One of my best memories, and an experience that made me think about systems, occurred in Laos in the early 1990s. At the time, Laos was a closed country for all but a few Westerners and when we visited villages there, sometimes a six-hour drive over dusty dirt tracks, hundreds of people would turn out simply to see us.

They always held a welcoming ceremony for us followed by a community lunch. We would sit cross-legged on the floor of the community hall, inevitably a traditional wooden building built on pillars 2 metres high. It consisted of one room, with undulating floors that, like the walls, had cracks that you could see through. During the feast our hosts would give us copious amounts of highly potent, clear rice wine, chicken and rice.

The hospitality was impeccable, but I’ve learnt to be cautious about food. I have come down with stomach problems four times in Laos and Cambodia and each time it took from four to ten months to recover. We would take the food, pretend to put it into our mouths, hide it in our hands and then put it into our pockets. It meant we couldn’t wear the same pants the next day. However, we did drink the rice wine.

At the end of the feast, groups of villagers would come up to tie a piece of string around our wrists – up to five people on each wrist at a time – while chanting a benevolent incantation. It was truly moving. These were some of the more exhilarating experiences of my life.

Our Laotian projects were about clean water and mother and child health. One of the components was to encourage the use of contraception to increase the spacing between children. The women quickly understood what contraception meant and its power, but they reasoned that because contraceptives were so powerful, they were better used as a sacrifice to the rice deity. So they would accept the pills and put them on the altar in their fields in the hope that the deity would increase their rice yield in appreciation of such a significant offering.

We looked at it as cause and effect – birth control would improve the spacing of children, therefore fewer babies would die. But that was not what happened in the system. The villagers lived in a world inhabited by deities that controlled their destinies: their encoded norms suggested that powerful objects were best used to keep the gods happy, regardless of the other benefits that might be forgone. Without a clear understanding of the host system and the ability to work with it, or around it, interventions will always be less effective.

The solution may have been to give contraceptive pills while also providing something to sacrifice to the deities, or changing the type of contraception, which is what eventually happened. This and similar experiences come back to me time and again.

At the heart of a sustainable future is the realisation that we are part of a system, not independent of it. At one level systems thinking is easy to grasp. Everyone gets the concept of a web of intersecting relationships. However, once one digs below the surface it becomes more complex. When it is applied to societies its conclusions often stand in sharp contrast to many of our traditional ways of conceptualising and dealing with problems.

Systems theory

We imagine we live in a simple linear world where we feel we have to pick particular actions to alter the specific cause of a problem. This is played out in many ways: doctors frequently look for localised causes of a disease; politicians get tough on crime; economists assume that shifts in one economic factor, such as an interest rate, can ‘explain’ everything that subsequently occurs. The concept of linear causality is deeply embedded in our understanding of the world and the way we interact within it; it is built into our subconscious.

We undertake an action and expect an outcome. In the physical world the same actions always result in the same outcome. Throw a ball into the air and gravity will always cause it to fall at the same rate. Ideas of cause and effect also appeal to us because they lead to the creation of apparently persuasive narratives or stories. Like stories, explanations of cause and effect are linear: a cause is like the beginning of a story, and an effect is like the end of a story. The difficulty is that such an approach is partial and incomplete at best.

Causality is excellent for explaining discrete and well-isolated phenomena. But as we add more variables, the complexity expands exponentially, making attempts to isolate linear causal effects not just ineffective but potentially misleading. The act of simplification destroys the integrity of the model by denying the importance of its inherent complexity.

Linear causality is not in itself an illusion: the illusion is that we believe we are able to explain the complexity around us by using linear causality alone. Systems thinking forms the basis of how we think about Positive Peace [at the Institute for Economics and Peace]. An example would be the relationship between the free flow of information and a well-functioning government. Governments can regulate what information is available, but information can also change governments. The two are highly correlated and mutually affect each other.

More than the sum of our parts

Systems thinking is based on the realisation that not only is the whole greater than the sum of its parts, but that the whole produces effects that are different from what each part would produce in isolation. Human beings can’t be fully understood by dissecting us into smaller and smaller parts, let’s say to understand consciousness. We are far more than the sum of our parts and by extension so are our societies. Trying to apply scientific laws to human systems is dangerous because the participants are self-aware and can choose between multiple solutions in reacting to any given situation.

Even the reading of this [article] can act as a simple example. The actions taken by three people reading this [article] will be different, depending on many factors, including their background knowledge, what they may think of the writer and even their emotions or concentration on the day they read it. If individual human reactions can be so variable, imagine how much more complicated a social system is. Then extend this to the international stage.

Our heavy emphasis on linear causality has also led to great specialisation. Subjects are broken down into smaller and smaller parts in order to find out how their constituent parts work. This can be seen in the physical sciences or even the natural sciences. It is no accident that the root of the word ‘analysis’ means ‘to break into constituent parts’.

When we look at the major challenges facing humanity in the 21st century, it is clear that there is an urgent need to understand interdependence, something that is limited by academia’s aversion to cross-disciplinary research. This is particularly true in the search for peace. Specialisation blocks our perception and our ability to study and understand interlocking relationships, many of which are vital to managing humanity’s shared future. What are the interactions between the way a society operates and the use of fresh water, or between consumption patterns and the acidification of oceans?

Recognising and understanding the fundamental interconnectedness around us is vital for our survival. Systems thinking bridges this gap. It takes into account the large number of interactions and aims to understand patterns and flows rather than individual events. It can be applied not only to the ways societies and ecosystems operate but also to the ways that societies and ecosystems interoperate.

Systems thinking can be approached from many directions. One direction is to think of the system as an organisation, rather than a series of events. What is important in a system are the flows and patterns, rather than the events. Systems are not static. The nature or character of a system changes if anything is added, subtracted or modified. Changes to any one element within the system will cause knock-on effects, changing the interactions and flows of other elements. The system will in some way function differently.

Think of the COVID-19 pandemic and the way the virus impacted social relations and mental health, and then the knock-on effects into the economy. One thing we can be certain about is that at the back end of this crisis the system will have altered. Once a system has changed, it can never go back to its original form.


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Peace in the Age of Chaos by Steve Killelea, is published by Hardie Grant and is available for purchase now at peaceintheageofchaos.org or at Amazon.com and all other major book retailers.