Category Archives: Systems Thinking

Digging for new ideas

I introduced the quotes below from Dr. Edward DeBono’s book, The Use of Lateral Thinking,  at a 1988 conference exploring the role of university faculty in dealing with the new concept (at that time) of sustainability.  Universities that ridiculed the idea of sustainability have now accepted sustainability as a primary objective, at best, or perhaps an advertising tactic, at worse.   In 1988, sustainability was a “new idea” and like many new ideas it was rejected by most university faculty.

While it has been asserted that the function of the public university is the creation of new knowledge (through research) and dissemination of knowledge (through teaching Continue reading Digging for new ideas

Beyond a Job: Doing The Great Work

Adapted from an Interview with Matthew Fox by Mary NurrieStearns

Much of our life is spent in the world of work. Our time, energy, and even identity are wrapped up in what we do and how much money we have. Therefore it is important to explore how work is associated with prosperity. At times, work is a job an exchange of effort for money. But work can also be vocation. When work is vocation, it is where we express our unique talents, find meaning, and contribute to what Matthew Fox calls “the great work,” the work of the universe.

To discuss this subject with Matthew Fox was like finding a gold mine. The author of many books, Fox describes in “The Reinvention of Work” a new vision of livelihood. In his envisioned world of work intellect, heart, and health come together to celebrate the whole person. He is a true teacher of what he espouses. He was dismissed by the Continue reading Beyond a Job: Doing The Great Work

Who are we and what are we doing here?

tree3
The Tree of Life and the Cosmos are One

This morning I prayed….. in fact, I pray every morning.  I pray for the knowledge of God’s will for me and the power to carry it out.  I pray to a God that is beyond my understanding. I pray because doing so has resulted in long periods of serenity, moments of clarity, and the chance to practice using spiritual tools that allow me to get through the difficult times and dark periods.  I pray for peace – and I work for a more sustainable world that will be free from want and fear – for all.

I was born into a religious tradition that taught me to fear that I would be punished (for Continue reading Who are we and what are we doing here?

Why Agricultural Systems Thinking?

domino-effect2I’m gearing up to teach my favorite class again this fall at UMass, Agricultural Systems Thinking, in which we learn how to think about the many problems created by modern industrial agriculture. This post is written for the students who will join me in what I consider to be an exciting exploration into a toolbox for thinkers that might just “save the world.”

Let me explain….

First, the class is called “agricultural” systems thinking simply because I get paid to think about food and farming stuff by the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture.  The systems thinking tools I teach can be used to better understand any complex system.  Although it is critical to advancing our sustainability agenda, classes in systems thinking are missing from most university programs today.

As I wrote in “Learn to Think Like a Mountain”…. Continue reading Why Agricultural Systems Thinking?

Lessons in Ag Systems Thinking

My favorite class to teach in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass is called Agricultural Systems Thinking.  I’d like to share a few of the blog posts I’ve written relating to systems thinking with the class and of course anyone else who is interested.

—————————————————————

Our modern educational system trains students to think in a linear, analytical way (at best) or simply to memorize disparate facts (at worst).  College graduates are well-prepared to take exams and write term papers, but often not to think creatively and systemically about big agricultural problems (many of which I’ve written about in the past) like climate change, loss of biological diversity, peak oil, the threat of global pandemic, democracy, economic collapse, globalization, hunger, and food security, safety and quality.

Albert Einstein reminds us that…..

“Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”

My class in Agricultural Systems Thinking attempts to help students (and me) practice thinking creatively (explored in “On Creativity and the Sources of New Ideas“) at a level of complexity and rigor that will help us understand and perhaps even solve global problems.  The following blogs introduce some of the tools and topics I teach in class.

In the blog titled “Learn to Think Like a Mountain” we begin looking at that higher level of thinking that Einstein mentioned.  I suggest that we are unlikely to solve seemingly intractable systemic agricultural problems with linear (simple cause and effect) thinking.  Aldo Leopold’s famous essay “Think Like a Mountain” reminds us that we need to take the “long view” by seeing problems through an ecological lens.

In “Education for Sustainability: a holistic philosophy” I suggest that education for sustainability will require “the integration of thinking and feeling, mind and body, science and spirit, knowledge and values, head and heart.”  We need ethical ways of learning (explored in Ethics, Self-interest and a Purposeful Life) and new tools for teaching to achieve this broad goal for education.

