3. How Can a Systems Perspective Help Our Understanding?

Systems Perspective: Understanding complex systems such as food systems and climate, and the links between them, can present difficulties for students and adult learners. In this essay, we explore ways that systems thinking can help to overcome some of these difficulties.

There are solutions to the major problems of our time, write Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, “but they require a radical shift in our perceptions, our thinking, our values…. Over the past 30 years it has become clear that a full understanding of these issues requires nothing less than a radically new conception of life…. This new conception of life involves a new kind of thinking—thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context. In science, this way of thinking is known as ‘systemic thinking’ or ‘systems thinking.’”1

Shifts in Perspective

According to Capra and Luisi, systems thinking entails several shifts in perspective:

The shift from the parts to the whole. “Living systems are integrated wholes whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts. Their essential, or ‘system,’ properties are properties of the whole, which none of the parts have.”2

Seeing the whole helps correct misconceptions that rise from perceiving only parts of the system. For instance, some observers have argued that higher CO2 levels resulting from burning fossil fuels and other human activities will benefit agriculture because plants thrive on CO2, while a warmer climate could expand agriculture to high latitudes that are presently too cold. Researchers reporting in Plos Biology in 2015, taking a more whole-systems approach, concluded that when the interaction of factors affected by climate change, including temperature, soil water content, and sunlight levels, is taken into account, the potential benefits are substantially outweighed by the negative consequences, resulting in fewer days worldwide with suitable climates for plant growth. “If carbon emissions remain on their current trajectory (the status quo), the losses of plant production are likely to be far greater than any gains when examined at a global scale, and a substantial number of people, especially those who are most impoverished, will be at greater risk.”3

“Externalities” are another instance of the importance of seeing the whole. Externalities are costs borne by individuals (or society, or the whole planet) beyond the persons or organizations whose actions create the costs. Pollution is one example. The costs of pollution burden far more of society than the industries that profit from pollution-causing activities. Writes journalist Mark Shapiro, “Just as an optical illusion tricks the eye into seeing something that’s not there, traditional accounting diverts our attention from invisible costs; we see only profits. Keeping these costs a mystery has been fundamental to our economic growth.”4

With respect to the food system, for instance, we need to recognize the costs of climate change due to various actions and decisions throughout the whole seed-to-table-to-waste system, and be sensitive to who profits from the actions and who ends up bearing the costs.

The shift from objects to relationships. “In the systems view,” explains Capra, “the ‘objects’ of study are networks of relationship, embedded in larger networks. An ecosystem is not just a collection of species, but is a community.”5 For example, living components of soil, often too small to be seen by the naked eye, constitute an interdependent community which plays a significant role in sequestering carbon. Effectively responding to climate change requires more than just reducing the level of greenhouse gas emissions, though that is important. It has to do as well with building healthy soil communities and human communities.

The late systems analyst Donella Meadows wrote, “A system isn’t just any old collection of things. A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something. If you look at that definition closely for a minute, you can see that a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose…. Elements do not have to be physical things. Intangibles are also elements of a system: In a university, school pride and academic prowess are two intangibles that can be very important elements of the system.”6

Considering systems as having purposes can shed light on the discussion of food systems and climate change. What, for instance, is the “purpose” of the food system? To feed people, obviously—but the system also provides livelihoods for farmers, farm workers, truck drivers, grocers, and school food service staffs; it anchors the economies of communities; it serves as a focus for family life; it creates profits for stockholders in agribusinesses that patent seeds, manufacture pesticides, and produce biofuels; it serves as a means for exerting social and political control; it increases life’s pleasures; it celebrates and maintains cultural traditions and identities; and so on. And these purposes may sometimes be in competition, so that maximizing any of them can diminish others.

The shift from contents to patterns. Faced with complexity, we can identify certain patterns that occur in different settings. Understanding how a particular pattern works helps us understand similar patterns when we encounter them somewhere else.

Here are a few patterns pertinent to food systems and climate change:

Cycles: Matter cycles through the web of life. Particularly important cycles for climate change include the carbon, nitrogen, and water cycles.

