The Necessary Revolution by Peter Senge

The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and organizations are working together to create a Sustainable World

Book Review: Part I

Value of TNR: The theme of The Necessary Revolution is that we must shift beyond being reactive in our solutions approach, merely seizing short term solutions, and move to deep thinking to really make a difference. I strongly agree. The book includes many stories of what organizations and individuals are doing to try to be more proactive. The “Take, Make, Waste” mode of the last 60 years is no longer viable and some folks are digging deeper in their thinking and getting beyond symptom solutions. It is the right message but with insufficient thinking on the part of the authors on what it would really take to accomplish that deep thinking.  They fall into the same trap they are critiquing, working in a problem-solving mode with humans doing less harm and letting nature restore itself, but with just a more sophisticated version than they challenge.

Shortfall: The authors point out that what got us into the mess we are in is working from a Cartesian view of reality that sees the world as things divided into parts and pieces that are not connected. As a result we have outsourced solutions by specialty, allow the problem creator to side step the deep dive to get to the underlying causes. However, TNR is working with an approach to Systems Thinking based on the Study of machines and computers that originated at MIT with Jay Forrester in the Engineering and Cybernetic Systems School in the 1950s. Forrester moved to the Sloan Management School and took his Systems Dynamic Theory with him. It is still a part of the Sloan School and has been adopted by the SOL Sustainability Consortium unrevised from its computer science basis and applied directly to human systems. It is true that Systems Thinking is needed to get us past the current crisis but one based in and developed from understanding artificial intelligence in computers and the working of machinery is just as limited as the element Cartesian model that positioned us for the current challenge. Even though the authors open with the Einstein quote, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we create them,” they fail to see that that is the mind that created the form of system thinking is still the one they are using for the most part.

One of the greatest shortfall of the book is the banalization of the term regenerative and equating it with renewable, as in renewable resources and restorative, as restoring a wetland to its original state—or letting nature do it. This comes from a particular way of thinking about Systems that limits achieving the author’s aims.

Causal Systems Thinking: The least encompassing type of Systems Thinking is what I call, Causal Systems Thinking or Cybernetic Systems Thinking because it is based in Cybernetic Studies and Science coming from Computer Science fields and Industrial Engineering applications to machinery based on non-living metaphors, but applied to Living Systems. Causal loops are core to the concept and accurately describe how mechanical systems can be understood by….. Causal loops are an incomplete and inaccurate way to describe human and social systems since they imply a single connecting or steam of causes back to an original cause.  Even Forrester said that feedback loops do not apply to open systems, which Living Systems are, because feedback loops are based on repetitive behavior and refer back to actions of the past and control those directly for the future. In open systems, the actions are independent of past action. (see Principles of Systems, Jay Forrester, 1979)

Contextual Systems Thinking

The next level of systems thinking that bring a great deal more but still is an insufficient approach might be called Contextual Systems Thinking because it is based in the idea of moving away from the “back up stream look to cause” in cybernetic systems thinking, into looking at the complex context in which actions and entities co-exist and interact. It sees the relationships as much more complex than the Cybernetic Systems School. It draws on Living Systems, particularly that of General Systems Theory by Ludwig Von Bertalanffy. It refers to a group of elements that work in concert to produce some result. General Systems Theory first originated in biology in the 1920s out of the need to explain the interrelatedness of organisms in ecosystems. It has been….

The terms “systems theory” and “cybernetics” have been widely used as synonyms. Some authors use the term cybernetic systems to denote a proper subset of the class of general systems, namely those systems that include feedback loops.

Threads of cybernetics began in the late 1800s that led toward the publishing of seminal works (e.g., Wiener’s Cybernetics in 1946 and von Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory in 1968). Cybernetics arose more from engineering fields and GST from biology. If anything it appears that although the two probably mutually influenced each other, cybernetics had the greater influence and therefore most Systems Thinking is still machine based just as the Rene Descartes saw humans as a great clock. Bertalanffy (1969) specifically makes the point of distinguishing between the areas in noting the influence of cybernetics: “Systems theory is frequently identified with cybernetics and control theory. This again is incorrect. Cybernetics as the theory of control mechanisms in technology and nature is founded on the concepts of information and feedback, but as part of a general theory of systems;” then reiterates: “the model is of wide application but should not be identified with ‘systems theory’ in general,” and that “warning is necessary against its incautious expansion to fields for which its concepts are not made.” Living systems have some feedback processes but they are no longer causal as they are in mechanical and computer systems (they have agency independent of the feedback) and they are not in the form of loops (they are much more multi-directional). And the effects are coming from system at greater levels of influence over which the smaller system has no control, and perhaps little if any influence.

