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Human nature, at least in the western world, seems to be dominated by linear thinking.
Silly little left brained thinkers we are, we assume that because we perceive time as linear, that consequentially, all of our collective problems must have a linear solution.
As a society, we see this in business, government, and politics all the time.
Let’s take politics, for example.
Across most of the free world, politics, for example, has become increasingly tribalistic and extreme.
In terms of those wielding political power and influence, it seems that less and less lean towards the center.
One of the many dangers of linear thinking, politically speaking, is that a proper solution for one group of people can create a WORSE long-term situation for another group.
Systems Thinker explains,
“Linear thinking tends to focus on addressing surface-level behaviors – or symptoms. Unfortunately, making a symptom go away won’t solve the problem. In fact, it may make things worse and cause effects in other parts of the organization.”
And as the groups grow in quantity, and each group becomes less and less similar, this all becomes more and more likely.
Maybe the proper solution for one group causes one little negative side effect for another.
For another group, it might be two.
Or maybe dozens for another.
And these “side effects” could be individually positive, negative, or neutral.
Assume dozens of legislators, policy makers, and politicians all fighting for influence and power to make sure their “represented” constituents’ interests are properly accounted for.
And then, just for fun, assume the majority of those legislators, policy makers, and politicians – are actually HONEST AND COMPETENT.
If you follow the linear thinking and problem solving of the first group even further, you might find that…
in an even longer, long run, it is highly possible (perhaps even probable) that even the original group that benefited will be worse off.
Why? Because the tribal pack of dogs that first lost, will bark and bite back harder.
Those who were hurt by the solution ally together, and now there’s more dogs in the bigger tribe.
Those in power to make these decisions often do so as a reactionary context, which often creates a “band-aid” or simply a public relations display masquerading as a solution.
And the next you know, we are a globe covered in political band-aids.
What does all this cause?
And what do we do?
Often, we double down with a parallel line, and go linear AGAIN.
And we try to fix each little piece separately without REFERENCE TO THE COLLECTIVE WHOLE!
Ladies and gentlemen, this is modern politics in a nutshell.
And as mentioned previously, it’s not just politics that suffer from this linear-takes-all-problem-solving fallacy.
It appears in many of our lives as well.
Alcohol is a great example for many of us, especially in our college years!
But of course, there are more important examples.
Have you ever excelled in your profession, only to sacrifice some important relationships at home?
Hopefully you recalibrate and balance both, but many times, we OVERCOMPENSATE and end up worse than we started!
Jim Ollhoff from Systems Thinker further clarifies linear thinking in a complex system,
“As One Problem Is “Solved,” Another Crops Up. In an organization that relies on reactive, quick-fix, cause-and-effect management, once one problem is solved, another tends to crop up.
Most linear thinkers won’t realize that the two issues are related. Meanwhile, the underlying dynamics fueling the problems fail to be addressed.”
One of the oldest video games ever created, pong, with its digital ball that is endlessly hit back and forth, may be one of the best allegories of fallacious human thinking (or worse, group-thinking) of all time.
I think this may stem from the core differentiations between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
As mentioned, the left brain tends to think linearly. It identifies, categories and organizes.
It MUST make order of everything.
And in most cases, since we think and perceive time linearly, our problem solving though process flows linearly as well.
In math and science, we assume that virtually all solutions must be represented as objective solutions, and that anything that appears subjective is merely a form of objectivity not yet discovered.
But is this true?
In simple situations, in a vacuum, often the answer is yes.
Take the basics of most mathematics, for example.
“Once you phrase the claim in the form of an implication, (such as: "if [the axioms of Euclidean geometry], then [the Pythagorean theorem]") then you have an objective truth. This is assumed to be the meaning when any mathematician states a theorem - we understand what axiomatic framework they are working in and understand that their claim is contingent on those axioms.
Given a particular axiom system, three of the possible results for a mathematical claim are:
We prove the claim true. [Ex: The Pythagorean theorem]
We prove the claim false. [Ex: "The integers under multiplication form a group"]
We prove that the claim is independent of our axiomatic system. [Ex: the continuum hypothesis].”
But here’s the problem with objective solutions, what happens when multiple problems are occurring at once? What about side effects? Who decides the underlying assumptions? What is the time horizon for the solutions? What could change?
In the real world, there are very few complex problems with simple solutions.
Our planet is perhaps the best example of this fallacy of linear and/or isolated case-by-case problem solving.
Regarding the Earth’s continually failing health, most of the core problems are clear:
Climate change. Plastic pollution. Polluted air. Polluted water. Deforestation. Destruction of habitats and mass extinctions. Oceanic dead zones.
The list goes on and on, and most of these issues are linked, not only to each other, but to dozens of other causes.
In most of these causes, it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, to isolate each individual problem.
Even if you could, would you really want to?
If you could have perfectly crisp and clean oxygen and trade that for drinking water with chlorine and heavy metals, would you?
Crazy as it may seem, most of us want clean air, water, land and biodiversity all at the same time.
How greedy, right?
