Whole Systems Understanding

It may be difficult to accept at first, because we have been mentally trained to see everything as pretty independent, but frankly, everything on this planet and indeed the solar system, is connected and interlinked — connected and interlinked in subtle and not so subtle ways.

Everything is interlinked

One of the first things we need to understand is how everything is linked and affects everything else. Here is just one example. Have you thought about how buying cheap goods from China has

a) kept our inflation rate low so we have more disposable income; gave Chinese workers, mainly women, an income. They save about 50% of their income and this is what gave the Chinese government/banks all that money to lend to banks and financial institutions around the world, from the mid 1980′s on. Guess what this did — fuelled the beginning of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.

b) exported our pollution to China, as they are creating it through manufacturing for us;

c) depressed our own ability to make things competitively;

d) made us feel deprived and dissatisfied because we really could not afford that glossy new piece of equipment so skilfully advertised on TV , in the magazines or on line. Maybe we purchased it anyway, using that great debt accumulator, the credit card;

e) increased our exports of coal, thus increasing our incomes and, unfortunately, also Aussie and world pollution;

f) brought international financing and international companies into Australia, where most profits are paid back overseas

g) involved Australia in a frenzy of mining for resources, heedless of what will be left for the use of future generations: our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


h) made goods so cheap that it is easier to dispose of than repair them — known as planned obsolescence.

Think about this the next time you buy a new China-made TV and throw away your old one!

Are you starting to see the connections? The key result is that we are living beyond our planet’s ability to support us and perhaps polluting it beyond safe living conditions. If you can bear to have a Wombat shout at you, watch this:


As we understand it, most of the causes of our current dilemma follow:

OBSERVED RESULTS   Climatic disruptions Global warming; Greenland/Artic/Anthartic melt; methane escaping in scary amountsCO2 in atmosphere

Environmental degradation

Resources depletion

Human suffering; High human anxiety and stress levels Fear of economic chaos e.g. GFC Developing world experiencing a new form of wage slavery Developed world wealthier but no happier
CAUSES   Loss of habitat Free Market economicsFactory farming

Runaway resources extraction

Advertising to create false markets Disposable goods“Keeping up with the Joneses” Education  
UNDERLYING CAUSES   Culture of discontent, inculcated by the advertising,  marketing and packaging industries   Runaway manufacturing Disposable economy Massive population increases and growing economies  
BASIC CAUSES   Human Greed and Human feelings of insecurity   Political timidity   “Winner takes all”, narrow thinking (including  narrow nuclear family thinking)


Here is the core message about our interconnected systems and how they all need to be changed or adapted while it is still possible:

The Core Briefing on the world system we have created

Many people are concerned about the future, and indeed are actively working within their own sphere to do the things we need to do to create a positive future. Others are concerned, but do not have a clear idea of the kinds of changes we need to make in order to have a viable society in, say, 30 years. We are at a remarkable point of choice at this time in human history. The decisions and actions we take today will have huge consequences for young people alive now – some of whom may be reading this manual – and certainly for all grandchildren and greatgrandchidren yet to be born. It is well established that our rate of ecological deterioration is worsening, not improving, despite local improvements in some areas. We are in a race between exponentially increasing environmental deterioration and people’s exponentially increasing desire to make the changes necessary to avoid collapse. Which will determine our future? Will we be the generation that fulfils humanity’s promise, or the generation that knowingly destroys the Earth?

While it is evident that changes are necessary, few people have an integrated view of what those changes are, or the extent of the changes that are actually necessary. They can see pieces of the puzzle, but not how everything fits together. The Core Briefing develops a big picture image of where we are and where constructive points of change are. Our procedure will be to step-by-step develop a diagram that has the major elements that shape our current industrial civilisation. We start with basic ecology.

The process of obtaining raw materials through mining, industrial agriculture and cutting down forests produces environmental degradation.

The raw materials are processed in factories, which produce their own environmental damage through chemical toxins, acid rain and the greenhouse gasses that accelerate climate change.

All of these are involved in the production of the ordinary things that we use.

The more things we produce and consume, the more environmental damage is produced – vastly more than most of us imagine. In the following diagram, as the red arrow on the right representing increasing consumption goes up, the red arrow on the left representing environmental deterioration goes up even more.

It is clear that if we are to become environmentally sustainable, we must reduce the overall environmental impact of the process of making and consuming things. ‘By how much?’, we may ask.

If we cut trees from a forest plot, and we cut them faster than they regrow, gradually the forest will get smaller and smaller until it is gone. This is an example of cumulative damage. It adds up over time. If we intend to be ecologically sustainable, our goal must be to reduce our cumulative rate of environmental degradation in each key area (water, biological diversity, fish stocks…) to zero. Zero! This rigorous demand comes from the nature of reality itself. If the overall trend is of increasing deterioration, we end up producing a desert.

The technical hope is to reduce environmental degradation through improved design. A great deal can be done in this direction. Lovins and Hawken’s Natural Capitalism shows that in every area from agriculture to architecture to manufacturing we can reduce energy use and material throughput 90 percent or more. This is exciting stuff, and more of us should know about it. It is a crucial key to our future sustainability.

