Wednesday, 24 June 2015

When is a root cause not a root cause?

For me one of the most fascinating aspects of systemic thinking is how it helps me to reflect on different issues that the media presents, and to reflect on how interconnected much of it is.

For example, I have just finished reading Robert and Edward Skidelsky's "How much is enough?", a thought-provoking read about how modern societies have moved away from people wanting just enough to give them 'a good life' to ones where people have an insatiable desire to acquire more and more, in the media- and advertising industry-given belief that this will make them happy. The Skidelsky's argue that this development has come as a result of the industrial revolution: mechanisation makes it possible to produce more and more, and in order to justify this production and ensure profit people need to have to consume more and more. Hence, in modern society we have completely lost the idea of being happy with 'just enough' and cannot see any alternatives to growth economies.

I then came across an article on the Guardian Online about child poverty. The article quoted the Conservative Party election manifesto as listing "… the root causes of poverty: entrenched worklessness, family breakdown, problem debt, and drug and alcohol dependency". It was the phrase 'root causes' which caught my eye: root causes being fundamental issues over which we have control but below which we cannot easily analyse any further. As a systemicist I could see a questionable boundary decision.

For example, to consider 'entrenched worklessness', the Skidelsky argument is that automation is leading to the mechanisation of more and more jobs in the middle of the employment market (for example as reported from Australia). People in the low-paid service sectors and higher paid senior management and executives are less affected at the moment, so those people who are being squeezed out of the middle are chasing the limited number of low paid, less skilled jobs. So maybe we should unpack the idea of 'entrenched worklessness' a little more and question the basis on which we are relentlessly automating the workplace.

Then the issue of 'problem debt'. Our society relies on people spending more and more in order to generate growth, and the only way in which this can be delivered is by encouraging household debt, so it is hardly any surprise that some of this debt becomes a problem. Again, is 'problem debt' a real root cause or should we probe further and question the morality of an economy which relies on credit?

As a systems thinker I would hope that our politicians reflect on the systemic nature of the problems that face modern society, and try to think of ways of dealing with real root causes. However, there are always elections coming and getting to grips with real problems and long-term solutions is just not a political priority.

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