Whole-system approach when planning smart sustainable solutions


Western cultural paradigms are strongly shaped by science, rationalism and reductionism. We evolved through the ancient dualisms of physics/metaphysics (Plato and Greek philosophy), matter/soul, earth/sky, material/spiritual (Christianity), emotional/rational, physical/mental, internal subject/external object, nature/culture,..
We developed within a dualistic culture, whether we are aware or not of it, that shaped our conception of the world and reality around us. We tend to conceive these categories disconnected or divided and to judge them in terms of right or wrong. Generally, anything that had to do with body, earth, emotions, sins and corruption was considered negative dimension that kept the human being far from the divine condition.

From these roots and through the several scientific revolutions we arrived to the extremes of Positivism and Rationalism in the XIX century that leaded to the sectorialisation of subjects and specialization of expertise.

We can study the human being from many perspectives, but each one brings an understanding of it, which is limited to the very deep expertise of that specific subject.
This is evident in sectors like medicine or biology (to the extent of considering living beings as scientific bodies or “machines”), psychology, with the stigmatization of behaviors through etiquettes and diagnosis. Generally, the subjects that lose the most in our dualisms are the humanities and the arts, considered useless in our profit-orientated society, because not driven by striving motives. Unfortunately, those are the ones that can give hope for the future. The only ones capable to nurture human creativity and insight, the ones that make us human and empathetic and suggest us innovative solutions for problems.

The consequence of scientific reductionism is that every science tends to own a piece of the cake (the cake is the whole human being) and wants to explain the whole cake just from the partial perspective of its single slice. However, no one slice, in its partial view, will have the capacity to understand the whole cake as a holistic totality. It will see the cake divided and it will understand it from its limited perspective. Each slice will have its own flavor, consistency and color, that may have ingredients in common with the other slices, but it won’t give the taste of the whole cake as an integrated well prepared meal.

This paradigm does not work anymore in our complex society. Things are nowadays too complicated to be explained in sectors. Complexity means inter-connectedness and inter-relation. The world is a complex whole-system made of incredible interactions among elements. As someone already said: the whole is much more than the sum of the parts.

In sustainability, it is not possible to understand the biological functioning of ecosystems if we have no idea of the economic world dynamics. We can’t speak about agriculture if we don’t know anything about social and cultural dimensions. We can’t address community development if we don’t consider the complexity of cultural environments and worldviews. All of it is part of the WHOLE SYSTEM. Understanding the system implies considering all the dimensions and aspects as interacting, influencing each other and contributing to evolutionary processes that need to be observed from a “big picture” perspective. Otherwise, we get lost into the limited and partial visions and details, and we’ll lose the orientation towards reasonable and mindful aims.

Sustainability requires a whole-system, transdisciplinary, holistic and integrated approach among all the sources of knowledge. It requires also a deep awareness of all this.

Read more on whole-system and integrative approach here


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