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Sustainability in the Environmental Context

Discuss about the System thinking in developing sustainability challenges.

Sustainability in the environmental context refers to how the biological systems endure and maintain their diversity and productivity (O'Riordan, 2016). Sustainability concept extends beyond the categorized specialization and narrow ambit of reductionism. The fundamental aspect of the sustainability is underpinned on how to achieve sustainable development that vests on components of culture, ecology, economy, and political systems. Scientists have identified a number of challenges that blight the actualization of sustainable development, which are quintessentially multidimensional. Scholars refer to such impediments as ‘wicked problems,’ since defining them and finding an optimum solution for them— that meet all stakeholders’ interest— has proved difficult (Lönngren & Svanström, 2016).

This backlash stems from the complexity and dynamic nature of wicked problems: where by, in the process of finding a solution to one aspect, a series of other impediments resurfaces, which derails the quest to attain the optimum solution. Hence, wicked problems consist a combination of unique challenges that are that are indications of other problems (Lönngren & Svanström, 2016). In order to develop solutions that mitigate sustainability challenges, changing from the conventional way of thinking and improving our mental models is imperative: which is why system thinking is significant, to fill the existential vacuum. According to McIntyre-Mills (2017), systems thinking model has the efficacy develop effective solutions that can contain sustainability challenges. 

The leading principle in this study is entrenched on the notion that none of the wicked problem is existing in isolation, and that there is broad system of intertwined networks, which necessitates the application of the systems thinking approach to offer solutions to such problems (Sumit, 2012). This is because the any approach that conceptualizes the behaviour of system through assessing some parts of it in lieu of the whole system is inconsequential (Wilson and Van Haperen, 2015). The paper dissects the role of systems thinking in both local and global sustainability challenges by emphasizing on the wicked challenges of deforestation. Most importantly, I am in agreement with the assertion that “systems thinking is critical in in developing solutions to sustainable challenges,” taking into consideration its capacity to outline systematic way of addressing issues


Reynolds et al (2017) define systems thinking as inter-disciplinary concept that is used to envisage interrelationships and provide insight for various change patterns. While systems thinking model is an old concept, scholars still consider it as new and effective way of understanding as well as managing of existential complex challenges, in both local and global context (Reynolds et al., 2017). Through systems thinking, development planners can conceive and actualize systematic integration of economic aspects with social and environmental dimensions. According to O'Riordan (2016), systems thinking approach enhances optimization of management complexities better than other approaches. Besides, the approach involves visualization the entire picture and conceptualization of the wider context, at the same time taking into consideration different levels of interactions.

Wicked Environmental Sustainability Challenges

Sustainable development refers to the process of attaining sustainability by integrating economic systems with social and environmental systems to ameliorate the quality of living organisms, regenerate, and assimilate the capacity to enable the intra as well as intergenerational equity (Lönngren & Svanström, 2016). Ideally, this entails achieving socio-ecological balance social systems, environmental systems, and economic systems. One of the fundamental characteristics of the systems model is the existential of unique features that are critical for conceptualizing the system as a whole but loses meaning if the constituent parts are isolated (McIntyre-Mills, 2017). Each constituent of the system is a whole separately but becomes the part of the system when joined with another part. The interconnection of the system underscores the formation of complex supra-system (Moore, 2017). Another phenomenon is that the characteristic hierarchal system that is interwoven with other systems. The third unique feature is that there is communication process, feedback, as well as control system that fosters adjustments and adaptation during the times of stress (Lönngren & Svanström, 2016).

The systems approach presents multifaceted benefits. For instance, it ensures that certain peculiar properties are visible, that would have otherwise been invisible when visualizing the individual constituents using a reductionist method (Moldavska & Welo, 2015). The approach also improves the testing welfare of the entire system, which is unattainable through independent assessment of the parts. Considerably, this is significant because any effort applied in pursuit of adjusting the system may only be effectual if the elements of factors that influence the system— like stress that human activity exerts on the ecosystem— is entirely taken into consideration. Additionally, the capacity of sustaining overall perspective on the entire system helps to develop a facility that ‘anticipates and prevents,’ rather than the retrospective ‘treat and cure’ (Moldavska &Welo, 2015).

The environmental system presents life-supporting services —like ecosystem maintenance, climate regulation, and geothermal cycling— and renewable as well as exhaustible resources like oil energy and metal (Moore, 2017). Without these resources and services, socio-economic systems are unattainable. The economic system relies on the physical and human resources from social systems. However, the social system depends on the economic system to transform raw materials into consumable goods (Novick, 2017). Both social and economic systems interact on the market that is under the influence of socio-ecological conditions. The law of thermodynamics postulates that “matter and energy can neither be destroyed nor created though may be transformed” (Moldavska & Welo, 2015).

The Role of Systems Thinking in Developing Solutions for Sustainable Development

The socio-economic systems transform resources into wastes. According to Lönngren and Svanström (2016), the resources and wastes are at par; the difference value is entropic, however. The storage of waste products and assimilation occurs through the environmental system. The social, economic, and environmental systems are closely intertwined and to some extend overlap. Deforestation influences climate regulation, raw materials, and diversity. Similarly, pollution depletes available resources, jeopardizes human health, and disrupts ecosystem. Novick (2017) observes that climate change can affect adversely affect soil productivity as well as built environment.

