Think Eco-Systems not just Issues

Take global warming or government regulation as examples – these are all very complex topics, collections of variables where solving the problem cannot be achieved through solving one issue alone, but in fact the solution rests in addressing the eco-system tying together all the inter-linked variables. In fact, seeing things on purely the issue level may in fact be contributing to the problem.

In the book Freakonomics the authors quote numerous examples of cases where seemingly complex phenomena have very simple origins, but often in an entirely different field and the eco-system magnifies the impact through all the inter-related variables and creates an impact on local, sometimes national and international levels. One of the striking examples is their analysis of crime figures in large cities in the US. The numbers were growing at epic proportions year-on year until sometime in the mid-eighties the trend suddenly stopped and began a steady decline. Experts tried to attribute this reversal to anything from an increase in spending on the police, a growth in numbers of staff, prisons, different governments, new laws etc. but the biggest impact came from the legalisation of abortion.

How could this have anything to do with crime figures you may wonder? Here the eco-system comes in: the women most likely to have an abortion back in the 60s where women in low-income households with several children already and who before the legalisation either had to risk their lives to have an abortion by often unqualified people in unsafe conditions and risk prosecution or not have one at all. Many didn’t and subsequently struggled to look after their children, who often ended up in crime from a lack of opportunity in life. As abortion became legal in many states, the numbers of these ‘unwanted’ children dropped and the sheer numbers of disadvantaged youth decreased, thus decreasing the populace likely to commit crime. It’s not to say that the other measures had no impact at all, but collectively they helped solve the problem as the eco-system of ideal conditions leading to crime gradually became more untenable.

Biofuels are another example of where eco-system thinking really needs to be applied on a much larger scale than today – touted as the solution to the West’s reliance on fossil fuels, the growth of crops destined for biofuels is now accelerating across the world, leading to an increased rate of rain forest destruction (these are our most efficient weapon in clearing CO2 from the atmosphere) as land is being cleared to grow palm oil – a crucial ingredient in biofuels. Much agricultural land previously home to food production is being converted to grow crops for biofuel, putting food production in danger. The biggest irony of all is that the process of producing biofuels has a greater negative impact on global warming than fossil fuel use – proving that there is no simple ‘solution’ to global warming, in fact simple solutions may in fact be aggravating it further, instead we need to think in eco-systems, not just locally, but nationally and internationally.

Nancy Gibbs of Time, talks in her column about the Vatican reflecting on its mortal sins for the modern age (24th March 2008) of the fact that back in the past sloth, lust, greed, envy and anger accounted for virtually all the crimes of mankind, whereas today the issues that once were the clear culprits behind our follies and misfortunes are far more complex than the 7 deadly sins alone. Causes and consequences come together to form eco-systems, where one problem feeds another and addressing consequences is meaningless without understanding and addressing the causes. Contextualising what was once simple in our now increasingly interlinked world – Quoting Mohandas Gandhi’s version of the 7 deadly sins:

  1. Wealth without work

  2. Pleasure without conscience

  3. Science without humanity

  4. Knowledge without character

  5. Politics without principle

  6. Commerce without morality

  7. Worship without sacrifice

The responsibility rests with the individual, but that includes the duty to take care of others as well as yourself.