One of the simple systems tools I teach is the Mind Map, which is a visual representation of the multiple components of a complex system like a farm.  Students majoring in Sustainable Food and Farming are introduced to this tool in several of their classes and most find it useful as a means of taking notes, planning projects, of just telling someone else about a farm they have visited. Here is an example of a mind map of a community farm which uses land owned by UMass in Eastern Massachusetts.

In two blogs, Digging for Root Causes of Global Crises and Finding the Root Causes of BIG Problems, we learn about the iceberg.  A very simple and useful tool for looking below the surface of actions and patterns of events to discover structural causes and the mental models (worldview, assumptions etc.) that direct human behavior.  Mental models are further explored in “Which Comes First – Sustainable Policies or Sustainable Behavior?”

It turns out that the answer to the question posed in the title of the last blog is – “NEITHER.”  in fact thinking must change before either behavior or policy.  In “Talking Sustainability” we explore how to be effective in sharing complex ideas and changing the thinking of large groups of people.  Step by step instructions are given on how to effectively communicate our ideas.  Its starts by speaking from the heart!

We know that the way we think has a powerful influence over our behavior.  In “Worldview,Clocks and Trees” we explore the difference between mechanistic and ecological thinking.  And we take another big picture look at ourselves and the world around us in “Understanding Hierarchy.”

Another of the tools we learn to use is the causal loop diagram, represented in the diagram above by a Fix That Fails,  one of the system archetypes that describe mistakes that we make over and over again.

For example, we need to learn to see that the use of antibiotics in the animal industry (which results in a short term “fix”) can reduce the effectiveness of these critical drugs for humans (an unintended consequence).  And the continued use of pesticides in farming results in the unintended consequence of increasing resistance to pesticides in insects and disease organisms.

When these fixes that fail are identified, it becomes possible to get off the “quick fix treadmill” and begin to find real solutions to these problems.  Then we use the iceberg tool to help discover the root causes –  and quite often find that we create our own problems!  Our objective of course, is to create food and farming systems that are sustainable.

In “Resilience” we examine the key features of a sustainable system, or one that can “experience change while retaining essentially the same function, structure, feedback mechanisms, and therefore identity.”   In the video below, Fred Kirschenmann describes the value of resilience in farming systems.

—————————————————-

The blogs linked above offer a glimpse into my Agricultural Systems Thinking class and a vision of how I believe we must teach sustainable agriculture if we ever hope to address systemic global problems related to food and farming.  In Education for Sustainable Agriculture – A Vision, I wrote:

Today’s graduates from university agricultural programs are generally well-prepared to address problems and opportunities from both a practical management and a theory-based perspective at the organism, organ, cellular and molecular levels. Graduates in the future will also need to understand complex food and farming systems at the population, community, and ecosystem levels.  

While lots of people talk about the need for systems thinking in higher education, it is rarely offered as part of the curriculum.  I believe it’s time that systems thinking becomes a core learning objective in all agricultural education programs.  This is needed both to prepare students to think creatively and systemically, but also so they are better prepared to discover their own personal calling and create “good work” over a lifetime. This is one of my personal goals for agricultural education in the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture.

===========================================================

I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my World.edu posts. Finally, for more on the transformation of agricultural education and research at the University of Massachusetts, see: Land Grant Revitalization at UMass.

 

 

 

 

 

Systems Thinking Tools: worldview, clocks and trees

This week my class, Agricultural Systems Thinking, got underway at UMass.  We began by talking about the difference between a mechanical and an ecological worldview.  This blog explores the difference between looking at the world as machine or as a living system.

There has been much written about the emergence of the mechanical worldview as represented by the thinking of Descartes.  More recently we have been introduced to living systems theory as a more mature way of understanding the universe.  The difference between these worldviews is demonstrated by the difference between the clock and the tree.

The World as a Machine

In ancient eras prior to the invention of the clock, there was no mechanical time. The ringing of a bell, the setting of the sun, or the changing of the seasons marked time. When the clock was created, it was a marvelous invention but soon became more than a tool, it became a model for the universe – a worldview. This mechanical model of the world supported the belief that living systems were easy to take apart, adjust, and fix. Humans, as part of the world could also be “fixed” when something was wrong. Humans and ecosystems were perceived as “nothing but” machines.  This worldview is expressed nicely in this clip from the movie Mindwalk.

The mechanistic model of the world was useful at the time since it allowed thinkers to break away from the tyranny of the church and initiate a scientific revolution.  However as the authority of the church declined a new authority emerged, a science and the resulting growth of technology that allowed humans to influence their environment. This new authority produced modern medicine, modern technology, and modern destruction of natural ecosystems. Today we need a new way to frame our understanding of the universe – new way to “see” the earth.

