Creating With Contradictions

Imagine two students care a lot about the fishing industry. Maybe this is an Alaskan school, who knows.

The first student, Alice, cares mostly about the ecological impact of the industry. She knows ecologies have a fine balance, so she makes a simplified model of the marine ecosystem, like so:


More plankton means more fish, but more fish means less plankton. This is a basic balancing loop, and so, this ecological system stays in equilibrium.

Meanwhile, the other student, Bob, cares more about the economics side. He knows that markets also tend towards equilibrium, via a self-correcting process of supply & demand. So, he models the fishing industry like this:


Another balancing loop, another equilibrium. If the price goes up, that's a signal for fishers to fish more, which increases the supply of fish on the market, which drives the price back down again.

Alice and Bob then combine their models – by just copy-pasting them together – and get something like this:


Now, there's a third loop. If fishing increases, that reduces the amount of fish in the ocean, which reduces the supply of fish on the market, which increases the price of fish, which is a signal to increase fishing even more.

balancing loop + balancing loop = vicious cycle.

“Economics enthusiasts and ecology enthusiasts share an affliction. Conservatives think that the self-organizing properties of a market economy are a miracle that must not be messed with. Greens think that the self-organizing properties of ecologies are a miracle that must not be messed with.”

~ Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline

This post, of course, isn't just about overfishing. It's about how Systems Thinking can take two different perspectives – even seemingly contradicting ones – and combine them into a better, more holistic understanding of the world!

To take another example, Parable of the Polygons combined two seemingly-contradicting ideas: 1) that very few people nowadays are explicitly sexist/racist, yet 2) statistics on employment & incarceration show clear biases in gender & race. But by using emergent behavior and complex systems, Vi & I could show that these two contradictory ideas can exist simultaneously. Could model-driven discourse be a good way to foster deliberative democracy???

Contradictions can be combined. That's a powerful idea we've forgotten, in this age of polarized politics.

I think this is because we visualize truth as a scale – à la Lady Justice – as if arguments can only be "for" or "against" a certain proposition, as if contradicting ideas can only be competitive and not constructive, as if knowledge was zero-sum. Maybe thinking in systems can help us come together, not just tolerating other perspectives, but actively inviting them. Maybe.

As a cliché phrase goes, “let's put aside our differences and come together.” Forget that. Let's bring along our differences, and come together anyway.