The Systems View – But what else have you done?

Why don’t we teach our kids to think like this – in feedbacks and multiple effects, not simple lines of one thing’s effect on only one other thing?   It’s idiotic.  You never do one thing.  Especially not those things that just happen to be easily measured.  I mean for heavens sake, why would that particular property of measurability make something more meaningful?  There are soft parts of any system, which are actually harder in many ways Mechanical v systems view.pngbecause they relate to contingent and conditional shifting things, not just in the biophysical space of landscapes, but also in the psyche and sociology of sentient beings.  Create hope, and you do many things.  Lose hope and you do many things.

And who would choose in any mature and wise system to only deal with the simple things, and worse only the measurable things, when judging how we ought to act.  Aristotle’s brilliant analysis of knowledge systems so needs to replace our current Modern obsessions with the presumed mechanics of all life – Aristotle had morality as the guiding rudder, and the wisdom of knowing intimately those wider issues of context (and no, they are not the measurable things) the “queen of the intellectual virtues.”  Science, technology – all the STEM subjects – were where the wise turn for answers to specific questions.  Useful on tap.  But never on top, because the view of STEM disciplines is far too constrained to be wise.  Only a foolish world would think that their disintegrated analysis could or should replace a wider knowing.

We are that foolish world.

Because we give more credence to someone producing some simple and measurable relationship of A’s effect on B (the information in this tiny box) than all the obvious questions that arise relating to the wider world of oughts and consequences.

The disintegrated mechanical view speaks of the measured effect of A on B.  It speaks of the intricacy of the task, the necessary focus on the narrow of this technology, and the concentration and training required, as if this was a measure of wisdom and virtue.

The wise person asks, “Yes, but what else have you done.”

What is the effect on those other measured variables and other soft pathways of change that resist any attempt to make them behave like a regular and immutable cog?  The annoyingly irregular, contingent and conditional on other shifting features of the wider system.

What answer would you give; more emphasis vandana-shiva-monocultures-of-the-mindon reductionist and measurable STEM subjects, or more connection to the wider realities of this context, here and now?

We see this rise in the ascendancy of the myopic all the time.  More nitrogen (A) will increase grass growth (B).  Never mind the ripple effect to soil, water, commodity quality, overall farm economics, eventual market dominance, land aggregation, corporatisation, children swimming, further emphasis on mechanical scale.  You can go on, and on, and on.

Smacking a child leads to a red mark (variable B) – you can measure that – but also so much more that is contingent upon the child and the whole sociology and psychologies involved.  I dare you to measure and predict that.  And yet it is real, and only a fool would deny it.

Demands for ‘evidence’ – whose evidence?

If you work within the wider system space, which you must if you are to be strategic, or make anywhere near decent policy, then it is almost inevitable that some narrow technocrat (an economist or technologist unhappy with open questions about GM Food perhaps) will demands ‘evidence’ of your critique.  The fact that you critique from a broader systems space is no matter.  You must come into their parlour, because they are not opening the door to come and walk in the real world.  kremer-not-everything-that-counts-can-be-counted-you-can-count-sales-you-can-count-fans-and-followers-you-quote-1They mean provide the numbers – all immeasurables being non-existent apparently –   while the strategist may have talked of all these linkages in logical, qualitative and contingent ways.

We should try to remain calm in the face of their religious scientism (this is not easy where paradigms clash).  We can point out that ‘evidence’ is subjective (try to leave irony out of your voice), only goes so far, and that beneath their own call for a particular type of evidence they obviously value lies their own immeasurable metaphysics and epistemologies.  We could point out that those philosophical underpinning have the level of belief – especially where they remain unexamined as is the case for so many of the STEM disciplines that are not equipped to question what lies beneath … any more than they are equipped to question what lies beyond and into the future.  Those value-laden assumptions are there only because of the sociology of their upbringing and training into a particular technocracy.  Is sociological evidence OK?  It ought to be.

