Thinking In Systems – Debunking Wizards and Prophets

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I have acquired a strong interest in following the ideas and the activities of those scientific, educational, and political groups that claim to have solutions to the problems associated with mankind’s huge negative impact on the environmental welfare of our Earth. I have this intense interest because:


  1. I truly care for a happy and sustainable future for human generations that include my own family and the students who I serve.
  2. I am frustrated when I see proposed future ecological conservation programs that have little chance of succeeding because key facts of life are being ignored.

What concerns me deeply is that the progress of effective conservation programs have slowed down or stopped because the conservation community is locked in a battle over ideology while a threat of ecological catastrophe in about 50 years exists because of human apathy, unsustainable human population growth, and unsustainable consumption of resources.


One group is very confident that we humans can prevent this crisis by applying our higher intelligence to create new technologies that will produce more food for humans, more energy, and other essential “services” that will assure our survival.


In his book entitled “The Wizard and the Prophet” , author Charles Mann calls this group “Wizards”. The other group is looked upon as predictors of a doomsday for humans because their calculations suggest that a limit in the food supply will be reached by about year 2100 because no more land will be available to produce food. Wars over land control will break out and the ethics of a productive human society will be replaced by survival ethics. This group favors restricting or controlling humans who choose to venture into Nature. Charles Mann calls this group “Prophets”.


Gus Spaeth, a US adviser on climate change, said:


I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”


Gus Spaeth describes a Western worldview of apathy toward Nature that no conservation program, whether it be authored by Wizards or Prophets, has addressed. Spaeth implies that a cultural change in human beings is necessary to solve our current environmental problems. Neither the Wizards nor the Prophets suggest ways to alter this cultural crisis. The uniquely western mindset is set apart from Nature and is called upon called to dominate Nature. This worldview is manifested in apathy toward Nature, unsustainable capital growth, and overconsumption.


A part of resolving humanity’s cultural crisis is in accepting the interdependency of all life on Earth. Interdependency is manifested in “living systems” where everything in life is interconnected. The Prophets and the Wizards make little mention of the importance of living systems even though the systems view of life has been a mainstay in scientific thinking for a number of years. No conservation program can succeed without accepting the idea that Earth, its flora and its fauna are all part of a living system.  Discoveries from modern systems science has made us realize that everything on Earth is interconnected and interdependent. Everything is part of a network. Nothing lives in isolation. Systems science has also shown us that we humans cannot predict  the processes or pathways of our Earth’s living systems. This fact has been well established. So, the “Prophets” cannot accurately  predict any upcoming crisis, and the “Wizards” cannot predict the outcome of their proposed new technologies.


In my view, the key to resolving the current ecological crisis is to:

  1. Find a way to modify the “dominion” and “control” worldview that humanity possesses about Nature.
  2. Humanity accepting a systems worldview that includes Nature’s interdependencies of all living things including mankind.

The issue of modifying the Western worldview about Nature has been addressed in another blog essay entitled Environmental Educators Have The Power To Change Humanity’s Inaccurate Worldview About Nature. This essay suggests that our center of influence should be on our youth who represent one half of our population.


The worldview and the message that must be communicated by our youth is the systems view of life where humans must recognize that all life, including ourselves, is part of an interconnected and  interdependent system.


In April of 2018, the Ecologist Journal published an essay by Fritjof Capra entitled “The Way To Sustain Life Is To Build And Nurture Community. Capra is well known as one of the fathers of modern systems science. Capra and Pier Luisi are well known for their 2014 textbook entitled “The Systems View of Life”.


Capra’s essay is a wonderful summary of modern systems science thinking that has been completely ignored by the Wizards and the Prophets. What follows is a series of quotes from Capra’s essay that suggest a new way of thinking about conservation work that sets aside the feud between the Wizards and the Prophets and offers a solution.


“Today, it is becoming more and more evident that concern with the environment is no longer one of many “single issues.” It is the context of everything else — of our lives, our businesses, our politics.”


“The great challenge of our time is to build and nurture sustainable communities, designed in such a manner that their ways of life — businesses, economies, physical structures, and technologies — do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life.”


“The first step in this endeavor, naturally, must be to understand how nature sustains life. It turns out that this involves a new ecological understanding of life. Indeed, such a new understanding of life has emerged in science over the last 30 years.”


‘The systems view of life requires a new kind of thinking — thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context.”


“One of the most important insights of the systemic understanding of life is the recognition that networks are the basic pattern of organisation of all living systems. Ecosystems are understood in terms of food webs – i.e., networks of organisms; organism are networks of cells, organs, and organ systems; and cells are networks of molecules.”


“The network is a pattern that is common to all life. Indeed, at the very heart of the change of paradigms from the mechanistic to the systemic view of life we find a fundamental change of metaphors: from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network. “


” Today, it is becoming more and more evident that concern with the environment is no longer one of many “single issues.” It is the context of everything else — of our lives, our businesses, our politics.”


” Sustainability, then, is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships. It always involves a whole community. This is the profound lesson we need to learn from nature. The way to sustain life is to build and nurture community.”


“Today, it is becoming more and more evident that the major problems of our time — energy, environment, climate change, economic inequality, violence and war, and so on — cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are all interconnected and interdependent. They require corresponding systemic solutions — solutions that do not solve any problem in isolation but deal with it within the context of other related problems.”


“Unfortunately, this realization has not yet dawned on most of our political and corporate [and scientific] leaders who are unable to connect the dots. Instead of taking into account the interconnectedness of our major problems, their so-called ‘solutions’ tend to focus on a single issue, thereby simply shifting the problem to another part of the system — for example, by producing more energy at the expense of biodiversity, public health, or climate stability. Moreover, our leaders refuse to recognize how their piecemeal solutions affect future generations. What we need is solutions that are systemic and sustainable.”


” ‘ecoliteracy’ and understanding of systems thinking in relation to nature is vital to sustainable living. “


“In the coming decades the survival of humanity will depend on our ecological literacy — our ability to understand the basic principles of ecology and to live accordingly.”


“This means that ecoliteracy must become a critical skill for politicians, business leaders, and professionals in all spheres, and should be the most important part of education at all levels — from primary and secondary schools to colleges, universities, and the continuing education and training of professionals.”


“We need to teach our children, our students, and our political and corporate leaders the fundamental facts of life — for example, that one species’ waste is another species’ food; that matter cycles continually through the web of life; that the energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun; that diversity assures resilience; that life, from its beginning more than three billion years ago, did not take over the planet by combat but by partnerships and networking.”

My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

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