This page was created to support and challenge students taking STOCKSCH 379 – Agricultural Systems Thinking. Learning to be a systems thinker will not directly help you learn how to grow food, but it just may be the most important class you will ever take….
Let me explain….
First, the class is called “agricultural” systems thinking simply because I spend most of my time thinking about food and farming stuff. But the systems thinking tools I teach can be used to better understand any complex system. Although this skill is critical to advancing our global sustainability agenda, classes in systems thinking are missing from most university programs today.
As I wrote in “Learn to Think Like a Mountain”….
“Our educational system trains students to think in a linear, logical, analytical way – at best, or simply to memorize disconnected facts – at worst. Graduates are well-prepared to take exams and write papers, but not to think creatively and systemically about climate change, war, poverty, hunger, environmental degradation etc.”
Most students are ill-prepared to understand the complex problems we have created by our single-minded focus on economic viability, which we pursue at the expense of environmental integrity and social justice. Industrial agricultural systems, which are found everywhere on the planet, damage the environment, exploit humans, and manipulate other species to benefit the short term interests of those who have money and power. In doing so, we produce lots of relatively cheap food! In the United States, we expend less than 10% of our income on food but our food system cannot be considered truly sustainable if we factor in all three critical sustainability objectives; economic vitality, environmental integrity, and social justice.
Our short term success growing food for the past 50 years has made us overly confident. We think we know what we are doing! We bend Mother Nature to do our will – but we lack the capacity to control the unintended consequences of our actions. The results produced by the industrial agricultural system are many and complex, both positive and negative:
- lots of cheap food
- radical global climate change
- the convenience of food available every day
- environmental degradation and energy depletion
- a tremendous diversity of food products available on the shelves
- low wages and poor or no health benefits for most food system workers
- record profits for food corporations like PepsiCo and food retailers like Walmart
Is industrial agriculture successful?
The industrialized agricultural system is VERY successful at its primary purpose (result #7 above) making rich people richer. Some of the other socially positive outcomes of the industrial system (1, 3 & 5) are nice “side effects” of the primary purpose. And clearly the socially and environmentally negative consequences (2, 4, 6) are not intentional. Since they are “external” to our single-minded vision and linear understanding of the purpose of the food system, they are unseen. Systems thinking allows us to see how our actions can have unintended consequences.
Agricultural Systems Thinking can help us to:
- discover the root causes of our most perplexing agricultural problems,
- learn how to build resilience into food and farming systems,
- see how our linear thinking creates our problems, and
- ultimately how to manage complex systems for multiple objectives (economic, environmental AND social) and thus move us toward a more sustainable and truly successful agriculture .
The “ah-hah” moment
When we learn how to use causal loop diagrams (one of the systems tools) to examine why our “fixes” to a particular problem are not working – and in fact may be making the problem worse – we can see that an unseen feedback loop is at work. For example, those people who have an investment in the status quo often cite the global corporate food system as the OBVIOUS solution to hunger and malnutrition. However, the “fix that fails systems archetype” helps us see that corporate control of the food supply is a root cause not the solution to global hunger.
Frankly, linear thinking is dangerous…. because it always leads us to the wrong answer to problems from a sustainability perspective! Complex, real world problems will never be solved with simple, linear, “common-sense” thinking.
At first, systems-based solutions appear counter-intuitive (because we are so well-trained at linear, simple cause and effect, thinking). But when we practice using these tools, we can begin to have the big “ah-hah” moments of deep understanding of complex problems. Then – just maybe – we will have a chance of improving problematic situations that have plagued us for centuries.
How do we learn to think about complex systems?
Our disciplinary-focused educational system does not prepare us to understand complexity or manage for multiple objectives very effectively. Again, from “Learn to Think Like a Mountain“:
Systems thinking tools are needed to begin to understand why these systemic problems are so resistant to our efforts. Systems thinking is a way of understanding complex real-world situations such as those often encountered in sustainable food and farming careers.
Industrial agriculture represents a very complex global system of producers, shippers, manufacturers, retailers, processors, and financiers. The linear and logical analysis process taught in most universities is simply not adequate to understand this system. Systems Thinking tools such as the “Mind Map” pictured below are needed.
So where do we look for a solution?
In STOCKSCH 379 – Agricultural Systems Thinking, students are offered a toolbox of thinking skills that allow them to integrate knowledge across multiple disciplines. This class fulfills a General Education requirement at the University of Massachusetts Amherst called “Integrative Experience.” According to a statement on Integrative Learning from the Association for American Colleges and Universities & the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, March 2004;
“Integrative learning comes in many varieties: connecting skills and knowledge from multiple sources and experiences; applying theory to practice in various settings; utilizing diverse and even contradictory points of view; and, understanding issues and positions contextually.”
Some examples of systems thinking tools that contribute to integrative learning may be found in some of my other blog posts:
- Lessons in Agricultural Systems Thinking
- Digging For Root Causes
- The Mind Map
- Fixes That Fail
- The Power of Mental Models
- Resilience in Agricultural Systems
- Worldview, Clocks and Trees
- Systems Thinking and Hierarchy
- Symbols Matter
- Change How We Think
There will be no sustainable agriculture until we become more skilled at systems thinking!
Check out our UMass Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences degree program and our Online Certificate Program at the University of Massachusetts to prepare yourself to work on issues like this.