Sapiens to Systems

Art by Yige Xu

Evolution occurs when animals adapt to better live in their environment. Climate change and the Anthropocene are changes to our environment. However, because they are happening so fast, we cannot evolve through our usual means of mutation. To survive, and, in many ways, to thrive, in a new era, we will have to evolve deliberately and collectively.

Often, when we talk about our Anthropocenic future, we speak with cynicism. We talk about how doomed we are, about how much we and the planet will lose. The signposts of our times seem to point in only two directions: what needs to be done by 2050, and the hellscape that awaits us afterwards. Fundamentally, a good portion of us seem to have lost a lot of hope. This is understandable. In many ways, it is a logical viewpoint. We are one of the most individualistic societies to ever exist, having to confront a problem caused by our collective actions and which can only be solved by our collective actions. If we were not living it, it would be fantastically ironic.

Increasingly though, people are understanding that this fatalism and odd schadenfreude is what hamstrings us. Proposals like the Green New Deal are solutions-orientated, but, in their wholesale view and in their intersectionality, they give us a better vision of the future. They give a third way of looking forward. The debate now is moving away from questions of needing to evolve, to the question of how do we evolve? What traits do we need to better suit the coming century?

In a word, systems. In two words, systems thinking. Just as individualism plagues us, so too does an obsession with taking ecological and economic cycles and processes and trying to make a graph out of them. The four lines required to make a supply and demand diagram are some of the most damaging you can draw. Not because they are inaccurate, but because of how much they leave out. If we’re trapped in Plato’s cave, then these bivariate models are the shadows on the wall. The fire is approaching the market as embedded in a broader social and environmental context. Oxford economist, Kate Ratworth, has attempted to create another way of visualising a single market: wherein the market is taken as a system, with supply and demand being feedback loops, not linear processes. This market also has a clear limit – environmental sustainability.

What we should evolve into is an understanding of our world as composed of systems. These systems have multiple components which replace the traditional independent variable, but each component is a keystone – if removed, the system teeters dangerously. The classic example we’d be familiar with is an ecosystem. Remove a producer organism, like plants, and the system crumbles, but remove also apex predators and herbivore populations explode unsustainably. When we attempt to break down the world into phenomenon Y as a cause of X, we stress the dependence of Y on X, but in doing so, we lose the interdependence of these two variables within a broader system.

When we reduce the world into models, choices are made about what to exclude and include. We exclude what we deem irrelevant which, as history warns us, is a dangerous game to play. Climate change challenges economics because it pushes and prods for putting the environment front and centre of these models. Otherwise, reality and economics will flee into the distance growing further and further apart, a phenomenon seen today in the celebration of economic growth built off future environmental collapse.

Systems thinking doesn’t stop with the economy. Just as we fail to embed the economy into other systems like the environment and society, so too do we fail to view ourselves as agents in a larger, broader system. This is not simply a criticism of the neoliberal “There are individual men and women and there are families…” It is about reworking the conception of humans as distinct from their natural environment. The West has long sat on this principle of othering; creating binaries and hierarchies of value. Race, gender and sexuality have all been catalogued and reduced to the accepted ‘status quo’ and the rejected other, to either be feared, patronised, or forced out. We do the same thing with the environment. We erect picket fences to distinguish between where we and our lawns end, and where the ‘wild’ begins. But we cannot be separated from our ecosystem; the idea of a human is meaningless without the global and local environment in which they live. Understanding this irrevocable connection is one of the most crucial steps in evolving into the Anthropocene and the reality of climate change.

Much of this is nothing new. It is the West that struggles with this. Many other cultures incorporate eco-centrism into their views, especially First Nations people and other Indigenous cultures around the world. For once, the West needs to take a backseat. Successful climate action will be paired with justice and sovereignty for Indigenous peoples.

One of the most dangerous myths of climate change is that we have no choices left. Whatever happens in the next two decades, it will be a series of decisions made by our society. Some will be undemocratic, made by elites in backrooms, while others may not even be presented as choices, only as unfortunate necessities. But with every step, through action or inaction, we will be choosing what we evolve into, we will force ourselves to adapt to the new landscape. To paraphrase Chomsky, it is better to choose optimism over despair, to choose through the ballot, but also to choose by approaching life as complex and vulnerable systems, needing to be comprehensively understood, with no factor excluded. By evolving towards a system outlook, we take a step to evolving into not just the new era, but into something better.


Originally published in Woroni Vol.72 Issue 1 ‘Evolution’