When it comes to our environment, all life support systems are interdependent, interdisciplinary, and interconnected.
Recently, prominent scientists from around the world created a global panel to ask in simple terms:
How much further can our planet’s life support systems be stretched before there is no return?
Before we can answer that question, we have to recognize that as a species, we are quite literately in a new geological age.
Perhaps beginning with the industrial revolution, and most certainly within the last 50 years, we have left the Holocene era and entered the Anthropocene.
According to Welcome to the Anthropocene and the Encyclopedia of Earth,
“The Anthropocene defines Earth's most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans.
The word combines the root "anthropo", meaning "human" with the root "-cene", the standard suffix for "epoch" in geologic time.”
Never in our planet’s history has one species changed so much, so quickly. And sadly, from an environmental perspective, most of these changes have been for the worse.
New Scientist explains further, “This balmy springtime for humanity is known as the Holocene. But we are now in a new era, the Anthropocene, defined by human domination of the key systems that maintain the conditions of the planet. We have grabbed the controls of spaceship Earth, but in our reckless desire to "boldly go", we may have forgotten the importance of maintaining its life-support systems.”
In contrast to listing symptoms rather than root causes, or making doom and gloom precise predictions on when and how climate change may occur, this panel of scientists looks at the planet as a collective whole and identifies nine vital life support systems and global priorities that include the interaction between land, atmosphere, water, and life.
Then, they have identified reasonable boundaries – thresholds where, if breached, would indicate a point of no return. A breach would likely usher the planet into a new, even more dangerous state of unpredictability.
According to the Stockholm Resilience Center, “The Planetary Boundaries concept identifies nine global priorities relating to human-induced changes to the environment. The science shows that these nine processes and systems regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth System
— the interactions of land, ocean, atmosphere and life that together provide conditions upon which our societies depend. Four of nine planetary boundaries have now been crossed as a result of human activity: climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change, altered biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen).
Two of these, climate change and biosphere integrity, are what the scientists call "core boundaries". Significantly altering either of these core boundaries would drive the Earth System into a new state.”
Where are we now?
As you may have guessed, not good.
Currently, there are three boundaries out of nine that have already been exceeded. They include climate change, biodiversity and nitrogen fixation.
In regards to land use, fresh water, and ocean acidification – we may have already crossed the boundary in some places already, but overall, we are alarmingly close.
As much as this sounds like more “gloom and doom,” here is at least one bright spot that we can learn from – and success that we can hopefully re-replicate.
Fred Pearce from New Scientist explains,
“Having come close to destroying the ozone layer, exposing both ourselves and ecosystems to dangerous ultraviolet radiation, we have successfully stepped back from the brink.
The ozone hole is gradually healing. That lifeline has been grabbed. At least it shows action is possible - and can be successful.”
As much some of might like to pretend, there is NO going back to the pre-industrial Holocene.
The Anthropocene is here to stay.
I mentioned in the beginning of this blog post that it’s important to think creatively and divergentally when it comes to solving the vital challenges in our environment.
More importantly, I pointed out the human and societal tendency to think linearly, to look for perfect cause and effect, action and reaction, problems and solutions.
Quite often, this creates an environment of “blaming others” or mistaking symptoms from their root causes.
But just like our polluted air, the overlapping areas of grey are so vast they are almost incomprehensible.
We MUST treat this problem like the complicated system that it is – the human body is a good metaphor.
Similar to when we exercise with complex movements, in most cases, we can TARGET but we cannot completely ISOLATE one proximal muscle group from another, we must have the same approach to environmental science.
We must think differently!
Intuitively, empathically, creatively, and systemically!
Since even the best renowned scientists in the world are scratching their heads trying to figure out HOW to heal our planet as a collective whole, I will at least share one of the most unique and innovative ideas I’ve found.
“Good Anthropocenes” is an excellent resource for this who want to create change in a world that’s life support systems are now being significantly changed and controlled by humans.
They came up with an excellent global tool – planting “seeds” around the world that showcase thousands of different possible visions for the future that are ecologically sound, sustainable, socially responsible, and economically prosperous.
Good Anthropocenes explains their platform: “Seeds are existing initiatives that are not widespread or well-known. They can be social initiatives, new technologies, economic tools, or social-ecological projects, or organizations, movements or new ways of acting that have that appear to be making a substantial contribution towards creating a future that is just, prosperous, and sustainable.”
Anyone can view, explore, or submit their own seed.
Some of my favorites include: Melbourne, Australia’s model for how cities can lead energy transistion, Barcelona, Spain’s “La Platjeta” initiative for seasonal fish baskets straight from the sea, and the “Green Wave” initiative for controlled marine ecosystem for 3D ocean farming.
Let’s not kid ourselves, we have a very long ahead of us before we are collectively considered even “decent” Anthropocenes, let alone good.
But if a few hundred seeds can flourish into hundreds of thousands, or even millions – we may find, similar to smoking, we can reverse years and years of damage much quicker than initially anticipated.
If we come together, work hard, get organized, and get a little lucky – we may find ourselves in a future even brighter than the present in only one (or two) generations.