Can We Design a Better System?

I believe a metamorphosis of human civilization is possible, but only if we understand that systemic problems require systemic solutions. Until then, we will never be able to overcome the numerous dysfunctions and failings of our world – a world we created haphazardly over time without the full understanding that it too is a system.

“… a system has come to mean an integrated whole whose essential properties arise from the relationships between its parts, and ‘systems thinking’ the understating of a phenomenon within the context of a larger whole. This is, in fact, the root meaning of the word ‘system,’ which derives from the Greek synhistanai (‘to place together’). To understand things systemically literally means to put them into a context, to establish the nature of their relationships.”
– Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life

The difficulties we face as a species are due to the systems in which we currently operate. That’s good news because if we change the system we can change everything.

It seems apparent that capitalism, socialism, communism, and all other “isms” currently being practiced around the globe cannot get us to where we need to go. (Note: I do not differentiate between economic, social, and political systems because the lines separating them are often extremely blurred. Furthermore, all three must be addressed simultaneously in order to change the paradigm.) The combination of democracy and capitalism has created the most ravenous consumer society on the planet. So what needs to change; democracy or capitalism or both?

And what about all the other combinations of “isms” and “archy” (monarchy, oligarchy, anarchy, tyranny – okay that last one is pushing the analogy, but still)? Are they any better or worse? It would seem that no system or combination of systems currently practiced today is anywhere near optimal for creating a sustainable world.

Across the globe, we are destroying the planet via the monetary systems, political systems, and wasteful consumer societies that are currently in place. Our current governments and institutions are failing us and failing the planet. Increased population growth and the increasing scarcity of resources will only exacerbate these problems in the coming years.

It’s possible that our current socio-economic-political systems are evolutionary dead ends. Or, to continue the metamorphosis metaphor, perhaps humanity has simply been in the caterpillar stage up until now. If so, is it within us to transform our system(s) into something else, something better and entirely different? Are we to emerge as butterflies or destroy ourselves?

We are in dire need of something better. We don’t have a green global economy, a world of abundance and plenty, of equal opportunity and shared resources because our economics, politics, and social structures (our systems) have proven incapable of creating such things. Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Yet that is exactly what we’ve been trying to do for generations. We must shift our thinking – and our world – to a new paradigm if we ever hope to address society’s shortcomings and provide a better life for the inhabitants of this planet.


Would We Do It This Way Again?

The question we must ask ourselves is, “Would we do it this way again?’ If we could start over from scratch and create a better type of government, a better and more holistic economy, a better community for ourselves and our families, would we do it exactly the way it is now or would we make some changes?

I don’t know that anyone could or would intentionally design a system with as many faults and deficiencies as the one we now find ourselves mired in. And no one did. It evolved slowly over centuries. We know all the highlights: the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Renaissance, the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, etc. Our modern world is the result of history unfolding from the beginning of civilization until now. Yet, we – as a species – have never come together collectively to consciously decide what’s in the best interests of us all.

And why would we? Until now it didn’t really matter. When we were scattered around the globe we could pretty much do as we pleased without affecting cataclysmic change. But now we live in a global society with a global economy with political systems and ideologies that are often violently opposed to one another. The haves are able to exploit the have-nots – and the planet – on a global scale. Yet we are interconnected and interdependent as never before, and never before have we, the inhabitants of Earth, had the power to bring about the destruction and collapse of the global ecosystem. Like it or not, we must find a way to co-exist, co-create, and co-evolve or else none of us will.

To reiterate, the system we have now – the hodgepodge of competing ideas and interests based upon the scarcity of resources and the concentration of wealth, weapons, and power in the hands of a few – is not one that anyone intentionally created. It just happened, evolving over time without consensus and often without consent. Granted, that’s a gross oversimplification of the complex historical process of cultures and economies merging with one another to form the global society, but it will suffice. Now that that system – such as it is – is in place we can examine it and better observe its inherent strengths and weaknesses.

“The essential properties of an organism, or living system, are properties of the whole, which none of the parts have. They arise from the interconnections and relationships among the parts. These properties are not destroyed when the system is dissected, either physically or theoretically, into isolated elements.”
– Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life

Designers and engineers often create prototypes because knowing how a thing actually functions once it’s off the drawing board can illuminate problems that are unknown until it actually exists. Once a thing is right in front of us we can more easily answer the question, “Would we do it this way again?” The question is even more profound when investigating something that clearly does not work. Many devices and even entire industries have been forever altered by someone asking, “Why are we doing it this way?”

Thus, knowing how poorly our system works, would we do it the same way again? If we had the chance to start over would we redesign the whole thing or would we just try to make the old way work? Clearly the latter is not the best option. The current systems at work in the world have serious design flaws and we are all paying the price. We would be wise to intentionally design an entirely new system; utilizing all the knowledge we’ve gained regarding human habitats, economics, and our planet’s ability to sustain us.


