State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

For Sustainability, Rethink Our Systems

By Jeffrey Potent

Increasingly, systems thinking is embraced as a critical framework for approaching sustainability and resilience. Such an approach helps us look beyond an analytical, cause-and-effect mode of doing business that often only yields short-term solutions and unintended consequences.

The quest for human wellbeing for all without compromising the natural systems that support life on earth will not be achieved by tweaking dials and applying fixes here and there. It will require new ways of experiencing, engaging and acting that concurrently build on existing accomplishments and institutions while opening everything to exhaustive inquiry and reconsideration. It embraces the new while bowing to the elders and seeks answers from experts as well as from those well out of the mainstream of our ever expanding global community.

A systems approach to sustainability (shorthand here for sustainable development, resilience and regenerative economy) incorporates three elements:

1. Learning to see the world in systems;
2. Applying this systems approach to collaboration and knowledge creation; and
3. Developing knowledge systems to address the far-reaching challenges of sustainable development.

In a recent article on systems and sustainability, I profiled these elements as a foundation for this journey (“Employing a Knowledge Systems Approach to Create a Sustainable Future”). In the time since this article, systems approaches have gained greater attention, with a notable new focus on how a systems approach can help create the regenerative economy.

Graphic: Global Footprint Network
Graphic: Global Footprint Network

A recent book entitled Regenerative Capitalism by John Fullerton (available free online as a pdf) takes on the bold task of envisioning a marketplace governed by mutual benefit and a healthy balance between cooperation and competition. Some may take this notion as fanciful in an age of run-amuck banks, falsified regulatory “self”-compliance and intensive lobbying for the status quo, or far worse. However, once the systems lens is firmly affixed, it becomes hard to imagine how our economy and, more broadly, our society can continue without such a dramatic shift in perspective and action.

However, tasting fine hors-d’oeuvre at the door of a great hall hardly constitutes a nutritious meal. We must walk in, take our seats at the dining table, and become part of the evening’s festivities. Many people from across the political spectrum see the economic, environmental and social troubles that lie ahead on a course defined by business as usual. They are anxious to share and embrace others’ perspectives as they themselves begin, in the words of Donella Meadows, “thinking in systems.”

Just as we are now developing “serious games” as important learning tools, I invite you to join this serious party to explore and map out our abundant future through this systems lens. Starting Oct. 13, the Earth Institute Certificate Program in Conservation and Environmental Sustainability will offer “Systems Thinking to Facilitate a Regenerative Economy” to explore this exciting approach to sustainable development and test out a systems approach to collaboration and learning. I invite you to join us on this journey.

Jeffrey Potent is an adjunct professor at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and the Earth Institute Center for Environmental Sustainability.

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