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Systems thinking: Understanding sustainability
In the increasingly complex world of change and uncertainty, particularly in the...
In the increasingly complex world of change and uncertainty, particularly in the context of climate change, the notion of sustainability is often raised as the key issue for decision making in the 21st Century. But 'sustainability' is itself a contentious term and often used in misguided ways, depending on the context of use. This unit introduces ways in which systems thinking can help support processes of decision making among stakeholders with different, often contrasting, perspectives on sustainable development in order to generate purposeful action to improve situations of change and uncertainty. You will be encouraged to engage with the concept of sustainable development, and discover and contextualise your own sustainable development beliefs and values.
- engage with the domain of sustainable development
- contextualise your own experience in the domain of sustainable development
- critically read, interpret and analyse some accounts of environmental, development and sustainable development issues and situations
- start to identify systems of interest in some sustainable development situations
- identify types of hierarchy that you find meaningful in the domain of sustainable development
- recognise some levels of hierarchy or recursion in some sustainable development systems of interest
- appreciate your own and some other people’s perspectives on sustainable development
- distinguish between and give examples of beliefs, values and circumstances and explain how these contribute to different perspective(s) on situations, including your own
- describe your perspective(s) on sustainable development situations
- identify multiple stakeholders in sustainable development situations and recognise some of the values, beliefs and circumstances that differentiate your perspectives
- locate yourself as a stakeholder in some situations in this domain
- explore some different beliefs about sustainable development, understand the reasoning that underlies them and locate your own beliefs in relation to them
- state your position regarding sustainable development in both value and behavioural terms
- identify some of your systems of interest in sustainable development situations and start to contextualise them in wider systems of interest
- recognise the degree of congruence between (i) your own values and group vales (ii) your own values and behaviour in relation to some sustainable development situations
- reflect on your own learning.
- Learning outcomes
- 1 Exploring your understanding of sustainable development
- 2 Searching for ‘system’ in sustainable development situations
- 3 Contextualising sustainable development in terms of historical events
- 4 Sustainable development and sustainability
- 5 Values, beliefs and circumstances
- Current section: 5.1 Connections between values, beliefs and circumstances
- Current section:
- 6 Exploring values, beliefs and circumstances in relation to a sustainable development situation
- 7 Issues of stakeholding
- 8 Some different beliefs about sustainable development
- 9 Values and sustainable development
- 10 Congruence between your sustainable development values and your behaviour?
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5.1 Connections between values, beliefs and circumstances
Values, beliefs and circumstances all determine our perspectives that in turn affect the way that we conceptualise the world – our worldviews. There are connections between these values, beliefs and circumstances. But as values in particular (in the sense that I refer to them here) are often hidden and seem to be more to do with our emotional than intellectual ways of knowing, these connections are, in my view, not easy to rationalise. Beliefs, on the other hand, as intellectual starting points seem to me to be more subject to reason. These terms are not used in a standard way in all the literature you are likely to come across and connections individuals see between them in different situations do vary. So rather than attempt to ‘define’ the nature of these connections I want you to explore them in the context of your last activity answer.
Activity 16 Considering connections between values, beliefs and circumstances
Consider the way in which values, beliefs and circumstances have been defined and used in this part so far. Now look at Figure 11. Assume all the arrows mean ‘contributes to’.
You will need to return to this activity later on in this part so record your answer.
- Think about each of the six arrows in turn.
- Use your answer to Activity 15 as a starting point for considering the nature of the relationships between values, beliefs and circumstances in the domain of sustainable development. In each case, write down whether or not you think there is a connection and what it means.
- Redraw Figure 11 so that it shows the connections you found, omitting arrows where you did not find connections and representing strong connections with thick lines, weaker connections with thin lines and questionable connections with dotted lines.
(My answer is based on the supermarket building example I used earlier.)
Values contribute to beliefs?
Yes I think there is a clear connection. If I did not place value on ‘quality of life’ and ‘members of my community’, I don’t think I would necessarily hold the belief that there are costs involved even though I may accept that it applies for others.
Values contributing to circumstances?
I think I also see a connection here in that my values affect where I currently shop. There are other factors that contribute to my circumstances though and it doesn’t appear to me to be a strong link.
Beliefs contributing to values?
I think holding this belief does reinforce my values, which in turn reinforces the belief but I don’t think it contributes to me holding the values I do in the first place. Hanging onto the belief may mean I also have difficulty in changing my values but which would change first I’m not sure. Hence, for me this is a questionable connection.
Beliefs contributing to circumstances?
I think there is a connection here. For me, it appears to be the same kind of connection as between values and circumstances, i.e. beliefs are another factor that contribute to my circumstances but because there are many factors it does not seem to be a strong link.
Circumstances contributing to beliefs?
Yes, I think there is a clear connection in this example between my circumstances, which includes my experience, and my beliefs.
Circumstances contributing to values?
I think there is a connection but I am less certain of the nature of it because I find it more difficult to understand why I hold the values I do. I think a whole range of past circumstances over many years have probably help form my values not just the circumstances related to this example.
Compare your diagram with mine (see Figure 12). For me, some of the connections turned out to be much clearer than others. In particular, I found it questionable whether my beliefs and circumstances contributed to my values (rather than the other way round). I think this was partly because I found my values in this example less easy to articulate than beliefs and circumstances, possibly because I experienced them emotionally rather than intellectually. You may have found some quite different connections. One critical reader for instance when exploring a different example noted ‘I was struck by my reaction to beliefs and values. I know in my own experience that my beliefs (e.g. my profound belief that there is a God) format, structure and drive my values.’ As mentioned before, I am merely attempting – and want to encourage you – to describe these connections in the context of specific situations not to prescribe them.
I have already mentioned that the way in which the terms values, beliefs and circumstances are used is not standard in all literature. I recognise that there are other contexts and disciplines where the terms are used differently. I have for instance come across reference to values as beliefs and values used to describe a very broad range of phenomena, some more tangible than others (as for instance when describing the energy value of food). How the terms can be and are used in different contexts will be discussed a little further in Section 9. My primary purpose in making the distinctions I do is to help you to recognise what contributes to different perspectives on sustainable development.
This is an extract from an Open University course which is no longer available to new students. If you found this interesting you could explore more free Systems (Computer) courses or view the range of currently available OU Systems (Computer) courses.
Copyright & revisions
Originally published: Thursday, 17th October 2013
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