Why Systems Thinking

By Wade Hudson

A systemic worldview exposes root causes, clarifies how issues are interconnected, avoids divisive scapegoating, and affirms that the primary problem is the self-perpetuating system, not particular individuals. While acknowledging individual responsibility for reinforcing the system, systems thinking cultivates humility, respect, and mutual understanding.

A holistic approach encourages the development of communities whose members support one another in their efforts to both become better human beings and help transform the system. It acknowledges that the subjective world changes the objective world and the objective world changes the subjective world. It encourages us to integrate personal, social, cultural, and political growth. By overcoming counter-productive thoughts and feelings, we become more effective.  

Widespread agreement on a systemic worldview could help hold together coalitions that take brief united action on top priority issues -- while each member organization continues to work on their own issue most of the time. A systemic perspective can also help avoid co-optation by nurturing awareness that no victory is final.

Those are some of the reasons, with aid from many associates, I wrote Transform the System: A Work in Progress, a booklet that presents a unique perspective and is available on Amazon for $4 and online. Its focus is: What is “the system” and how should we change it? The booklet also addresses:

  1. Does the System have a central purpose? If so, what is it? How is it structured and how does it operate?
  2. How do we, as individuals and with our organizations, reinforce the system?
  3. Would a transformed society have a new mission? If so, what should it be?
  4. How would a transformed society be organized? What would it look like?
  5. How can activists improve how we operate? How can we overcome divisions, such as those shaped by race, class, and gender? What strategies will help us succeed?
  6. What forms of leadership are most effective? Is leadership always defined by the ability to mobilize others? Must leaders always be in charge? How should victims of oppression have more voice in how to deal with it?
  7. What easy-to-learn method could be widely used to provide mutual support for self-development and political activism?

This draft declaration suggests these preliminary answers:

  1. Our institutions, our culture, and we ourselves as individuals are woven together into a self-perpetuating social system: the System.
  2. The primary purpose of the System is to enable individuals to gain more status, wealth, and power over others by climbing social ladders.
  3. America needs to transform itself into a compassionate community dedicated to the welfare of all humanity, our own people, the environment, and life itself.
  4. Then Americans can create new institutions and reform existing institutions, our culture, and ourselves to serve that purpose.
  5. That effort will require new ways of organizing political action.
  6. Activists need to set aside time to support one another in their self-development.

As recounted in Transform the System: A Work in Progress, the System emerged from the birth of centralized agriculture and the stratified societies that followed. At the same time, however:

...trusting, cooperative cultures stayed alive. Though they were isolated from each other, in every large society, humans passed on memories of the early “Golden Age” or “Garden of Eden” — initially through oral histories and later in literature. Many families and small communities — whether religious, utopian, political, or economic — sustained trusting, egalitarian, peaceful values with a wide variety of counter cultures that nurtured a fundamentally different society. And with some success, grassroots forces have fought tooth-and-nail to push for more compassion, cooperation, democracy, economic security, peace, and racial and social justice. In some respects, America is shifting toward more compassion, cooperation, trust and respect.

But those changes have provoked a backlash from forces invested in division and domination. Individuals with relatively more power inflame fear to serve their own self-interest. In the primal tension between cooperation and domination, divisive instincts often take over.

Hunter-gatherers nurtured cooperation and suppressed the alpha-male instinct to dominate. Fully liberating our inner hunter-gatherer DNA can lead to a better future gained through evolutionary revolution. That’s the thrust of Transform the System: A Work in Progress.

You’re invited to help improve that work. Where do you disagree? What should be deleted or added? Feel free to submit comments online at the end of each chapter.

Or offer your own systemic worldview, or refer us to one written by someone else. The goal is to develop or find declarations that promote systemic transformation.

I’ve also created the TransformTheSystem.org website, which includes an online version of the booklet. You’re welcome to help build this site or suggest some other way that we might  collaborate. To keep in touch, please subscribe to Transform the System News.