We humans like to simplify things. And that's a good thing, to begin with, because this characteristic protects us from too many stimuli, excessive demands and overload. We develop routines that help us cope with everyday life without having to expend a lot of thought and energy. We build a microcosm around ourselves, focusing on people and things in our immediate environment. We know our family and friends, our city and our work so well that we think we know how life works.
Sometimes, however, we find that things are not as simple as we would like to believe. Namely, when we encounter complex problems. Abruptly, we tend to realize that our individual view of the world can be one-sided. For example, we can feel quite uncomfortable when we realize that climate change is a real threat. Here, our microcosm with its usual solution patterns suddenly reaches its limits. We are faced with a problem that seems so complex and abstract that it can (and often does) make us feel overwhelmed.
But in this, there is creative power. In chaos lies the chance of creativity. Why? Because it forces us to step back from familiar perceptions. Because it allows us to see that our ‘individual’ world, to which we devote all our attention, is only a part of reality. And we see that we, as individuals, are a part of the whole of nature in its beauty. Changing our perspective from the individual details to the whole forms the basis for a way of thinking that aims to help solve problems in a more cohesive way: Holistic thinking.
Holistic thinking means having a holistic approach by contemplating the bigger picture. "Holistic“ derives from the Greek word "holos", which stands for "whole" and "comprehensive". "Holistic" therefore, means "wholeness."
Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher, has a quote that provides a great description of how the holistic way of thinking works: "The whole is more than the sum of its parts." To help explain the impact of this quote, let’s break the process down using a simple example:
By summing these parts, we have received so much more - the intangible assets like understanding, value, and meaning - about the whole that was not available to its parts alone. The holistic approach leads us to truly appreciate and comprehend the sum of parts, thus making it "more than".
Holistic thinking can be applied to many systems; such as biological, social, mental, economic or spiritual systems.
It is a way of thinking that has been practiced by many indigenous people for many, many years - especially when it comes to health and wellness (an example of biological, mental, and spiritual systems). Whatsmore, some traditional health care systems that are rooted in holistic principles, such as the Ancient Indian Ayurveda and Amazonian Shamanism, are still practiced today!
One of the famous personalities associated with a holistic vision was Leonardo Da Vinci, the well-known Italian painter of the Mona Lisa, living in the Renaissance. He is admired by the world for his multidisciplinary approach to connecting logic and creativity. His holistic perspective of knowledge gathering was based on thinking beyond limits and resulted in iconic creative expression that has stood the test of time.
Holism was also the core of the worldview of another famous individual - Alexander von Humboldt, German naturalist and explorer. He didn’t see organisms, geological structures, weather phenomena, or human activities as detached; but as interacting entities of a larger complex system. He shaped the scientific perception of how everything is connected. Both Da Vinci and von Humboldt showed with their interdisciplinary approach how existing ideas and new concepts complement each other.
From ancient practices to famous personalities, the application and outcomes of holistic thinking is timeless. And this is most likely because this way of thinking stems from something bigger; Holism.
“Holism (noun): the idea that the whole of something must be considered in order to understand its different parts” - Oxford Advanced American Dictionary
While clearly defined by man, Holism is by no means a thought construct of man. Nature exemplifies and dictates holism to us; every part needs the whole and the whole needs every part. Balance, cooperation, symbiosis and synergy defines life. From animate and inanimate nature to ecosystems, physiology of organisms to climate or social interactions - every single piece of a system affects the others and the whole.
This complexity becomes particularly clear when we consider the big challenges of today. The major challenges humanity is facing are on a global scale. If we look at climate change, for example, we often think of industry and mobility. The fires in the Amazon rainforest? The (majorly illegal) deforestation of the rainforest for the cultivation of palm oil or soy and loss of biodiversity? Corruption, the displacement of the local population or conflicts with indigenous groups? All of these aspects are also defined as climate change.
It’s not possible to break the world down into its components. Whether it is climate change, mass poverty or mass extinction – there are no simple solutions to global crises. Holistic thinking makes us realise the complexity of all of the issues we face. It aims to help us to identify different perspectives and needs. Furthermore, it helps us to develop and create long-term solutions for these global challenges. Creativity, interdisciplinarity, participation and collaboration are important prerequisites to try to achieve this.
The United Nations established a plan of action for sustainable development, known as the 2030 Agenda, and is an example of a holistic approach to multilateral sustainability policy. The agenda is based on the three dimensions model of sustainability: economy, society and the environment, which are interrelated. The Agenda is broken down into Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are considered universal and apply equally to all countries when striving for a balance between the three dimensions.
Holistic thinking is the prerequisite to the 2030 Agenda and is a necessary consequence of the cooperation between all countries working towards the SDGs. It’s the key to tackling our global challenges.
Many people have learned to solve a problem where it appears visibly and tangibly for everyone. While this approach may well lead to initial successes – these are not long-lasting, since the core of the problem is often hidden at first glance.
For example, In order to contribute to the fight against climate change by reducing carbon emissions, it makes sense to use the bicycle more often than a car. But, if we really want to make a difference, we should look further than just at one piece of the puzzle and adopt a holistic approach. This can be done in many ways, such as questioning our own consumption in all areas of life (not just with personal transportation), taking a look at the sustainable practices implemented on other sides of the globe, and increasing the pressure on businesses and politicians to implement sustainable practices, to name a few.
Looking at the details is not wrong – but it’s not enough either. Holistic thinking goes beyond, it means breaking free from your mindset. This requires awareness, consideration and communication. But how to put this into practice?
To assist our community in developing this important skill, we have developed the WeFuture Global guideline to help our community think holistically.
Holistic thinking is a continuous process of changing perspectives, brainstorming and critical questioning. By that, it forms the basis for decisions on concrete action and next steps.
It is of fundamental importance to identify the real problem first. It is worthwhile to pause and get an overall view: Look at the whole instead of single details, push comprehension instead of actionism and focus on strategic thinking instead of operational hectic. By looking closely at the interrelationships, the system's biggest levers can be identified. And only those will affect a real change. During the entire process, it is always important to critically question the solution statements and yourself.
The holistic approach makes us realize that we humans ourselves are a part of the whole. It not only makes each of us responsible but also empowers us to make a difference. Just like in a huge ecosystem, everyone and everything can understand that the overall result is bigger than individual contributions. Holistic thinking is the core of world conservation.
To solve interrelated problems, we need to work together. Individuals, civil society organizations and the private sector are indispensable for the success of world conservation as innovation can and does arise from the collaboration of these entities. If we want to change a system, we need to work on all levels. Therefore we need a strong network of symbiotic relationships, varying expertise and sector access. We need to identify the right problems, understand the connections, and each of us needs to be aware of our role in complex challenges.
Through the holistic thinking approach, we can lose the fear of complexity and be empowered to make a difference. By understanding that the whole is more than the sum of the parts, we can learn to look at problems differently and change perspectives, allowing us and our way of thinking to evolve. The holistic way of thinking can transform our lives as we question our attitudes and gain inspiration to break out of recurring patterns in our everyday life. And by collaborating with all members and groups within society, we can innovate sustainable solutions that contribute to impactful world conservation.