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Systems Thinking for Environmental Sustainability

Sierra Castaneda, Ph.D. Candidate, Stanford University, Earth Systems Science


Image Credit: Noah Buscher, Unsplashed


As a PhD student in the Earth Systems Science Department at Stanford University, I am currently studying sustainable food and agricultural systems, ranging from on-farm greenhouse gas emission mitigation strategies, to strategies for reducing institutional food-related greenhouse gas emissions through sustainable food purchasing. Throughout my time as a student, I have often found that the buzzword of sustainability is often synonymous to greenwashing – when a company or organization puts more resources into marketing their sustainability efforts than actually implementing said efforts to make a tangible difference in their environmental impact.


A quick google search of any major company plus the term “sustainability” provides ample evidence of the growing interest in pursuing sustainability across pretty much every aspect of our lives. Companies and institutions in the food, human health, textile, and technology industries use buzz phrases like “sustainable packaging”, “we are on track to meet our sustainability goals”, and “this product is sourced from sustainable farms.” But what does the term “sustainability” truly mean?


Depending on who you ask and in what context, this definition can differ widely. From a business perspective, greenwashing might happen intentionally in the name of turning a profit, or by accident due to a lack of complete understanding of the impact that a particular change to a system has, upstream or downstream. A “system” I refer to here is an extremely complex set of interactions between different actors or components of the natural or built environment. A food system, for example, could be made up of farmers, distributors, and consumers, as well as natural resources such as land and water. A system consists of many moving parts, and noticing how individual things fit together and impact each other within the system is essential in visualizing how the system works as a whole.


Either way, until recently, my view of the world’s efforts towards helping the environment was jaded, and the term “sustainability” left a bitter taste in my mouth. What are we “sustaining” anyway?



With an often muddled definition of sustainability in the many contexts that it is used, how then, can we begin to understand and assess the true sustainability efforts within a system? How can we be better in our own pursuit of sustainability? How can we best educate others on the topic of environmental sustainability? It wasn’t until this past year when I took a class in graduate school called, “Pursuing Sustainability: Managing Complex Social-Environmental Systems” that I realized the importance (and need) to reclaim the true meaning of sustainability through systems thinking. This class was guided by readings and works from some of the greats. Pamela Matson, Elinor Ostrom, and Donella Meadows have become my personal role models of rock star women in science and sustainability. (If interested, check out Donella’s amazing speech on “Vision” here. it left me with a lot to think about and a glimmer of hope). The course conveyed the importance of how sustainable development needs to maintain inclusive well-being within and across generations. This aspect of inclusiveness speaks to the need for equity in satisfying the constituents of well-being, which will vary depending on individual circumstances and values of different individuals or groups. The course also noted that we live in complex social-environmental systems, and that in order to pursue sustainability within these systems, we have to think about the social, economic, and environmental well-being, which are often related to capital assets, and we have to consider all of the actors within a system to determine how we can link knowledge to action through governance.

Image Credit: Purvis, B., Mao, Y. & Robinson, D. Three pillars of sustainability: in search of conceptual origins. Sustain Sci 14, 681–695 (2019).


Systems thinking provides a framework for assessing sustainability through a wider lens, thinking about the system as a whole, and addressing challenging questions. Who is responsible for the issue? Who is it hurting the most? Should humans intervene? Do humans have a responsibility to intervene? If we intervene, what unintended consequences might incur? What tipping points might we breach if we don’t intervene?


Figure 1: A framework for understanding and pursuing sustainability (Matson et al, 2011)