The World as a Living System

A reductionist scientist who breaks a tree into its component pieces, such as roots, leaves, and bark will never fully understand the key ecological relationships that support the tree.  A systems thinker would see the exchange of energy between the tree and the earth, between the soil and the atmosphere, and between people and the universe – as a living system. A systems thinker would see the life of the tree in relation to the life of the forest; a habitat for insects and birds and ask, “why does a tree produce millions of seeds and only produce few offspring?”  This question is answered in another clip from Mindwalk.

A systems thinker might look at the tree and notice both the subsystems that make up the tree (roots, stem, leaves) as well as notice the larger system in which the tree resides, the forest.  In a previous blog focused on hierarchy, I shared the idea that a systems thinker “looks up to the next larger system for purpose and down to the subsystems for function.”  A systems thinker would notice these relationships and might see both the forest and the tree.

==========================================================

I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.  Or for more systems thinking posts, try this link.

Systems Thinking Tools – Resilience

As I prepare to teach my new Agricultural Systems Thinking class at UMass this fall, I have become more and more intrigued with the thinking underlying the science of resilience.  Ecologists, psychologists and engineers are quite familiar with the idea that sustainable systems are able to withstand disturbances, large and small.  Most humans with significant life experiences can surely understand the value of resilience, as life is rarely “smooth sailing” and as the bumper sticker says “shit happens.”

The need for a deeper  understanding of resilience in agriculture has never been more obvious, as the U.S. experiences the impact of drought on the 2012 corn crop and on subsequent food and energy costs.  The inability of the industrial system to adjust gracefully to the shock of drought is just one of the indicators that it is at a tipping point.

Resilience science has taught us that systems designed for economic efficiency can maximize short-term profitability but at the same time will sacrifice resilience or the ability of the system to adjust to shocks and stresses such as drought.  Industrial agriculture and thus the modern food system is highly vulnerable to collapse.

According a report from the Prince Charities Foundation International Sustainability Unit (established by His Royal Highness, Charles the Prince of Wales), titled “What Price Resilience: Toward Sustainable and Secure Food Systems,” the systemic stresses for which industrial agriculture is NOT well-prepared to adapt to include:

A. Disruption caused by declining supplies of easily accessible fossil fuel and the subsequent escalation of energy prices.

B. Erosion of the natural capital upon which the system depends such as soil, clean water, and biological diversity and disturbance of global climate.

C. Global hunger, poverty and inequality, creating social unrest from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement.

Ecological agriculture on the other hand is more resilient as it addresses each of the systemic stresses that threaten the industrial system;

A. Agroecological systems minimize dependency on fossil fuel by increasing reliance on solar and energy reuse and efficiency.

B. Agroecological systems build rather than deplete natural capital  such as soil, clean water, and biological diversity, and sequester carbon to help ameliorate climate change.

C. Agroecological systems directly address social inequities, hunger, and poverty by creating opportunities for small landholders and community-based farming.

Systems scientists define resilience as “the capacity of a system to experience change while retaining essentially the same function, structure, feedbacks, and therefore identity, e.g.agricultural system properties and services.”  Resilience is conferred to living systems which (unlike industrial agriculture) exhibit the following attributes:

    1. Diversity – most ecologists agree that biological diversity adds to the resilience of a system.  This is achieved in agriculture through multiple cropping systems, permaculture and crop diversification.
    2. Openness – this is a measure of how easily components of a system such as people, ideas and species can move into or out of a system.  In agriculture it might be manifested in the ability of a farmer to change crops in response to market demand. 
    3. Reserves – reserves add to resilience in response to shocks.  In agriculture, this might be financial reserves, stored seed, or local knowledge.   
    4. Feedback – critical information on productivity, environmental quality or socioeconomic impact is needed by system managers to make good decisions.  In agriculture this might be information on the extent of soil erosion, sales figures, profitability of each product,

I’ll explore resilience in agriculture more in future blog posts but for now I’ll share a list of interventions available for systems in distress.  According to Walker and Salt in their 2012 book Resilience Practice, there are four main areas of intervention:

  • Management – changes in recommended management of components of a system
  • Financial – assistance, investment, subsidies, taxes which support the function of a system
  • Governance – laws, regulations, and policies
  • Education – knowledge to influence behavior (and especially to help decision-makers overcome denial)

If this topic is of interest to you, please check out this new video (click on the picture below) in which Fred Kirschenmann speaks about resilience in agriculture.

==========================================================

I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.  Or for more systems thinking posts, try this link.