Robert Pirsig and son in 1968. Source: http://i.cbc.ca/1.2914206.1422483933!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/16x9_620/motorcyle-yourself-featured.jpg

Themes of the two readings resonate with me, but none more than the idea that in order achieve sustainable systems there needs to be a change in focus from quantity to quality. Unfortunately, it seems that economic pressures force exactly the opposite.

The article Systems Thinking states that “western science has often focused on things that can be measured and quantified. It has sometimes been implied that phenomena that can be measured and quantified are more important.” (Center for Ecoliteracy) This is right on point, and it is this focus on achieving goals that are quantifiable leads to economic pressure (not to mention all kinds of societal pressure) to do things which make no sense in a long-term, sustainable prospective. In fact, I find it maddening that even decision makers might know that the decision is not the right one for the long-term, but they might have no choice given the pressures they are under.

This focus of western science has now spread throughout the world and we see the search for growth of measurable statistics leading to the detriment of many laudable goals. Too many to mention, but among them: climate change, ending the exploitation of workers in developing nations, sustainable farming practices getting swept away by GMOs and eradication of disease being held for profit or because it is too expensive.

When I read the discussion on quality I was immediately reminded of a great book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which the author Robert Pirsig discusses Quality. In this book Quality is taught as the source of all things and that it is a driving force for developing systems and guiding progress. This idea of quality is very similar to the article The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, in which current economic systems are compared to nature. In my mind nature has far more quality and our current economic systems kick against the very principles of quality (as defined in this way). (Capra)

I found an excellent article written by Thane Thompson called Learning From Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which really pulls these concepts together. He states, “Scientific management seems to hint to us to lose our subjectivities, and thus our focus on values. In favor of what? Profit. Why should one use scientific management towards profit? Because profit is valuable. Why do people generally seek profit? Mainly to satisfy biological and social needs such as quelling bodily appetites for food and sex, and the physical rush of adrenaline… This movement is thus inherently immoral according to Pirsig’s paradigm, because it favors lower levels of patterning over higher ones.” In this system we walk away from quality and this I believe makes our current environment not sustainable.” (Thompson)

Thompson states that a key lesson taught by Pirsig is that we are in this mess “due to the prevalence of one static intellectual pattern in particular: the scientific method.” (Thompson) This is exactly what the readings teach and very opposite to what our culture teaches! In fact, just reading that the scientific method is causing problems, then typing this makes me a little uncomfortable.  However, when I stop to consider these principles, I feel the truth of them. In essence, we need to reform our thinking, we need to add much more to the current rigid thinking. We need to go beyond the scientific method and add to the goals we have for society. There is much more than profit and I believe we all know it!

Question: How is it possible to transition to a economic system that is not focused on short-term, quantifiable profits?


Thomson, Thane. “Learning from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Management Innovation Exchange. Mar. 2, 2012. Web. http://www.managementexchange.com/hack/learning-zen-and-art-motorcycle-maintenance

Capra, Fritjof. “The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision.” Center for Ecoliteracy. Web. http://www.ecoliteracy.org/article/systems-view-life-unifying-vision

Center for Ecoliteracy. “Systems Thinking.” July 24, 2012. Web. http://www.ecoliteracy.org/article/systems-thinking

2 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Sustainable Systems

  1. I listened to this podcast recently on giving that you might find interesting in your reflection on alternative modes of profitability. The interviewee talks about generosity in terms of investment and return that can shift perspective on how our exchanges (or transactions) with others may enrich or deplete our lives.

    Check out the show On Being and look up Adam Grant.


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