And why does it make economic sense to move entire factories to other countries: how can they still sell the product for a couple of dollars when it's traveling so far? Suddenly I had to confront international trade agreements and the influence of corporations on governmental regulations. And another thing: why are electronics breaking so fast and why are they cheaper to replace than repair? So I learned about planned obsolescence, advertising, and other tools for promoting consumerism. On the surface, each of these topics seemed separate from the next, unconnected, and a long way from those piles of garbage on the streets of New York City or the forests of the Cascades. But it turns out they're all connected.
The journey led me to become what people call a systems thinker. That means I believe everything exists as part of a larger system and must be understood in relation to the other parts. It's not an uncommon framework: think about the last time you came down with a fever. You probably wondered if it was caused by a bacteria or a virus. A fever is a response to a strange element being introduced to the system that is your body. If you didn't believe that your body was a system, you might look for a heat source underneath your hot forehead or some switch that accidentally got flipped and raised your temperature. In biology we easily accept the idea of multiple systems (e.g., circulatory, digestive, nervous) made of parts (like cells or organs), as well as the fact that those systems interact with one another inside a body.
In school we all learned about the water cycle, the system that moves water through its various states—as liquid, vapor, and solid ice—around the earth. And about the food chain, the system in which, as a simple example, plankton get eaten by small fish, which get eaten by bigger fish, which get eaten by humans. Between those two systems, the water cycle and the food chain—even though one's inanimate and the other is made of living creatures—there's an important interaction, as the rivers and oceans of the first provide the habitat for the creatures of the second. That brings us to an ecosystem, made up of interrelated inanimate physical parts and subsystems like rocks and water, as well as all the living parts like plants and animals. Again there are systems within systems. The earth's biosphere—another word for the planet's entire ecosystem—is a system that exists inside of that much larger thing that we call the solar system.
The economy functions as a system, too, which is why there can be a domino effect inside it, as when people lose their jobs and then reduce their spending, which means that factories can't sell as much Stuff, which means that more people get laid off . . . which is exactly what happened in 2008 and 2009. Systems thinking as related to the economy also explains a theory like "trickle-down" economics, in which benefits like tax cuts are given to the wealthy so that they'll invest more in businesses, which would hypothetically in turn create more jobs for the middle and lower classes. If you didn't believe these parts (money, jobs, people across classes) operated within a system, there'd be no basis for the trickle-down theory, or for beliefs about the interplay between supply and demand. All these examples assume interrelated parts within a larger system.