Learning to Think System

Why should we establish local issue learning groups? They should become learning laboratories to guide us into practical systems thinking while making headway on local problems. Global problems are too big and diverse for single, actionable treatment. The global ecosystem consists of regional ecosystems that differ greatly but that interact constantly, and for humans, not always harmoniously. We have to cope with earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, and floods.

Likewise, the global human institutional ecology is diverse. Despite the cross talk of globalization, what works in one area may be disastrous in another. Communication media, languages, technical levels, financial systems, ideologies, and cultural customs vary considerably, and sometimes surprisingly for newcomers.

Compression proposes cutting energy use by half on a global scale, but try doing that on a global scale and there is no place to start. So start aiming for a stretch goal like that in a local area. Even that may be too big and nebulous, because energy is entangled with everything else. So look at specific systems in an area, but with a big enough view that we address a bigger, more integrated system than we have been accustomed to thinking about: Health, water, education, and safety and security are examples.

Taking a full system look is not easy to develop and stick with. With technically oriented people, the first thought is apt to be finding technical fixes – do a technological roadmap. One well done may attract funding and set up an entrepreneurial venture. But that does not assure that we are pointed toward improving quality of life while using much less water, energy, or other “stuff.” A community system has to evolve toward doing better using much less, and many factors come into play.

For example, how can we maintain public safety and security while greatly reducing the resources used for it (police, vehicles, etc.) The same applies to other system issue areas, but it is easier to see with safety and security that one must develop great community and public engagement in preparedness and prevention. To do that the public needs to understand why as well as what before they will change habits of living. And as they say, this soft stuff is the hard stuff.

How to go about such a transformation is an exercise in human development. If we just start with a grand roadmap that implies major changes in human institutions and vested interests, it’s apt to stir visceral opposition from those who think they are “losing something” – and they may be, so they have to be gaining something, something that they do not see at first, but come to want, like a community where if you leave your keys in a car, nothing happens to it or its contents. That implies confronting our own “core beliefs.”

We all have “guiding beliefs” about how much we can trust fellow citizens, the merchants we deal with, or the public officials we deal with. We have “guiding beliefs” about what work organizations are, what their mission should be, and how they should be run. (A popular belief is that “markets” are never wrong, so if we trust markets we will be OK, no matter what happens.) When we run out of data and analysis, a “guiding belief” is what we use for direction in conditions of uncertainty. Since uncertainty is never completely dispelled, we can’t avoid guiding beliefs in some form.

The guiding belief of Compression, its “true north” in uncertain terrain, is to dramatically reduce the consumption of energy and raw materials. That will not solve all problems. Far from it, but it is easy to understand and it shrinks the size of many other problems. This core belief is bound to conflict with many more established ones. Fortunately, we all live with beliefs that conflict with each other, so change is a matter of creating systems for work and living that ask us to emphasize our “better beliefs.”

The rules and beliefs of the systems we now live by induce us to use more and more. While a few businesses are exceptions, these beliefs govern business-as-usual, and influence many other institutions as well. Adopting different beliefs may start with tokenism because we can’t learn to live with different beliefs just by being zapped with them. We have to practice. Change what we do to change what we believe. But to curb the consumptive excesses of our systems, we must create new systems compatible with a finite earth – learn to see problems less as me-centered and more symbiotic with that earth. Or as lean practitioners put it, focus on changing processes, not on blame.

Nothing is harder than questioning core beliefs. It’s emotional. We prefer to avoid conflict by not talking about beliefs, much less deeply questioning them. But if we do not deal with conflicting beliefs, we stay right where we are. Forcing change with complex regulations has limits if those regulated seek every dodge to evade them. A police state may be a safe state, but not a happy one, and policing consumes a lot of resources.

How can we make this practical? By recognizing that single point solutions are just that, not magic that transforms total systems. No fixes are forever. Systems and conditions are always changing. Just stay on a path to transform the systems and processes by which we live and work, and beliefs will start to migrate with them.

Even at a local level where we can see parts of systems directly rather than as abstract data, this nebulous challenge is hard to grasp. We like to act without considering larger system implications – learn by doing, and we’ll make mistakes that we’ll have to undo. We’ll waffle addressing problems that are foreseeable, but never actually seen before. We even skimp preparations for disasters previously experienced. Acting to improve total systems takes emotional ingenuity in addition to the mental kind.

We promote establishing local issue learning groups. Each must contend with unique local environments, histories and politics, so they must be disciplined, ongoing learning organizations. In effect, they are laboratories for systemically learning how to do better while using less. Even the terminology for this remains underdeveloped, but we must eliminate the wastes of excessive commercial competition and political contention.

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