“…a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.” Albert Einstein
Former Unity College President Mitch Thomashow explains the emergence of the sustainability movement this way: “Sustainability is a response to a planetary emergency.” Investigate any point around the Sustainability Compass – Nature, Economy, Society, or Wellbeing – and there will be abundant evidence that we indeed face a “planetary emergency.” Understanding this host of scary problems, figuring out how we got into this situation, and what to do about it, requires fresh eyes. It requires “a new type of thinking.” It requires systems thinking.
Systems thinking enables us to better see the whole picture, understand what is happening and why, how things are connected, and identify leverage points where we can focus our efforts to have the biggest trajectory-changing impact. However, success in systems thinking requires cultivating a mindset that prepares us for using this approach, one that embraces openness to new learning, courage, curiosity, and humility.
Openness to new learning means a willingness to see things differently. Writer Karen Armstrong explains why this is important: “One of the conditions of enlightenment has always been a willingness to let go of what we thought we knew in order to appreciate truths we had never dreamed of.” Courage, curiosity, and humility help us achieve this.
So, are we willing to reconsider what we think we know? Unexamined assumptions, or mental models, are deeply held internal images of how the world works. Peter Senge warns us that entrenched mental models will thwart meaningful change that could come from systems thinking.
Or, as this Zen koan puts it: “Great doubt, great awakening. Little doubt, little awakening. No doubt, no awakening.”
No matter our expertise or what we think we know, it is important to regularly re-examine our core assumptions because what was true or what worked yesterday may not be valid today. Here are a few (in retrospect, funny) examples of experts really missing the boat because they did not question their own worldviews.
- In the late 1870s, Western Union, the communications technology company of its day, considered a recently invented communications innovation called a “telephone” and after thorough analysis concluded that a telephone had no value as a communications device.
- In the 1920s, when the motion picture industry was considering transitioning from silent to talking films, film magnate H.L. Warner, one of the Warner Brothers, said “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
- In the early 1940s, Thomas Watson, Chairman of computing giant IBM, said he saw a world market for maybe five computers.
It seems amazing to us that these “experts” could be so clueless. But are we different? To the extent we cling to outdated, unexamined mental models, we are just as blind. What will people 50 years from now laugh at, or more likely condemn, given the planetary emergency we face, when they study our assumptions and behaviors? How well do our mental models serve us and the future? Do they enable us to perceive and respond to planetary crises and create a better, healthier world?
Here are a few largely unexamined mental models for our society to think about that the sustainability movement is working to change:
- We continue to strive for perpetual growth, blind to the fact that we live on a finite planet with finite resources. What would it look like if we started from the premise that we are subject to the laws and limits of nature?
- We persist in seeing ourselves as apart from and superior to the natural world, when in fact we are of the natural world. How would our decisions and behaviors differ if we understood that we are part of, not apart from, nature, utterly interdependent with other species and the processes that support all life on Earth?
- We commonly accept that business is driven by a profit motive with a single, economic, bottom line that maximizes profit to the exclusion of other considerations. What would it look like if we believed, as a growing number of business leaders and young people entering the workforce do, that business must surely exist for some higher purpose. What if that purpose was to create a better quality of life for everyone, not just shareholders? What if the corporate bottom line required and included measures of social and environmental “profits” (or losses) as well?
As Ray Anderson urged in his excellent book, Business Lessons of a Radical Industrialist, which is the story of his company, Interface, and its transition toward sustainability, “…we need new thinking from a higher perspective. The truth of a new paradigm doesn’t just spring into existence. It will have been there all along, obscured by the old, flawed views of reality. After all, the Earth was round even when everybody knew it was flat.”
It takes courage to expose our deeply held worldviews to the light of day and risk having their flaws become evident. It takes humility to acknowledge that our ideas and assumptions may be wrong. It helps to realize that our thinking doesn’t define us, that we can impersonally put our assumptions out there to be refined, revised, and improved and come through the process better and more effective for the effort.
Robert Costanza, in the book Creating a Sustainable and Desirable Future, writes: “The most critical task facing humanity today is the creation of a shared vision of a sustainable and desirable society, one that can provide permanent prosperity within the biophysical constraints of the real world in a way that is fair and equitable to all of humanity, to other species, and to future generations.”
This task requires new tools, systems thinking tools. Learning anything new takes effort, openness, courage, curiosity, and humility. We have the tools at hand. All we have to do is willingly and eagerly learn how to use them to craft the world we want. The choice is ours. Do we learn to think and act in new ways or do we perpetuate the status quo? Our choice has consequences. As W. Edwards Deming put it: “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”