Cycles are important to the climate change discussion in part because of the conservation of matter. For instance, the amount of carbon on Earth is constant. It won’t disappear. It can’t be destroyed. It is essential to every form of life we know. In that sense, it is impossible to get “beyond carbon.” Carbon has to be somewhere within its cycle (or cycles)—in molecules such as the greenhouse gases CO2 or CH4 in the atmosphere; in the ocean; in living organisms above- or belowground; in humus in soil; in minerals such as limestone; in fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas; and so on. If we want to reduce the level of the carbon-containing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the carbon in their molecules must go, and be kept, somewhere. It is here that the food system, especially living plants and soil, can play a vital role.

Flows: As energy is converted from one form to another, some of it is dispersed as heat. Therefore, an open system is dependent on a constant flow of energy. Most of the energy driving ecological cycles on Earth originates in the sun (a “fundamental fact of life” identified by Capra).7 Since the industrial revolution, however, our energy use exceeds what we capture from the sun, and we depend on burning fossil fuels in order to utilize solar energy captured long ago. When we burn fossil fuels, we release carbon that enters the atmosphere as CO2; atmospheric CO2 concentration has increased by a third since the beginning of the industrial revolution.8 Many processes within food systems contribute to our use of fossil fuels, including manufacturing chemical fertilizers and pesticides; running farm machinery; and processing, transporting, storing, and preparing food products.

Stocks and flows: “Stocks” are accumulations that have built up over time. They can be of material, or information, or even ideas or feelings. A stock might be money in the bank, a population, the water level of a lake. “Your reserve of good will toward others or your supply of hope that the world can be better are both stocks,” writes Donella Meadows. Importantly for climate, the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are a stock.9 Stocks’ levels change through inflows and outflows (deposits and withdrawals, births and deaths, filling and draining, growth and decay).

According to Meadows, “If you understand the dynamics of stocks and flows—their behavior over time—you understand a great deal about the behavior of complex systems. And if you have had much experience with a bathtub, you understand the dynamics of stocks and flows.”10

If the rates of inflow and outflow are equal, the stock’s level stays constant. If inflow is faster than outflow, the stock increases. If outflow is faster than inflow, the stock goes down. That seems obvious, but failure to understand this pattern can lead to misconceptions. In 2016, Joseph Romm of ClimateProgress used stocks and flows, and the bathtub metaphor, to respond to his readers who were perplexed by news stories reporting that global CO2 levels were soaring, although emissions rates had become flat.

The readers were confusing a flow (emissions) with a stock (CO2 level). As long as emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere are greater than the amount removed during the same time, even if the emissions rate stays the same or even decreases, the atmospheric CO2 level will rise. “Studies find,” Romm wrote, “that many, if not most, people are confused about this, including highly informed people, mistakenly believing that if we stop increasing emissions, then global warming will stop.”11 An effective strategy will need ultimately to both reduce the flow of emissions dramatically and reduce the stock of greenhouse gases, for example by sequestering carbon through agricultural practices.

A stock takes time to increase or decrease, because flows take time. That helps explain some of the obstacles to be overcome in order to change from industrial agriculture to more climate-friendly practices: a variety of stocks—equipment, capital, knowledge, market demand, infrastructure, etc.—must be increased, and there will be time lags while that happens.

Feedback loops: A feedback loop occurs when changes in a stock affect the flows into and out of that same stock.12 Such feedback can take many forms. Consider what happens when room temperature (a stock) rises above a level you desire. The response may be mechanical (a thermostat that you set to your desired temperature—the “target temperature”—turns on the air conditioning). The response may be autonomic (you begin to perspire, without any conscious decision on your part). It may be conscious (you turn on a fan). When the system receives feedback that temperature has fallen, the thermostat switches off the AC, or you stop perspiring, or you turn off the fan.

Feedback loops also help explain how some systems maintain balance and other systems spiral out of control. Balancing feedback loops (sometimes called “negative” or “self-correcting” loops), such as in a thermostat, stabilize the stock level. Capra and Luisi describe how the entire CO2 cycle, “linking volcanoes to silicate rock weathering, to soil bacteria, to oceanic algae, to limestone sediments, and back to volcanoes…acts as a giant feedback loop, which contributes to regulation of the Earth’s temperature.”13 It is this system that is being overwhelmed by being overloaded with greenhouse gases faster than it can bring itself back into balance.

