It took me several months but in October I finally finished reading Ervin Laszlo's 1972 book "An Introduction to Systems Philosophy" in which he builds the case for a new philosophy based on a systems approach to understanding the traditional problems in philosophy.

It is a somewhat technical work, but very rewarding if you take the time to understand what he is getting at, and the case he builds is pretty compelling. This seems a useful way of thinking about life, the universe, and everything.

Other recent writers have been marking out a similar path; currently I'm reading Jeremy Lent's latest work, "the Web of Meaning", which is a very accessible exploration of similar territory, although he doesn't explicitly reference Laszlo. 

The current debates around what next for climate activism post COP26 (see Action In the Pipeline) could perhaps benefit from taking a systems approach to understanding the relationships between human society and the natural world in which it exists as well as the relationships between components of society and individual human psychology.

Most analysis of the problems of climate activism seems to be based either on considering it as a purely human problem (economic issues, sociology and Marxist analysis) or as an environmental problem that we need to respond to (the need to "save" the planet). Neither approach really seems to integrate the two sides and explain the tight relationship between social structures and society's relation to its environs, and the fractal reflections of that at all levels from cell pathology to spiritual alienation.

It seems to me that we need to understand this in order to find a way forward that doesn't involve either simple human extinction, or a greater reset involving the end of all forms of conscious life on this particular planet and the early triumph of entropy in this corner of the universe (referring here to Lent's view of life as a reaction to, or battle against increasing entropy.  You could extend this to see the outcome as determining whether or not the universe ultimately suffers a 'heat death', which is an open debate as I understand it).

Systems thinking and philosophy teaches us that complex systems, whether individuals, groups, or whole societies need to operate in harmony with their surroundings (their environment) if they are to achieve stability and endurance. Stability here is not a static concept, but  a fluid dynamic like an eddy in a stream that persist even as its precise shape and the water that they are made of changes.

It also shows us the fractal nature of the hierarchy of types of sub-systems and parent systems that are themselves complex components of a larger system. Similar structures and relationships are found at all levels, Dis-ease in any one component will tend to induce stress and dis-ease in other components, and be expressed in the whole system. When a component exhibits signs of dis-ease its neighbours and parent will redirect their energy to neutralise or contain it so that the dynamic stability of the whole is maintained.

A social system that seeks to base itself on harmonious relationships between its component sub-systems (eg people) must itself have a harmonious relationship with its peers and parent systems and vice versa. Relationships are bidirectional, and stresses in one end of the relationship will reflect back on the other end creating stress there.

Thus the use of fossil fuels in particular, and extractive natural resource exploitation in general without respect for the systems of which they are a part, by any human society is almost bound to lead to a social system that is itself in internal conflict and exhibits pathological and exploitative relations between its members. In this sense you can see fossil fuel use (exploitation of the environment) as an inevitable corollary of capitalism (exploitative relations within society), and also the development of capitalism as an inevitable result of using fossil energy to power society.

In this broad sense the problem is deeper than simply our use of fossil fuels as our primary energy source - the problem comes from human's and human society's relationships to their environment (the "natural" world). If at any level the relationship between a system and its environs is exploitative (or pathological at the level of the cell) then there is stress in the relationships and disharmony in the overall structure. This results in either the overall system, or the component causing the stress, shifting to a new stable state that resolves the tensions. 

Climate tipping points and ecosystem trophic cascades are, in this sense, the whole earth system's (Gaia's) response to the stresses caused by capitalist industrial society's maladapted relationship to its environs. Ultimately they lead to a new stable state which has no place for the component that caused the stress, just as your body's immune system will attack and expel a pathological invasive component. Or in the worst case the body as a whole dies.

The alternative is that human society has to change its nature so that it is in harmony with its surroundings, which also implies more harmonious relationships within the society. The problem cannot be fixed from one end only, but has to be tackled on both fronts simultaneously. Currently the feedback loops in the social-natural relationship are working to make the situation worse - more exploitation of the natural world creates more exploitative relationships within society and exploitative relationships between people creates an instrumental and exploitative approach to natural "resources".  This has to be reversed, it will not work to simply stop using fossil fuels without tackling the social problems of inequality and exploitation, equally simply building a fairer society will not automatically change the relationship to the natural world - a good society might still be based on fossil energy, but it would simply be locking in the stresses to re-emerge in a bigger blowback later (although what could be bigger than the ecological and climate crises we currently face is difficult to imagine).

Climate activists now recognise what systems science has been saying for decades, and traditional thinking has known for eons; that a system based on the exploitative consumption of, eg fossil fuel, resources cannot be stable or persist in the long term, and that a system based on exploitation of its components is bound to exploit and destroy its environment. The urgency now is that the signs are that the long term is coming to an end. 

The fractal nature of complex systems (similar structures are found at all levels in the hierarchy of types that comprise a complex system) suggests that a way forward to a plan for action. Further study of the way in which complex systems stabilise their components might reveal clues as to more specific steps that need to be taken. For example study of the principles by which the body's immune system works, and by which cancerous growth and similar malfunctions can be neutralised from within, might provide insight into the actions needed to drive a social change, and the much harder problem of how a complex society can obtain the energy it needs to function without exploiting the environment of which it is a component. Symbiosis may be a key.

Time, however, is of the essence, so we need to start immediately mobilising all possible defensive systems and refine and modify the tools as we go along. Not only is there no single silver bullet, the situation is unprecedented and we can not even be sure what tools or bullets will be most effective . If we had considered this 50 years ago we might have had time to develop a robust theoretical programme for action and then implement it with confidence that it would avoid catastrophe. But we are not there, so we need a pragmatic approach that does not rule out anything.

In particular we can point to some important elements all of which are essential to success. One is the development of workplace activism that focuses not just on the immediate conditions of work, but also the quality of the work that the system is calling for, resisting exploitative uses of natural resources.

A second element might be to attack the capital side of the capitalist relationship between labour an capital. Building towards a mass opting-out from the capitalist money system to alternative ways of storing and exchanging value. At its simplest engaging in the 'black economy', rejecting the the drive towards the 'cashless society' which is a preemptive strike by capitalism against the potential for a money rebellion. Moving on to local currencies, LETS, using the gift economy - all any any means of reducing the power of capital.

The third front must be to continue the civil society pressure for change - it may seem a futile task against the forces of status quo, business as usual, and the whole consumerist culture, not to mention the effective destruction of effective political debate under neo-liberalism - but it is essential to keep up the pressure so that there is a political discourse for change to be implemented.

Fourthly all of the above will not be enough on its own, there are two more important factors. Capitalist consumerism is not going to simply implode under the ppressures above, it is going to have to be helped on its way by direct action means. As Malm recognises in the first instance simply blocking by sabotaging all new fossil fuel developments, and then moving on to attack the existing infrastructure and render the sunk costs worthless. 

The final element must be the search for symbiotic relationships with environment to provide the power that is needed to run society. What can human society provide back to its environment in exchange for energy - at present all of our relationships are extractive, even 'renewable' energy use is not generally structured to return something to our environment which feeds or sustains other parts of our wider eco-system. What might such a symbiotic relationship look like? It needs to go further than simply mitigating our destruction by providing wildlife corridors to cross roads, or nature reserves to offset destruction. It needs to be offering something life-giving back to the environment.

We need all of the above (and more) if we are to avoid complete disaster or descent into either techno-fascism or eco-fascism.

Much of the conceptual framework for radical change does already exist, both within modern systems philosophy and within traditional / indiginous / vernacular wisdom. A useful catch-phrase to summarise it proposed by Laszlo is simply to proceed with reverence for nature


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