OneThing27: the snowball effect

Systems Thinking and Sustainability . . . creating a dominant loop

In a few scant weeks, educators from around the country will gather in Tucson to harness the power of change.  And their schools will never be the same.

In the exuberant tradition of Donella Meadows (Thinking in Systems), teachers, administrators, change agents, citizen champions, and students will come together to study two very big ideas: systems thinking and sustainability.  Together at last.

So, what’s the big deal anyway?  People talk about systems thinking as some kind of elixir, some breakthrough idea that will save humanity.  Just what is it?

Consider . . . the world we walk around in, where we find love, and raise families, and create communities is always moving, always shifting: the natural world and our human built structures of farms and cities and organizations.  We can see the elements of those systems: moms and dads, families, schools, leaders; rivers and trees and fields of wheat and roads and banks and stores and churches and governments and schools.  Things you can count.

What is harder to see are the interconnections among those elements – the flow of people and jobs and transportation and finances and materiel that constitute a single system of, say, a school.  These interconnections, obviously, shift through time and shift at differing rates – job opportunities open up (or are lost) and families move in (or out), bringing more (or fewer) students to a school, that now must build (or shutter) classrooms, add (or subtract) transportation, purchase (or store) more books, hire (or lay off) more staff to handle the changes. Housing must be built for the families moving in; and the housing requires roads and water lines and electricity. The school and housing require some measure of public safety.

Since the causality – with a systems view – is circular, the various flows of material and information among the elements is continuous: people always age, students always graduate, costs always fluctuate, trees grow and then decay, lynx hunt rabbits who eat the vegetation which draw vital nutrients from the soils and water and sunshine.

Each of these flows can increase or decrease or fluctuate in a kind of steady-state. As these overlap – the system cycle of, say, sweet grass in a meadow is different from the system cycle of lynx and hares – we begin to understand the relationships that bind them together.

As there is a shift in one element of that system, the change then redounds throughout the interconnected system, causing slightly different feedback through those elements . . . and at different time intervals.  We can see, then, how a system sustains itself.

You who are headed to Tucson . . . my hat’s off to you! On this Fourth of July when we celebrate longstanding cultural memes – liberty, democracy, civic responsibility – let’s imagine still another cultural meme – sustaining our natural and social world.  We will have to drive this idea deep into our educational and social cultures for it to take hold, for teachers and administrators to pass it on generation to generation.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll write about systems thinking and sustainability, how we teachers create a reinforcing feedback loop, small at first but dominant over time, so that we create the change we hope to see.

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2 comments on “OneThing27: the snowball effect

  1. Pingback: OneThing29: systems thinking tools give sustainability deep traction « itsallonething

  2. Pingback: OneThing28: sustainably fit for our times « itsallonething

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