Nature matters: Systems thinking and experts
Nature matters: Systems thinking and experts

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Nature matters: Systems thinking and experts

1.4.3 Framing reality from a critical perspective

The question arising from the previous two imperatives of systems thinking – dealing with holism and engaging with multiple perspectives – is how we might develop frameworks that deal responsibly with our inevitable limitations on being holistically comprehensive and epistemologically ‘multiverse’. Ulrich reminds us that a ‘systems approach’ to environmental responsibility is perhaps not quite the panacea that it so often mistakenly promises to be. Take, for example, the ‘ecosystem approach’ as described by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (2005):

The ecosystem approach is a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use in an equitable way. Application of the ecosystem approach will help to reach a balance of the three objectives of the Convention. It is based on the application of appropriate scientific methodologies focused on levels of biological organisation which encompass the essential processes, functions and interactions among organisms and their environment. It recognises that humans, with their cultural diversity, are an integral component of ecosystems.

Humans may be integral, but is something omitted by referring to them as component parts of ecosystems? Are they mere (object) entities, or rather (subject) agents with different, sometimes conflicting perspectives on the ecosystems? Reference to ‘the’ ecosystems approach suggests one viewpoint (Figure 5). Like Capra's ecoliteracy, it may be a valuable viewpoint in drawing out (some) interrelationships and interdependencies, but it ought not to mask the possibilities of other viewpoints. A more reliable perspective is one that recognises the limitations of systems thinking, or indeed any human thinking – as raised by commentators such as Ulrich and Moore.

Figure 5
Figure 5 ‘The’ approach to climate change

In a paper outlining a critical systems approach to corporate responsibility, Martin Reynolds draws on the traditions of Churchman and Ulrich to map out three distinct types of systems framing associated with three generic purposes:

  1. a framework for understanding (fwU)

  2. a framework for practice (fwP)

  3. a composite framework for responsibility (fwR).

These frameworks are described by Reynolds as follows (2008b, pp. 385– 6):

A critical systems framework constitutes three distinct though interrelated (sub)frameworks: firstly, a framework for understanding (fwU) complex interrelationships and interdependencies; secondly, a framework for practice (fwP) when engaging with different perspectives; and thirdly, a composite framework for responsibility (fwR) in dealing ethically with inevitable limitations on being holistically ‘universe’ and pluralistically ‘multiverse’.

The three frameworks can be regarded as systems for addressing [corporate responsibility] dilemmas. The fwU provides a system for ‘getting real’ – translating complex realities into manageable systems. The fwP provides a system for ‘getting it right’ – enabling multiple perspectives to engage with constructing better systems. The fwR provides a system for ‘getting a grip’ – responsibly coming to terms with inevitable incomplete understanding and inadequate practice.

Figure 6 gives a representation of critical systems thinking, adopting the model of responsibility that was used earlier.

Figure 6
Figure 6 Framing nature matters through systems thinking (adapted from Reynolds, 2008b, p. 387)

In sum, a framework for understanding (fwU) can help us to appreciate the holistic realities of interrelationships and interdependencies associated with the natural world. A framework for practice (fwP) can support constructive engagement with multiple and sometimes conflicting perspectives on the complexities of the natural world.

A framework for responsibility (fwR) reminds us of the limitations of any fwU and fwP, and keeps our attention focused on continually improving our framing constructs to best suit the demands of environmental responsibility at any one time and in any one place.

Two brief examples of how this triadic framework might be used in the context of climate change are provided in Box 6, illustrating how the three frameworks might tease out matters of importance in environmental responsibility.

Box 6 Framing issues of climate change through critical systems thinking

Example 1: Biofuel controversy

(If you would like further current information on this issue, use the keywords ‘biofuel crops’ in your online search engine

fwU: The development of biofuels was triggered by fear that our energy supply cannot be dependent on fossil fuels, given the exhaustible supply of the resource and the effects of using it – burning fossil fuels generates greenhouse gases, which in turn contributes to global warming, prompting increased pressure to find alternative sources of fuel.

fwP: Multiple conflicting perspectives emerged, including (i) governments with an interest in meeting carbon emission targets (global North) or ensuring national food security (global South); (ii) large corporate agricultural industry promoting biofuel production through genetically modified crops; (iii) relocated smallholding farming households dispossessed of land and dependent on the low-wage economy of biofuel production; and (iv) environmental groups concerned about the increased reliance on pesticides, and increased ecological degradation and reduced biodiversity due to monocropping.

fwR: Approaches to biofuel production would seem to require both a better understanding of the multiple socio-economic factors as well as the ecological causes of climate change, and engagement with appropriate practice with due concern for the perspectives of the different stakeholders.

Example 2: A cool look at global warming

In this second example, the three frameworks are used as a device for critically examining one particular viewpoint or generalised framework of thinking about climate change. Though personified in terms of one author, it is a viewpoint quite widely held.

In his 2008 publication An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming, Nigel Lawson argues against the 2006 UK government's Stern Review into climate change and its logic of responsibility that suggests we ought to act swiftly now to curb our carbon footprint so as to offset problems later.

Instead, Lawson is in favour of continuing as normal but putting resources towards technological adaptation. A simple summary of Lawson's framing of what matters can be expressed as follows.

fwU: Climate change is regarded as being something inevitable and ‘naturalistic’ – ‘what will be will be’. There is an understanding here that humans are disconnected from Nature.

fwP: Instead of adopting an fwP based on reducing overall consumption (as proposed by Stern), Lawson suggests we need to simply go with the flow and technologically adapt to climate conditions when and if necessary. His fwP is in the form of ‘business as usual’, with no need to change consumption levels.

fwR: Lawson puts an emphasis on the uncertainty regarding an fwU, and a hopefulness in technological development for fwP. His overall approach towards responsible intervention requires a suspension in understanding the causes of global warming in favour of some future trust in the practice of technological development.

Activity 9 Testing frameworks for responsibility

For Example 2 in Box 6, provide your own response to each of the framing devices (fwU, fwP and fwR). What are the policy implications of Lawson's framing of global warming?

Systems thinking as advocated by Fritjof Capra, in contrast with Nigel Lawson, puts more emphasis on a framework for understanding – fwU – for making sense of, and drawing out what matters about, the reality of the natural world. In particular, as practised by climate modellers, complexity scientists and systems advocates in the same tradition as Capra, framing an understanding of the natural world using systems ideas (fostering ecoliteracy as an fwU) is helpful in identifying the interrelationships and interdependencies associated with a complex world, and informing frameworks for practice (ecodesign as fwP). But crucially, systems thinking is also about engaging meaningfully with different perspectives on the natural world.

Although the gift of framing is one shared by all humans, some frameworks of reference are inevitably given primacy over others, particularly in formulating policy and guiding action. This raises questions about who constructs the framing devices and what legitimacy they have. Here, I want to flag the general importance of framing what matters in questions of environmental responsibility, and the implications this has for policy and action.


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