But there is reason to doubt that improved design can be sufficient by itself. sometimes improved design means that things are produced more cheaply, making it easier for people to buy more of them. And as affluence increases, many people tend to buy more things. This is incompatible with becoming environmentally sustainable. Therefore I suggest that we must set as our goal reducing actual consumption. This requires a whole system change, not just changes in specific behaviours such as recycling.

To understand the nature of this change let’s consider factors that tend to increase consumption.

First, as you know, advertising plays a major role in this.

But advertising per se does not compel us to buy things. There are psychological drivers that affect our desire to purchase things. Many people lack a feeling of inner wellbeing, and instead have a sense of an empty hole inside. If this feeling of emptiness were to be directly experienced it would be extremely painful. People avoid it or compensate for it by compulsively distracting themselves, taking drugs, or by stuffing themselves with things. Some stuff themselves with chocolates, others indulge in ‘shopping therapy’, and yet others buy Lear jets. So we will add stuff oneself with things to our map.

Desire for status also drives excess consumption. There is healthy status and dysfunctional status. Healthy status is earned, it arises because of one’s contribution to the community based on competence and caring. Pathological status is based on a profound need to feel good about oneself by appearing to be superior, or at least not inferior. This finds expression as conspicuous consumption and keeping up with the Jones. So we will also add status to our map.

As you know, our economic system is oriented around increasing shareholder value. The vast majority of shares are not owned by ordinary people, but by a relatively small number of extremely wealthy people. So we may say that our economic system is set up to help the wealthy get wealthier. They are assisted in this through government policies that they themselves have influenced – policies that emphasize increasing the Gross National Product. And while most businesses advertise, the most extravagant advertising is done by transnational corporations. So we may add another layer to our diagram.

The behaviour of people directing the large transnationals is at times extremely aggressive, to the extent of even being closely aligned with wars such as the invasion of Iraq. The WTO and the pattern of increasing transnational corporate power can be seen as the current expression of the 5000 year old pattern of empires.

While it is a deep question as to why individuals and groups willingly go to war, it is plausible to link the eagerness to hurt others to one’s own experience of being hurt in childhood. It is well known that people who have been physically abused in childhood tend to repeat or ‘act out’ that abuse when they become adults. This acting out finds expression at many levels, including abusing one’s own children or spouse, workplace bullying, and adopting policies that hurt groups of people or entire countries. From this point of view, some corporate behaviour is malicious. So when we included these are psychological factors our diagram looks like this:

We have talked about inner emptiness and lack of felt well-being, as well as about responses to childhood abuse finding expression as large-scale corporate aggression. These psychological aspects, although they are rarely discussed, are actually key drivers of environmental deterioration in developed countries. It boils down to this: environmental deterioration is driven by unhappy people (as well as by population increase).

It follows that a key point of change for creating a positive future is that people should become happier in themselves. Ideally we should develop such an internal feeling of wellbeing that excess consumption simply becomes uninteresting. Improved parenting, personal development work, and organising business, education and government to operate on partnership values can all contribute to genuine happiness and wellbeing. Other points of change include improved industrial design and reducing the amount of advertising.

Partnership or Dominator?

There are  two quite different modes of relating to people: partnership/respect relating and domination/control relating. These are core values that shape the tone of entire societies as well as individual relationships.

People who use a partnership mode of relating take pains to empathically understand other people, and they work collaboratively for the good of the whole. People who use a dominator mode of relating work for their own aggrandisement (or that of their group), and characteristically use force to achieve their ends. Arguably it is people with dominator attitudes who shape the policies that are currently inducing increasing environmental and social deterioration. If so, the fate of the world depends upon partnership values coming to set the tone.

The world has put an amazing amount of creative resources into building an astonishing industrial civilization. Now it is time to shift our emphasis to creating a world where magnificent well-being is our primary goal. And the good news is: we know a vast amount about how to actually do this. We have the technical design strategies that can vastly reduce adverse ecological impact. We know how to support parents in becoming more nurturing. We have effective means of helping adults resolve their childhood hurt and become more loving (and inwardly contented) people. We have methods of personal growth that can help people shift from dominator relating to partnership relating – a shift that can make both governments and businesses work better, as well as improving personal wellbeing. We know how to run successful institutions on partnership values. All in all these approaches can take as far towards an ideal of becoming so inwardly contented (and ecologically responsible) that excess consumption simply becomes uninteresting.

However, at the moment we have a society that is severely ecologically out of balance and getting worse. We will suffer the effects of climate change and other environmental degradation; there are already happening.

To sum up, we have two options. One is to continue on a path that is becoming increasingly dismal. The other is to get excited about building a world of magnificent wellbeing – and invest in the intellectual, emotional and practical things necessary to actually build that world. The option of muddling along making small piecemeal environmental improvements is not an option that will lead to future well-being for young people alive today. The near future (within the lifetime of our children and grandchildren) will either be unspeakably horrible or, through a fundamental shift in social direction, surprisingly wonderful. It will either be utopia or oblivion.

This Core Briefing comes from Andrew Gaines’ book: Evolving a World that Works.  The briefing has been kept relatively simple, so we have not included references to the enormous service industries, for example, accounting, taxation, real estate, consultances, expertise, financial services, i.e. all the so-called white collar jobs which support the core structures. Neither have we touched on the challenge of the food factories which now replace natural farming, but it is all included.

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