High hopes for holism

Reductionism, reducing issues to little fragments, is at the basis of our present wealth. It also has a major influence on our social behaviour and our worldview. This may take us quite a distance, but we may also lose the view on the bigger picture. Therefore, high hopes for holism.

This is a shortened passage from the book Naturally! Of course. How nature never stops surprising us (in Dutch), by Alle Bruggink and Diederik van der Hoeven. The book will be published in November 2019. This is the second of two articles on holism.

holism leonardo da vinci
Leonardo da Vinci’s image of the whole man.

All teachers have tried to explain reality to us by starting out from assumptions. In doing so, we can divide the complex reality into little fragments and make it susceptible to argument. One strong example of this is economics. Money and growth have become the only standards available. Even worse, economics has conquered other social sectors like health care and infrastructure. To such an extent even, that only now we are beginning to ask why Japan is still thriving, after twenty years of almost economic standstill. At last, reports about a society coping with this predicament are surfacing now.

The long arm of reductionism

The view on the whole (holism) disappears behind the horizon. Holisms not just an issue for the life sciences but for the social sciences as well. Quality of life is so much more than economics. It depends on everything happening around you. It is high time to bring back some equilibrium in those diverging realms of life, and leave behind us the monomaniac approach through money and growth. In our book More with Less we made a plea already for other growth definitions, that also embrace quality of life. Not just expressing everything in kilos and litres or large quantities. We find ourselves in the same camp as many protagonists of sustainability and a better climate.

But our education in reductionist style may have even larger social consequences. Didn’t it lead to a narrow view on our history, our executives, our politicians, the environment, the climate? It becomes clear now that we should have the eye much more on the bigger picture, on the cohesion. The downsides of the reductionist approach now show clearly. Major issues like climate and the environment result from an insufficient view on the entire system. We will not be able to arrive at solutions through reductionism. Dropping atomic bombs on hurricanes is a typical example of solutions in the old style. Please, don’t take into account the consequences for the entire system. Fortunately, people in their right minds clearly perceive the unbelievable arrogance in such proposals.

The forest is more than the sum of the trees. Bialowieski Park Narodowy, Poland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Holism: an insight into ‘Nature’ in the broad sense

But do we then revert to holism, looking for solutions that do take into account the entire system? Solutions that move along with the vicissitudes of nature instead of counteracting it squarely? The pressure is mounting for holism and its solutions. But there is mounting opposition as well, particularly from the multitude of reductionist stakeholders. Like those who are unable to find a solution for the problem of refugees and in doing so, give notice of their wish to reduce the world to their affluent patch. Populists who are bent on reducing executives and politicians to profiteers; and the EU to busybodies with the details of our lives. Those who judge that their home country is too small to play a part in the problems of the environment and of the climate. How narrow-minded are we, then?

Or those politicians who judge measures against climate change to be much too costly, instead of viewing them as an investment. It is as if we would have chosen not to develop the inventions of the motor car or the computer because that might cost us a lot. Investments in the environment and the climate are investments in the future! If we should know how to do so in a more holistic way, that might be the first step towards a more sustainable future. A future with hopefully much less talk of money and growth. Talk of the quality of life for the maximum number of people instead. A quality that we will have to find in a better alignment with nature, the bigger picture. Almost the opposite of what we did so far: in the application of pesticides, polymers, synthetic or supposedly better than nature. We will only be able to prolong the wealth that this approach brought us, if we now turn around and pay attention to its downside. By application of our energy and talent for innovation to holistic solutions. By learning how to align ourselves to nature and move along with it. The step towards an insight into ‘Nature’ in the broad sense, including our own bodies, our health and our planet’s health, may be large. Nevertheless, that is the challenge that we face now.

Interesting? Then also read:
Respectful treatment of the complexity of biomass
The shelf life of green chemistry
Economists, listen: the earth is NOT a closed system

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