This is the first part of a three part series explaining the basics of Living Systems Theory and its importance for creating a sustainable world.
How many times have you thought of your body as a machine? When you think of the workings of your brain, do you imagine a computer? Do you think the universe is a great big mechanical clock?
Thinking like this is what defines our machine age spanning from the age of reason and the enlightenment of the 1700’s to today. Our worldview (or paradigm) has been shaped by the ideas of dualism, reductionism, and materialism creating an explanation of our reality as a vast machine. If we could figure out the rules and laws which govern this machine we could do anything! Yet the deeper we’ve gone down into the inner workings of the machine and its parts, the more we realize reality is far more chaotic and complex than any mechanical clock-works. More and more anomalies appear as the universe-as-a-machine model breaks apart with quantum mechanics, cybernetics, and Gaia Theory. As a result, using a mechanical model to explain the nature of the universe doesn’t seem to work very well anymore.
A wise professor once told me, “All models are wrong! Some are just more useful than others...” If the quantum and ecological world is teaching us anything, it is that we can never fully capture or grasp the entirety of this thing we call ‘reality.’
So, let’s ask. How useful has our machine worldview been for us? From a social justice, environmental, and spiritual perspective what have been the benefits…and the costs? If it could, would a forest say our worldview is working for it? We have created a society that thinks only in straight lines with an economy which functions as if we still think the planet is flat and goes on forever with unlimited resources. The machine worldview has allowed us to create and do amazing things and advance in incredible ways, but we’ve been ignoring half of reality and externalizing anomalies; meaning, the mechanical model works really well at explaining reality if we ignore most of it. But most of us never go very deeply into the true nature of reality. We skim along the surface of our everyday lives, unaware of the vastness below. We still keep trying to ram this square mechanical peg into a round ‘whole.’
So why should we care? Why is this important? How does this save the planet and what is so great about going deeper anyway?
We must look deeper at our hidden assumptions about reality because any benefits we’ve received from our current model, whether technological, medical, or otherwise will be cancelled out by the collapse of our biosphere. Our worldview creates our world by telling us what is real, what is possible, who and what we are, and how we are supposed to function in the world. Our worldview is our model of reality composed of the very basic stories and ideas we have about how reality works; which we assume to be true. Since these ideas are taken for granted we barely notice our worldview until someone else’s worldview bumps into ours. I study and love anthropology because when two cultures with two different worldviews clash, sparks fly. Sadly with most people these sparks can quickly become wildfires as they try to prove which worldview is the right one—which version of reality is really real. But if you are curious enough and look deeper, you can begin to see where things aren’t as solid as we thought they were. You can begin to see what’s been made up by us collectively and how we’ve become the servants and cogs of an idea. Anthropology forces us to look deeper into the web of culture and its ideas we take for granted every day. This is why I like to call anthropology 101 ‘shock and awe.’
Our current model isn’t working for us or for our planet. We are experiencing ecological destruction, social injustice, and an impoverishment of the spirit. We are so disconnected from everyone and everything—including our own bodies, hearts, and minds. Somehow we have fallen under a spell—we are entranced by a worldview which dominates the Western world and is rapidly squelching all others. It affects you whether you subscribe to it or not.
But there is good news! We made this all up together and together we can change it and create something new. This all starts with changing how we see the world and what we think is possible by creating a new worldview which we can use to create a new model of reality. And once you are able to see the model and the system with its pattern of organization, you can manipulate it effectively.
There is more good news! You can see the new worldview and model that is already beginning to emerge right within this old one. Welcome to the new model of Living Systems Theory, which I will discuss in my next blog, Saving the Planet Kung Fu Part 2: SystemsTheory Basics.
Sources and Further Reading:
Arntz, William, Betsy Chase, and Mark Vicente. (2005). What the Bleep Do We Know? Discovering the Endless Possibilities for Altering Your Everyday Reality. Health Communications, Inc: Deerfield Beach, Florida.
Bell, M.M. (2004). An Invitation to Environmental Sociology, 2nd Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
Berman, Morris. (1981). The Reenchantment of the World. Cornell University Press: Ithaca and London.
Capra, Fritjof. (1996). The Web of Life: A new Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. Anchor Books: New York.
Kauffman, Draper L. Jr. (1980). Systems One: An Introduction to Systems Thinking. Future Systems, Inc.
Sahtouris, Elisabet. (2000). Earth Dance: Living Systems in Evolution. iUniversity Press: San Jose
Senge, Peter et. al. (2010). The Necessary Revolution: Working Together to Create a Sustainable World. New York: Broadway Books.
Senge, Peter et. al. (2004). Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future. Society for Organizational Learning/Currency Doubleday: New York.
Swimme, Brian and Thomas Berry. (1992). The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era, A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos. Harper San Francisco.