Can three minutes change your life? For TED Senior Fellow Eric Berlow, the above three-minute Micro-TED Talk opened the door to a new world. In a matter of weeks, he went from being a university ecologist to a global expert on applying a system-based approach to problems ranging from international conflicts to recycling rates. We caught up with Eric during a recent traverse of the French Alps—he’d been navigating deep powder and farmer’s fields before we spoke—to learn what understanding ecosystems can teach us about solving our biggest problems.
So on this topic of complexity and simplicity: Randonée or Telemark?
Telemark, of course! Yeah, I love it. I’ve been doing it forever; I just love the feel.
So you’re obviously someone who loves the mountains. How have the outdoors shaped your work?
I got into ecology before I was into the outdoors: I was into environmental stuff in college, but I hadn’t spent a lot of time camping. I was just really into the theory, about how everything was connected. So I did a degree in marine biology and ecology, and started spending a lot more time outside in Oregon, and got really into backcountry skiing and all the rest. And then I did my doctorate at UC Berkley, and started doing field work in the Sierra Nevada, and spent weeks and weeks on end in the Sierra and couldn’t get enough of it. I think when you study ecology, no matter what you’re doing, the only way to do good science in ecology is to have a big-picture view.
In your Ted Talk, you explain how embracing complexity can help lead to simplicity. How does this kind of systems thinking apply to issues of Sustainability?
To me, if we can provide people the tools to think more holistically about problems, to say, ‘yeah, everything is connected, but that doesn’t make it harder to understand,’ we can get over the fear factor. So many issues around sustainability have to do with just thinking a little bit bigger, and seeing the connections between things. I feel like if people thought about their problems a little more systemically, then the sustainability stuff would also fall into line. They would elect leaders who had holistic visions. So that’s my idea: to help people think about mapping out the ecosystem of problems, so that they can start thinking more holistically about everything.
How has being a Ted Fellow impacted your work?
For the first time in my life, I’ve seen that having a Ph.D in biology has value to other things. When I got the Ted Fellowship, it was a chance to speak to other people who are outside of my fishbowl.
During my talk—Jullian Assange of WikiLeaks spoke right before me—I was like, ‘Oh, man, I don’t know what I’m doing here!’ But then afterwards I started getting hundreds of emails, and I ended up quitting my job at the University because I had so many neat opportunities to apply a holistic approach to mapping the ecosystem of complex problems, and trying to find leverage points.
I worked on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, mapping expert knowledge of Palestinians and Israelis who were committed to non-violence to understand the ecosystem of that problem—so that if you’re going to throw money at it, you know where are the biggest points of leverage. And there was another one looking at recycling in America: how can we bump up recycling of Aluminum from like 20% to 80% in five years, again, mapping expert thinking and the ecosystem of the problem. What are all the moving parts, how do they influence one another, and use the network structure to find self-reinforcing feedback loops and points of leverage.
So it’s been really interesting: I started in academia, and now I’m working on a lot of other kinds of problems.
It sounds like a really powerful tool you can bring to a wide range of problems.
Yeah, and I didn’t realize that until now. It seems like there’s a real appreciation for a systemic approach, and we have some new tools now in complexity theory about how to take a really big system and find the subset of that system that maybe drives it the most.