Wednesday, December 30, 2009


I've been behind on reading the blogs that I follow (as is often true). One of them is The Archdruid Report, a blog that I wrote about last year. (See my post of 8/5/08.)

JMG, the Archdruid, was on part three of a series. So I would have some idea of what he was talking about, I skimmed through the first two parts. Part Two stopped me. It was focused on a critique of systems theory. If you've been reading this blog lately, you probably know I love systems theory. I just wrote a post to that effect. (See 'Systems', 12/14/09.) In his post, the Archdruid was talking about appropriate technology and having flashbacks to the 70s. "...I half expected to see a circle of scruffy longhairs sitting on pillows around the latest issue of Coevolution Quarterly, excitedly discussing the latest innovations from Zomeworks and the New Alchemy Institute." Well, that certainly describes where I was at in those days.

So what went wrong? I think that we could certainly use a dose of appropriate technology these days. JMG goes on to cite a bunch of beliefs of the time and then says: "A formidable body of thought backed those conclusions, and the core of that body of thought was systems theory. ... systems theory argued that complex systems--all complex systems-–shared certain distinctive traits and behaviors, so that insights gained in one field of study could be applied to phenomena in completely different fields that shared a common degree of complexity. It had its weaknesses, to be sure, but on the whole, systems theory did exactly what theories are supposed to do-–it provided a useful toolkit for making sense of part of the universe of human experience..." BUT "As popular theories sometimes do, though, it became associated with a position in the cultural struggles of the time, and as some particularly unfortunate theories do, it got turned into a vehicle for a group of intellectuals who craved power."

Yes, it turns out that this isn't really a critique of systems theory, it's a critique of some systems theorists. "Such leading figures in the movement as Jay Forrester of MIT and Aurelio Peccei of the Club of Rome agreed that humanity's impact on the planet had become so great that methods devised for engineering and corporate management-–in which, not coincidentally, they were expert-–had to be put to work to manage the entire world. ... the Club of Rome followed up The Limits to Growth [a very influential book with an ecological model] with a series of further studies, all basically arguing that the problems outlined in the original study could be solved by planetary management on the part of a systems-savvy elite." The result? "The Reagan revolution of 1980 saw the opposition seize the upper hand, and the systems movement was among the big losers. ... What made this implosion all the more ironic is that a systems analysis of the systems movement itself, and its relationship to the wider society, might have provided a useful warning. Very few of the newborn institutions in the systems movement were self-funding; from prestigious think tanks to neighborhood energy-conservation schemes, most of them subsisted on government grants, and thus were in the awkward position of depending on the social structures they hoped to overturn. That those structures could respond homeostatically to oppose their efforts might, one would think, be obvious to people who were used to the strange loops and unintended consequences that pervade complex systems."

What is clear to me in reading this is the problem wasn't at all with systems theory, it was with people who wanted to use the theory to get power. If you read the above, it feels like these people didn't really understand systems thinking, just the little bit that they thought would benefit them. The Archdruid is talking about those who wanted to make change from the top down and not those of us that want to create change by building from the bottom up. Not that the kickback hasn't effected lots of us as well. As JMG says, "Unfortunately that reaction slammed the door on resources that might have made the transition ahead of us less difficult."

I've condensed the Archdruid's post and left out a lot. It's worth reading in full--including, if you have time, the various comments people have made. A couple of the commentors mention sustainability and permaculture as the movements closest to systems theory now, and wonder how those movements can avoid the mistakes made by systems theorists, especially since some of what they propose may not be that well liked by the powers that be--or even much of the general population.

I would say we need to pay attention to four things: 1) Start small, slow, and simple. (See my post of 12/24/09 on 'Permaculture Principles' and notice the principles I put out as the last two.) 2) Build from the bottom up. Talk with people, find those who think this stuff is interesting and work with them, and find commonalities with others, and build on those. 3) Take the time to listen to others, and then take the time to explain yourself, slowly and gradually, to them. And 4) Don't attract attention. If someone does pay attention, let them think you are a harmless crank. You're talking about feeding people and saving the world. Don't let them think you are talking about creating problems for them or interfering with their way of life--because that isn't our goal, although it may be a biproduct of what we see coming.

Above all, our goal can't be to use all this good stuff to gain wealth, or power, or fame. We need to see ourselves as just part of the process--and either everyone will benefit or perhaps we should question why we are doing it.

There are a few things I didn't agree with in the Archdruid's post. The biggest is the line: "Nowadays, the only people who pay attention to systems theory are specialists in a handful of obscure fields..." On the other hand, maybe it's just as well if people believe that.

Quote of the Day: "Set aside the hubris that convinced too many systems theorists that they ought to manage the world, and systems theory itself is an extremely effective toolkit of ideas and practices, and a good many of the things that moved in harmony with systems theory – 1970s appropriate tech being a fine example – are well worth dusting off and putting to use right now. At the same time, though, the process that excluded them needs to be understood, and not just because the same process could repeat itself just as easily with some new set of sustainability initiatives. The homeostatic behavior of complex systems also casts an unexpected light on one of the major conundrums of contemporary life, the location of political power in industrial society..." - John Michael Greer


Austan said...

The endless clamoring of the Ego is a din the world seems deaf to.

Thanks for all you write and do, Moony. You make people think, and that's a rare accomplishment these days. I hope all your dreams come true in 2010.

MoonRaven said...

Thank you and thanks also for all you write and do. I've been inspired by your steadfastness in the face of adversity. May you also live your dreams in the new year.