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Systems Thinking and How It Can Help Build a Sustainable World: A Beginning Conversation

Systems Thinking and How It Can Help Build a Sustainable World: A Beginning Conversation

In Brief

Humanity stands at a precipice.  Overpopulation, resource scarcities, degraded ecosystem functioning from pollution and biodiversity loss, and anthropogenic climate change are damaging the life-supporting capacity of the planet.  Diminishing returns on fossil fuel energy investments, combined with their dwindling availability and environmental harm, threaten industrial civilization.  Many people recognize the need to transition to sustainable, resilient ways of living, but the prospect of such a transition is daunting, not only from a logistical perspective, but also because it requires new ways of thinking about and addressing complex problems.  Widespread adoption of systems thinking represents one of society’s best bets for making real progress towards this daunting transition, but few actually understand what it is.  This article is intended to introduce systems thinking into our common lexicon – to explain what it is at a basic level, how it can be used, and why it may very well be the key to humanity’s survival over the long run.

 

“For some, the development of systems thinking is crucial for the survival of humanity.” – John Sterman
“The light begins to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

– Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses

Let’s start at the very beginning. What is a system?

A system is a set of things interacting in a way that produces something greater than the sum of its parts. Systems can range in complexity. Compare, for instance, a car, which is relatively easy to understand and even diagnose when something goes wrong, to a tropical rainforest, which contains so many living and nonliving components that we’re only just beginning to understand how they work.

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