Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think
Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think

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Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think

2 Section 3 Readings – Problems with the way we think

2.1 Introduction to the problems with the way we think

The way in which we think, and the way in which we think about thinking in our Western tradition, can be traced back at least to Parmenides of Elea, a Presocratic Greek philosopher who lived around 500 BC. His influence on our thinking is hard to overestimate – from it grew the notion that what can be known must be real, and what is real is eternal and unchanging. Though many others have contributed since, the Greek philosophers laid the foundation for the way in which we currently think about thinking. This is usually labelled 'reductionist thinking'. It can be characterised by the idea that a thing, an entity, can be identified and characterised by various attributes.

So most of our thinking is dominated by models that exclude change, because at the foundation of Western thinking is this static model of an object. In general the object as perceived, whatever it is, will have particular fixed characteristics or attributes. This enables us to categorise these objects on the basis of their particular fixed attributes and so form classes of objects that can then be dealt with as objects themselves, and so on in a hierarchy of classes. This categorisation, and thereby the separating out of our models one from another, is at the root of many problems – just like the way that thinking about our own driving often does not include thinking about its effects on others, or thinking about a business often does not include thinking about all the effects of its waste.

Thinking that uses, and is governed by, this basic categoric model is successful because of its inherent flexibility, but also limited. In complex situations it can contribute to understanding, but often fails spectacularly. Any example of what is known in economics as 'the tragedy of the commons' (Hardin, 1968) will illustrate this.

For example, in the United Kingdom many North Sea fishing companies gradually enlarged the size and efficiency of their fishing boats to gain more fish for less expenditure. Thereby the companies maximised their profit, and achieved success competing in the market for fish and fish products. But unknowingly, each of these companies became more and more intimately connected as they depleted the fish stocks of the North Sea. When the companies were small, and the total catch was small in comparison to the fish stock, an increased catch by one company made no difference to the others. So the companies could, and did, operate independently. But once the overall catch increased to beyond the rate at which fish were naturally replaced by their reproduction, fish stocks declined. And as the companies increased their catch, they were no longer operating independently. When one company increased its catch, inevitably another suffered a decreased catch. The only way the companies could save themselves was to put in place formal relationships between themselves that would limit each company's catch. If they did not, some would not survive. And the longer they ignored this requirement, the more companies would fail as fish stocks dwindled. The problem was that the model that the directors of each company had of their operation, competing independently in the market, failed because it neglected the growing intimate connection between the companies as the stocks dwindled.

Even if decision makers do take into account the relationships between the parts, this does not necessarily help. The history of the fishing industry shows that the companies themselves could not come to an agreement – the pressures as seen by the directors of the companies were for them to take more than their share of available fish, their goal was to 'compete successfully'. And even when laws designed to benefit all were imposed by the governments concerned, the companies continued to protest against these laws. No monitoring system could prevent them from destroying the fish stocks and themselves, whilst their models remain reductionist.


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