Proceedings of the 53rd Annual Meeting of the ISSS - 2009, Brisbane, Australia, Proceedings of the 53rd Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences

Font Size:  Small  Medium  Large

Systems thinking: the key to survival

Graeme MacDonald Taylor


While most people support sustainable development, many believe that its benefits must be weighed against other objectives such as economic growth and consumer desires for recreation, comfort and status. However, sustainability is not an option but a requirement. Any economy that is not sustainable will go bankrupt: any biological system that is not sustainable will die.

Human societies are living social systems that completely depend on their environments for the resources needed to survive. But evolution is a ruthless process: most of the species and human societies that have ever existed are extinct because they either destroyed their environments or could not adapt to changing conditions.

Our industrial societal system is designed for constant expansion. While this model was viable in a world of few people and many resources, it is now obsolete because the global economy is consuming more resources and discarding more waste than our planet’s ecosystems can sustainably produce and recycle. In the coming decades a combination of global warming, resource shortages and species loss will create growing environmental, economic and social crises.

This is a global emergency. If we continue with business as usual major ecosystems will collapse by mid-century. This will destroy the global economy and end our complex civilizations. But disaster is not inevitable. At the same time as industrial civilization has outgrown its biophysical limits, a new type of sustainable societal system has begun to evolve. Systems-based views, values, social structures, technologies and economic processes are rapidly emerging. The future is our choice: if we fail to act our children will be doomed to live on a dying planet; if we make the right interventions we can accelerate the evolution of a holistic societal system.

Constructive intervention is possible because societal systems do not have random designs. Human societies have evolved through distinct stages (historical ”ages”). Societal systems with similar worldviews and structures emerge and endure in each age because they have environmentally relevant configurations. Their congruent and stable patterns constitute system attractors. For example, similar conditions and stages of development created the long-lasting agrarian kingdoms of Egypt, China, and Central America.

Societal systems are unified and organized around worldviews, which are overarching conceptions of reality that explain the place of humans in the world. Worldviews and cultures (learned traditions of thought and behaviour) provide meanings and symbolic tools for organizing the social institutions that in turn organize and regulate group and individual behaviours. For this reason the key to the evolution of a sustainable global system is the spread of a holistic worldview – a systems perspective that recognizes the interdependence of all life on Earth.

Evolution always involves both individual and group selection—since the survival of a species depends on group fitness, competition between individuals usually occurs within a wider framework of group (and ecosystem) cooperation. Most people are willing to make sacrifices for their children, community or faith. In times of war entire societies are asked to subordinate their personal desires to the needs of their nations. In the long history of humanity, the individualism of our consumer culture is an aberration.

The survival of our species is now at stake. This threat has the potential to unite humanity around a common task—developing a sustainable culture and economy. Our challenge is to clearly explain the global emergency and provide alternative pathways to a viable future. If we recognize that a systems-based worldview is the key to the organization of a sustainable society, we can help develop congruent social structures and technologies. Once a new system attractor has evolved, rapid structural transformation will be possible.

Full Text: PDF