I’m the kind of person who gets overwhelmed, it’s true. And while I really, really enjoy design systems work, my goodness is it ever a vector for feeling overwhelmed. In many of those systems — those hyperobjects — the scale often feels hostile to humans. It’s often hard to confidently make changes to a system, much less to understand why those changes are hard.

I mention this because I’ve been thinking a lot about feeling overwhelmed, and how to get past it. In fact, there’s a moment during her Massey lectures on “The Real World of Technology”, where Ursula Franklin cites a scientific article that studies ecological systems in decline. Here’s an excerpt:

Nutrients leached from soils accumulate eventually in neighboring aquatic ecosystems. In Lake Erie, for example, the increase in the phosphorus concentration has been roughly proportional to the increased human population in the basin, and reflects, in addition to direct loadings of sewage, substantial inputs from nutrient runoff as a consequence of land-based activities….

…In Lake Erie the response to increased phosphorus loading was a tripling of the average algal biomass and an overall algal productivity increase of 20-fold because of increased spring and autumn production. Our designation of ecosystem dysfunction involves both untoward increases or decreases in productivity, since both signify fundamental changes.

The ecosystem underwent a series of changes, each of which were related. There was an increase in the human population; which led to higher phosophorus levels in the water; which led, at last, to an increased level of algae in the lake. In effect, Lake Erie’s ecosystem was rewritten. Changed by human activities into…something else.

But Franklin cites the study because it’s doing something slightly novel: applying Selye’s principle of stress1 to ecological systems, suggesting that they are, much like humans, just as susceptible to external stressors. And I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, especially this week. Because Franklin’s suggesting that the work begins not by “fixing the system.” Rather, she suggests it’s about shifting the priority a little: to removing whatever stress you can.

Or as Lívia put it:

…big complex systems rely on small self-sufficient systems within so fixing the small stuff can affect the big stuff.

You don’t start by fixing the system. You start by relieving the stress.

  1. And remember, folks: Selye consulted extensively for the tobacco industry, and his research helped obfuscate smoking’s links to heart disease and cancer! So that’s not great!