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Whole systems thinking is more or less explained in the name - deals with complex systems (such as the biosphere, or a government or the weather, or a company or an ecosystem, or a farm). It reflects the idea that it's important to take into account all of the components of the system, how they interact, and cause-and-effect relationships among them - allowing you to think in terms of the whole system. This is a very daunting task. But it's important to do, otherwise you get lost in the details, specific areas of specialization (which are usually very complex and confusing on their own) and you can spend a lot of time and energy trying to solve a problem, only to realize that you've created another, and go on and on until you get confused and frustrated and give up.
We often use the metaphor of a tree where the trunk and branches represent the core principles (4 sustainability principles) and the leaves represent all of the details - specific problems and specific areas of expertise. Because the task at hand is so massive and complex (creating a sustainable society), no one is going to have all the answers - there's simply too much information. So we need all kinds of scientists, economists, policy makers, researchers, teachers, business leaders, etc etc to work together. Now, imagine all of the ideas, opinions, special interests, etc that come with this group. Any dialogue will quickly degenerate into bickering, confusion, misunderstanding. This is dealing in the "leaves,” the details - and it's very frustrating, and too often the path that discourse on the environment and sustainability follow.
“Paper or Plastic?” (paper contributes to deforestation, plastic doesn’t biodegrade) “Solar, Wind or Oil?” (solar is inefficient and uses weird metals, wind can kill birds and makes noise, oil causes global warming… but global warming doesn’t even exist as far as we know) etc… These are the details – obviously not insignificant - but we can’t approach these complex, confusing, politically charged issues without a shared framework, some facts that everyone can agree on. Then we can tackle the details with all kinds of specialists working together.
So by establishing a common framework - and starting with the trunk and branches - we can all get on the same page, understand the rules of the game, and proceed further out on the branches, into the details of the leaves with a shared mental model. True dialogue can commence, eliminating the usual confusion. Again, the details will need to be dealt with in time in order to act - but with a common framework action can be cohesive, moving toward a common goal.
You can think of the 4 principles as the rules of the game - like in chess or football/soccer. It's the easy part, but if everyone doesn't understand them, no one's going to get very far, and it’s very often the step that is skipped when we set out to create strategies to reach sustainability.