To Know an Elephant

by Jill Isenbarger

The whole of any given problem is difficult to comprehend. Blame it on our humanness—our innate blinders and the way we perceive the world through our own immediate experience. In most cases, it is much easier to examine the parts of a problem individually and believe that in the parts lies the answer.

I’ve heard an Indian folktale used to illustrate this point. Six blind men set out to figure out what an elephant is, through touch. One man feels the elephant’s tusks and declares the elephant is a spear. Another feels its trunk and says the elephant is a snake; another, its wide, smooth flank, and says it’s a wall. The other three say it’s a flying carpet (ears), rope (tail) and large cow (legs). They argue about what the reality of this fantastical beast is until a wise man, with sight, says, put the parts together and you will find the truth.

Wise words indeed, but complex problems are often more than the sum of their parts, especially in our reductionist society. Think modern medicine and the highly specialized fields that have emerged—cardiology, oncology, pulmonology, neurology—and the difficulty of finding a doctor who can navigate all the fields when one is confronted with cancer, say.

Consider the challenge of trying to limit and quantify fossil fuel emissions when other emissions from deforestation, permafrost melting or natural gas leaks must also be factored in. The gas leak at California’s Aliso Canyon well has produced the same amount of global warming as 1.7 million cars do in a year. Climate change is truly a wicked problem of the first order requiring whole-systems thinking over reductionism.

Today there are some signs of change toward whole-systems thinking, especially in biology and ecology. After decades of designing plans to save individual species, conservationists have embraced large-systems thinking—targeting entire ecosystems including the people that are part of those systems.

It’s complicated, this holistic, whole-systems thinking. But it is necessary to understanding wicked problems and to begin to try to solve them.

We in the food movement want to address the systemic problems plaguing our food system, rather than treat each of its individual woes. But in our reductionist world, whole-systems thinking is difficult. Our government and regulatory regime is specialized and siloed, with giant agencies addressing separate strands of the food system: the FDA oversees antibiotics; the EPA, methane regulations; the Centers for Disease Control, human health; the USDA, the Farm Bill and its subsidies.

Where is the whole-systems view of the world we live in? Where do we turn for holistic human health or community well-being? Why do we have one branch of government regulating children’s education and another advising them on what to eat, while others’ policies encourage the manufacture of more processed foods and the advertising that pushes these foods on them?

We must do better. Yes, we must hold our government accountable, and some in the food movement have called for a comprehensive federal food policy.

Stone Barns Center is a national nonprofit organization committed to whole-systems thinking. We work to break down the silos and convene scientists, nonprofit leaders, government administrators, farmers, entrepreneurs and business people, and challenge them to think of the food system in its entirety; to come to know this big beast bringing all parts to bear in our quest for a better, more sustainable, more healthful and more just system.