From Systems Theory to Action

Published at https://www.resilience.org/stories/2021-07-28/from-systems-theory-to-action/

Good Trouble Candlelight Vigil, Reading, PA, July 17, 2021

At this time ecological thinkers are emphasizing systems, especially as these are defined by systems theory.  This interdiscipline is a life-saving departure from traditional reductionist methods in science but has yet to be made relevant to people’s individual everyday conduct.  The objective of this essay is to develop the notion of systems to explain how people can act systematically now to advance the ecological civilization, indeed to avert imminent environmental and social catastrophe.   

Focusing on relationships within systems, some writers give too little consideration to the nature of the things which have these relationships, that is, the components of the systems.  From the concept of a system a definition of the components may be directly inferred: A component is a thing that participates in a system, functioning in a specific capacity as a part of it.  Systems are therefore wholes of which things, performing specific functions, are parts.   

Ecological systems theory takes particular interest in organisms which, in contrast with more diffuse and inorganic systems, are unitary lives that function in a variety of larger systems and constitute organic parts of more comprehensive unitary lives such as ecosystems and the biosphere. The unity of an organism’s life is precisely the totality of its various vital functions, what Aristotle called its essence.  He identified growth, nutrition and reproduction as the essential functions of plants, these plus motion and perception as those of animals, and the latter plus reason as the essential functions of humans.  In addition he declared that humans are by nature “political animals,” that is, creatures belonging to a community possessing a government. 

I resurrect Aristotle’s essentialism because it ascribes to human nature the essential function of participating in a governed community.  Though he admitted that democracy is the most stable form of government, his wish to provide a model for the perfect state led him to prefer rule by a philosopher-king.  Of course there never has been and never will be a perfect state much less a perfect philosopher-king to rule any state.  Moreover, history has irreversibly established democracy as the ideal, and today in America and many other countries the people remain the sovereign. 

Grace Lee Boggs said, “You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.”*  What is missing in the response to the crises of our time is the sense among most people that they belong to, are organic, vital parts of their communities, their nation and nature and further, that the well-being of each of these requires vigorous commitment of everyone to achieve it.

The essentialist viewpoint restores people’s identity as parts of such living systems, wholes or essences.  Awareness of it is presently lacking because communities, polities and nature are in states of severe degradation with individual people existing like cells in a very sick body.  As such organic parts they must together undertake to recover their proper functions of sustaining themselves individually, each other and the larger bodies. 

Being parts of the wholes to which each person belongs, the principal capacity in which people act in the recovery effort is as citizens.  Presently polluting industries maintain a strong grip on governments at every level, as they increasingly support measures to eviscerate democracy.  There is much that people can do working together privately, but the actions that are most needed at this time are public policies.  For people to mobilize on the necessary scale they must develop the consciousness Boggs refers to, organize and act as citizens to defend their communities, democracy and the planet from destruction.     

Functioning according to one’s primary identity is as a citizen requires attention to the full indivisible complexity of the world and individual’s lives.  The reductionist method and some applications of systems theory carve the world and people’s existence into so many compartments, ultimately treating human actions and relations according to one-dimensional models.  Indeed, the whole mechanistic paradigm from which we are trying to escape approaches everything in terms of instrumentality – how people and objects can be manipulated and used for specific purposes. 

Mindful of this, Grace Lee Boggs also said, “To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions.  They must make a philosophical/spiritual leap and become more ‘human’ human beings.”  Regenerating the environment and revitalizing democracy requires restoring living social relations among people.  The common instrumental nature of human relations tends to reduce behavior to so much performance and judgment of performance, leading to wholesale burning of bridges between people or at least failure to construct them.  While this goes on like-minded folks circle their wagons, and the vacuum in human dialogue is filled by the media.    

Government is the formal means, though not the only one, by which a community secures the well-being of all of its members and the community as a whole.  Participating in their government is the way in which each citizen engages in the total effort.  The community is a relational whole, of which each member is a complex indivisible human being who must be recognized as such for the civic purpose.  At the same time it is understood that their well-being is linked to that of every other member and that of the whole community, with these requiring a healthy environment and robust democracy. 

The logic of systems theory and imperatives for survival require that we cast off one-dimensional thinking and action, reframing everything in terms of life.  That life is a total indivisible unity is now the widely accepted view, and my multi-dimensional essentialist interpretation of human life provides a guide for individual action as an organic part of it.  This is precisely working as citizens with the people in our communities, nations and across the globe to restore the nested living systems in which we all exist.    

A feature of systems that especially interests theorists is that of emergence – their function of spontaneously self-organizing into novel forms.  Human history can be interpreted as a chain of emergence of so many cultural configurations.  In our own time we witness movement after movement for this, that and the other cause, most of which soon peter out.  As an organizer I have learned that such emergence does not magically sustain itself: It requires clearly defined goals, strategy, organization and people’s commitment.  At this time everyone, as parts of the human systems constituted by communities, polities and humanity as a whole, must consciously, collectively and urgently strive to realize the ecological civilization.   

*Adrian Harewood and Tom Keefer, “Revolution as a New Beginning: An Interview with Grace Lee Boggs,” Upping the Ante, March 26, 2005.

Grace Lee Boggs, Living for Change (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016) 153.   

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