As I stood on the balcony of the Herrenhausen Palace, overlooking the magnificent gardens I felt very fortunate to be invited, along with 26 other PhD students to this gathering of systems thinkers from around the world to consider the interesting problem of Anthropocene governance. It was not initially clear what the objective of the conference would be, when my research advisor made me aware of this event several months earlier. The term “Anthropocene” is certainly not in the popular vernacular and it took some looking to discover that this neologism was proposed by scholars and scientists to describe an epoch where human activities have started to have significant global impact. I was immediately interested and saw the relevance to systems theory.
The program for the 27 students consisted of three main parts. First was the two day gathering at Herrenhausen Palace, in Hannover, Germany where we participated in a systemic inquiry along with approximately 150 specialists and researchers, all contributing to this discussion of Anthropocene governance. This part was sponsored by the Volkswagen Foundation. The second part was a weekend workshop on the campus of Humbolt University in Berlin that included only the 27 PhD students and the facilitators. Discussions deepened and we used many different methods for exploring our own identities as researchers and our relationship with the broader community of systems thinkers, as well as continuing to delve deeper into the subject of Anthopocene governance. Finally the 27 joined the 59th Meeting of the International Society for Systems Sciences (ISSS) at the Scandic Hotel in Berlin immediately following the Humbolt workshop; starting August 2nd and finishing on August 7th. All students were given the opportunity to participate fully in the ISSS conference, several presenting papers on their areas of research. The students were invited, at the end of the conference, to share their reflections on all parts of the PhD program, which made up the closing session.
The influence of cybernetic theories were evident and one day of the ISSS conference was deemed “American Society for Cybernetics (ASC)” day. Further, the term “cyber-sytemics” was proposed in the conference theme and title and was rapidly adopted into the community lexicon.
I was impressed by the transdisciplinary nature of the conference and the huge number of application areas that various scholars, researchers, and practitioners presented. There was considerable weight given to the issue of climate change as it represents the clearest and most immediate challenge for the global community. Other specialists spoke on issues closer to their local communities such as food production systems, water management, and education; to name only a few. To have such a varied community come together with harmony spoke to the strength of systems thinking to facilitate this larger conversation.
Implicit in the conversation was the sense of “we” as having impact on this problem of Anthropocene governance. The community that gathered for this series of events could certainly be considered a significant “we” being called to action. This conference group was only temporary, however. The individuals will ultimately return to their home countries and local communities. Left is the issue of who the “we” is that will be the locus of action for this new epoch. Would it be some supra-national authority or would the organizing forces be anarchic? What about the issue of existing power structures that would oppose the changes necessary for helpful change and global wellbeing? I feel that these questions still remain, challenging the systems thinking community and the broader world community. The responsibility of the program attendees, I believe, is to keep the conversation alive and continue to bring clarity to the problems and show specific areas for action.
Interesting also was what I observed to be a clear need for balance between theory and action. Theoreticians and academics bring value by formulating models and clarifying connections. Defense of theoretical boundaries should not take up all of the energy, however. Based on what I saw presented, application has a great deal to offer to the conversation. The skill in constructing the conference was evident in the bringing together of theoreticians and activists. The challenge will be to keep the applications in the forefront, informing theoretical models.
The program was beneficial as an introduction of new members into the broader systems community. The PhD program students came away thinking that our contribution matters and is valuable to the whole. After the nine days we spent together, we understand better and appreciate the integration and inter-communication of various systems thinking communities like ISSS and ASC, but we began to understand that the responsibility for systemic action belongs to a much bigger community than any of these organizations. We felt that this perspective is helpful in starting to develop the larger community of systems thinkers; and we all felt like founding members.
One of the most valuable parts of the week was the understanding that we gained of our similarities of intention: we were all there to learn and understand our relationship to the world from this systemic lens. Our applications and contexts were different and these differences were respected and valued. The movement is generative and that possibility is very exciting! This also calls for courage, however as we all stand to see bright emergent possibilities along with troubling challenges.
I returned home much richer for the experience and energized about participation in this broader community. I also return to my job and individual research with a sense of urgency for these matters related to Anthropocene governance. The fact that we are inter-connected as a global human community is becoming more widely accepted. Precisely how we are interconnected and the nature of those relationships is the challenge for systems thinkers to clarify.
Many thanks to Dr. Thomas Aenis (Humboldt-Universität); Dr. Nadarajah Sriskandarajah (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden); Dr. Konrad Hagedorn (Humboldt-Universität zu); Dr. Ray Ison (The Open University Applied Systems Thinking in Practice Group, UK and Monash University and current President of the International Society for Systems Sciences); Dr. Chris Blackmore (The Open University Applied Systems Thinking in Practice Group, UK); and the many others responsible for facilitating and supporting this event.
About the Author
Bill Toth is a project engineer and manager at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, TN. His work area of focus is global security and nuclear nonproliferation. As a doctoral student at Saybrook University, he is researching organizational characteristics associated with the development of the malevolent insider.