Citizen Action Monitor

The Big Picture – Nate Hagens explains why we fail to grasp The Big Picture of the human predicament

For starters, we don’t think too much about how we think – We’re self-blind, and systems blind.

No 2557 Posted by fw, December 13, 2019 – (Set 3: The Big Picture – No. 2 of 8)

To access links to other posts by Nate Hagens about The Human Predicament, click on this linked Tab  Teachings of Dr. Nate Hagens about The Human Predicament – Links to Posts

Dr. Nate Hagens

“In the same way that our country is energy blind, and we don’t think too much about how we think – [we’re] more self-blind – we’re also systems blind. We don’t think about how things fit together. So this is a brief video on systems blindness – systems and ecology. … in our current developed nation society, the focus of our knowledge and education is geared around the economy. … A system, with networks of interactions, where an understanding of the individual components does not automatically allow for an understanding of the whole system, is called a complex system. Your car, your television, your smart phone are all complex systems. They involve multiple independent moving parts that interact with each other to produce a desired behavior. … Emergence refers to phenomena or behaviors in complex adaptive systems that are not present in their individual parts and could not have been predicted in advance just from knowledge of the parts. … Society now is on the cusp of emergence, not only in our collective impact, but in human collective thinking and understanding about our situation. … our society arguably now needs many more people who are competent generalists. Or who can see and understand how the whole picture fits together.”Nate Hagens

In my June 2012 repost, entitled Welcome to the age of ‘wicked’ problems. Or, why fighting climate change is so difficult, professor Jay Rosen provided an introduction to wicked problems — what they are, why they are so damned difficult to resolve, and what kinds of people are best suited to work on them. Rosen wrote:

“Know any problems like that? Sure you do. Probably the best example in our time is climate change. What could be more inter-connected than it? Someone can always say that climate change is just a symptom of another problem–our entire way of life, perhaps — and he or she would not be wrong. We’ve certainly never solved anything like it before. Stakeholders: everyone on the planet, every nation, every company.”

In a climate change context, Dr. Hagens would contend that “… we tend to focus on the aspect of our global predicament that we know the most about, or care the most about, or have heard the most about, without seeing how the whole complex adaptive human ecosystem fits together.

And we can see samples of this tendency even within the ranks of climate activists, particularly those promoting the overly simplistic Green New Deal*, while flagrantly ignoring The Big Picture complexity. (*See, for example, Choose your climate crisis solution – Green New deal or Business as Usual? Both will doom us, by Andrew Nikiforuk, September 1, 2019.)

In today’s repost, Dr. Hagens takes us on a whirlwind overview of ecology, introducing us to the basic concepts, including: ecology, biosphere, ecosystems, systems, human ecosystems, feedbacks, complex systems, complex adaptive systems, emergence, and reductionism.

My repost, below, of Hagens’ video 2 of 8 in Set 3 of The Big Picture videos, includes the embedded video, my added subheadings, text highlighting selected images, and my transcript.

Alternatively, watch video 2, without my transcript, by clicking on the following linked title.

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Ecology and Systems – The Big Picture: Set 3, No. 2 of 8, by Nate Hagens, Reality 101 – UMN Nexus One, March 25, 2019 (11:09 min)

TRANSCRIPT

We don’t think too much about how we think – we’re self-blind – and systems blind

In the same way that our country is energy blind, and we don’t think too much about how we think – [we’re] more self-blindwe’re also systems blind. We don’t think about how things fit together. So this is a brief video on systems blindness – systems and ecology.

Earth’s ecosystems provide oxygen, water, heat, cooling, photosynthesis, pollution-filtering, regeneration and more

Many of you [students] already know why Earth’s ecology is important to our lives, but it’s important to recall that each of us gets huge, free daily benefits from the massive amount of things we get from Earth’s ecosystems – like oxygen, water, heat, cooling, photosynthesis, food production, filtering of pollution, regenerative healing, etc.

But our focus is on the economy – inventions, procedures, profits, supply chains, computers, jobs, and the like

But, in our current developed nation society, the focus of our knowledge and education is geared around the economy – inventions, procedures, profits, supply chains, computer networks, training and skills to get a job, etc.

Human commerce underpins Earth’s ecology, which is relevant and important for everyone

Yet all of this human commerce rests on a living, breathing planet, the home we call Earth. Amazingly, we in the USA and indeed [in] most countries, are not taught much about the fundamental importance of ecology. Perhaps because the education market doesn’t demand it. But ecology, and its relevance to our future, isn’t just for the privileged and passionate; it’s not even just for people who go to college; it’s relevant and important for everyone.

The term “biosphere” refers to the totality of all Earth’s ecosystems

Ecology is the study of how organisms and chemical, energetic, and geological processes, interact with one another in their environment. The word “ecology” comes from the Greek word “eCos” [oyCos] or “home”. The Earth is not only our home but also home to many complex interacting networks of plants, animals, and microorganisms called ecosystems. The totality of these ecosystems, where all the living things on our planet reside, is referred to as the biosphere.

Some other key concepts in ecology, which we don’t have time to expand on here, are food chains and food webs, carrying capacity and overshoot.

American society places little value on ensuring its citizens are ecologically literate

In the modern United States, we find it rare to run into a person who is illiterate, because our society places value on basic reading. The majority of people are also numerate. So one can now get by without knowing numbers and math in our wealthy society. But we rarely meet anyone at all who is ecologically literate – ecolate because our society’s current values and goals of quarterly earnings, jobs, making and selling products so far have not considered equality relevant.

Citizen understanding of what happens to Earth’s living systems is crucial to our future wellbeing

Ecology is the science of what happens to living systemswhat they can and cannot do. And how those conditions allow and influence the “cans” and “cannots” of our future. To your generation, having large numbers of people being equal is going to be very important to our futures.

