One way to approach environmental activism is by utilizing systems thinking. Systems thinking is “the art and science of making reliable inferences about behavior by developing an increasingly deep understanding of underlying structure,” according to Barry Richmond, a late systems scientist for High Performance Systems, Inc., an IT Technology Solutions Provider. When one considers the environment, one must think in terms of the environment; this is an example of systems thinking. After all, the environment (and our place in it) contributes to a mass web of interconnected organisms and occurrences. Systems thinking could be a solution to ensuring a better future for both humanity and the environment in which it lives. Systems thinking can be applied to any structured system and operates on the assumption that all systems are composed of interconnected parts.
Applying systems thinking is striking because it causes one to reevaluate their actions in relation to how they might affect the natural environment. Obviously, we are part of an ecosystem, and we have more say in the direction the ecosystem takes than any other species. Thus, the duty falls upon humanity to protect that ecosystem. Protecting the ecosystem not only benefits the natural environment and its inhabitants, but it also ensures the continued survival of humanity. Systems thinking is a way to help humanity save itself. If we made a conscious effort to think of the ecosystem as something we have both direct and indirect control over, perhaps the environment would be in better condition than it currently is. However, this implies that everyone cares about the environment and particularly, the survival of humanity, when this is probably not always the case.
Let’s look at an example of systems thinking: when one pours something down a drain, where does it go? Perhaps it eventually finds itself in a water treatment plant. What is the environmental cost of running the water treatment plant? Does it destroy the habitat of certain animals? Where do those animals lie within the ecosystem (i.e. who eats them and what do they eat)? Despite their seemingly circular nature, questions such as these are critical to systems thinking.
Too often, humans attempt to patch up an environmental disturbance by putting a temporary bandage on the issue rather than solving it in the long-term. However, this dressing grows old and does not prevent the same environmental transgression from reoccurring. Short-term solutions can be counterproductive in the long term because they do not stop the environmental destruction from repeating, and they can cause feelings of either guilt or defiance in those responsible. Systems thinking is a method that would prevent damaging scenarios from occurring in the first place because unintentional instigators of major ecological disturbances would understand the effect their actions could have several links down the ecological chain.
For the continued well-being of humanity, those who have economic and intellectual capital to sufficiently influence change have an obligation to the ecosystem to thoroughly think of the potential consequences of their actions. The intent of systems thinking is not to impart fear of certain actions that affect the ecological environment, but rather for people to take a step back and view their actions through a critical lens, one that does not solely focus on humans while disregarding other organisms
Sarah Liebig is a senior studying English Writing and Global Studies: Worlds in Dialogue. Liebig’s principal interests lie in social justice and environmental concerns. Upon graduation, she intends to study law. Liebig is originally from Lincoln, NE and is the only child of two soil scientists. She shares permanent residence with two cats, Oscar and Ophelia.