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Systems thinking is at the core of the greatest challenges facing our world today. Often referred to as “wicked problems,” issues such as climate change and international poverty cannot have a simple solution because they are highly interconnected with systems over which a single governing body (of humans as a whole) have only partial control. Systems thinking is a first step in finding solutions to wicked problems- but what is it exactly?
To understand systems thinking it might be most useful to say what it is not: analytical reductionism. Analytical reductionism is the framework utilized in your basic science class: to understand something you break it down into its components and study each one individually. Most high school students spend time in biology looking at onion cells under a microscope. They are taught to view the onion as simply a collection of individual cells. This approach works well when there is a low level of interdependence between component parts, but can lead to unintended repercussions when applied in high-complexity contexts. The solution? Systems thinking, which focuses on relationships, especially those downstream of a proposed change where impacts might occur. You can apply systems thinking by identifying the system of interest, outlining the primary impact paths, and then identifying the relationships connecting each component.
So where can we apply systems thinking in our everyday lives? Look no further than your refrigerator for an example. The food system is an international network of social, environmental, and economic effects that cascades across borders and time. We are still eating the repercussions of the Green Revolution: an increased global food supply coupled with increasing environmental degradation from agriculture. The things that you buy in your grocery store can interact with global politics in startling ways, and equity concerns abound related to both access to and sourcing of food.
Once you have identified the system in question (the food system) you can think about its major impact pathways: environmental impacts from growing crops, feed, and raising livestock; environmental impacts from transporting, packaging, distributing product, and disposing of product; economic impacts related to the sourcing of products and packaging; societal impacts in agricultural and packaging production locations, and equity impacts of how food is distributed among communities. While this may seem like an overwhelming list, you can take the impact pathways one by one to map out relationships and find opportunities for positive change.
Let’s take the environmental impacts of transporting, packaging, and distributing food products. There are simple steps to reduce the negative environmental consequences of consumption within this pathway. Look at where an item was grown and/or packaged. Try to pick things with lower food miles. Avoid buying items that come in plastic or non-recyclable packaging. Flexible plastic wrappers are not usually recyclable curbside, although they can be collected and taken to special drop-off locations for reuse. Metal, glass, and cardboard containers are recyclable in most U.S. cities while rigid plastic containers are only sometimes accepted. And, the effluents released from the production of glass, metal, and paper materials are, on the whole, less toxic than those released from production of plastics. Finally, try to compost food waste in a backyard or community bin rather than adding it to a landfill where it will produce methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas.
While these steps only directly address one of the impact pathways of the food system, they have knock-on effects that cascade to others. Reducing toxic emissions from packaging production will benefit the health of communities near a factory, which in turn can improve economic outcomes and social equity. Increased recycling of plastic film and containers can benefit our oceans through reduction of microplastics, with effects on marine life and human populations that depend on it. And increasing composting will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to the global fight against climate change.