The aforementioned integration phenomenon underscores the wholeness of the systems and the significance of the relationships within the system. Eco-development is the contemporary economic model that demonstrates the transformation from the traditional societies to the neoliberal affluent lifestyle via intensive resource consumption within the developed countries that the developing countries are emulating (Wilson & Van Haperen, 2015). This model is the reason behind increasing rate of global warming, which is inimical to the life-supporting systems. There is so much pressure on the environmental system, which is edging to the limit. This trend necessitates the sustainable development to contain the situation.

According to (Lönngren &Svanström, 2015) the criterion for analysing the community sustainability has to be system oriented and adaptable to the local condition. Besides, the approach should be widely applicable at both regional, municipal, and local level. The model should also be comprehensive in its identification steps and encompass sustainability issues that are significant to the stakeholders’ and community values and interests. Most importantly, it should be accessible to the policy makers, specialists, and the public. This means that in the process of determining the solutions to eradicate or reduce deforestations, systems thinking dictates that the preferred approaches should take into consideration how the process will influence not only environmental aspects but also socio-economic issues.

Global deforestation over the past two decades has been at the centre of sustainability concern in the ecological context. The forest-to-land coverage ratio has been declining at an alarming rate. According to FAO (2018), the main causes of deforestation have been unsustainable practices like illegal logging, intensive farming, and human settlements. While the rate of deforestation has gradually slowed down, most primary forest areas and major reclaimed forests are diminishing, particularly in Africa and South America. Ideally, deforestation is utterly problematic since it is concomitant with the loss of sequestration capacity and carbon storage. According to UN Environment (2017), small-scale activities like charcoal burning have also been increasing forest degradation egregiously. In their study of deforestation in developing countries, López-Carr and Burgdorfer (2013) conclude that poverty is the main cause of forest degradation, since it is connected to “unequal power relations and authoritative rent-seeking governments,” which is typically a wicked problem.

Global Deforestation and Its Impacts


Human beings depend on forests in a number of ways. Forest ecosystem supports services like primary production, biodiversity habitat, nutrient cycling, regulates windbreak, and controls soil erosion via filtration, retention, and storage. According to Polyzos and Minetos (2012), deforestation accounts for 17 percent of the greenhouse emissions annually. This transcends the whole capacity that transportation sector emits. Trees convert atmospheric CO2 into biomass— the process that slows down accumulation of greenhouse gases— and releases oxygen. Moore (2017) attests that forests store a quarter of terrestrial carbon. Globally, most trees are harvested in form of timber. Besides timber, other non-timber products like food, culture, resin, bark, and sap also contribute to deforestation.

Moore (2017) estimates that the global trade forest products to be US$330 billion annually. In addition, at least 1,6 billion people depends on forest products as the source of their livelihood. According to López-Carr and Burgdorfer (2013), at least 2 billion people use biomass as the source of energy in their homes, which is majorly firewood. Therefore, trade in forest products improves material wellbeing by contributing to the local economies and supporting livelihood through ecotourism and recreation. This is the main impediment towards implementing policies that targets reduction of deforestation (FAO, 2018). Some cultures also regard forest as a spiritual ornament connects the ground and the sky, for instance in Southern Cameroon, the locals believe that Terbanatha iboga tree acts a link through which people can communicate with gods (Novick, 2017). Therefore, to achieve sustainable development by reducing deforestation, our systems thinking approach should not deprive the locals their source of livelihood or interfere with their cultural norms.

To achieve sustainable forest management, it is imperative that the system models expands global market and climate dynamisms to incorporate resilience notions, whereby forests are considered as ever-changing socio-ecological system whose disturbance by nature alongside other factors is inevitable (Wilson &Van Haperen, 2015). Considering such uncertainty, our forest management approach should ensure that forest functions and services that we depend on, both globally and locally are not tampered with. Managing forest like a wicked problem, which entails integration of socioeconomic ecological systems, is the gateway to maintaining resilience and sustainability (Reynolds et al., 2017). To achieve this, system thinking should be applied by ensuring that the process incorporates stakeholders, assess, monitors, and periodically reformulates the management practices. Such approach, Rodriguez-Nikl (2017) observes, ascertains that the today’s needs are taken care of without jeopardizing the future generation’s capacity to meet their basic needs, hence attaining forest management sustainable goals.

The Significance of the Relationships within the System


The significance of incorporating local stakeholders in government and the management process is to see to it that their needs are met as well as ensure that there is inclusion of traditional ecological knowledge to guide the process (OECD Evaluation Insights, 2016). According to Rodriguez-Nikl (2017), such knowledge aids in provision of elaborate picture and visualization of the entire system, thereby filling the gap where there weas absence of scientific knowledge. One of the effective methods of developing systems thinking to contain deforestation but ensuring the future generation’s needs are met is by applying REDD+ (OECD Evaluation Insights, 2016). This program is designed slow down forest degradation and mass deforestation in the developing countries by reducing poverty level hence benefiting both local and the global community through maximization of carbon sequestration as well as increasing the storage capacity of the forests to regulate anthropogenic climate dynamics.

