Its not all Greek to me

By looking back to the work of the greek philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides, the starting point for the ‘atomists’, we begin to understand one of the primary issues with predominant thinking in the western world. In a nutshell, there is a sense that the pursuit of scientific reductionism masks the real complexity of the world and many systems assume a level of rationality which lock us into a cycle of commitment to false assumptions.

The example given is the western economic models that, despite numerous Nobel prizes, are unable to explain, let alone predict, the system that the rules are trying to control. The is the process of reductionism: meaning either (a) an approach to understanding the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, or to simpler or more fundamental things or (b) a philosophical position that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can be reduced to accounts of individual constituents. This reductionist understanding is very different from that usually implied by the term ’emergence’, which typically intends that what emerges is more than the sum of the processes from which it emerges.Systems Thinking

In contrast, Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole. In nature, systems thinking examples include ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, movement, plants, and animals work together to survive or perish. In organizations, systems consist of people, structures, and processes that work together to make an organization “healthy” or “unhealthy”.

Systems thinking has been defined as an approach to problem solving, by viewing “problems” as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to specific part, outcomes or events and potentially contributing to further development of unintended consequences. Systems thinking is not one thing but a set of habits or practices.

it is argued that the only way to fully understand why a problem or element occurs and persists is to understand the parts in relation to the whole. Systems thinking concerns a holistic understanding of a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the elements that compose the entirety of the system.

A systems approach to understanding

However, the meeting went on to discuss the importance of understanding that close attention to a place can reveal a great deal about the wider system., perhaps defined as follows:

  • A system is composed of parts.
  • All the parts of a system must be related (directly or indirectly), else there are really two or more distinct systems
  • A system is encapsulated, has a boundary.
  • The boundary of a system is a decision made by an observer, or a group of observers.
  • A system can be nested inside another system.
  • A system can overlap with another system.
  • A system is bounded in time.
  • A system is bounded in space, though the parts are not necessarily co-located.
  • A system receives input from, and sends output into, the wider environment.
  • A system consists of processes that transform inputs into outputs.

Darren Hall

Arnos Vale – Making the links!

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Carl Sagan, The Pale Blue Dot (1994)
In 1990 the NASA satellite Voyager turned around as it was leaving our solar system and took a picture of Earth. The picture shows our planet as a tiny dot in the middle of an expanse of darkness.

An advisor to NASA, astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan, had suggested that this photo be taken in order for us to gain perspective on our place in the universe. When he later spoke about this picture, he was perhaps unaware of how renowned the speech would become. 20 years later and his words are even more relevant.

It is these words that inspired Darren Hall, Manager of the Green Capital Partnership, to set up a membership group called The Pale Blue Dot Org in January of this year. The phrase “to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot” resonated with his desire to encourage the work being done in Bristol on one planet living, i.e. living within our environmental limits.

The group’s primary aim is to develop community leadership in sustainable development. At the heart of this is a learning programme delivered in partnership with The Schumacher Institute. This course is led by Martin Sandbrook, Director of Education Programmes at the Institute, and is a ‘mini’ version of the MSc in Managing Sustainability and Uncertainty that the organisation offers.

Members of the organisation are invited to join this course to learn about sustainability and, in particular, how everything we do is part of a system that in some way is connected to everything else.

Darren says that he wants The Pale Blue Dot Org to “mobilise and motivate groups of people who want to act together to achieve one planet living. It has been incredible to see our first cohort come together to learn and explore issues as a group, as well as undergo some deep personal developments. I am really excited to see what happens with our second cohort due to start in October.”
“I wanted to know if my own organisation could make a difference in the sustainability field…”
Juliette Randall, Chief Executive of Arnos Vale Cemetery Trust, has worked for civil service for 29 years. Darren invited her to join the course; they had worked together in the past at the Government Office for the South West.

Juliette’s role in Government Office was to support the Voluntary and Community Sector, working with groups to help them develop their voice. In 2011, she found that she could accept voluntary redundancy and decided that this could provide her with the opportunity to move into the voluntary and community sector. She felt that she had gained the skills to make a difference.

Juliette saw the job opening at Arnos Vale and went for it. The site was in her local community and she appreciated the benefit that it brought to the whole of Bristol and wanted to be a part of it.

Juliette decided to join the course as she was quite new to her role at Arnos Vale and was keen to meet other leaders and people with influence in Bristol, especially those in the sustainability movement. She also wanted to know whether her own organisation could make a difference in this field.

She comments: “For me, one of the main benefits of the course was the ability to have conversations with people who have more experience in the environmental sector in Bristol. Hearing the variety of other people’s perspectives was useful, as was beginning to understand other peoples’ worldviews.”

“I came away with a better appreciation of environmental issues and the impact on Bristol, as well as the passion for the green agenda in Bristol.”

Juliette also notes that the course explores leadership in an interesting light:

“Many of the participants were already leaders in their own right so it was not so much about developing these skills as it was about developing a network and exploring what leadership means – you can’t be a leader on your own, you need people around you. A sole crusade helps no-one.

“The Pale Blue Dot Org has enabled me to develop a network of people that I could contact to discuss professional problems and issues.”

She hopes that the course will help individual leaders be empowered in their roles and within the sustainability agenda and that networks form to keep making things happening in Bristol – enabling personal development to help the whole of Bristol.

Darren Hall comments: “I am really pleased that the first cohort came together so well and am looking forward to seeing the second group begin to build these kinds of links and relationships. I am a strong believer in the importance of strong networks for successful leadership.”


By Emmelie Brownlee

Here we go again!

We are just days away from the next group of Pale Blue Dot students starting their course. I will be asking them to write up their experiences, so watch this space for some interesting comments!

First session involves bringing an artefact as a way of telling people how they see the world. I brought a block of surf wax – not least of all because it is a symbol of one of the things that is most important in my life, but also and an example of the change in my attitude towards sustianability. I know its only a small thing, but I managed to find a surf wax which is made from 100% natural ingredients, and that is fully biodegradable. 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have really been my primary choice for which to buy – but I used it as an example of how things can change – if we find alternatives that are just as good as any other product and the price is right, then more and more people will do the right thing.

I’m looking forward to seeing what others bring with them.

Cheers for now, Darren