What is an Elephant? 5 Ways Systems Thinking Helps Action on Climate

What is an Elephant? 5 Ways Systems Thinking Helps Action on Climate

Where do you spend your time working on climate change amid the many stakeholders, complex biogeochemical processes, and thousands of laws, rules, and incentives? With limited resources, it can be challenging to know where to focus your efforts.

Techniques and approaches for understanding and addressing the complex challenges we come up against while working on climate can be drawn from the field of systems thinking. Some approaches are age-old, but some have been developed in recent decades by researchers at MIT and elsewhere and have been applied widely to business management settings. Systems thinking is less common in environmental and social change work, but at Climate Interactive we are working to bring trainings in systems thinking to anyone working on climate change looking to hone their leadership.

To explain, let me start with an ancient story from the Indian subcontinent…

Once upon a time a group of blind men came upon an elephant. Each walked up to the elephant at a different place. They were asked, “what is an elephant?” The first, feeling the elephant’s tusks, said “the elephant is like a spear.” The next who felt the elephant’s ear said, “No, you’re wrong an elephant is like a fan.” A third by the elephant’s side then replied, “I’m afraid you’re both wrong an elephant is clearly much more like a wall.” A fourth who holding the elephant’s tail then rebutted, “You’re all wrong an elephant is clearly like a rope.” The blind men then broke into a heated quarrel that eventually came to blows over the matter. 

Were any of the blind men wrong? They were all right, yet because they only touched one part of the elephant and were mistakenly confident they saw the full picture, their understanding of the elephant was incomplete. Working on climate change, where we are often out of contact with so many elements, we risk falling into the trap of the blind men. Challenging ourselves to understand the complete picture of our work becomes critical, but knowing where to begin is difficult. 

Systems thinking offers a framework to piece together the interconnections and relationships of the moving parts we interact with in our work. This can help us:

1. Stay open-minded. If it were obvious how to fix all the challenges that have led to climate change, we would have already dealt with it. Because there are psychological barriers that inhibit individual action, institutional barriers that stall policy, and countless other small challenges that we only learn about as we begin to unravel the complexity and see things from other’s perspectives, we must respond to our errors with humility as we evolve our thinking.

2. Understand why unintended events come up. For example, you may work with an organization that relies on volunteers and it seems like you spend more time recruiting volunteers than actually working on the projects. By looking at the causes for volunteers leaving the organization, in addition to how they enter the organization, you might find that the reason you’re always recruiting volunteers is that they don’t come back. Finding ways to better retain the pool of volunteers may serve the same purpose as bringing in new volunteers to help and save the time it takes to recruit new ones.

3. Experiment, relentlessly. To understand how changes affect the systems we are working with, we must test our strategies and then look at the results to determine if our strategy worked. Using our example of finding volunteers again, perhaps you hypothesize that feeding volunteers food after every event will keep people coming back. You try this and look at the results and find that it hasn’t helped retain volunteers and that your event budget is much lower from purchasing the food. You learned that experiment didn’t work and had an unintended consequence so would try a different approach.

4. Take a larger view. Just like the blind men, taking a larger view and a new perspective, can illuminate new understandings and reveal approaches or consequences we hadn’t considered before. One of the challenges in looking at the carbon emissions of each country is that they’re measured by the source of the emissions. This is okay for some things, but hides the emissions from the goods that developed countries import and consume. While it appears many developed countries are stabilizing their emissions, they are also outsourcing a lot of their emissions from manufacturing to other nations and so their emissions are still on the rise. Taking a larger view in measuring emissions reveals these kind of dynamics that can be hidden when we just focus on a certain narrow measure. 

5. Take a longer view. In the buzz of tweets and posts it is easy to get ensnared in the minute twists and turns of our progress on climate change. But just as the weather on a given day doesn’t alone reveal changes in the climate, focusing on day-to-day events can hide the progress we’ve made over time. By looking at trends across time we can give our picture of the world better clarity. And by keeping our eyes on the long-term prize, we can avoid being distracted by short-term fluctuations and the “noise” of complex systems.

With a bit of systems thinking, the story of the blind men and the elephant could have ended much better. Without practice, using systems thinking is all easier said than done however, so at Climate Interactive we’re putting together a free online course to go more in depth into how we can actually use systems thinking for working on climate change. If you’re interested in taking part in the course, please join more than 1,000 other climate leaders by signing up at theclimateleader.org.

(ed. see also the Sustainable Thinking, Culture, and Change program from Climate Access’ parent organization, The Resource Innovation Group)

Ellie Johnston is a program associate at Climate Interactive where she coordinates The Climate Leader, which supports people in using systems thinking and tools to advance action on climate change. Ellie is also the Director of the SustainUS Lead Now Fellowship.


Photo via (cc) Flickr user Elizabeth Haslam