The Krugman Function, Part 2: Whole-System Thinking

October 21, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedAnyone who has spent much time thinking about ecology, peak oil and the economy, or global carbon emissions with any degree of complexity understands the importance of whole-system thinking.  Whole-system thinking reminds us that our economy cannot be intelligently assessed without an understanding of resources and energy.  Whole-system thinking tells the ecologist that the loss of one species or a slight change in precipitation patterns will upset a far broader equilibrium whose boundaries are often impossible to predict.  Whole-system thinking tries to remind the smug Prius driver that the embedded energy in the car’s battery-system may outweigh many of the gains in operating efficiency, or the gullible voter that lowering U.S. emissions by offshoring our heavy industry to China in our quest for a “knowledge economy” is of no practical import to global warming.  

Whole-system thinkers are in constant conflict with a very strong tendency to see things in isolation or according to smaller isolated systems—like the economist who believes that the economic system has its own rules independent of geology and thermodynamics, the people who do not imagine how the loss of a bird or fish species might actually have any impact on them, and of course the smug Prius drivers who believe they have made “a difference” without bothering to follow the chains of cause and effect, flows and feedback, which would reveal what these differences are.  Among the many lessons of whole-system thinking is the interconnected nature of everything and the inevitability of all sorts of unintended consequences, including many that are impossible to anticipate with any precision.  Changing one thing on planet Earth, at any rate, changes many things—in some cases “everything.” 

As Meadows, Meadows, and Randers explained in the still groundbreaking Limits to Growth, “our training taught us to see the world as a set of unfolding behavior patterns, such as growth, decline, oscillation, overshoot.  It has taught us not to focus so much on single pieces of a system as on connections.  We see the many elements of demography, economy, and the environment as one planetary system, with innumerable interactions.  We see stocks and flows and feedbacks and threshold in the interconnections, all of which influence the way the system will behave in the future and  influence the actions we might take to change its behavior” (30-Year Update, 4).  Among the more pithy lessons that whole-system thinking might impart is the fact that on a finite sphere there is no “away,” only somewhere else; or that everyone’s downstream is someone else’s upstream; or that there may be far more “zero-sum games” in town than is generally maintained.

Despite our access to immense amounts of data and the computers that can quickly organize it, our society is relatively resistant to system-thinking in a way that deserves more attention from our cultural critics.   There are, of course, cultural, geographical, and historical reasons why we, in America, are especially resistant to system-thinking.  But we have also inherited a philosophical bias against it.  In traditional Western Metaphysics and monotheistic religions the goal has been to understand the nature or essence of distinct things.  In system-thinking, in contrast, the shift is towards interconnection, function, and role.  With our overwhelming focus on the individual, freedom, and autonomy, it is especially difficult for Americans to accept that humans are also a part of larger systems that we cannot control (Europeans do somewhat better, proportionately to their somewhat different history).  Even more difficult yet is accepting that the life of the mind or intimate beliefs may also be part of a system–that our deepest beliefs and desires may (at least in part) be functional elements within systems we cannot independently control.  As I will later argue, Krugman is, in this vein, a Liberal functionary. 

There is, we should therefore note, a distinct cultural element to the astonishment with which many people in our culture react to such heretical thoughts as these, a cultural element that will be a constant subtext in my reflections on Krugman.  Because of its emphasis on liberty, autonomy, free will, and consent, the Enlightenment tradition of Liberalism has, I will be arguing, in large part been based on the rejection of whole-system thinking.   To jump ahead to an important, and perhaps intellectually challenging, conclusion towards which we will be slowly working, when Liberalism (as well as its democratic systems and market economies) are viewed as systems, we make a remarkable discovery: namely, that a very important functional element in the Liberal system is the denial of whole-system conceptions of reality and whole-system understandings of how things work.  Liberal systems cannot work, in other words, unless they deny the role of the system within themselves.  They are systematically anti-system.  While this may be abstract in its statement, I believe that this aspect of both Individual Liberalism and American culture affects the struggles of the educators and activists fighting in the trenches of sustainability.

And Krugman is meanwhile busy firing shells into these very trenches, for this, in short, is the Krugman Function—or at least one of them.  To jump even further ahead, this may explain why Liberals like Krugman cannot accept the fact that we live on a finite planet with distinct limits to growth.  It also explains why Liberalism did thrive when not pressed tightly against the ecological limits of the planet: that same denial was, it turns out, very liberating when there was still sufficient room for it to roam; in the way denial is often necessary for ruthless action, the denial of ecological limits did, in fact, unleash a tremendous amount of energy and ingenuity.  Now, however, this denial may be our undoing.

Before I draw this installment to a close, let me review the ground we’ve covered.  I began in my first installment by suggesting that Krugman’s apparent inability to accept the possibility that perpetual economic growth on a finite planet is impossible may have a systematic quality to it—thus a mild criticism of Richard Heinberg’s implied suggestion that a quick fact check might actually penetrate the conscience of this liberal.   Of course, one might respond in Heinberg’s defense, one can only do so much in a quick, to-the-point rejoinder.  And while I both agree with that defense and with the value of these rejoinders, I personally favor a much longer form of analysis for reasons that should, I hope, become increasingly apparent (I also apologize in advance for the way I move very slowly from point to point and expect more patience and suffering from my reader than I certainly deserve; creating a new paradigm, however, is not easy.  Nor should it be).  I do not wish to erase Heinberg’s rejoinder, then, only add to it—and according to many ideas that I’ve adopted wholesale from Heinberg’s books.   

At any rate, a brief review of whole-system thinking, here, and the suggestion that Liberalism, itself, may be incompatible with whole-system thinking brought us to where we are right now.  My broader aim is to show how Krugman’s arguments on the economy, renewable energy, and economic growth play an important role within the Liberal cultural, political, economic, and ideological system, and that this system may be inherently unsustainable; but before I submit Krugman’s thought, in and of itself, to an analysis according to its function within a Liberal system, I want to provide some evidence regarding Krugman’s resistance to whole system-thinking (beyond his basic energy and ecological illiteracy), and do so by way of a contrast to an very different sort of intellectual orientation.  This will be the subject of our next installment.

Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

Tags: economic growth, Paul Krugman, Whole-system thinking