Systems thinking draws upon these frameworks of capital assets to consider tipping points, feedbacks, and down or upstream impacts that are often not apparent when we talk about a specific camp of knowledge or an explicit issue at hand. For example, let’s consider the case of atmospheric carbon dioxide. CO₂ levels in our atmosphere have been increasing as a direct result of human activity, namely burning of fossil fuels. There are many projects and growing areas of research that focus on negative emission technologies that aim to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Before we even discuss these technologies, something to consider is where is the tipping point for atmospheric CO₂? It is important to think about the degrees of warming that emissions will cause, and the tipping point of where a certain amount of carbon is emitted into the atmosphere that the positive feedback loop of the greenhouse effect will self-perpetuate, causing rapid and irreversible warming. Keeping this in mind can help to better frame the discussion around negative emission technologies in research and policy agendas. One such technology, called direct air capture (DAC), pulls ambient air directly from the atmosphere to remove CO₂. Recent tax credit reforms from the Inflation Reduction Act now provide political and financial support for continued research and development of DAC. This raises a number of concerns from many environmental justice groups on whether this technology can and should be a part of the Just Transition away from the use of fossil fuels in an extractive economy and towards a more sustainable one, or if it is simply perpetuating fossil fuel use. On the other hand, DAC might be a better option than technologies that directly perpetuate fossil fuel emissions, as DAC captures legacy CO₂ already emitted into the atmosphere. There are many questions about the upstream impact of sourcing of materials as well as the downstream impacts of cost, location, impact on surrounding communities from an air and water quality perspective, and role in helping the Just Transition in offering social and economic opportunities for those that have been historically harmed by the fossil fuel industry. This will require the work of scientists, yes, but also economists, governments, social scientists, engineers, and community members – the entire set of actors within the system. It requires a level of systems thinking that can lay out the issues and possibilities of positive change for all actors.


Image Credit: Scott Evans, Unsplashed


I’ve seen this need for a wider lens in my own research, previously in environmental engineering, and more presently in earth systems science. During my undergraduate studies as an environmental engineer, I focused primarily on wastewater, quantifying fugitive methane emissions from wastewater treatment plants, and the implications for capture and removal of these emissions. In addition to doing the actual research of measuring and modeling emission factors from the plants, I talked with plant engineers, other researchers, and community members surrounding the wastewater treatment plants. There are many lenses with which one could approach this issue. The environmental justice lens is more immediate. How can we mitigate the negative impacts for surrounding communities that are historically oppressed by air pollution? One could also think about the circular economy of waste, when it quickly becomes less about the quantification of methane being emitted into the atmosphere, and more about identifying solutions on a systems scale. At the same time, it’s important to think about alleviating past and present environmental injustices for future generations, and where we can have meaningful wastewater interventions that turn it into a resource. And finally, as we think about decarbonization globally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by replacing fossil fuel energy with renewables, we have to consider the tipping points along the timeline (how quickly do we need to accomplish this (in 5 years? 50? Yesterday?), implications, and unintended consequences.


Image Credit: Kenny Eliason, Unsplashed


I’ve given an example of the need for systems thinking in a real world technology development and my own research, but this framework can also be applied to how we approach education. Most importantly, if at the high school level (or earlier), we saw an integration across class subjects and topics such that the things a student was learning in their chemistry class could be applied to their history class, which could be applied to their economics class, how might this begin to train the systems-level thinkers of the next generation to solve these systems-level sustainability problems? My favorite example of applying systems thinking to education is from critical ecologist Suzanne Pierre, who gives the example of chemical fertilizer. Industrial fertilizer that co-opted the Green Revolution utilizes the Haber-Bosch process to combine elemental nitrogen and hydrogen to form ammonia, a plant-available form of nitrogen. If students learned about this process in their chemistry classes, and how plants use nitrogen in their biology class, at the same time that they were learning about the Green Revolution in their history class, they might be able to draw connections between the fields in other topics that have scientific and historical significance. Talking about the ecological damage of synthetic chemical fertilizers in an environmental science class at the same time as the costs and the post WWII economy is discussed in an economics class, could begin to plant the seeds that these subjects are not, and cannot be studied in vacuums. The environmental injustices pertaining to slavery and racial discrimination come to light, and it begins to unpack the fundamental question of how we currently produce food, and how we might produce food more sustainably in the future. This is just one example of how, through applying systems thinking to environmental science, it becomes much more than just environmental science. It sheds light on how we as humans interact with the world around us, and each other. Hopefully, it can begin to weave together solutions that address issues at their core, avoid unintended consequences, and maintain inclusive inter- and intragenerational well being for us all.





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