I confess I find it hard when faced with the challenge by those obsessed with measurable monomaniac myopia for yet another number – before they will even bother to *think* about it unless their own mechanical paradigm is bowed to with obeisance from all around – their god of method, their fundamentalist faith.   I find it hard because it is such an anti-On measurement - Hubelintellectual statement.  Thought is not just about numbers.  Thought is not just about focusing on the dynamics of a small number of variables – and only the convenient regular ones at that.

In that sense, a technocrat demanding ‘evidence’ (as defined by them) of a strategist who is connecting to deeper philosophies, breadth and the potential future ripples of any act, is like a Creationist asking for evidence within a construct only defined by their own fundamentalism.

Do you need technocratic definitions of ‘evidence’ when you say that pushing production leads to negative effects throughout the economic, social and environmental system?  How about history, or the examples over in this other land whose trajectory we are following.  It is almost irrefutable if you study the history!  How about rural sociology.  How about the philosophy and history of scientific paradigms and their own fallibility.

The Desperate Need for Humanities – they Implicitly Understand Complex Systems

Do you need technocratic definitions of evidence when you point out that abuse is immoral (and do not give me the nonsense that you only measure morality using utilitarian calculations – especially with dollars), it leads to outcomes of – where do we start – lost realisation of potential, the creation of future costs, it ripples out to others.

No, you need the Humanities.  You need exemplar and case study and thought and history and dialogue and the deeper depths of philosophy and art.  You do not understand Hamlet by counting the words.  You do not understand a forest by mere measures.  Nor a field.  Nor a farm.  Nor a community, embedded in a place.  Nor an economy.  Economists please note.

Myopia is a form of blindness.  Without the perspectives, connections, depth, breadth and vision of the Humanities, the STEM subjects are groping in the dark of this, our complex Destroying the flower.pngand uncertain world.   They certainly cannot get the potential of designing self-organised resilient complex systems.  They take a flower and dissect it into material, disenchanted and disconnected measured cogs.

And they cannot rebuild it, nor create another – whether that flower relates to a biophysical space, a community linked to land, or an economy.  They make dispassionate cogs, not the passion and meaning of flowers; of a resilient, innovative and motivated community.

We Killed a Flower, and now the Cogs are Killing More

We had this ability once.  Before the conversion of crown research in corporations we had interconnected science with policy and people in the field.  We had a knowledge systems that worked, now wrecked and ripped apart into passionless cogs by neoliberal economists, money and markets and the desire of corporations to sell things as saleable fixes rather than solve things though principles of human action.  We replaced the old wisdom we had for the myopia of corporates who can only think in the narrow breadth and short-sightedness of the market.

This is one symptom of our Neoliberal Age, this ascendancy of spreadsheets, models and technofixes creating more symptoms of dis-ease, requiring more technofixes.  I have written about this lack of systems thinking in practice in Ways of Seeing II: The Mechanical View and the Treadmill of Techno-Fixes

Here is another case: we have a nitrogen problem, so we design a chemical as an inhibitor (DCD), which leads to a chemical in the milk, which causes an international scandal, which reduces our price position internationally, which reduces prices.  Think in an interconnected systems diagram – a holon of interconnection, linkages and consequence – turning off and on in annoyingly irregular ways.  I once declined to fund DCD research within landscapes.  I declined it because it Systems effects - feedbackswas a technofix, not a system redesign.  I declined it not because I could predict exactly what would happen – DCD in the milk – but because I suspected something *would* happen – another advance on the treadmill of symptoms (“what else have you done?”) – and the underlying dysfunction and dis-integration of the base landscape system would not be solved.  No, let’s research in order to sell something, not solve something.  I had no evidence of specific concerns – I did not know the outcome – but from within a systems view the research screamed mechanical myopia, which cried consequence.

Technofixes are the very opposite of systems thinking.  They treat symptoms or single variables without any conceptual vision of the whole – the biophysical, the social, the economic world around them.


