“Stuff” Happens

If you’re looking for a clue as to why we have so many problems in today’s world, one place you might look is how we actually look at problems.

Our traditional way of dealing with a problem is to break it down into pieces, examine those pieces for flaws, fix whatever flaws we find, and then patch everything back together and congratulate ourselves on a job well done.

Basically, we approach problems in life the way we approach problems with our car. Unfortunately, while this approach may be successful in fixing our car, it’s much less likely to be successful in fixing our problems in life.

While this “break into pieces” approach may come naturally to us today, it’s actually a product of the traditional scientific method. As David S. Walonick, Ph.D. explains,

Since Descartes, the “scientific method” had progressed under two related assumptions. A system could be broken down into its individual components so that each component could be analyzed as an independent entity, and the components could be added in a linear fashion to describe the totality of the system.

Unfortunately, this approach often doesn’t work in complex systems like the economy, society or the environment. Over the course of the 20th Century, people started to realize that it’s impossible to break such systems down in any meaningful way. Instead, they realized you have to look at the system as a whole.

Over time, this realization led to the development of a new approach to dealing with problems in complex systems: systems thinking. To quote Wikipedia, systems thinking is:

…a framework that is based on the belief that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation.

Because we’re in the habit of breaking things into pieces, understanding the basics of systems thinking can seem a little complicated. But sometimes someone creates a presentation describing a system in crisis that gives us a deeper understanding of the problems confronting us.

The New York Times recently ran an article about an increasingly popular video called “The Story of Stuff,” which explores the relationship between our consumer society and the earth’s environment.  As the Times notes, the video “shows students how their own behavior is linked to what is happening across the globe.”

I agree that it’s an excellent video that gives us a deeper understanding of our role in contributing to today’s environmental problems. But beyond that, it also serves as an excellent example of systems thinking.

Maybe, if we gain a better understanding of systems thinking, we’ll be able to respond to complex problems with more than just a hollow excuse that “Stuff happens.”


About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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