Systemic means affecting most or all of a system rather than a small portion of the system.

In medicine, systemic means affecting the entire body, rather than a single organ or body part. In systems thinking, systemic means arising from the structure of the system and affecting the general behavior of the entire system. In social problems, systemic means originating from the structure of the system in such a manner as to affect the behavior of most or all social agents of certain types, as opposed to originating from individual agents. The last of these definitions it the one that applies the most to the sustainability problem.

Why this is important

From the definition we see that a problem is systemic if the behavior of most or all of its important social agents is affected. The sustainability problem is clearly a systemic problem.

Systemic problems arise from the structure of the system. Since the sustainability problem is a systemic system, its solution requires deep systemic change to the fundamental layer of the system's structure. This differs radically from popular solutions, which because they don't go deep enough are superficial solutions. The guiding principle is:

Systemic problems require systemic solutions.

Systemic solutions resolve root causes. A systemic solution is the same thing as a root cause solution. Systemic solutions change the fundamental way a system works by changing the structure of its key feedback loops.

Another reason why this is important

Years ago the Wikipedia entry on sustainability was short. (It’s since tripled in size.) It began with this paragraph. Note the fourth word:  

Sustainability is a systemic concept, relating to the continuity of economic, social, institutional and environmental aspects of human society, as well as the non-human environment. It is intended to be a means of configuring civilization and human activity so that society, its members and its economies are able to meet their needs and express their greatest potential in the present, while preserving biodiversity and natural ecosystems, and planning and acting for the ability to maintain these ideals in a very long term. Sustainability affects every level of organization, from the local neighborhood to the entire planet.

Systemic thinking is a rare but learnable skill. Since most people can’t think systemically they can’t handle defining sustainability as a “systemic concept.” That’s why the above entry, after thousands of edits by “helpful” contributors, got watered down to this first paragraph, copied on June 25, 2011:

Sustainability is sometimes known as the capacity to endure. In ecology, the word describes how biological systems remain diverse and productive over time. Long-lived and healthy wetlands and forests are examples of sustainable biological systems. For humans, sustainability is the potential for long-term maintenance of well being, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions.

The first definition arose from the viewpoint of systems thinking. It’s not a popular definition. But it is a deeper more useful and correct definition.

The second definition reflects popular thinking. It’s therefore superficial. The “capacity to endure” is terribly ambiguous. If a system has the capacity to endure but it’s not used, is the system sustainable? If population collapses due to overshoot, the human system and the biosphere both still exist. They have endured. Is that sustainable? And so on. The second, third, and fourth sentences try to clear up this confusion but fail. “Sustainability is the potential for…” Well, the potential is there today. We could be sustainable if we wanted to but we’re not. Since sustainability is defined as “the potential,” then according to the definition the world is already sustainable.

A shallow incorrect definition might seem an obstacle to using the definition as a starting point for understanding and solving the problem, but this popular definition of sustainability (like so many others) is not designed for that. It is feel good environmentalism designed to please as many people as possible and make them think they understand what sustainability means. That it does. But it does not encourage the correct thinking needed for solution.

In systems engineering the goal state of a system is the preferred state, as opposed to the undesired present state. A problem is defined as the difference between the present and goal state, plus constraints. When a system moves from its present state to the goal state a problem is considered solved.

The second definition contains no description of the goal state, so there’s no way to determine what “the capacity to endure” really means. It tries with “long-term maintenance of well being,” but “well being” is too vague to be useful. What if “well being” conflicts with environmental sustainability? It doesn’t say.

By contrast, the first definition clearly describes the goal state. It’s where “society, its members and its economies are able to….”

The current paradigm of environmentalism is reflected in the second definition. The definition is weak and ineffective because it's a mishmash of a little of everything that’s popular, using everyday thinking.

Where environmentalism needs to be is reflected in the first definition. It starts by elevating one’s thinking to seeing that “sustainability is a systemic concept.” It doesn’t stumble around from there. Instead it classifies the system (human society and the non-human environment) into four subsystems: economic, social, institutional, and environmental. Then it continues thinking systemically by talking about configuring the system so that it can be sustainable. The goal state is clearly described. The definition is loaded with rich and correct content. It sets up the reader for understanding how to go about solving the problem by changing the system.

Systemic is the level of thinking on which activists need to operate. Systemic thinking, better known as systems thinking, is not an easy level to reach. But once you arrive there’s no turning back because it’s so productive.

Since the central problem of environmentalism is a complex system problem, the field must move to a process for thinking systemically, as well as systematically. That’s what the System Improvement Process provides.

Application example

The terrorist insurgency in Afghanistan is a classic systemic problem. Nearly all the population is affected. Most are sympathizers due to long tradition, cultural norms, and a long history of repressive occupation.

This document on Dynamic Planning for COIN in Afghanistan presents on page 22 a model of the problem and possible solutions. That page is shown below. Click on it for the full size image.


The problem is so deeply systemic the model has astonishing complexity. When released in late 2009 the model was widely derided as an example of foolish analysis. But that was the opinion of those who could not think systemically. Those who could found plenty of value in the model. It's insights and way of thinking were successfully used to reduce the severity of the Afghanistan Stability problem. If further analysis and solution efforts are allowed to continue, the problem is probably solvable.

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How Can I Learn How to Think Systemically?

That's what systems thinking is all about. However, the popular definition of systems thinking is thinking of the system as a whole when solving a problem. A better definition is thinking of the structure of the system when solving a problem. That's closer to the original definition of the term, which was:

Systems Thinking is the art and science of making reliable inferences about behavior by developing an increasingly deep understanding of underlying structure.

Thus another term for systems thinking is structural thinking. But that doesn't roll off the tongue quite as easily.