19 February 2021

How Systems Thinking Is Necessary to Further Progress in a Time of Suicides and Global Warming

As Russell Ackoff points out, we began to treat understanding and analysis as synonymous as the West came out of the Dark Ages. To better understand something, we analyze it, take it apart. Medicine has pursued this approach to the point that nearly 90% of physicians become subspecialists of some kind.
Analysis is not, however, the only way to understand something. Systems thinking is another and it yields very different insights.
From the American Journal of Medicine

Analysis may tell you what changes take place in the body when someone is aroused or afraid, full of joy or dread. Systems thinking doesn’t try to understand you better by understanding the parts of you; it instead looks at the larger wholes of which you are a part. The quality of your relationships. The sense of meaning and inclusion that gives you drive and comfort. To understand those we cannot take you apart, cannot open you up to look at your parts. We have to look outside of you.

As a measure of the extent to which we’ve succeeded at analysis (and indeed analysis yields fabulous insights), life expectancy has steadily gone up as more specialists have entered the medical profession. 

Until recently, that is.

Even before COVID, life expectancy began to stall. Why? It is what economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton call “deaths of despair.” The intentional and unintentional suicides from drug and alcohol abuse that are widespread in economically dislocated areas. Here individuals feel unvalued and disconnected. It is a market failure that reminds us that markets are where transactions take place, where people make a connection and walk away with value, the vendor with the revenue and the customer with the goods. Cut off from this, people begin to feel cut off from a sense of purpose.

Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among those 10 to 34 and the fourth leading cause of death among those 35 to 54.

You cannot analyze the cause of suicide, open someone up to find what is missing in them. It is not a piece within them but instead their feeling part of some larger whole that is missing or marred. It is the perspective of systems thinking and not analysis that yields the important insights in this situation, insights that points to the path of healing.

The medical world is not the only one in which we’ve repeatedly applied analysis to better understand the parts of the parts of the parts to the point of microbiology and genes so small that they cannot be seen. There is more to learn down this path but as we adopt systems thinking more fully and in more facets of life, our attention will be less focused upon the parts and more focused on creating new wholes, new relationships, connections, markets, institutions and purpose.

One of the many failings of analysis is that it ignores the environment. Aristotle thought that an 8 pound rock would fall twice as fast as a 4 pound rock. Galileo - about 2,000 years later - conducted some experiments and concluded that weight had no influence on that. But he had to do something special to learn that a feather and rock fall at the same speed. He had to remove the environment, put the objects in a vacuum where air resistance was not a factor. This told us more about gravity (and laid the groundwork for Newton's marvelous insights) but less about reality. We've continued to pursue analysis into the 21st century. It is that powerful. However, we are now facing an environmental crisis. As it turns out, you can only ignore what lies outside us, the environment, for so long before we have an environmental crisis.

Systems thinking could change how we think and organize our world as much as analysis did. Or so we can hope.

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