Understanding the Problem: Systems Thinking
As we begin to dive into the issue of climate change and how animal agriculture has contributed to this process, we need to understand how different parts of this problem influence each other within the entire system. This way of thinking is referred to as systems thinking. A system is a group of interacting or interrelated entities that form a complex whole. Systems thinking is a type of approach to problem solving that views problems as parts of the overall system. To fully understand the successes and problems of a system, and to be able to propose a solution, we need to look closer at each element of the complex whole and the relationships between each part.
In systems thinking we need to consider the causes of this issue, who is being affected, potential solutions, and the limitations of those solutions. We also want to consider how each of these things affect and are linked to one another. Each of these parts contribute in different ways to a better system or to an unhealthy system. In analyzing and understanding each part of this problem we can begin to understand the problem as a whole and create valuable solutions.
Environmental and social issues are often a side effect of economic systems looking to grow and advance, while being efficient and as least costly as possible. Starting with the Green Revolution in the 50s and 60s, the agriculture industry took off in producing as much as it can in the least amount of time, with the smallest economic cost. With technological advancements and increasing demands, the animal agriculture industry has expanded in size, power, and presence. Over the years, the agriculture industry has recognized the great amount of resources required to raising livestock at this demand level. An excessive amount of land, water, and resources is required. To combat this matter and increase economic vitality, cuts were made to regulation of production safety, workers safety, waste management, and emissions, while also sacrificing the health and safety of animals and consumers. These choices of prioritization have created a economically “successful” system that poorly affects social and environmental systems as a result.
In looking at this issue in a systematic way, I created a sketch. This sketch explored the causes of climate change caused by animal agriculture, potential solutions, how those solutions impact others, and possible limitations to these solutions. In doing this activity, I recognized many, many causes of the problem and strong relationships between consumers, agricultural companies, policy, and individual action. In many ways I concluded this system as being driven by consumers and stakeholders. The main goal of this system is to produce an abundant amount of cheap animal products. In functioning to achieve this there are unintended consequences. These externalities include excessive greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, and deforestation. These side effects further lead to the issue of eutrophication, natural disasters, and depleted health and economic security of marginalized communities. This system, although, functioning in a way that accomplishes its main goal, produces many externalities that need to be recognized as a part of the whole system.
In my sketch, policy as a solution interacts with many of the causes, the impactors, the limitations, and the other solutions identified. In recognizing this, I have conclude that the greatest opportunity for change lies in the hands of policy makers and consumers. Policy is heavily linked to and held back by investments in this fast-cheap-high-yield-producing industry. A lack of advocacy and education can also be linked to a set back in changing policy. This activity has further pushed me to recognize the power of the individual. At the end of the day this system is created for the consumer and therefore the consumer has the power to demand and create change. As individual actions come together to become the actions of communities and larger and larger units, that is when we can see begin to see a change in these causes directly and a change in policy further eliminating the causes. Increased education and advocacy needs to do a little catching up and then change can begin to spread like wildfire.
In completing this activity, I struggled to clearly define the extent of this system. Systematic thinking, although, looking at one system and exploring its elements, requires stepping far out of the initial system. In reaching this problem, I recognized I was truly accomplishing systems thinking, as I began to perceive every part of this system and the parts of many other systems as interacting and being interconnected in at least one way or another. System thinking requires a great deal of “zooming out” that can then allow us to zoom back in and understand the issue on a more holistic level.