Changing habits of thought

Posted on September 24, 2009


Stephen Sterling argues that we need to think ecologically (Ecological intelligence from Handbook of Sustainable Literacy).   He says that this is more than systems thinking, it has an embedded caring:

So ecological thinking – reflected in ecophilosophy – is essentially relational or connective thinking, but it’s also more than that: it is ethical, valuative, and expresses our humanity.

He describes two ways of thinking, characterised by assumptions.    For example, the belief in the power of problem-solving approaches is based on the assumption that “To every problem, there’s a solution”.   Sterling advocates a “positive synergies” approach – a focus on developing  ‘solutions that generate further solutions’.

The assumption that ‘Most processes are linear and characterised by cause and effect’  stems from a belief  that events and phenomena have a identifiable beginning and finishing point.  Instead Sterling argues that “we need to attempt to look at all the influences at the ‘start’, all the knock-on effects at the ‘finish’ and any feedback loops. This complexity is characteristic of most human and environmental systems”.

Similarly, the assumption  ‘It is ethically acceptable to draw your circle of attention or concern quite tightly, as in “that’s not my concern”’ comes from a belief that our system of concern is restricted – we do not need to look beyond our immediate concerns as an individual, a householder, a consumer, a businessman etc.).   These narrow boundaries are inappropriate in the face of complexity that means we need to expand our view of the world and be more aware of the boundaries of concern we set ourselves.

From a list of ten habits of thought and assumptions and his rejoinders, Sterling presents a comparison of two ways of thinking.    Borrowing from the Agile Manifesto (while we value those things on the right – we value those on the left more…),  I’ve flipped this around to make room for the “over” and make readable statements.

It is not a matter of abandoning the right hand side, even if this were possible…but developing an ecological sensibility, an understanding of interconnectivity, and an ability to design and act integratively requires attention to the more systemic set of approaches represented by the left hand side of the diagram.

Appreciation/reframing over Problem Solving
Synthesis over Analysis
Holism over Reductionism
Multiple influences through time and space  over Closed cause-effect
Integrative over Atomistic/segregative
Extension of boundaries over Narrow boundaries
Critical subjectivity over Objectivism
Pluralism / duality over Dualism
Rational / non-rational ways of knowing over Rationalism
Uncertainty, tolerance of ambiguity over Determinism