Reinforcing feedback loops (also called “positive,” “amplifying,” or “self-multiplying”) can result in healthy growth (“virtuous cycles”) or runaway destruction (“vicious cycles”). A virtuous cycle: improved school meals attract more students, resulting in greater income for the school district, which permits it to buy better food, which attracts more participation, etc. A vicious circle: rising temperatures and longer warm seasons lead to more use of refrigeration, which utilizes more energy, which results in the release of more greenhouse gases, which leads to higher temperatures, which requires more refrigeration, which utilizes more energy, and so on.

Nonlinear Change

Complex systems are characterized by nonlinear relationships, in which causes and effects are not proportional.

According to Capra and Luisi, “The fact that the basic pattern of life is a network means that the relationships among the members of an ecological community are nonlinear, involving multiple feedback loops. Linear chains of cause and effect exist very rarely in ecosystems. Thus, a disturbance will not be limited to a single effect but is likely to spread out in ever-widening patterns. It may even be amplified by interdependent feedback loops, which may completely obscure the original source of the disturbance.”14

Nonlinear change explains why if something is good (for instance CO2, which feeds plants), more is not necessarily better. And it suggests how change can be simultaneously “too slow” and “too fast.” Change occurs at a seemingly manageable pace until it reaches a tipping point where it lurches into a catastrophic and potentially irreversible new state. Among the consequences of climate change that some are suggesting may be susceptible to reaching such a tipping point are loss of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice; boreal forest dieback; Amazon rainforest dieback; and loss of permafrost leading to Arctic methane release.15

Solving for Pattern

In his essay “Solving for Pattern,” Wendell Berry describes how single-focus solutions worsen problems they were intended to solve or cause ramifying sets of new problems.16 When farmers “solve” reduced soil fertility by applying more synthetic fertilizer, they disrupt the soil’s living ecosystem; increase dependence on chemicals; reduce water retention; and release nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas. However, solutions that focus on improving soil health solve for pattern and support the health of the whole system, causing a ramifying series of solutions: they simultaneously sequester carbon, enhance fertility, increase water retention, improve the nutritional value of crops, protect biodiversity, build resilience against such climate change impacts as drought, and enhance food security.17

Scientific Modeling

Finally, scientific modeling is the most sophisticated tool for understanding complex systems. According to the National Research Council’s A Framework for K–12 Science Education, “For more complex systems, mathematical representations of physical systems are used to create computer simulations, which enable scientists to predict the behavior of otherwise intractable systems—for example, the effects of increasing atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide on agriculture in different regions of the world.”18 It is important that students understand that current projections of the possible future trajectory of climate change are often based on such models, which consist of thousands of mathematical calculations and solve equations of fluid dynamics utilizing some of the world’s most advanced computers.19 The Skeptical Science website describes some of the capacity and limitations of current computer climate models:

Climate models are mathematical representations of the interactions between the atmosphere, oceans, land surface, ice—and the sun. This is clearly a very complex task, so models are built to estimate trends rather than events. For example, a climate model can tell you it will be cold in winter, but it can’t tell you what the temperature will be on a specific day—that’s weather forecasting. Climate trends are weather, averaged out over time—usually 30 years. Trends are important because they eliminate—or “smooth out”— single events that may be extreme, but quite rare.

Climate models have to be tested to find out if they work. We can’t wait for 30 years to see if a model is any good or not; models are tested against the past, against what we know happened. If a model can correctly predict trends from a starting point somewhere in the past, we could expect it to predict with reasonable certainty what might happen in the future. So all models are first tested in a process called hindcasting…. Where models have been running for sufficient time, they have also been proved to make accurate predictions….

All models have limits—uncertainties—for they are modelling complex systems. However, all models improve over time, and with increasing sources of real-world information such as satellites, the output of climate models can be constantly refined to increase their power and usefulness. Climate models have already predicted many of the phenomena for which we now have empirical evidence.20