remains essential, it’s been shut out of the collective conversation of our society ever since.

For the aspiring green wizard, on the other hand, there are few habits of thought more important than thinking in terms of whole systems. Most of what we’ve been talking about for the last eight months, when it hasn’t been strictly practical in nature, has been oriented toward systems thinking, and a great deal of the practical material is simply the application of a systems approach to some aspect of working with nature. The practical instructions in the weeks and months ahead, as we turn to conservation and homebuilt alternative energy systems, will be even more dependent on having a clear sense of the way whole systems work. The one real limiting factor is that it’s a bit of a challenge to recommend a good clear nontechnical guide to systems thinking to those of you who are working through the Green Wizard program in earnest.

To the best of my knowledge, nobody in the Seventies or early Eighties wrote such a textbook. A truly magnificent book on the subject was already in circulation then, and indeed it had a burst of popularity during those years; the one complicating factor is that very few people seem to have realized then, and even fewer realize now, that the book in question is in fact an introductory textbook of systems thinking.

The book we’re discussing? Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching.

The Tao Te Ching has been translated into English more often than any other book, and the title has received nearly an equal diversity of renderings. I’m convinced that most of this diversity comes out of our own culture’s stupidity about systems, for when it’s approached from a systems perspective the title – and indeed the book – becomes immediately clear. Tao comes from a verb meaning "to lead forth," and in ancient times took on a range of related meanings – "path," "method," "teaching," "art." The word that most closely captures its meaning, and not incidentally comes from a similar root, is "process." Te is used for the character, nature, or "insistent particularity" of any given thing; "wholeness" or "integrity" are good English equivalents. Ching is "authoritative text," perhaps equivalent to "classic" or "scripture" in English, though the capitalized "Book" captures the flavor as well as anything. "The Book of Integral Process" is a good translation of the title.

Replace the early Chinese philosophical terminology with equivalent terms from systems theory and the point of the text becomes equally clear. Here’s chapter I:
A process as described is not the process as it exists;
The terms used to describe it are not the things they describe.
That which evades description is the wholeness of the system;
The act of description is merely a listing of its parts.
Without intentionality, you can experience the whole system;
With intentionality, you can comprehend its effects.
These two approach the same reality in different ways,
And the result appears confusing;
But accepting the apparent confusion
Gives access to the whole system.
It would be useful if somebody were to do a complete translation of the Tao Te Ching in systems language one of these days – though in saying that, I get the uncomfortable feeling that it’s probably going to be me. In the meantime, prospective Green Wizards could do worse than to pick up any of the existing translations that suit their tastes, and try to think through the eighty-one short chapters of the book as guides to working with whole systems.

While you’re at it, I’d like to ask that you try a slightly more practical experiment in systems thinking, which leads straight to the theme of next week’s post. Using pen and paper, make a list of the ways that heat comes into your home during the winter months, when it’s colder outside than inside, and then make a corresponding list of the ways that heat leaves your home during those same months. Make both lists as complete as possible; those of my readers who’ve downloaded the Master Conservers handouts from the Cultural Conservers Foundation website can certainly use the home survey handout as a guide.

Finally, I’m pleased to announce that my forthcoming book The Wealth of Nature: Economics As If Survival Mattered is available for preorders from the publisher at a 20% discount, and will be on bookstore shelves in June of this year. Longtime readers will recognize many of the concepts in this book from their first appearance in essays posted on The Archdruid Report, and quite a few of the arguments have been improved as a result of discussions here. Many thanks to all!