“All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.” – Leonardo Da Vinci
I had the pleasure of hearing my friend Nora Bateson speak last week at The Players Club in New York City where she held a reading and conversation around her recently published book, Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patterns.
If that title slows you down a bit, well, I think that’s the point. The book is a collection of essays and poems, and the conversation with Nora included personal stories of growing up in the Bateson household (Nora’s father was the pre-eminent systems scientist and anthropologist Gregory Bateson, whose first marriage was to Margaret Mead. Nora’s grandfather William, was a biologist who coined the term genetics.)
Collectively, the passages in Nora’s book draw us into a state of heightened curiosity that leads us to question how we perceive reality, ultimately enabling us to better understand our world and the challenges accelerating all around us. She invites us to probe the profound difference between our now four-hundred-year-old reductionist way of thinking (which is rooted in the Scientific Revolution), and the demands and mystery of a more accurate, complex living systems view of the world. Critical to the understanding of this more accurate world view is Nora’s enigmatic assertion, itself an invitation to the most important conversation we could be having:
“The opposite of complexity is not simplicity; it is reductionism,” she mused.
In the context of our interconnected 21st century social, political, economic and ecological challenges, the critical distinction between complexity and reductionism is far from a trivial one. It is, in fact, a life or death insight.
It is precisely because these indivisible challenges are rooted in complexity that our continually applying reductionist thinking to them has led to disastrous consequences. Overcoming them depends on our shedding our unconscious reliance on reductionist thinking and adopting a more holistic way of looking at our world. In other words, our failure to comprehend complexity itself, in an increasingly complex, interconnected world that seems to be spiraling out of control, may well turn out to have life or death consequences for many of us, and even civilization itself as we’ve come to know it in the Modern Age.
Admittedly, reductionism – breaking down what is complicated into its component parts so they can be analyzed and understood – has made immeasurable contributions to the progress of human civilization. The laptop I’m typing on and the man on the moon are achievements made possible through the reductionist method. But as Wes Jackson says, “there’s nothing wrong with the reductionist method so long as you don’t confuse the method with the way the world actually works.”
Holistic thinker Allan Savory once illuminated for me that complexity is profoundly different than what’s complicated. An iPhone or an airplane is complicated. With time and ingenuity, it can be perfected and then mass produced, the same every time. We humans have become experts in making what’s complicated, thanks to our now well-honed expertise in reductionist reasoning and problem solving.
But complexity is a different animal altogether. A nation is complex. A city is complex. A business is complex. A rainforest is complex. War is complex. So too a marriage, a family, and our human self – our physical body, as well as our collective body/mind/spirit. The complexity of a living system is distinguished by the ever-changing context that surrounds it and affects it, with feedback loops and consequences impossible to fully comprehend in advance. Our political economy, in the context of culture and place, is such a complex living system.
Bateson explains that living systems that survive over time are characterized by mutually supportive learning networks that continuously communicate and interact across multiple contexts and variables in the system. Yet we pretend to believe we can manage complexity as we manage what’s merely complicated, with our rules and protocols, and our key performance indicators designed through reductionist logic. In today’s America — a complex system if there ever was one — the danger is compounded by leaders who seem to think they can govern without reference to accurate information, better known as “facts,” without which trust-based communication is impossible.
Trust issues aside, our challenges run even deeper. Bateson writes, “The education system that reaches around the globe is a mess… The violence of breaking the world into bits and never putting it back together again substantiates the kind of blindness in which we have separated ecology from economy, and psychology from politics.” I would add another reductionist “violence”— the separation of what used to be called “political economy” into politics and economics. From the professional silos in which business and finance, governance and the law operate today, we literally can’t “see” the patterns that define the interconnections of complexity accurately enough to have a chance to manage them in a way that the times demand. In truth, our aim should be to constructively guide and flow with the complexity that defines modern reality, since complexity can’t really be “managed” in the sense of asserting control. How many presidents, CEOs, or regulators, or any of “the people running the world” understand that?
Gregory Bateson famously wrote: “Break the pattern that connects and you necessarily destroy all unity.” Yet we don’t even see the patterns, much less honor the resulting unity as the essence of our health, even our survival. Instead, in our ignorance, we break such patterns all the time, for example, the carbon cycle, which has resulted in the climate change that we now view as a “problem” to solve. In reality, it is the unforeseen but direct consequence of our failure to perceive, understand, and humbly work within complexity.
We humans have evolved into problem solvers using the reductionist method, a direct outgrowth of the Scientific Revolution. It’s now baked into our DNA, limitations included. A Second Scientific Revolution is underway, one that integrates the reductionist method with the patterns of connection that define our integral reality. Our life depends on it.