Understanding the meaning, functions and kinds of “systems” in nature is also crucial

Nature is composed of systems. A system is a collection of elements that interact and usually create emergent phenomena. There are carbon systems, water systems, nutrient systems, biogeochemical systems. The components of an ecosystem are interconnected.

Example of the interconnected and symbiotic plant and animal species in nature

Here’s an example. In Yellowstone, in the 1990s, elk were keeping the willows short, usually less than two feet tall. And that led to stream widening. By 2017, because of a reintroduction of wolves, who preyed on elk and kept the elk populations down, the willows around the stream were now six feet tall. This greater canopy cover led to a recovering riparian* [*relating to river banks] and aquatic ecosystem. There are lots of cool examples of the interconnected and symbiotic species in nature you can find online.

Understanding positive and negative feedbacks in nature

Okay. Here’s a concept very important in nature — feedbacks keep systems in equilibrium or move systems into new states. An example of a positive feedback in nature that moves a system to a new state is the ice melting in the Arctic. The ice is lighter in colour than the dark blue ocean water and reflects more sunlight. As more ice melts because of global warming, more of the incoming sunlight is absorbed by the now darker water than what used to be reflected by the light-coloured ice. This adds more heat to the global balance – a positive feedback.

A positive feedback … accelerates and reinforces a behavior or a process. A negative feedback, on the other hand, inhibits or balances a behavior or process, shown on the right.

We see feedbacks, as well, in human systems. If you’re taking a shower, and it becomes too hot, your brain senses that and [regulates your body heat]. This is a negative feedback where excess heat results in a behavioral feedback that reduces the [body] temperature.

Increased use of air conditioning creates positive feedback resulting in more global warning

Can you think of an example of a positive feedback at a larger scale? What about using more air conditioning globally because of global warming, but with coal and natural gas used for over half of the energy for air conditioning? So we use more air conditioning because it’s hot out, but using more air conditioning creates higher demand for burning coal and gas, which are greenhouse gases which results in a positive feedback – more global warming.

Complex systems with many components and networks of interactions can defy common understanding

A system, with networks of interactions, where an understanding of the individual components does not automatically allow for an understanding of the whole system, is called a complex system. Your car, your television, your smart phone are all complex systems. They involve multiple independent moving parts that interact with each other to produce a desired behavior.

Complex adaptive systems, like our economic system and biosphere, self-organize in response to events

Additionally, a complex adaptive system is where the individual and aggregate behaviors change and self-organize in response to events. Our human economic system, and the biosphere of planet Earth are each complex adaptive systems.

“Emergence” refers to unforeseeable changes in complex adaptive systems

Another term in our whirlwind overview of ecology is emergence. Emergence refers to phenomena or behaviors in complex adaptive systems that are not present in their individual parts and could not have been predicted in advance just from knowledge of the parts. Examples of emergence are fish schooling, birds flocking, the formation of galaxies and stars or the development of consciousness in a baby.

Murmurations of flocks of starlings is an example of emergence in nature

Here’s an example. When starlings fly each individual starling in a flock following three simple rules: number one, do what your neighbor does; number two, don’t get too close; and number three, move towards the center. By each individual bird following these rules, we get the emergent behavior of beautiful murmurations, shapes and movements in the sky that appear to constitute a single simple organism because in many way they’re behaving as one.

As we’re going to see in later videos, this collection of individuals behaving a certain way, manifesting in an emergent, collective behavior has very important modern parallels in human society. Can you think of what they might be?

Focusing on selected aspects of a global predicament can cause us to miss the whole complex adaptive system

Sometimes focusing on the things we know and care about causes us to miss the larger picture. The classic example is people with blindfolds describing different [parts of an elephant] as a snake or a tree depending on which part of the elephant they are feeling. They’re feeling parts of an elephant but don’t realize it’s an elephant.

In the same way, we tend to focus on the aspect of our global predicament that we know the most about, or care the most about, or have heard the most about, without seeing how the whole complex adaptive human ecosystem fits together.

Humanity is on the cusp of emergence in collective thinking and understanding about our existential predicament

Society now is on the cusp of emergence, not only in our collective impact, but in human collective thinking and understanding about our situationI suspect the key insights we’re going to find about the future will be between the disciplines, not within the disciplines.

Just like the individual brushstrokes don’t inform you much when looking at an impressionist painting, it’s only when one steps back one can see the beauty of art and what the picture represents.

Our economic system rewards reductionism, which is limited in predicting outcomes of complex systems

A similar stepping back, using a bird’s-eye view allows us to see connections, emergence, and relationships in the human ecosystem. In contrast to this systems thinking, reductionism is an approach to understanding the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of their simple parts. This is a powerful technique but it’s inherently limited in understanding or predicting complex outcomes and systems. Our modern education system, probably because of our modern economic system, has in the past generation or two rewarded reductionism, or [in] the hyper-expertise in one subject area.

Our society needs generalists who can understand how the big picture fits together

While we absolutely do need experts in engineering, in agricultural methods, in technology, our society arguably now needs many more people who are competent generalists. Or who can see and understand how the whole picture fits together. This is the goal of, and importance of liberal arts education and really should be integral to all disciplines in schools.

A simplified diagram and explanation of our modern human ecosystem

The above diagram is a simplified description of our modern human ecosystem. We come up with ideas and inventions and technology which combine human labor with energy and renewable and nonrenewable resources and turn them into products. We create money to represent the values of these products and exchange and use them to generate similar emotional states to those which motivated our ancestors. All of this has impact and generates waste. The environmental waste and social impact is for the most part not included in the metrics and goals of our current economic system.

So let’s take a closer look at what economists call our “externalities”.

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