Sustainability Education

Systems Thinking Tools: the mind map

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My last blog, Learning to Think Like a Mountain, introduced “systems thinking” as a useful means of understanding why “linear thinking” is inadequate when a problem under study: 1) is complex; 2) involves multiple relationships; and/or 3) involves human decision-making and uncertainty.

This post introduces one of the simplest and most useful of all the systems thinking tools, the mind map.  There are many variations of this tool, including concept mapping and spider diagramming but they are all generally used to view multiple, complex (non-linear) relationships in a system.  One of the failures of industrial agriculture is the assumption that it functions as a machine, with inputs (seeds, sun, fertilizer) that flow into a farm and outputs (food, fiber) flowing out.

This simple, linear understanding (which Annie Leonard described so well in the popular video The Story of Stuff) is inadequate as we work toward an agroecological frame for agricultural sustainability.  The mechanistic, linear view will rarely account for questions about environmental justice, decay of soil health, offsite impacts of pesticides, or vitality of rural communities, which may be discounted as “externalities.”  These perspectives, will on the other hand, be considered using systems thinking.

The mind map is also a nice tool for telling a story, such as how a household designed on permaculture (or ecological) principles is likely to view a “cup of tea.”

Instructions

To get started, you simply pick a topic and depict it either in words or a symbol in the middle of a page.  Here is a mind map of how to mind map.

Viewing the entire diagram, most people can easily get a sense of what a mind map is all about rather quickly.  Some suggestions on how to get started are:

  1. Start in the center with a description of the topic or theme
  2. Write whatever comes to mind next as a “sub-topic” and draw a connecting line, do it again, and again….
  3. Use images and symbols as much as possible
  4. Select key words and print clearly
  5. Each word/image should sit on its own line or inside its own bubble
  6. The lines should be connected, starting from the central image.  Important connections between concepts in different sub-section should be indicated
  7. Use colors to code for key ideas or sub-systems (sections of the map)
  8. Use thinker lines to indicate more important connections
  9. Put the most important ideas are near the center (its a hierarchy of ideas)
  10. Do it your own way!

Using Mind Maps in Agricultural Systems

Mind maps are useful tools for beginning to understand a complex system (like a farm).  Here are a few examples:

walthamfields

 

sheepmindmap

Why Mind Map?

Mind maps are particularly useful for:

  • understanding complex problems
  • taking notes
  • initial stages of designing a project
  • team collaboration
  • creative expression
  • presenting complex material in a concise format
  • team building or synergy creating activity

There are lot of mind mapping software packages available, but I find the best way to learn to do this is drawing by hand.  Here is an example of a hand drawn mind map on a local project, Grow Food Northampton.

Mind maps are particularly useful for describing a farm because they are complex systems with multiple relationships managed by humans.  There is no “right or wrong” way to do this.  Whatever works is fine.

Why not give it a try?

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Learn to “think like a mountain”

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Aldo Leopold’s famous suggestion that only a mountain has lived long enough to “listen objectively to the howl of a wolf” reminds us that to understand how ecosystems function, we need to “think like a mountain.”  If you’ve never heard this quote, its time to read A Sand County Almanac!  And if you are a student of agricultural ecology or a related field at the University of Massachusetts, perhaps its time to take a class in Agricultural Systems Thinking.

I’ve not offered this class for the past few years, but I’ve decided to resurrect it next fall (2012) because so many students in the Sustainable Food and Farming major at UMass seem interested in creating a way of farming consistent with ecological principles.  The dominant form of farming in developed countries, industrial agriculture, violates just about every ecological principle we know in an attempt to maximize short-term financial success.

Soil and fertilizer from farms drain down the Mississippi creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico

Leopold was hard on industrial farming in his 1949 essay in which he wrote that farmers and ranchers have “…not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”  We also have dead zones in the oceans, anti-biotic resistant bacteria developing from factory farms, nitrates in the groundwater, herbicides in the surface water, floods and drought, and on and on and on…..

The solution is a more sustainable agriculture designed in ways that are consistent with ecological principles.  It is unlikely however that we will be successful in developing such techniques until we learn to think like a mountain and come to appreciate the profound interconnectedness of the components of an ecosystem (either natural or agricultural) over both space and time.

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.

These intractable problems won’t budge in response to linear thinking.  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.

Systems tools are needed to complement more traditional scientific approaches when a problem under study: 1) is complex; 2) involves multiple relationships; and/or 3) involves human decision-making.  Agricultural Systems Thinking (STOCKSCH 379) will introduce students to systems tools for unraveling complexity and integrating their learning from previous courses and experience.

