Thursday, January 18th, 2018

A “Good” Cup of Coffee

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A few months back, I was driving with a friend to a business appointment. During the ride, I shared with him some of what Fred and I were doing with whole-systems thinking. Now, one thing working with whole-systems thinking has taught me is that when someone doesn’t “get it,” the fault usually lies with me rather than my interlocutor. In this case, my friend just wasn’t “getting it” because I was trying to describe systems thinking in technical terms when what he really needed was a concrete example rooted in the world of his experience.

So I quickly swung from port to starboard, away from my left-brained, analytic exposition on systems thinking to a more right-brained, intuitive example of the framework in action.

“How’s your coffee?” I asked. “Is it good?”

“Sure,” he replied. “The coffee is always good at Dunkin’ Donuts. Especially the hazelnut.”

“No,” I countered gently. “I don’t mean ‘is the coffee tasty?’ I mean, ‘is the coffee good? From a whole systems point of view, the coffee is ‘good’ if the worker who picked the beans was an adult who received a living wage. The coffee is ‘good’ if the beans were harvested using methods that preserve rather than destroy an ecosystem, including the global environment. The coffee is ‘good’ if the importer-distributor used recycled materials to package the product, and if the retailer offers health insurance or profit-sharing to his workers. When we ask ‘is the coffee good?’ from a whole systems point of view, we’re asking much more than ‘does the coffee taste good?’ What ‘systems’ are involved besides your personal senses of smell and taste? What scales are represented: the personal, or “Me” scale; the extended personal, or “My” scale; the remote, or “Us/Them” scale; and the global or “All” scale? There’s a lot more to that cup of coffee than just how it tastes going down.”

“So, if the coffee is politically correct, it’s good?” my friend asked, only half kidding.

“It’s not about being politically correct,” I answered. “But, yes, there is an ethical dimension to whole-systems thinking. One thing you’ll find is that this thinking really moves you to reinterpret the definition of ‘self-interest.’ Sometimes that redefinition leads to politically correct conclusions, and sometimes it doesn’t. But in this case if you consider that unthinking and callous exploitation, whether of human beings or the planet, hurts everyone – including you – then, yeah, I guess that’s politically correct. In economics,  the effect on a third party of an exchange between two different parties is called an ‘externality.’ But the world is made up of externalities, or effects on the human and natural systems we inhabit. If we want to see the world - including our own lives – as it really is, we have to be continually zooming in and out, from the 30,000 foot view to the magnifying glass. The world is a whole … our lives are a whole. We need to start seeing wholes, not parts.”

We drove in silence a while and soon I noticed that my buddy had stopped sipping.

“So, how’s your coffee?” I asked. “Is it good?”

“To be honest,” he said, “I have no idea.”

I laughed. “Now you’re getting the hang of it.”

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