Systems-thinker John Harte gives a roadmap on how we can use the same interconnectedness that is spurring catastrophe to instead promote health and sustainability.
Human society is complex, with myriad interconnected components.
Environmental disconnect<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwNDUwMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNjM3NDE2OH0.EKZvgQVkKs8ANHzPWc6M3SwzgxhFoTqTIb6RhL1wqN4/img.jpg?width=980" id="c13e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="da045354ede700335468ccce83116f75" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Deforestation Papua New Guinea " />
Deforestation in Papua New Guinea. (Credit: Rainforest Action Network/flickr)<p>Over the past decades it has become clear that each anthropogenic stress that we impose upon our environment exacerbates the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4672819/" target="_blank">consequences of the other stresses</a>.</p> <p>Deforestation, which destroys habitat for biodiversity, also contributes to global climate disruption; global climate disruption not only threatens food-crop production but also reduces the nutritional content of the food we do produce; the loss of biodiversity reduces the capacity of our planet to provide numerous goods and services necessary to sustain humanity. </p> <p>And linked to all these issues, increasing numbers of people on Earth <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11111-007-0048-3" target="_blank">make even more destructive all of the consequences of interdependency</a>, including making it more difficult for effective governance that can take the necessary actions to reduce the threats. </p>
Education’s blind spots<p>Universities are another node in this system of destructive linkages.</p> <p>We are, of course, indebted to our medical schools for training the medical researchers and health workers upon whom our lives depend. </p> <p>But the business schools and departments of economics in these same universities are now contributors to future catastrophe. </p> <p>Graduates of their programs are trained to promote the fantasy of perpetual growth and untrained in areas that would provide insight into the true sources of wealth and well-being on our planet. Economists are not taught the fundamentals of ecology; engineers are not trained in history; business students are not taught enough science, law and ethics; and, my pet peeve, almost nobody is taught enough math! </p> <p>What perpetuates this archaic system of higher education? </p> <p>It is in part the priorities of the very civilization it has helped to produce. Many of the smartest minds coming out of graduate schools are siphoned off into legalized gambling, otherwise known as market trading, or to work with the leaders of organized crime, otherwise known as corporate law firms. </p> <p>The wealth they accumulate over their careers makes society poorer, not richer, as these wealthy benefactors endow business schools but not programs in systems biology.</p>
Flipping to the “sweet side of synergy”<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwNDUwOC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwMTA0MjE4NX0.aMjgLZib6Tv34mRkLNBBbciYSEhE8_WPpMZrGAa5rwY/img.jpg?width=980" id="ce5c9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3fbb53e2ddc4bd400fff13a163b8716a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Polling place" />
Building democracy—and having elections decided by people, not corporate interests—will be key in restoring the power balance in our society. (Credit: AEC images/flickr)<p>I refer to the entire situation described above as "the sinister side of synergy."</p><p>On that side of synergy, <a href="https://www.amazon.com/Green-Fuse-Ecological-Odyssey/dp/0520205510" target="_blank">interconnectedness results in mounting catastrophes</a>. </p><p>But there is good news as well and it stems from the same system properties that lead to harmful outcomes. Suppose we do take thoughtful action to reduce pollution, inequality, overpopulation, wild animal markets, and all the other triggers of impending catastrophe. </p><p>Then those actions trigger consequences that are also generally beneficial to the health and sustainability of society. The synergies begin to act in our favor. </p><p>Today the power balance in our society favors actions that lead to sinister outcomes. Reversing that situation, and achieving a society in which rational decisions are made and the sweet side of synergy flourishes, will not be easy. </p><p>But here are some necessary steps.</p>
In this together<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwNDUyMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDY0NDMwN30.g_v5_TtHWJeADVeCOKYE-1ckxgmCsdSgX6yvom252Bk/img.jpg?width=980" id="f1566" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3617d74465719adbc001e6ea05a08f0e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Children from Chenglong Elementary School looking at environmental art. (Credit: Timothy S. Allen/flickr)<p>Let's end with a thought experiment. </p><p>Imagine you are setting forth on a long journey with a group of people that you do not know very well. The journey will take you to a place neither you nor anyone else has ever been. Many hazards will be encountered: water supplies and food are limited, you will all have to endure crowded conditions, you will be exposed to chemicals that no person has ever been exposed to, the climate in the land you are going is unlike any you have ever experienced, and you are virtually certain to encounter new and highly infectious diseases for which you currently have no medicine.</p> <p>On top of all that, your fellow travelers hold competing values and goals. For one thing, they have very different attitudes about the role that scientific facts and understanding should play in decision-making. </p> <p>There are clear signs that the current leader on this journey is not capable of distinguishing fantasy from reality. </p> <p>This should scare you, for you cannot go on this journey alone; you are all utterly dependent upon one another, and, in particular, on the capacity of all of us to have a shared knowledge of how the world works. </p> <p>All of humanity is <em>en route</em>; and unlike our critical response to the current pandemic, staying home is not an option. </p> <p><em>John Harte, an ecologist originally trained in physics, has devoted his career to seeking the simplicity on the other side of complexity. He has taught in the University of California, Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group for the past 45 years.</em></p>