Seeing systems around us

During October I participated with a few others in a four-week discussion course on climate change, hosted by Stillwaters.

The course, titled “Change Is Our Choice,” was created in 2015 by the Northwest Earth Institute (NWEI). The very first session featured an introduction to the concept of systems and systems thinking because seeing and understanding systems dynamics are important when dealing with virtually all wicked problems facing the world today. I thought I would share their very good introduction to the topic.

We are surrounded by both natural systems and human-made systems. Our economy, agriculture and food distribution, governments, and the earth’s climate are just a few examples. Human systems and natural systems affect and influence each other. The earth’s climate is a very complex system that is composed of many other systems — the atmosphere, the oceans, the precipitation cycle, and so on, with many human-made systems connected to them.

“Systems thinking” is a way of approaching problems that asks how various elements within a system influence one another. Rather than reacting to individual problems that arise, a systems thinker will ask about relationships to other activities within the system, look for patterns over time, and seek root causes.

There are many ways to leverage systems thinking and the iceberg model to see the issue of climate change and our role as citizens and consumers in a different way. In the diagram, the simple and common experience of catching a cold is explored using the tool.

For NWEI discussion course materials go to their website at

Beth is a member of the Stillwaters Board of Directors and worked in the pharmaceutical industry as an environmental professional for 25 years.