Ignorance of systems foreshadows disaster

In 1958, China’s Chairman Mao Zedong raged war on sparrows. His reasoning was on the surface logical enough: The sparrows ate the seed grains, which stole the fruit of the people’s labor. Zedong commanded his 653 million citizens to bang pots, pans, and drums until the sparrows fell out of the sky from exhaustion. 

Zedong was logical but shortsighted. Free of predators, the locusts thrived and swarmed across the hills and plains of China. In the end, that misguided decision contributed to the Great Chinese Famine that killed twenty million people by starvation.

Now let’s make a seven-thousand-mile leap from China to Washington D.C. The year is 2016. Congress is still in gridlock. But it was not always that way. As recent as the 1970s, representatives and senators met behind closed doors to unravel the Gordian knots of partisan politics.  But after Watergate, such meetings were held suspect. Negotiations became more public and, consequently, less productive. The Atlantic columnist, Jonathan Rauch, was on target with his 2016 article, “What’s Ailing American Politics?”

“Smoke-filled rooms, whatever their disadvantages, were good for brokering complex compromises in which nothing was settled until everything was settled.”

A third example. In the desert of Southern Idaho there is a ranch for at-risk teenagers. Some of the teens arrive against their will in the middle of the night. Most are belligerent and spoiled. They are in for a grand paradigm shift. For the next month they will wander the desert with blankets roped to their backs. The first few days are spent in complete silence. Their first task is to march eight miles across the desolate landscape. If they make it, they will be fed; if not, they will go hungry.

As the month progresses, they learn to start a fire without the convenience of a match. They circle up in the evenings, pass a talking stick, and disclose their innermost secrets. By the end of the month, at least eighty percent of them are transformed by a new sense of achievement through struggle and responsibility. 

And then they go home.

They are changed, but for how long? Their families and friends have not shared their experience; it is not something they can grasp or even respect. What they do understand is their own way of being. So, they naturally do whatever they can to remold their child, brother, sister, or friend into the culture they know—even when the culture is dysfunctional.

What is the common thread of these three examples? It is this: a lack of understanding regarding the power of systems. 

All things are part of one or more systems: an interrelated tangle of ecology, political relationships, interpersonal dynamics—and much more. Ignoring that association is tantamount to courting disaster.

Zedong was ignorant of or disinterested in the systemic nature of an ecological food chain. Members of congress were either ill-advised or politically coerced to abandon a time-proven process for discovering winning bipartisan compromises. The leaders at the wilderness survival ranch were correct in teaching responsibility and the natural consequences of ill-mannered behavior, but wrong in throwing their graduates back into the fray of an untrained and often chaotic social system.

Finding enduring solutions to complicated problems is never easy, but it is virtually impossible without a studied analysis of the ruling system.

My last sentence is important, so let me offer a domestic example.

My wife is the mistress of the kitchen. I’m allowed there on occasion—to make my famous buckwheat pancakes, for example—but I think the dispensation is surrendered in a shroud of suspicion.

In that kitchen there is a special stack of four drawers. The first drawer is reserved for fine silverware (last used before my voice had fully changed). The second drawer contains the everyday tea towels (I call them dishrags). The third drawer holds the holiday torchons, which is French for tea towels (la-di-da)—the ones in red and green for Christmas and orange and black for Halloween. I don’t know what’s in the fourth drawer; I’ve never looked, and, besides, I’m sure it’s outside my purview.

Recently, on an ordinary day of the year, I foolishly reached for a dishrag from the holiday drawer to protect my tee-shirt from a stream of maple syrup slathered on a short stack of buckwheat pancakes. Before I had exhumed my hand from the sacred coffer, my wife strode into her royal domain.

“Uh-uh,” she said, wagging her finger at me. “The torchons are for special days. You want the tea towels from the second drawer.”

“But what difference does it make?” I asked unwisely.

“It makes a big difference,” she said with arched eyebrows. “It’s all part of my system. Don’t mess with the system, not if you dare.”

Naturally, I daren’t.

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