If we want to understand sustainability we have to start with systems thinking.
Systems thinking involves backing up from our hyper-focused view of our activities to see the larger system of which we are a part.
Unlike the isolated view of systems we held a century ago, we now realize that large systems and the smaller systems embedded in them, and all their parts, are inexorably interconnected.
When we look for relationships instead of at things, we begin to see cycles of causality rather than linear cause and effect. This means recognizing how intertwined and even indistinguishable causes and effects are, and how effects weave back into the system to become the causes of other causes in an seemingly endless feedback loop.
In systems thinking we seek to uncover and understand the embedded thinking that holds the culture in place, keeps norms “normal” and dictates what is “logical” and “right”. We try to identify the thinking that holds problems in place.
We ask about how our system is embedded in a larger system and how larger and smaller systems affect each other. We look to see how all the “things” in the system are related, since every part of every system influences every other part.
Systems thinking also requires that we look at the connectivity of our actions through time: the conditions we have today are the direct result of choices that were made in the past; the decisions we make today will in turn determine where we are in the future.
It makes good sense to make very careful choices now, scrutinizing our vision landscape to see what impact those choices will have in the long run. Granted, this is more of an art than a science, but it can be done.
Tomorrow in Part 3, I’ll discuss sustainability in organizations.