It’s been amazing to me how much my perspective has changed since beginning to practice a seemingly simple skill of mindfulness. It seems that learning to more steadily and acutely focus my lens of attention paradoxically expanded my ways of seeing. Not only have I been more aware of the joys and challenges of being human on this planet at this time in history, I’m also more attuned to the complexities of life.
Donella Meadows’ work with systems theory has offered me a practical framework for this new lens I’m seeing realities through. Systems thinking involves making sense of the world through relationships and interconnection. This type of thinking recognizes the structures we create, the often unwritten rules that undergird them, and the far reaching ripple effects that result.
Meadows created the Iceberg Model, a tool that can help us link observable events to patterns of behavior, systems structures, and mental models. This is useful because significant, lasting change happens at the deepest level of the iceberg. Downstream, reactive approaches tend to create short term and superficial effects at best, and often create additional harmful ripple effects. So we must learn to peer below the compelling surface into the tangled roots of our social problems, which include our beliefs, values and perspectives.
Here is an example of using the Iceberg Model to explore a current event that is a challenge for many people in the US:
What is happening?
Parents in the US are having a hard time feeding their babies due to a shortage of baby formula.
What trends are there over time?
There has been very little governmental or societal support for families and this has been decreasing even further in recent years. In addition, families must work harder and longer hours, sometimes through multiple jobs, to survive. Supply chain fragility highlighted by the pandemic has revealed a widening gap between demand and availability of essential workers, increasing geopolitical tensions and natural disasters, and dwindling raw material resources – problems that are likely to continue grow if unchecked.
How are the parts related?
Capitalism is based on an impossible ideal of limitless growth in a world of finite resources. This encourages the emergence of monopolies and oligopolies, which make us vulnerable to disruptions in the supply of goods and services. This problem is re-emerging with the rollback of government regulation of consumer protections and corporate political spending. The baby formula industry has been dominated by two companies, one of which had to shut down operations due to a possible contamination situation, creating the acute crisis.
Limitless growth also demands ever greater productivity and efficiency from human capital. Working longer hours means that fewer women can breast feed every two to four hours or pump and store breastmilk. According to the CDC, about 20% babies receive formula within their first two days of life and by three months of age, more than half are relying on it to some degree. Some babies cannot drink breast milk at all and completely rely on special formulas for survival.
Safety nets cost money and do not increase wealth in the short-term. In an emergency, there are very few things our government (in its present state) can or is willing to mobilize and act on to protect the general public. Our government spends less than almost all other similar countries on families and children. There are no nationwide mandated benefits for paid child care leave or services and safety nets for vulnerable children and families are nearly nonexistent. The American Families Plan, a part of the tripartite Build Back Better Plan by the Biden administration that was designed to help remedy this has not been passed by congress (yet, an act authorizing emergency assistance for the war in Ukraine was relatively easily passed).
Our political system in many ways no longer reflects the will of the people due to dark money, gerrymandering, and increasing voter suppression. The American Families Plan was not passed by congress, despite the finding that 62% of likely voters supported it.
What values, assumptions, and beliefs shape the system?
For survival reasons, human brains (like the brains of other animals) attend to stimuli with a strong emotional valence to the exclusion of other data, and we preference immediate, simple explanations and decisive action over complex reasoning and long-term solutions.
The ruling class tends to value wealth and power above all else. For a long time, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been our primary measure of our nation’s success. In addition to this, mainstream US culture supports boot strap mentality, hyper-individualism, and zero-sum thinking. Our assumptions that markets will regulate themselves, charity will take care of the fallout of our missteps, and aligning ourselves with the powerful and apparently successful will protect our interests, makes us vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation by a wealthy, self-interested minority.
So, if we want to ensure in the future that babies have the food they need to survive and thrive, we need to understand our profound interconnection – that caring for others is caring for ourselves and that the resources of our planet are finite and precious. We need to recognize the complexity of systems and take wise action that considers the greater web of cause and effect. Finally, we need to question our assumptions about what has value – what success really looks like in an interconnected world.
I hope this example helped demonstrate how the Iceberg Model can guide us to a more mindful consideration of our challenges, all the way down to the roots of our greatest social problems, so that we can take wise action and make changes that might create lasting solutions. You’re invited to experiment with this model yourself using any of the social problems that matter most to you – here’s a handy table you might use to do so:
What is Happening
Patterns of Behavior
Trends Over Time
Values, Assumptions, Beliefs
We clasp the hands of those that go before us,
And the hands of those who come after us.
We enter the little circle of each other’s arms
And the larger circle of lovers,
Whose hands are joined in a dance
And the larger circle of all creatures
Passing in and out of life
Who move also in a dance
To a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it
Except in fragments.
–Wendell Berry, The Larger Circle