Systems Level Critical Thinking

We often hear about critical thinking being scarce in our society. It must be true on some level, since colleges offer courses on the subject. Somehow, people manage to go through twelve years of education in government schools without mastering the skill. This seems shocking since you have to have some level of critical thinking just to cross the street! There is a growing sense among many of us that the skill of critical thinking is in decline. Pessimistic prognosticators in alternative media foresee certain doom in our future due to a lack of this skill. Just watch the movie Idiocracy if you want an example.

While I won’t argue against the idea that critical thinking is in decline, I am not here to point out that idea or analyze possible reasons.  I will say that I believe specialization has been contributing to this decline for a very long time. There are many causes. Take a close look at any you can identify, and I bet you can trace it back to the domestication and pacification of humans all those millennia ago. What we really need to focus on is reversing the decline in thinking skills on an individual level. That’s why I advocate for systems level critical thinking.

Let me begin by saying that I am borrowing a lot of these ideas from the design science of Permaculture. Specifically, we are interested in the principles of function stacking and whole systems design. We need to look at our environment as a managed system we interact with. After all Balok did.

We are often taught to think of our ancestors like Balok as primitives struggling to make a life for themselves through endless toil and 16 hour days of back-breaking labor. Supposedly they lived short, miserable lives. While that might have been true of our recent ancestors who were enslaved by agriculture, anthropological evidence indicates life was quite the opposite for our hunter-gatherer kin. We can even look at modern tribes living free today and see superior health and a higher quality of life. Instead of constant toil, we were designed to work with nature a few hours a day and enjoy leisure time with those close to us.  Our fictitious character Balok is the perfect example of this. He didn’t plow fields or sow a single crop into them only creating one yield. He didn’t toil and he didn’t simply subsist. Balok THRIVED by using systems level thinking to take on the role of keystone species in his environment. Balok could identify dozens of edible and medicinal plant species in the forest or savanna. Many of them he actively managed by helping to propagate. He could hunt, fish, and might have even raised livestock.

Balok observed and interacted with his environment on a daily basis until he was able to manipulate the system to produce positive outcomes. One day he saw a certain herb growing greener in a spot he had kept his chickens the last month. Without understanding the science behind an NPK ratio, he understood the cause and effect relationship. Balok began using his chickens to clear large areas on the edge of the forest down to bare dirt. As he moved them across the forest perimeter, he followed the cage with a mix of seeds that would benefit him later on. Instead of the usual scrub brushes that normally advanced the forest in this area, Balok had created conditions ideal to grow food for himself on the forest edge. The abundance we can achieve by working with natural systems is amazing. We only have to understand that it is a system of interdependent parts. We have to THINK about these parts and find a way to benefit from natural interactions in our environment. Balok intrinsically understood this. Instead of just getting eggs and meat from his chickens,  he was also able to create fruit, nut, shade, and increased game animal yields by growing a forest in a manner that suited him. He was a part of nature, not an elite bunch of overlords excluded from natural systems as we tend to believe of ourselves today. Over time, he was able to design a forest system that provided for all his needs.

Most of us aren’t ready to live like Balok. Many of us couldn’t identify a single edible plant in our local woods. We might die trying to find out which ones were safe without the proper education. So how do we start thinking on a systems level like our ancestors did? We can certainly learn more about wildcrafting food, but the easier way to get started is to take a moment of introspection and examine your daily life. Find areas you can improve with function stacking. Thinking on a systems level isn’t just for regenerative agriculture systems. We can use this principle to improve all aspects of our lives from business and finance to gardening and home security. Speaking of gardening and home security, you can plant rosa rugosa under your windows. The hardy roses will provide hips that are high in Vitamin C and can be used to make herbal tea. The thorns will help deter break-ins. Planted them next to a south facing wall will help shade your home and contribute to energy savings. Planting on the northern side might provide a windbreak against cool arctic air. This is a perfect example of function stacking: getting multiple yields out of one product.

So, our challenge today is to return our minds to a state where we can look at a problem and analyze the whole system to find a solution. that provides multiple benefits  We need to be able to see relationships in systems and produce solutions that don’t just address the problem but improve other parts of the system as a side-effect. Every time we expend energy it should return multiple yields back to us over a long period of time. A perfect example of this would be content marketing. Like creating a food forest, you input a large amount of labor up front. If you are successful and grow an audience, you can see great success with little effort later on. At least I hope that’s how it works out with Rewilding Blog! In a similar manner, Balok put forth a lot of effort up front to kick off a massive change in his local ecosystem. His great grandchildren were literally enjoying the fruits of his labor decades after his death. See patterns and observe interactions. Be like Balok!  Rewild Yourself!






2 thoughts on “Systems Level Critical Thinking”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s