I take a “systems” view of everything. That is, I view everything as a system made up of subsystems which in turn are made up of smaller subsystems which, at some very basic level, perhaps only at the atomic or even quantum level, are made up of individual components which themselves would surely not exist were it not for the overarching system.
Everything – the universe as we perceive it – is the overarching system. It is made up of energy and matter, dark and otherwise, doing things we can’t understand and doing them at some level where the human concepts of “purpose” or “cause” are meaningless. Why is the Universe? Because it Is. That is good enough for me.
Within that universe system one finds subsystems. One finds, for instance, galaxies, and within them solar systems and other components. One individual atom is a system made up of smaller components and bearing, perhaps not coincidentally, an uncanny resemblance to a solar system.
One of the solar systems is ours. In turn, one of its subsystems is this planet. Earth. This planet is a system made up of everything on it and in it, all the atoms, all
the energy, all the rocks and dirt, all the biological entities, the tectonic plates, the atmosphere, the oceans, the mantle, the molten core. Each of these systems operates in ways which are still too large for even the smartest human to fully grasp.
We humans tend to get this all wrong. We tend to think of ourselves as separate from, not part of, the system which is Earth. We are – to no-one’s real surprise – anthropocentric. We think we are somehow special and stand aside from or apart from the systems around us. We think of “the environment” as “out there,” but that’s simply incorrect.
I watched Wes Jackson speak on this topic once, and have never forgotten his illustration. Holding his hand out in front of himself he said (not a direct quote, just as I recall it) Say a molecule of air is out here, and it’s The Environment. (He drew his hand closer to his face.) How close does that molecule have to get to still be The Environment? (Touches his mouth and nose with his fingers.) When you breathe it in, is it still The Environment? When it enters your blood stream? When it is combined with carbon in your cells? When you exhale it?
There is no dividing line where “we” start and “the environment” ends. There is no separation. If you put a barrier around us, separate “us” from “out there,” we immediately die. We only exist and live to the extent that “the environment” enters, merges with, creates, is created by, and again departs our bodies. Well under half of the cells we carry around within our skins even contain any human DNA. Three quarters of everything we are is simple water. We are majority Environment and only minority Human. We – each of us – are small systematic organizations of portions of the overarching system which is everything. We are aware and conscious subsystems. We are exactly as much a part of the Earth system as is, for instance, a hurricane, except we appear to be, over the long haul, more destructive.
The things which we create are also systems. The automobile does not exist apart from the system that it inhabits. If we had no roads, if we had no fuel stations, we would have no automobiles. We are also merged into that system, and it into us: it is blindingly obvious that, without drivers and passengers, there would be no automobiles.
Taking that example farther, look at the evolution of transportation. A million years ago proto-humans walked the same path day after day, following after the coyotes, deer, and woolly mammoth. They, and we, created trails. Trails were the predecessor of interstate highways.
After we settled, created agriculture, and developed ever more complex systems within which to arrange our lives, the trails got wider. Flatter. More convenient – and slightly less robust. It came to pass that, after a rain, our trails might be nearly unusable for a period of time. Mud. Because more complex systems are inherently less robust. Murphy was right: whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. It cannot be any other way.
Continuing on, after some time we found that animals would pull our loads, transport our bodies. We invented the wheel. The trail system which went back with us to the mists of time continued to develop. We built on the subsystem of fallen trees
that had long taken us across rivers, until we could drive our horses across them.
By the early days of the 20th Century the road system had evolved to where it could support auto (self) mobiles (moving devices.) Horseless carriages.
In turn, the footpath through the jungle system, now developed into dirt roads, evolved further, to support the horseless carriage. People began selling this previously nearly useless “gasoline” stuff along the roads, and Hey Presto: Road Rage. Gridlock. Pavement. Interstate Highways. Global Warming. It’s all part of the system.
The reason the system view is important is because all of these characteristics, both the desired characteristics and the undesired ones, are part of the same system. Cars give us nearly unimaginable (by historic human standards) mobility. They are part of the system which warms the globe as well. In turn, global warming causes floods. But pavement itself also causes floods. Road graders cause floods. There is no one discrete unit which can be repaired, corrected, eliminated, or redesigned which can alter all of the outcomes of a system. The invention of the automobile altered the jungle trail system but it did not create some new, entirely different thing. It simply was an evolutionary step in the formation of the transportation system we have today.
Cities of six, ten, twenty, or thirty million people are also systems, which in turn are made possible – and possibly inevitable – by other systems. Without some type of powered high speed transportation it is nearly inconceivable that people could live in groups that large. Food couldn’t be brought in; waste couldn’t be taken out. I can’t say how we would live, but with different subsystems we would have different aggregate systems.
The reason all this might be relevant today is because the systems we have developed have unforeseen deadly characteristics which, if not addressed, could cause said systems to fail in sudden catastrophic fashion. Once again, more complex systems tend to be less robust. A fifty thousand dollar car can be turned into a large lump by the failure of any of hundreds of subsystems, from a pneumatic tire to a fuel pump to a computer. Yes, we have developed all those subsystems to a reasonably high degree of reliability, but there is never a day in any major city without a certain number of these “highly reliable” transportation modules stranded, inoperable, by the failure of one or more of their highly reliable subsystems.
In contrast, the United States dropped more tons of bombs on North Vietnam during our war with them than all that fell onto Europe during World War II, all without ever bringing their very crude, basic systems of food, water, and transportation to a halt, because their systems were simple. It is almost impossible to starve out an agrarian culture raising its food with early iron age technology. The system is simple, not very efficient, and incredibly robust.
Global warming is indisputably a systems problem. I submit that terrorism is also a systems problem. I believe that the possible or probable end of the First American Republic (AKA The United States of America) is a systems problem, in this case rooted in several of our systems, notably our communications system.
For the moment global warming – the increasing storage of available free energy in the Earth system – is probably the biggest single threat we face. This is not to say that, for example, nuclear war is not a severe threat, but rather to say that global warming is an inevitable output product of our current system of living, producing, and transporting the goods of our lives. Nuclear war is maybe; global warming is now. And global warming is the absolutely inevitable result of the systems of life in the so-called modern, advanced, developed world.
If we are to avoid the unpleasant realities of a global warming world, most of which we can’t even begin to foresee, we must think at a systems level. What different systems can we develop which will not include this outcome?
We don’t have very much time; large systems have a great deal of inertia.