What is the Alternative?

A new, properly designed system is needed to replace the outdated, corrupt, inept, and totally dysfunctional system now in place. But is it possible to create an alternative that eliminates the negatives and increases the positives? Can we design a world that allows everyone to enjoy clean air and water, delicious, healthy, chemical-free food, great schools, robust arts and culture, fulfilling work, ample opportunity, decent wages, safe and affordable housing, good neighborhoods, successful businesses, a thriving economy, and more?

To answer these questions, we need to focus on what works, then figure out why it works, then bring all those elements together into a coherent whole. Our search for what works should focus on systems and not individual technologies or institutions. Putting a great piece of technology into a dysfunctional system is like putting a new high-tech battery into a broken down car. It won’t accomplish anything because all the other failing parts of the car – the system – have not been addressed. Thus, these systems that work need to be actual, fully functional systems and not abstract philosophical ideas or computer models. For this we can look to nature.

Natural ecosystems have many characteristics seemingly lacking in our own human endeavors. In his book, The Web of Life, Fritjof Capra lists the basic principles of healthy natural systems: interdependence, recycling, partnership, flexibility, diversity, and sustainability. These traits can be found in all properly functioning ecologies. Left unmolested by humans, natural areas – be they oceans, forest, deserts, or jungles – will develop a balance, attaining equilibrium within the system. The environment will produce enough food for the given populations of the various species. Food chains evolve. The waste of one organism becomes the food of another. A wide range of flora and fauna form partnerships of sorts and networks of interdependence emerge. This balance of nature can sustain species and environments for thousands or millions of years as is evident by the geological record of our planet.

Why isn’t the same true for humans? Are we innately wired toward greed, hate, fear, divisiveness, possessiveness, competition, death, and destruction? Or have we tended to move down those darker paths because the systems in which we function are based on power, scarcity, lack, control, and domination? If so, would a more holistic system that draws upon the traits of sustainable ecosystems allow us to live harmoniously for thousands of years without destroying ourselves or the planet?

“… our goal should be to solve or avoid each problem in a way that also addresses many more simultaneously – without creating new ones. This system approach not only recognizes underlying causal linkages but sees places to turn challenges into opportunities. Communities and whole societies need to be managed with the same appreciation for integrative design as buildings, the same frugally simple engineering as lean factories, and the same entrepreneurial drive as great companies.”
– Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins
Natural Capitalism

If there is a way to address the entire human system – including the social, political, economic, and environmental subsystems upon which the whole depends – then it becomes possible to create a better way of life for humanity. Using the systems of nature as a guide, we might finally be able to get it right. If a properly running system, however complex, can create and sustain the harmony found in a forest, then a properly designed system can do the same for a human civilization. Put another way, if the system is the cause of the problem, it only has to be replaced with a system that doesn’t create problems.

It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. There are many pieces and when they’re all sprawled out on the table it can look like a big mess. However, if you know what the end result is supposed to look like, then the various pieces – and how they interconnect – begin to make perfect sense. But, we must identify and gather the pieces. These pieces must be ones that are proven to work and that carry the positive traits we want to establish within the new system. These positive traits, or core principles, must be imbedded at the outset, at the earliest, deepest level, so that each component of the system, and each successive generation within the system, will operate according to the principles of the system.

Think of it as computer code or DNA. An organism’s DNA determines what it is, how it functions, and is passed on to each subsequent generation. Organisms with DNA that carry less desirable traits tend to die out because they don’t serve the organism within the system. Organisms with DNA that carry more desirable traits tend to prosper because they thrive within the given system. Therefore, if we wish to create a healthier, more holistic and sustainable system for human civilization, we should identify subsystems with the positive traits we are looking for – ones that will serve the larger system. If such subsystems exist, we can use them as-is. If they do not, we’ll need to create them.

What might these traits or characteristics be? I believe that Capra’s list – interdependence, recycling, partnership, flexibility, diversity, and sustainability – is a good starting point, based as it is on the observations of holistic, healthy ecologies. However, since we’re dealing with human society (human ecologies), we need to take governance into account. Thus, we should add democracy to Capra’s list, the best, most efficient and effective form of democracy we can find.

So how do we begin? Or more aptly, where do we begin? We could start anywhere because systems are interconnections of multiple elements. Like a piece of fabric, following one thread will eventually lead to all the others.

We’ll begin by exploring how simply buying a nice home in the country can create an entire town, dysfunctions and all.

Tim Wardell is a deep thinker, gardener, husband, father, would-be science fiction sex comedy novelist, and margarita aficionado. When not doing any of those things, he reads, studies, practices, and blogs about sustainability.

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