The history, the exemplars of colonisation, system collapse, the old classical stories thatgo back to the ancients of the consequences of hubris and arrogance, the poets – for heaven’s sake, read Ozymandias – the faith without that ethos of fallibilism , so reinforced by the commercialisation of science, of DDT and the rest.  See the world in a narrow way, and you will very likely fail.  And you will probably never see the feedbacks that bite back because you will not see them from within a particular discipline – especially a STEM one.

If we are not looking at the soft parts of the system beyond the models, and the multi-functionality of actions and elements (we *never* do only one thing), and the feedbacks, especially the positive (reinforcing) ones and the connected, integrated whole ….. then we are not fully thinking.

Not thinking of linkages and root causes is evidenced by those who think a minimum wage rise *just* means a higher cost on the business books (one thing).  Not thinking is exemplified by never considering that at some indeterministic point in our future a climate can turn around and bite us (what has the climate got to do with my business Auklet_flock_Shumagins_1986accounts?).  Or that losing your soil, water, biodiversity, etc. is not a long-term viable business model (I can always buy more N and PKE, eh – and there is no effect other than more grass growth and feed, right?).  Or that repressing people is entirely divorced from social revolutions (they are there to serve me, they should feel privileged).  Or that leaving it to ‘the Lord Market’ will somehow always self-regulate to some future utopia – like a nice predictable controllable machine.

All examples of blindness of thought leading to the ball tipping out of the bowl to who knows where.

Which is why people need some Humanities – to reference back and synthesise the shifting interrelationships over space and time, to illustrate how this complex adaptive word of ours actually works – not as a machine, as a complex constantly adapting system which kicks back and shifts very dramatically when you drive the ball up to the edge of the bowl.

The Myopia to Rule them All – Neoliberalism

Our current economic model – neoliberalism – cannot predict such shifts because tulip fevers, depressions, social revolutions, and environmental collapses cannot occur in its models.  It only know self-regulating (negative) feedbacks, not trend-reinforcing (positive) feedbacks that lead to system tips.  It only include in its models all-knowing, all-powerless (ha!), selfish ‘utility-maximising’ individuals & firms outside any concept of a life-support system of a planet and a community.  A cyberspace world divorced from the real world in so many different and profound ways.  And it has taken the flower of our science and technology, and our public sector, and our communities, and our landscapes, and ripped them into cogs to match their own fundamentalist faith.

So why do we bother to listen to these model-worshipping, linear, mechanical unwise neoliberal priests?  Seriously.  Why?  Why does any Treasury or NZIER Input:Output model get given any more credence than a shaman shaking a rattle over an eviscerated dead chicken.

It is the linear reductive mechanics of life that now make most policy in NZ.  The thinkers (i.e. “dissenters” who dared to dialogue and question the priesthood) are either gone or suppress their heresies to keep paying the mortgage.  How else do you explain our completely bonkers commodity and colonisation economic model – people and land being mere cheap grist for the corporate colonial mill of course.  No likely consequences there other than – in their blind eyes – more wealth, well-being, a lovely community, and a wonderfully healthy environment – right?  If they bothered to look and think, they would only see the opposite.  And no, GDP doesn’t count.  All rationalised by silly models and complex maths.  Moby Dick madness; rationalised stupidity.

At the core, the coeur, the heart of our future in this world lies this dis-ease and disconnection, and the ascendancy it has been given to the least wise and the most disconnected.

You can give it the name Modernity.  Neoliberal economics have put it into overdrive.  And they have let loose the worse of myopias – power-motivated extractive commerce – as their attack hyenas.

I do not know which beast we deal with first; Neoliberalism, Mega-Corporations, or Modernity.  I am hopeful we can have some Glorious and bloodless revolution of thought.

And start thinking about creating the bloom of flowers to replace the grinding of cogs, with we and the rest of the world as grist in the mill.

Chris Perley


Geometry of a flower

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