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Understanding the environment: A systems approach

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There is increasing recognition that the reductionist mindset that is currently dominating society, rooted in unlimited economic growth unperceptive to its social and environmental impact, cannot resolve the converging environmental, social and economic crises we now face. Understanding the environment: A systems approach, is a free course whose primary aim is to encourage the shift away from reductionist and human centred thinking towards a holistic and ecological worldview. It promotes the shift in perception towards socio-economic systems as dependent upon the finite resources and finite wastes sinks of planet Earth.

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • implement an action learning framework for exploring complex situations
  • recognise that the way we engage with the world is through partial models of reality, and that these models are limited by different cognitive styles and ‘thinking traps’
  • understand the need to collaboratively incorporate a blend of cognitive styles and multiple intelligences as the basis for effective systems practice and thinking
  • appreciate how different modes of communication (verbal, visual and mathematical) affect the way we represent our mental models
  • develop verbal, visual and mathematical models that explore both social and natural impacts, and reflect on the use of such models to inform thoughts and actions.

By: The Open University

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Understanding systems: a systems approach

Introduction to the 'systems' theme

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Systems, such as the internet and ecosystems, are characterised by a set of components interacting to produce a common outcome. A system will usually persist over time if the emergent outcomes (the overall pattern that emerges from the interactions of the system's components) are beneficial to its components. Crucially, a system also has to maintain the integrity of the greater systems within which it is nested. However, this is not always the case, and some systems display behaviour that undermines their long-term viability. This course will allow you to develop knowledge and skills in exploring and understanding complex and dynamic systems, with a focus on natural systems and how humanity can live within these sustainably and equitably

In this free course, you will be presented with a range of 'wicked' challenges facing human society at the moment, including climate change and peak oil (I will explain my use of the term 'wicked' in Section 2.4 below). Your task will be to explore the systemic nature of these challenges using the action learning approach outlined below. You might already have some strong ideas about what 'causes' these issues, but, as you engage with this course, you will be encouraged to cast your net wider and explore the multiple interconnections between a range of issues, including resource consumption, population growth, pollution, poverty, and loss of biodiversity. You will also have the opportunity to consider how these interact with different levels of social organisation, from personal behaviour to global governance. The contention of this course is that the major challenges bearing down on natural systems (including the social systems nested within them) can only be constructively tackled once we begin to see the bigger picture.

So, your task within this course is to acquire the skills, techniques and concepts to 'see' complex issues using a range of systemic models and develop these through a process of collaborative learning. This course is all about building your capacity to understand complex situations using systems thinking and practice. If you are in any doubt about the purpose of each section, I would encourage you to review the section's aims and learning outcomes (described at the beginning and end of each section respectively). Overall this course will explicitly aim to deliver the following range of learning outcomes.

This OpenLearn course provides a sample of level 2 study in Environment & Development [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

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