There is no known physical or technical reason why basic needs cannot be supplied for all the world’s people into the foreseeable future. These needs are not being met now because of social and political structures, values, norms, and world views, not because of physical scarcities.
Population and physical (material) capital cannot grow forever on a finite planet.
Continuing “business-as-usual” policies through the next few decades will not lead to a desirable future—or even to meeting basic human needs. It will result in an increasing gap between the rich and the poor, problems with resource availability and environmental destruction, and worsening economic conditions.
The interdependencies among peoples and nations across time and space are greater than commonly imagined. Actions taken at one time and on one part of the globe have far-reaching consequences that are impossible to predict intuitively, and probably impossible to predict (totally, precisely, maybe at all) with computer models.
Cooperative approaches to achieving individual or national goals often turn out to be more beneficial in the long run to all parties than competitive approaches.
The world is a complex, interconnected, finite, ecological-social-psychological-economic system. We treat it as if it were not, as if it were divisible, separable, simple, and infinite. Our persistent, intractable, global problems arise directly from this mismatch.
No one wants or works to generate hunger, poverty, pollution, or the elimination of species. Very few people favor arms races or terrorism or alcoholism or inflation. Yet those results are consistently produced by the system-as-a-whole, despite many policies and much effort directed against them. Many social policies work; they solve problems permanently. But some problems consistently resist solution in many cultures and over long periods of time. Those are the problems for which a new way of looking is required.
A system is any set of interconnected elements. In our usual reductionist-scientific view of things the emphasis is on the elements. To understand things, we take them apart and study the pieces. In the systems view the interrelationships are important. A corporation is a corporation even when every person and machine in it changes, as long as the hierarchies, purposes, and punishments remain the same.
You think because you understand one you must understand two because one and one make two. But you must also understand and.
To see not only things but also relationships opens your vision immensely. You never confuse hastily constructed government apartment blocks with real communities. You never make an urban policy separate from a rural policy. You begin to lose the distinction between humanity and nature or between economic benefits and environmental ones. You also begin to see new solutions—the traffic problem may be affected by the housing sector, economic growth may be enhanced through increasing capital lifetimes, cancer may be prevented by protecting the integrity of the cell membrane and the whole tissue, not the individual nucleus. It is often easier and more effective to act on system relationships rather than on system elements.
Growth in a complex system may require hundreds of inputs, but at any given time only one input is important—the one that is most limiting. Bread will not rise without yeast, and adding more flour will not help. Corn will not grow without phosphate no matter how much nitrogen is present. This concept is childishly simple and widely ignored.
To shift attention from the abundant factors to the next potential limiting one is to gain real understanding of and control over the growth process.
When you see whole systems, you start noticing where things come from and where they go. You begin to see that there is no “away” to throw things to.
You notice how beautifully designed natural systems are so that the outputs and wastes of one process are always inputs to another process, and you begin to think of new designs for industrial systems.
There is real opportunity for action in learning to view every system as the cause of its behavior. First of all, if the entire concept of blame is removed, you can stop arguing about who is at fault and get on with solving the problem. And second, if a system is the source of a problem, it is also the mechanism for a solution.
The most effective way of dealing with policy resistance is to find an alignment of the goals in the system, so that all actors are working harmoniously and naturally toward the same outcome. If this can be done, the results can be amazing.
A system that takes its goals from its own performance is very likely to drift downhill.
We keep expecting a solution to be near a symptom, a long-term gain to start off with a short-term gain, or a winning strategy to produce instant gratification for all players. We know complex systems don’t behave like that. But something within us keeps insisting somehow that they should. And so we pursue difficult policies that can’t work, and miss seeing rather simple policies that can. We try to compete instead of cooperating, to push against environmental limits instead of noticing that there is already enough, to hang on to a deteriorating status quo instead of welcoming changes that take us where we really want to go. The results are hunger, weapons, pollution, depletion. And just within our grasp, accessible through our innate systems understanding, are sufficiency, peace, equity, and sustainability.
I am excited by what I can see from the new viewpoint of systems. I find my entire sense of what is happening, what is possible, what I identify with, and what is important is shifting.
The systems view, as demonstrated by the global models, makes clear that no part of the human race is really separate either from other human beings or from the global ecosystem. We all rise or fall together.