There are a couple words flying around lately that give important insight into why we can’t seem to get a fix on our multiple crises. We jump from one to the next like a whack-a-mole game, and we can’t decide what to fix first. If we do decide to fix one first, I am more and more convinced that we will not succeed. The reason is that we are applying a “reductionist” approach to a “holistic” problem.
A reductionist approach to a problem assumes that each part of a system operates independently of all the rest. This arrangement is typical of any man-made inanimate object such as a house or an engine. If we have a broken window or a leaky power steering unit, we can safely assume that repairing or replacing those parts will solve the problem. That’s because, generally speaking, all the other parts of that system (or object) will try to continue to do their specific job regardless of the state of any other part. They may fail as a result of the first failure, but only because they are unable to perform their original and only function.
A holistic approach to a problem assumes that the system is composed of living parts that interact continuously to maintain some level of stasis or “normalcy.” Any living system, human, animal, plant, or a combination of these, is a holistic system in which each part reacts to and influences the other parts. If we attempt to correct the operation of one part, we will find that the cumulative influence of all the other parts may tend to make the “corrected” part return to its previous state.
Recognizing the above means: only transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables will not solve the climate crisis, only instituting medicare for all will not solve the health crisis, free college education alone will not eliminate ignorance, regulating and taxing corporations will not eliminate inequality, only building more housing will not solve the housing crisis, supplying nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus will not make healthy soil, and on and on. The reason is that the ill effects we sense in any one of these systems is not only the result of activity in that system. Each is the result of the cumulative influence of all the parts of the overall system. Ultimately, that system is the entire living system of the planet. If one believes that the Earth itself is alive, then the behavior of all its parts will regulate climate, weather, winds, precipitation, species diversity and health, economic and political stability, war and peace, etc.
Naomi Klein recognized this in her book, This Changes Everything. She understood that we can not solve the climate crisis without addressing economic inequality, concentrated power, prejudice, intolerance, an outmoded philosophy of human dominance over nature, valuing excess over sufficiency, and a thousand other things that characterize the very nature of our basic beliefs and assumptions. This is the genius of the Green New Deal. In order to succeed in stopping climate change, we have to deal with the multiple weaknesses in all our other systems.
Life has evolved without us for hundreds of millions of years, although there have been other disastrous imbalances and corrections in the long-term past. As humans, we can influence our current world positively or negatively, but we can’t call the tune. It behooves us to dance closely and collaboratively with our partners in nature, not to dictate the dance.
If you want to save us and the planet, look no further than addressing human greed and arrogance—at the personal, national, and global levels within ourselves and our own species, and in our relationship to all other species and the Earth itself. We use the Earth’s resources with absolutely no regard for other species. We use way more than our share: of the outsized share humans have taken for themselves, we in the US use five times our share of that. No change will occur until we take steps to drastically reduce our consumption of everything. Renewables as we have them now will never produce the amount of energy we are accustomed to, not to mention what the whole of humanity would need if the other three quarters of us aspire to achieve the US standard of living.
It will be a paradigm change for us to become servants and students of nature rather than independent agents and manipulators of nature. The future cannot be a clean energy extrapolation of the present with us travelling everywhere in the world at will, acquiring everything it is within our means to acquire. Nature abhors excesses whether in numbers or in disproportionate shares and will certainly self-correct to protect itself. Ecological collapse can occur when a population of some species exceeds its limits. It is usually starvation, disease, or predation but we humans also have the option of war. We must understand this at the personal level. Are we now addicts that see our certain destruction in the future but cling to fantasies and are otherwise unwilling or unable to change our course?