“Connected Wisdom”: Thinking Like a System

Elise Miller, MEd

The other evening, my six-year-old son and I were listening to Connected Wisdom, a new award-winning CD of stories and parables from ancient and modern cultures around the world, collected by Linda Booth Sweeney and told engagingly by Courtney Campbell. Each story is a reminder that humanity is simply one part of an incomprehensively complex, yet exquisitely expressed system. As we listened, I reflected on the myriad structures in our society that seem to be so at odds with this understanding that all life is irrevocably interdependent and interconnected. I wondered when and how did we stop ‘thinking like a system’?

Obviously, many historians and philosophers have grappled with some form of that question for centuries. They have studied how and why Western culture over hundreds of years started to give greater and greater value to individualization and specialization. But don’t worry: I am not going to embark on a pedantic review of these issues. Instead, I would simply like to highlight how system-based approaches are currently being reintroduced and recognized. And how our “connected wisdom” is being reclaimed in order to solve some of the most inscrutable problems we face.

One prominent example is the growing attention being given to cumulative impacts on human and ecological health. For those with “core expertise” in toxic chemicals, trying to press for funding to study the health impacts of more than one chemical at a time has been (and continues to be) a herculean task. In this context, adding a multitude of other interacting variables—such as nutrition, socioeconomic status, gene-environment interactions, access to nature, ecosystem services and psychosocial factors—to the ‘chemical soup’ in which we live, and then trying to determine their additive and likely synergistic impacts on health, may seem almost impossible. But it is the conviction of an increasing number of colleagues in different fields that if we don’t start developing interventions that leverage systemic change, we will only continue to bail water while our ship sinks with a gaping hole in its hull.

So what are system-based approaches that could make a significant difference to the health, sustainability and resilience of real communities? The new national Cumulative Impacts Project, co-sponsored by the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN) and the Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE), is trying to get at this question. The project is committed to collecting and evaluating scientific studies and community-based initiatives that take into account and address cumulative impacts on health. Last week, SEHN and CHE officially launched a website and working group. We hope you will join us in our efforts to implement innovative models and initiatives—ideas and actions that spring from the understanding that we are indeed invaluable parts of an exquisite, intricate and interconnected system. Along these lines, we welcome your participation in a two-part teleconference series, cosponsored by CHE and SEHN and focused on several new community-based research projects. The studies to be presented are designed to assess different aspects of cumulative impacts on health and are funded by the US EPA. Tomorrow (June 9th) and on June 16th, pairings of academic researchers and their community partners will discuss the scope and goals of their respective projects.

As part of our collective work to reduce cumulative impacts, CHE is also hosting a call June 21st with some leading European colleagues who are developing criteria for defining endocrine disrupting chemicals. In addition to discussing the research behind this process, the presenters will speak to the influence this work may likely have on health policy and chemical regulation.

As spring officially turns to summer this month, may you connect with your own wisdom on how to create systemic change—no matter how great or small the scale—to make our world healthier.

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