Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think
Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think

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Understanding the environment: Problems with the way we think

3 Section activities

Activity 3A: Exploring your personal ecology

One of the simplest techniques one can use when investigating a complex situation using a systems approach is to jump between organisational, spatial and temporal scales and explore the relationships between these scales. In this activity the aim is to develop a visual model of your personal ecology i.e. your relationship with your immediate environment and all that it is comprised of: people, places, things, etc. This shift in focus, or in systems terms, the move across systems boundaries (i.e. across organisational, temporal and spatial scales) is a fundamental skill in systems thinking and practice.

In this exercise, I would like you to develop visual, verbal and mathematical representations of how you go about your day-to-day life, and which resources you depend on.


Initially, I would like you to recall some details about your lifestyle over the last year that will contribute to building up a model of your personal ecology. The first step is to identify the social places that you have frequented in the last year: your home(s); places of work; places of education; places of leisure; places of commerce; places of spiritual engagement; and any other place that is significant in your life. Then think about how you get to these places: walking; cycling; by car; by train; air travel; etc. Extending your analysis to resources, what physical assets do these places consist of? Can you characterise the level of consumption, for example in terms of food, water and energy, that takes place as you travel and then stay in these places?

I would like you to both model and communicate (to, for example, a family member, friend and/or colleague) the process of working through this exercise and the final output through verbal, visual and mathematical modes. For example, a visual model that might be helpful for this activity is the 'rich picture' diagramming technique. Such a diagram could be complemented with a table outlining numerical data that you think might add to the modelling exercise, for example, times, distances, costs, or limited examples of resource consumption (water, food, energy, etc). This exercise can then be rounded off with a verbal model – one or two paragraphs – that provides the linear narrative. Remember that you should try and include links to issues you have worked on in Section 2.

Once again, I would recommend that you structure this activity using the four phases of the action learning process. Within your plan of action, I would set aside an initial thirty minutes for exploration, then a further thirty minutes for organising and synthesising.


How did you experience the activity? The key challenge was for you to explore relationships amongst disparate components: the symbols/words/numbers within your diagram, table and text. Did you find that you over-analysed the exploration, or were you able to balance it with some intuitive contributions? The subconscious/intuitive revelation and arrangement of components can often provide major insights into a complex situation that would have otherwise remained hidden if a purely rational analysis had been undertaken.

But let us reflect now on the results of this activity. I have found in my research that the more developed and industrialised a social group is, the more dispersed and transient personal ecologies become as increasing amounts of time are spent travelling to and from places rather than being in them. I also often see a sort of virtualisation of activity, where more and more time is spent using information and communication technologies such as television, computers and (mobile) telephones rather than face-to-face encounters with people and the natural landscape. How 'virtual' is your personal ecology? Modern living can significantly complicate the task of characterising one's personal ecology, but this realisation is exactly what makes this exercise worth doing.

The scary thing is that the more industrialised, affluent, dispersed and virtual one's personal ecology is, the more complex is the web with regards to the links to the natural resources and waste sinks we depend upon. The Amerindian tribes with whom I have lived and worked could precisely map out the impacts of their activities over both space and time (for example, they would often point to a patch of rainforest which looked to me identical to any other patch and instead indicate how the composition of tree species had been modified through the active intervention by previous generations). With respect to my own personal ecology, I really struggle to, first, precisely characterise all the places I visit and all the things I do/consume once there. To make things even more confusing, I usually do not have a clue where the energy and material I am using/consuming has come from. For example, for all I know, the coltan in my mobile phone and laptop may have very well come from the Democratic Republic of Congo – one of the places in the world which is already in 'Mad Max mode – but there is absolutely nothing on either of these two pieces of equipment which indicates the origins of all of its components.

Paradoxically, it may turn out that the very tools that contribute to the virtualisation of our personal ecologies might be those that re-establish our perceptual links to natural systems. Daniel Goleman, author of books on emotional and social intelligence, has recently extended his exploration of the various intelligences with a book on ecological intelligence (Goleman, 2009). In this book, he states that websites such as Good Guide [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] might provide us with the 'radical transparency' necessary to regain sustainability:

Radical transparency offers a way to unleash the latent potential of the free market to drive the changes we must make, by mobilising consumers and executives to use data to make more virtuous decisions. An ecologically transparent marketplace lets each one of us become a far more effective agent of amelioration, giving shoppers a role as crucial as that of executives.

Such a marketplace incentive could reverse the momentum began at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when manufacturing technologies began to come into use without full understanding or regard for how they affect ecosystems. The world of commerce is rife with processes and technologies in need of reinvention – business opportunities that may drive the next decade or more of value creation through innovation. We need steady, incremental improvements across the entire range of industrial enterprise methods – not a revolution per se but an evolution, in the Darwinian sense of survival of the fittest, where a process or product's survival comes about as a result of its ecological fitness.

(Goleman, 2009)


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