REDD+ also promotes the attainment of sustainable forest conservation and improvement of forest stock goals (OECD Evaluation Insights, 2016). Ideally, REDD+ programs provide springboard to mobilize largesse from the developed countries to the forest-dependent people in the developing countries to promote the preservation of the valuable forest, and stifle poverty-driven forest destruction. However, such programs are not devoid of a number of challenges. For instance, monitoring and assessing the capacity of the forests to store carbon and ensuring that the money goes to the right hands— those who whose new conservation policies will affect their livelihood— is quite difficult (UN Environment, 2017). Summit et al (2012) assert that forest management should be approached in a collaborative way to address poverty, which is the main wicked problem that emanates from the causes of forest degradation and deforestation.


In most instances, “community-based forest management” approach is employed to underscore effectiveness and sustainability of forest management. The main assumption that encompasses this system of management is that the locals are concerned about their current and future conditions, as well as that of their future generation. Hence, they will be able to manage the forest in a sustainable manner since their continual existence depends on the forest life. Such approach have been successful in places like Nepal, Northwest of the United States, but has also been ineffective in areas like Honduras due to inadequate funding, lack of expertise, and stakeholders’ conflict (Reynolds et al., 2017).

Conclusion

In conclusion, wicked problems are multifaceted and require a systems thinking approach to address such challenges. The integration socio-economic and environmental factors make the wicked problem quintessentially unique. One of the wicked problem that the paper has analysed is deforestation. Deforestation increases the emission of greenhouse gases and reduces the storage capacity of trees to withstand CO2. Therefore, there is need to reduce rate of deforestation to prevent global warming. However, the study reveals that the main causes of deforestation is poverty, and therefore the applied model should aim at alleviating poverty through a collaborating with the local inhabitants whose source of livelihood depends on the forest. Other approaches like reforestation should also be encouraged to counteract high levels of logging.

References

Food and Agricultural organization of United Nations (FAO). (2018, February 10). FAO - News Article: Collaborative Partnership on Forests Highlights the Importance of Halting Deforestation for Sustainable Development. Retrieved from https://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/1102994/icode/, Accessed on 9 April 2018.

López-Carr, D., & Burgdorfer, J. (2013). Deforestation Drivers: Population, Migration, and Tropical Land Use. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 55(1), 3-11. doi:10.1080/00139157.2013.748385

Lönngren, J., & Svanström, M. (2016). Systems Thinking for Dealing with Wicked Sustainability Problems: Beyond Functionalist Approaches. New Developments in Engineering Education for Sustainable Development, 151-160. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-32933-8_14

McIntyre-Mills, J. (2017). Beyond Anthropocentricism—Why ‘Taming’ or ‘Tackling’ Wicked Problems’ is Problematic. Planetary Passport, 1-40. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-58011-1_1

Moldavska, A., & Welo, T. (2015). Development of Manufacturing Sustainability Assessment Using Systems Thinking. Sustainability, 8(1), 5. doi:10.3390/su8010005

Moore, E. (2017). “Super” Green: Sustainable Superheroes Tackle the Environment. Landscape and the Environment in Hollywood Film, 187-212. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-56411-1_7

Novick, S. (2017). A New Pollution Problem. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 59(4), 14-21. doi:10.1080/00139157.2017.1352272

OECD Evaluation Insights. (2016, April). Forests and Sustainable Forest Management: Evaluation evidence on Addressing Deforestation to Reduce CO2 emissions. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/dac/evaluation/Evaluation-Insights-Forests-Final.pdf

O'Riordan, T. (2016). Pursuing Sustainability: A Guide to the Science and Practice. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 58(6), 34-36. doi:10.1080/00139157.2016.1209018

Polyzos, S., & Minetos, D. (2012). Deforestation Dynamics: A Review and Evaluation of Theoretical Approaches and Evidence from Greece. Deforestation Around the World. doi:10.5772/35839

Reynolds, M., Blackmore, C., Ison, R., Shah, R., & Wedlock, E. (2017). The Role of Systems Thinking in the Practice of Implementing Sustainable Development Goals. World Sustainability Series, 677-698. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-63007-6_42

Rodriguez-Nikl, T. (2017). Using Systems Thinking to Achieve Sustainability and Disaster Resilience. Handbook of Disaster Risk Reduction & Management, 139-169. doi:10.1142/9789813207950_0006

Sumit, C., Ghosh, S. K., Suresh, C. P., Dey, A. N., & Shukla, G. (2012). Deforestation: Causes, Effects and Control Strategies. INTECH Open Access Publisher.

UN Environment. (2017). Frontiers 2017: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern. Retrieved from https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/frontiers-2017-emerging-issues-environmental-concern

Wilson, B., & Van Haperen, K. (2015). Soft Systems Thinking, Methodology and the Management of Change. Doi:10.1007/978-1-137-43269-8

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