Sostenuto Origins

This statement about the origins of Sostenuto: The Systems-Thinking Magazine of Arts & Sciences was originally written when the magazine was known as permaCulture and updated upon the transition to Sostenuto.

Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution brought the greatest technological advances and burgeonings of wealth and power in the history of humanity. Along with these came the biggest disasters. Some tried to paint these phenomena as the beginning of something fundamentally new in human history. Others, though, saw them as mere extensions of trends that had been going on for centuries, even millennia.

Along with the good and the bad and the various points of view on them, people from diverse fields of study began to make advances that would, when combined, allow us to understand our society’s mainspring, the root of all its key dynamics — not some prime mover of societies in general but something specific going on in our own culture. From ecology to economics, biology to physics, and onward to mathematics, anthropology, sociology, psychology, demography, systematics and more, so many fields were involved that it wasn’t even clear that some of the findings from each were, in fact, pieces of a single puzzle. The various fields have not, of course, learned all they can possibly know, but they have produced enough knowledge to allow us to put the big puzzle together — and some people have made it their business to do just that.

Through systems thinking, everything is seen as a system — an interlocking set of factors that all influence each other. In viewing things in this way, light can be shed on seemingly unsolvable problems. Applying this approach to the study of our civilization, some have come to truly understand how our society has an inherent bent toward self-destruction, why the extreme lows cannot be separated from the extreme highs — and that there are alternatives. And that those alternatives don’t even require someone to understand this body of integrated knowledge in order to participate.

Mark S. Meritt was introduced to this complex of ideas in the early 1990s, and he soon decided to become one of the people who connect the dots — one of the systems thinkers. Whether through non-fiction writing, artistic ventures or otherwise, he hoped to contribute to this body of important knowledge — and to help others understand it.

When the disasters of September 11, 2001, occurred, Mark understood, like the others involved in connecting the dots, that, shocking as they were, they were just the latest additions in a long line of civilization’s ills. He knew that all too many people had never been equipped to grasp this, thinking instead that the disasters were truly unprecedented and had somehow hurtled the world into genuinely new territory — and that rededicating ourselves to civilization would somehow get us out of our mess instead of just digging us in deeper. He saw that people wanted to use the attacks as a learning experience, as an opportunity to steer society toward something better, but he knew that they would only be able to do so if they understood how the dots connect.

Begin connecting the dots, and it becomes clear that our culture’s self-destructiveness is just that – our culture’s self-destructiveness. It is a trait possessed by our culture. It is a trait that can be possessed by other cultures. But it is not something inherent to culture itself. The complex nature of this self-destructiveness touches every facet of our culture. Eliminate it, adopt a new cultural vision — one that is sustainable rather than self-destructive, one that makes good things happen as a matter of course instead of spending so much effort trying in vain to stop from happening all the bad things that are inevitable in a culture structured in a certain way — and every facet of that new culture will also be impacted.

Mark knew the time had come to create something he’d been pondering for a few years — a platform from which to present ideas on how the systems perspective can illuminate all aspects of our culture, from mundane things like the meaning of movies to enormous issues such as the threat of terrorism. In doing so, it would simultaneously be an example of the kind of publication that would be commonplace in a new, systems-oriented culture even as it helped to bring that new culture about. On September 14, 2001, Mark launched permaCulture, a fledgling attempt to produce such a publication.

The term permaculture was coined by Bill Mollison in 1972 to describe an approach to agriculture which neither depletes land nor requires constant human input. Modeled on non-human systems, it hopes to achieve sustainable food production for people while simultaneously serving as a healthy and integral part of an ecosystem. It goes beyond organic agriculture, not only eliminating the need for chemicals but minimizing the need for any human work at all, with even self-fertilization designed in right from the start. In some quarters, permaculture has taken on the broader meaning of designing sustainable human communities.

permaCulture was adopted as the magazine’s name to indicate more than a desire for sustainability. First, like the permacultural approach to food production, striving for overall sustainability does not have to involve the incredible hard work that so many people think it does. Understand the system, change the design on which our culture is founded, and sustainability should take care of itself. Second, given the profound relationship between sustainability and culture itself, we can look at almost any facet of culture to find something to help us create a sustainable, “permanent” one.

On February 1, 2002, the magazine was relaunched on the website as Sostenuto. The concepts of permaculture, in terms of either agriculture or whole societies, flow directly from a systems perspective. Given the magazine’s intention to use the systems perspective as broadly as possible, though, not to mention the desire to distinguish it from its host website, it seemed worthwhile to adopt the new name, which is appropriate in many ways.

Sostenuto will evolve constantly as a source of broad ideas on a new vision for the world, dealing with topics as diverse as business, entertainment, science and technology, products, cultural trends and life’s milestones.

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