Sustainability 101: The Big Picture Part I

Originally uploaded Mar 29, 2021

In Lesson One, Origin and Definition, we looked at our collective home (the earth) as if it were a spaceship. This is a useful way to see the earth when it comes to systemic issues such as sustainability. We can use a crisis in a fairly simple system – the control panel signalling a malfunction on a spaceship – to represent a far more complex system – the climate crisis on earth. But first we’ll get the definitions out that way.

What do we mean by systemic? I know this word is thrown around these days and is used to signal thoughts of frightening, large scale problems: systemic racism, systemic sexism and so on. In a social or political context, systemic often means as a consequence of issues inherent to a system, scary because the system is rarely defined in the news and media, leaving us to wrongly construct a malicious ‘system’ in our heads which the source of all of society’s ills. This is neither accurate or constructive and throws the blame around to the point of the cause becoming obscured by ignorance. There are many social systems that sexism and racism exist within like a nation, an economic system, the judiciary system. Which one is it, Vox? Let’s not fall into the Vox under-thinking trap. A system is something with a boundary, within which interactions give the system certain characteristics. By this definition, we are all systems, with our skin the boundary and the various biochemical interactions happening inside us giving us the pretty neat property of living. With our spaceship-earth analogy, the boundaries are the metal and glass exterior of the ship and the atmosphere of the earth; both boundaries that mark the point where lifeless space becomes a habitable environment. The interactions that occur within these boundaries are physical chemical reactions like combustion and social exchanges, which give rise to characteristics of the system such as technological advance and climate change. Looking at something as a system prompts us to look at the whole first, the big picture, before getting bogged down with complexities – it’s all about making the infinitely complex simple. A few thousand years ago Aristotle noticed the following:

The whole is more than the sum of its parts

That is to say, that the properties of a system cannot be explained (or solved) by looking at its component parts, just like consciousness cannot be explained by the individual neurones in your brain. Similarly, we can’t explain our unsustainable collective behaviour by looking at single policies, individual actors or events.

Why is this important?

Recognising that our species’ destruction of the living world is a characteristic of a complex social and physical system rather than the result of the actions of one orange man is a tough pill to swallow (and by tough I mean it takes a different way of thinking in order to get your head around). Thinking in systems that have interactions, emergent characteristics and boundaries is something that is a little abstract, but it is the only correct way to view a problem like sustainability and its solutions.

We must start to look at some of the more comprehensible characteristics we know are apparent in our global system (because we’re measuring them) and the interactions that have led to our crisis. Seeing in systems works as a tool for thinking about solutions too, and this is made especially easy when we know what our system, spaceship or planet has got to look like 100 years from now. Next time we will look at the system of spaceship earth in today’s crisis state next to a future world that is aligned with sustainable visions for the future. We will use this comparison to determine the interactions and characteristics that need to occur in order to achieve a system that is in equilibrium with nature.