That’s worth slowing down a bit to ponder.
It was exciting to be in Paris during the COP talks on Climate. There was an unprecedented united movement of scientists, civil society, progressive business leaders, investors, and activists representing social and ecological interests from around the world, all demanding our political leaders put the common good ahead of national interests and actually lead. Soon we will know the results.
Even the best-case outcome in Paris will be insufficient, that much is clear. And the hard work of implementing the voluntary pledges on the ground lies ahead. Canada, under new leadership, deserves praiseworthy attention for its 180-degree turn to the right side of history. Saudi Arabia deserves global scorn for its continued disingenuous interference with progress. America did its part, but of course could always do more. Yet Congress awaits…
The course for the next five years has been charted. Action is rightly now the operative word. But a second line of inquiry continues to simmer below the headline grabbing pledges and initiatives, like Bill Gates’s $1 billion leadership commitment (1.25 percent of his net worth, it must be said) on the Breakthrough Energy Coalition that will invest in clean energy innovation. Of course innovation is essential. But genuine solutions that address root causes are far more complex. For starters, our short-term obsessed financial system needs its own reinvention to effectively serve this unprecedented challenge.
That second line of inquiry is at the heart of Pope Francis’s courageous, wise, and now controversial Encyclical, Laudato Si’, calling for an “integral ecology.”
Four hundred years ago, the leading Enlightenment thinker Galileo Galilei was sentenced to house arrest by the Roman Inquisition under the auspices of Pope Paul V for his belief in Copernicus’s heliocentric view of the universe. The idea that the Sun and not the Earth was at the center of the Universe was heretical, and seen as a direct challenge to scripture and the authority of the Church. The injunction ordered Galileo:
“to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it… to abandon completely… the opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing.”
Today it is the Pope himself being challenged as a heretic of sorts. He is a heretic to those who subscribe to the conventional, reductionist belief system that sees science as separate from spirituality, and religion as separate from politics and economics. At the core of this contemporary belief system is what Berkeley Ecological Economist Richard Norgaard calls “the Church of Economism,” which has “reshaped the diverse cultures of the world and come to function as a modern secular religion.” This is the “religion” of free market, neo-liberal economics as the arbiter of all questions of the day, as advocated by politicians on the left and the right, by business and financial elites, and even by many environmental advocates. Anyone who challenges this faith, including the Pope himself, had better be prepared for scorn and ridicule, the modern-day equivalent of house arrest.
How far we have come since the birth of the Enlightenment! While the irony is rich, the dangers are great. It’s time for a new enlightenment, grounded in a holistic worldview which understands that everything affects everything, and problems cannot be managed within the expert disciplines that currently define our institutions. The Pope’s Encyclical asserts: “It cannot be emphasized enough, that everything is interconnected.”
Modern science in each of its disciplines understands this to be true: quantum physics for example and the web of life in biology. So too the core religious beliefs, Eastern and Western, express this central idea of interconnectedness, often expressed simply as oneness. Similarly our indigenous wisdom traditions promote the idea of the “unity” and the interconnectedness of all life. Yet in the “house of economism,” and particularly in finance, we insist on breaking down complexity to its component parts so we can better manage them, leaving us with ignorant and dangerous concepts such as “shareholder value.” But in doing so, we lose sight of the interconnected whole as the financial crisis made all to clear.
This reality is central to the Pope’s important message. But unlike so many who challenge the modern “church of economism” with the ideology of resistance, be they champions of social justice or champions of the environment, Pope Francis points to a wiser path. He counsels that the genuine systemic solutions lie instead in our embracing “integral” thinking and decision-making: retaining what’s great about the modern system while addressing head-on its deficiencies and transcending our differences.
“We urgently need a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision.”
A recent study funded by NASA, using a cross-disciplinary “Human and Nature DYnamical” (HANDY) model, found that two crucial and contemporary (interconnected) crises—”the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity” (climate change is a prime example); and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses [poor]”— have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse” of civilizations in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.”
The bottom line: The stakes could not be higher: if we don’t change course, we are facing the potential collapse of civilization. Climate change is a symptom of a system-design flaw. So too is the grotesque inequality within wealthy countries and among nations. So too even is the scourge of terrorism. While we move to urgent action post the Paris COP as we must, transforming our energy system in particular, we must at the same time heed the message of the Pope and invest in the search for genuinely integral solutions.
 The Inquisition’s injunction against Galileo, 1616
 Laudato Si’, paragraph 138
 Laudato Si’, paragraph 141