The Implications of Linear Thinking on Societal Sustainability

My biggest conclusions from the course this quarter primarily concern the nature of the systemic importance that food and water systems possess for human societies and how this will be impacted by climate change. Such is the case as data regarding these aforementioned impacts is far more severe than previously imagined. However, simple recognition of the multitude of ways climate change will affect food and water systems does not represent my main takeaway. Instead, it is the multitude of ways humanity can reverse this dangerous trend and improve our societies in the process. This is true because agricultural land and water are not mere biophysical phenomena but political constructs which play a large role in societal growth and adaptation. Through this course, I discovered that human systems perpetuate unsustainability due to the linear way in which their processes occur. “Unlike Gaia’s great biogeochemical cycles, the global economy operates principally on a linear model that moves from resource extraction to production to consumption to waste. Yet self-generativity can only be sustained for so long under a linear model. Ultimately, sustainability requires thinking in circles” (Litfin). As this quote shows, the key antidote to this ailment can be found in Gaia theory. This theory in practice has many implications that diverge from conventional philosophical thought in this age, “Gaia theory depicts the Earth system as a vast autopoietic network of interlinked communities. In this sense, Gaia, like other living systems, is inherently social in the sense that it comprises nested collectives. Every organism within Gaia, including the human body, contains the heritage of billions of years of interaction among sunlight, soil, air, water, and the biosphere. Living systems, including human systems, are autonomous only in the sense that they maintain some degree of structural integrity. This radical concept of systemic interdependence stands in contrast to modern political and psychological notions of human independence. Just as modern psychology is oriented towards the autonomous ego, modern political thought is premised on individual rights and state sovereignty” (Litfin). One of this quote’s key implications is the idea that humans and states need to view their actions and policies not simply in the context of linear effects but holistic ones. Many excellent examples of the issues linear thinking causes can easily be found in present day American politics. For instance, one of the primary Republican criticisms of the Paris Accords and battling climate change in general is that it will eliminate jobs in ‘traditional’ American industries. This clearly constitutes an individualistic argument as it places the long-term sustainability of this nation in jeopardy simply due to traditional balking at what they consider state overreach. History, however, shows us that this argument is ridiculous. One needs to look no further than Rome to understand how unsustainable environmental policy leads to systemic societal collapse. Throughout most of its history Rome’s breadbasket could be found in the old Carthaginian provinces in modern day Tunisia and while the status quo for this food system worked out for awhile it surely did not stay that way. After the 3rd century crisis climate change began to demonstrably affect the fertility of that region which was compounded by the fact the Romans had utilized largely unsustainable agricultural practices for centuries, resulting in high levels of desertification. Controlling food systems was key to controlling the empire and when the state lost control of that, they lost everything. This example shows that linear and individualistic processes can destroy even the mightiest of societies. In summary, this course has taught me that in order for societies to prosper rational approaches to sustainability must be achieved through recognizing the inherent symbiosis of Earth’s vast plethora of life forms.



A depiction of Roman agriculture.


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