I’ve written about this in Digging for the Root Cause(s) of Global Crises.  My intention is to write more extensively about systems thinking in my next few blog posts.  I’d appreciate your own thoughts and feedback in the comments box below.  But for now, lets just remember Leopold’s famous description of the howl of the wolf…..

“A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call.”

 And his final thought:

“In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.”

Systems thinking provides us with the tools to learn to…

think like a mountain.

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A conceptual foundation for teaching “Sustainability” courses

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Have you noticed the word “sustainability” showing up in the titles of many new courses at universities and colleges these days?  I surely have at the University of Massachusetts – and for the most part I think it is a good thing.  It worries me a bit however, when I hear my faculty colleagues talking about sustainability as if its little more than environmentalism.  This blog was written in preparation for a Five College Sustainability Studies Seminar.

My observations on the emergence of sustainability as an academic discipline are flavored by my own experiences in sustainable agriculture.  When this field of study appeared in early 1980’s it was largely driven by the thinking and interest of farmers.  The academy first ignored the call for more research and education on agricultural sustainability.  This was followed by ridicule, derision, and eventually acceptance (helped along by a source of federal funding).

Over the next 25 years, sustainability studies spread throughout the university and today we even have a major national association called The American Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.   Things have certainly changed!

A few faculty (perhaps who were not part of the early debates about the nature of sustainability studies) may be inclined to attach the word sustainability as an adjective in front of the title of a course they have been teaching for years.  This blog post challenges us all to develop our own intellectual foundation for teaching sustainability courses before we name them “sustainable”…… here is a brief look at mine.

Almost everyone accepts some version of the “sustainability triangle” which includes 3 “E’s”…

  1. Environment
  2. Economy
  3. Equity (as in social equity or justice)

While the words used by different communities of scholars or practitioners may differ, we often see symbolic representations of these three basic concepts associated with the word sustainability.

Here are a few more visual representations of this concept

These commonly depicted and generally accepted symbolic representations are useful, as they clearly require us to consider social equity or justice (often overlooked) as part of the sustainability equation.  However, they all have a common flaw…. they each assume competition among equally important perspectives.  This limited view allows us to negotiate tradeoffs between environmental quality and economic vitality, for example.

How often have we heard a business executive decry that “we just can’t afford to protect the environment today.”  Or perhaps a congressperson claim that some social justice legislation is a “job killer.”  As long as we accept these symbolic representations of sustainability, I suspect economic considerations will always win out over environmental or equity concerns.

But what if we took the same three symbolic circles and put them inside of each other, with the economy at the center? 

We might then begin to understand that we can’t sustain a healthy economy within a sick society, nor a healthy society within a sick environment.  This symbolic representation of the same three concepts shifts the relationship they have to each other.  This is the representation of the three perspectives we need for the long term, which is what sustainability is supposed to be all about!

This picture changes everything!

We can not afford to have “either/or” conversations about money and society – nor about society and the environment.  We must begin to see that the economy is thoroughly embedded in society and the environment and change the assumption that it is okay to grow an economy by exploiting people and the natural world…..  this cannot be sustained.

Does this mean that the environment is more important than the economy?  NO!  It means that they are each critical to each other but there is a “directionality” to our sense of purpose.  In the study of living systems we learn to look to the “smaller” circles for function and the larger circles for purpose.  That is, human society can look to the economy as a tool to a serve a higher purpose, such as a healthy community and livable natural world.

This only makes sense if we see human nature as an integral part of “mother nature.”  Understanding that humans are apart of (rather than a part from) nature and subject to the “laws of Mother Nature” allows us to know who we are and where we fit in the world.  It gives us a foundation upon which to explore the big questions, like “who am I” and “why am I here?”  Students and teachers studying sustainability should be challenged by these questions in ways that are engaging and purposeful.

But how do we teach our classes based on this holistic, integrated nature of sustainability?  For me, the answer is by telling stories!  In my sustainability classes, I invite academics and practitioners to share stories about their lives and work in ways that integrate our desire for financial security, community connections, and a livable natural world.

A course on sustainability cannot afford to be merely objective.  There are values and purpose embedded in the study of sustainability…. yes, even within the academy.  There are even times when I’ve engaged in discussions of  spirituality in class!  Here is why...

Continuing our exploration of the symbolism of circles within circles, lets now ask… “whats the next realm to consider that is larger than the natural environment?”

For some I suspect it might be the study of the universe.

For others, perhaps cosmology.

For me, its the divine….

Sustainability studies, for me, is an opportunity to explore our relationship with some power greater than finite ourselves.  And what could possibly be more important than that?

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What is your conceptual foundation for teaching sustainability?  Please share your thoughts in the comments box below….

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and perhaps comment below.  Also, you might be interested in a related blog post on this topic.  For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please check out my web page Just Food Now or John M. Gerber.  And go here for more of my World.edu posts.