The systems approach according to Churchman

The environmental fallacy and other notions

The systems approach and its enemies      Too often human realities are ignored, with the result that planning efforts are sterile, unsatisfying, and irrelevant. In ‘The systems approach and its enemies’ (1979), Churchman draws on his wide and deep experience as a both a thinker and planner to show that until planners learn to stand back and consider their designs from the broadest point of view, those designs will continue to be both ‘inhuman’ and largely unimplemented. In the first 6 or 7 pages of ‘The systems approach and its enemies’ he explains once more what the systems approach is and why it is important. I will use two concept maps to summarize those introductory pages.

What is a system?     The first thing Churchman does is explain what a system is, using the case of a shopping system. Systems are composed of subcomponents, which shopping systemsthemselves are composed of subcomponents etc. For you to be able to shop, you need transportation and a shop (which in turn may be a subcomponent in a shopping mall). Transportation involves streets that in turn need building, maintenance, policing, management, and administration. Something similar applies to the shop. All these subcomponents are related to each other so as to form the shopping system ‘as a whole’. A shopping system is one of many man-made systems. These were created with the purpose to satisfy human needs and desires, which perhaps they did at the time of their design. As reality evolves we may find that systems, such as the shopping system, have turned awry to the point of functioning poorly, harmfully or dangerously. A re-design is in order. In the case of the shopping system we see this happening, partly as a result of the Internet revolution.

Simplistic approaches to redesign         There are two main approaches to redesign (see concept map below or click here). The first sees a clear and urgent necessity, the other mainly busies itself with thinking through the consequences. In the first case one may think of the evils of drug abuse, whence the need for the control of drugs and drug abuse. In the second case the problems of population control are brought to the fore as they may involve changing (‘attacking’) deeply embedded religions and values. Both ignore the broader implications of their approach and generally continue to do so in rather unproductive public debates. These broader implications are found in the problem´s environment. In other words, they both commit the environmental fallacy. In the case of law enforcement for drug control this results in more crime, which needs more law enforcement. The USA now spend US$ 80 billion/year on keeping millions of people locked up. In the case of population control nothing is done, because of the religious gridlock. States start failing because national resources cannot sustain ever increasing populations.

The environmental fallacy       At its most basic we see that if something (x) is growing and if ‘x’ is perceived as harmful, the natural reaction is that of a fallacious imperative: to environmental fallacy2stop ‘x’ from growing. The fallacy is situated in the fact that such a line of action may also cause ‘y’ to be growing, which may be worse than ‘x’. The two simplistic approaches only emphasize their end on the fallacy. Churchman give three examples of the environmental fallacy to make sure we understand what he means be environment: 1. In the case of nuclear energy the environment is temporal in nature: we may be able to keep nuclear waste for some time, but can we for three hundred thousand years? 2. In the case of remote sensing satellites we can now see what’s happening to land-based resources, but what about rising suspicion of developing countries over what ‘The West’ does with that information? And 3. In the case of nature conservation it all seems about ecosystem preservation, but should we not look at the far-reaching economic and social implications?

The systems approach alternative       The systems approach is an obvious alternative to the two simplistic approaches. In a sense it is simple, too, since it ‘simply’ tries to combine the other two, but it does so in the best way possible. Churchman is pretty sure of himself when he calls it a rational scheme that is both ‘grand’ and ‘comprehensive’. In ‘The systems approach and its enemies’ he clarifies its richness in terms of its history, logical structure, ethics, potential, future and enemies. Not many other approaches could make similar claims. For the purpose of the introduction he points out that the systems approach is not what some of its practitioners claim it to be, e.g. linear programming or nonlinear feedback modelling. It seems to me that these narrow, esoteric approaches may well be able to shed some light on some aspects of certain man-made systems.

Churchman’s definition         “On the broadest level, the systems approach belongs to a whole class of approaches to managing and planning our human affairs with the intent that we as a living species conduct ourselves properly in this world.” Such approaches provide an answer to the question “For what purpose are we here on earth?” (Youth catechism of the Catholic Church).  Every person, nihilist, agnostic or believer, answers that question at least once in her/his life. The systems approach provides a rational answer without ignoring people’s worldviews. Part of this blog (CSL4D) is dedicated to explaining why the systems approach is coherent, logical, applicable and adequate. Applicable means that the systems approach can be fruitfully applied to all man-made systems and fields of human interest, including business, communication, development and education. Adequate here means that there are no items incapable of being so approached. “The systems approach is one of the approaches based on the fundamental principle that all aspects of the human world should be tied together in one grand rational scheme, just as astronomers believe that the whole universe is tied together by a set of coherent laws.”

Relationship to previous posts     Churchman speaks of subcomponents rather than of inter-relationships as we did in a previous post. This doesn’t mean that he denies the importance of inter-relationships in favour of elements or parts or components. In the first place he is often using gerunds (verbs in the –ing form) to describe subcomponents, suggesting activity (i.e. relationship) of one thing to another. Secondly, he points out that the system is made up of many interconnecting components. Another point is that the first thing Churchman does is distinguishing between two major components: transportation and shop. This seems very close to the idea of framings in Wicked Solutions, both in terms of the number and the brevity of their description. Although at first sight Churchman’s explanation seems very different from earlier explanations in this blog, close inspection reveals that Churchman’s systems approach and the systems approach of CSL4D and Wicked Solutions are one and the same.



About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
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