However neither of these first two levels is sufficient to the task that the MIT authors lay out, to move past a limited way of thinking, into a Systems Way of thinking about the earth, human, and planetary processes. Another two more encompassing levels of Systems Thinking are required to make that leap.  We will call the third level up, a Guilding Systems Thinking and the fourth Level Essence Systems Thinking.

Essence Guilding: Guilds are groups of beings who have close symbiotic relationships with one another. In Permaculture methods, plants are often grouped in small, reoccurring but loosely defined communities that are often referred to as guilds. A guild has layers-each specifically designed to use one aspect of both the sun and root strata. In other words, each plant has its own work or vocation in the system and it is perfectly matched to gain the right resources to do its work—including humans. This Guilding level of Systems thinking sees human as part of the ecology as did Joanna Macy but with a critical added aspect. Human are intended to actively intervene to support nature working fully just the as the sun “intervenes” to do its work and as animals do in order to do theirs.

This is contrary to the view of most environmentalists who raise fears of ignorance and further damage. And, rightly so, since humans have not been educated in their role and therefore, first, do not know they have a vocation in the living system and, second, are not developed to play it. It is like hiring someone for a job but not telling them what they are to do as their work and not providing the training and development to understand the job and how one’s role fits with the organization overall. We have assumed we are outside the system, the environmental system, and that it operates for our benefit. With this mindset the best we can do it” to not do anymore harm”—the most often advocated position for humans. This leaves the system without the human role it is designed to serve. The TNR speaks as though nature can regenerate itself, which it cannot without all roles being played. It can renew itself and even restore much damage. But nature is dependent on the role of humans to be an effective guild member with each part of the community working for the whole and it evolution. Nature is dependent on the human role in the system that we are intended to play, not for survival or restoration, but to engage in regeneration- that is to move a set of nested systems to the highest realization of the essence of each aspect of the guild. It requires understanding how all aspects of the system not only work together to produce the whole but the hierarchical nature of that working that requires and mandates some processes have more power over lower ones in a non-negotiable way.

But to do this work, humans must first understand the working a nature’s guilds generally but then further to understand specifically the working of any guild in which they intervene. To do the regenerative work, humans must understand the essence of each aspect of the guild and the essence of the place at multi-levels of systems beyond natural systems (e.g. culturally). This is not possible from the thinking mind that views feedback loops and contextual dynamics alone. We must develop and engage an even more sophisticated set of thinking processes

Alfred Korzybski, in Science and Sanity, makes this role more apparent, along with the challenges of the nature of mind needed, with his research based theory on the nature of nested-ableness of plants, animals and humans. Humans can circumlocate, which plants cannot, and humans can mentally build on and even extend from learning of other humans, merely on the theory and practice being observed or explained, which animals cannot.

Animals can copy a behavior, even if some of the copying comes from accidental behavior, which may then become integrated as new behavior. This “copying behavior” understanding was made popular by The 100th Monkey” theory. In animals there is very limited frontal lobe on the brain to see the working of and extend that into new possibilities. Human capacity is based instead in the ability to conceptualize something, observing through time, which lets humans see patterns and generate new patterns or realize new patterns more precisely than they are playing out in their current existence. So humans are designed to play this role, not the design role, which we often get into, but the imaging role that illuminates the underlying patterns that are implicit in the design, and to provide the ableness to support that pattern being fully realized increasingly over time.

Joanna Macy, with the School of Deep Ecology, has influenced the Contextual Systems Thinking.  This School of Thought sees humankind an integral and inseparable part of the environment. Deep ecology places greater value on non-human species, ecosystems and processes in nature than established environmental and green movements do. Deep ecology has led to a new system of environmental ethics. The core principle of deep ecology is the claim that, like humanity, the living environment as a whole has the same right to live and flourish. For some, this set of ideas are included in the next level of systems thinking, the Guilding Systems Thinking, which makes clear the human role that is intentionally interventionistic, but at this level it is still a hands off approach brought in from the environmental movement.

The second level also includes Complex adaptive Systems, which is part of the Donnella Meadows extension of Systems Dynamics and the Santa Fe Institute School of Chaos theory. This School of Complex Adaptive Systems has a great influence in challenging the simpler and less isomorphic view of Systems Dynamics and the Feedback Loop approach to Systems Thinking also learn from one and another in influence.  To be continued.


One Response to The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and organizations are working together to create a Sustainable World

  1. Avatar
    Lynn July 7, 2009 at 3:02 pm #

    Wow, right on.

    But you didn’t mention the importance of humans’ emotions on systems.

    A friend was ranting becasue she wanted all the old growth forests (and all national parks) closed entirely to people. “People are loving them to death,” she lamented.

    I ask her how we would know to love them if we never experienced them. And, how long we would pay to support them if we didn’t love them.

    The idea that we humans have a role in nature’s process and systems is a much bigger and useful way to think about regenerating our Earth and its cultures too.

Leave a Reply