Guest Post: One-dimensional vs Holistic thinking

A guest post by Dr Sean Devine:

A major driver of societal discord is the clash between one-dimensional thinking and holistic thinking or, what is technically called “Systems Thinking”. As a knowledge seeking discipline, holistic systems thinking is found in the ecological sciences, in physics with the law of conservation of energy and the second law of thermodynamics, and in the systems approach to the managing complex organisations.

These approaches recognise that the simple one-dimensional thinking, often termed reductionism, is unable to effectively deal with most of the complex problems we face today. Lifting the minimum wage is an example of a one-dimensional approach to inequality. When the economy does not have the capacity to respond, lifting minimum wages leads to inflation and/or unemployment, particularly affecting Maori, and school leavers.  From a holistic perspective the major cause of inequality is housing, not income.  If, as is currently the case, housing costs far outstrip wage increases, destructive inequality is inevitable. 

The economy is a complex system. As system gurus point out “Fiddling with a complex system usually makes things worse”.  Rather than fiddling in ignorance, the principle behind the Hippocratic oath is better.  Just as doctors are obliged; “First do no harm” so too for all complex systems. Ban all fossil fuel by 2028, as some one-dimensional thinkers advocate, and billions will die, because our food supply is energy dependent. This principle applies, not to just the economy, but the environment, and the complex societal issues we face.

Mitigating human induced global warming is a systems problem. But, the response of the activists and the media is one-dimensional, forever focusing on the calamities that await us, but not the need to understand; “What it is we can do?”.   Because of the failure of the opinion makers, the climate sceptics, with good reason, can claim that it is just politics and power, and has no substance.

Where the dominant climate narrative mainly ignores the human socio-economic system, it becomes a narrative of power and control, rather than direction and hope. Societal division inevitably follows.

In other words, much of the conversation on global warming is show-pony stuff that, in terms of what can be done, has no substance.  Without engaging with the draught horses of the economy, so to speak, those who carry the burden of change, the show-pony performance may feel good but because it alienates, it destroys.

Let me give an example, the NZ Religious Leaders recently published a statement advocating that Government should have more strict Greenhouse targets.  See,

Statement for Presentation at COP26 – The Religious Diversity Centre in Aotearoa New Zealand Trust (

It is show-pony stuff, full of one-dimensional righteous statements that, by focusing on raising targets, not on actually doing anything, is a power claim.   It claims to represent diversity, but it failed to engage with the great unwashed, the draught horses of the economy that in the end will be the ones who carry the burden of societal change.  It is the moral equivalent of raising skill requirements for employment to kick the unemployed out of their assumed apathy.


I find it difficult to believe, that the religious leaders are so isolated, that they do not even acknowledge the essential part of our society that feeds, clothes and houses us. Their position sees Global Warming as just a management problem and, because of moral superiority, they see no need to engage with those who they believe to be the cause of it all.


These views are so divisive, that, as a Christian, I am obliged to ask forgiveness of you who have been ignored, and you who are being misled by blame, judgement, and ignorance expressed by those Christians amongst these leaders.

But there are holistic ways of dealing with societal issues.  Dr Mark Carney, one time Governor of the Reserve Bank of Canada and then of the Bank of England, and now an advisor to COP 26, presented the Reith lectures of December 2020. He argues from a holistic perspective, that our economic system needs to be underpinned by values to better align with societal and environmental needs.   His honest take on global warming recognises that the capability to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 does not yet exist.  It is not a management problem, but one which will rely on innovation, investment and technological change within an overarching values system that determines priorities.  See,

BBC Radio 4 – The Reith Lectures, Mark Carney – How We Get What We Value

Another more optimistic approach. consistent with Carney, is that of RethinkX.  This shows that. with a clear understanding of economic issues, we can achieve a great deal by 2035. See,

Climate Implications — RethinkX

These economic perspectives need to be part of our DNA, rather than the show-pony stuff.  Unless we grasp the need for holistic thinking that engages with all of society, with a wide understanding of how to go forward, division and chaos awaits us.

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