Academic Master


Systems Thinking is Critical in Developing Solutions to Sustainability Challenges

Deforestation is defined as a process of removal or clearing a forest cover and transfer it to non-forest use permanently (Tariq 2015). Davin and Noblet (2010) explains that deforestation has huge impact on climate change, water cycle, soil erosion and biodiversity. It’s no secret that deforestation is threatening our ecological environment. To cope with this wicked problem, we need systems thinking so that we can connect all related factors together. Systems thinking or approach is needed because systems thinking view things as a whole and therefore can discover the interactions and relationships around the problem (Senge 2006). This essay aims to prove the statement that systems thinking is of critical significance in coping with sustainability challenges by using two systems thinking approach: the triple bottom line and six steps systems analysis to analyze the issue of tropical deforestation. And finally, a conclusion will be given at the end of the essay.

In the first place, systems thinking approach like triple bottom line is critical in figuring out solutions to sustainability challenges like deforestation because we can have a bigger and more complete picture, and that’s why I strongly agree with the statement that systems thinking is critical in finding solutions to sustainability issues. Alhaddi (2015) explains that the triple bottom line was coined by Elkington in 1997, and it uses three lines to measure the sustainability: economic, social and environmental lines, which constitutes the profit, people and planet aspects. Systems thinking requires us to explore the interactions and relationships between economic, social and environmental lines, instead of breaking the issue apart and analyzing it in isolation. Bradford (2018) declares that the most dense area of deforestation is the tropical area. In the economic line, in order to expand economy, there’s a demand for land expansion and agriculture development, which leads to the tropical deforestation (Barbier and Burgess 2001).

Besides, there’s a concept called Environmental Kuznets Curve (Appendix1).This concept is a hypothesis which states that as the income per capita grows, the environmental degradation rises at first and then declines as income per capita continues to rise, but it may not apply to every country because the situations may differ (Stern 2004). Barbier and Burgess (2001) also confirms that in tropical countries, the effects of income vary from city to city, and some cities don’t display the Environmental Kuznets Curve relationship. In addition, deforestation also brings negative impact on economy. BBC News (2008) claims that deforestation reduces people’s living standard especially in the poor area, and by 2050, deforestation will decrease global GDP by 7%. In the social line, human population and human activities plays a key role in deforestation. As population grows, people resort to agriculture for food and then commercial agriculture, logging as well as other use follows, all of which is related to human need and activities (Help Save Nature 2018).

Among the human activities, the major reason for deforestation is agriculture; 48% of deforestation is caused by subsistence farming while 32% of deforestation is due to commercial agriculture; logging makes up 14%, and fuel wood removals are responsible for 5%(UNFCCC 2007). In the environmental line, systems thinking allows us to see multiple effects caused by deforestation. Firstly, it’s estimated that about 23% of current man-produced co2 is related to loss of forest, especially rainforests and other changes to land use (The Guardian 2011). Therefore deforestation significantly contributes to global climate change. Secondly, deforestation has huge impact on water cycle and soil condition as tropical forest produces 30% of fresh water on the planet (Field 2006). After the removal of forest, there will be much fewer trees to transpire water, which reduces the water in the soil and leads to a drier climate (Wong 2000). What’s more, Nilsson (2001) states that deforestation reduces the natural habitat for animals and it’s responsible for the decline in animal species.

As far as I’m concerned, the causes and effects of deforestation can be holistically clarified by using systems thinking approach of triple bottom line. The triple bottom line help us to systematically analyze the issue of deforestation in terms of its profit, people, and planet aspects, so that it becomes clear and convenient for us to find solutions to deforestation, especially tropical deforestation. In the economic line, NGOs and companies can work together to raise fund and provide resources to support the possible ways that can reduce deforestation in the tropical rainforests; In the people line, governments and administrations should collaborate together to solve this global issue together; besides, relevant education is also needed because people need to understand the significance and urgency of deforestation and do something about it; In the environmental line, we can try to solve the problem by reforestation, restoring the damages using technology and other professional methods of reforestation (Butler 2012).

Furthermore, systems thinking approach like six steps of systems analysis is also very essential to working out solutions to sustainability challenges like deforestation. While triple bottom line can give us systematic understating about deforestation at the profit, people,and planet level, systems analysis can give us more details and statistics about the issue. The systems analysis includes six steps: tell the story, name the variables, determine the system boundaries, sketch the trends, make the system visible and look for leverage for sustainability (Senge 2006).

Firstly, tell the story. Large removal of forests for non-forest use, namely deforestation, is particularly serious in tropical areas (Tariq 2015).Forests, especially the tropical rainforests is significant because it’s believed to be the most sophisticated land-based ecosystem on earth, containing more than 30 millions species of animals and plants, which makes up half of world’s wild-life species and tow-thirds of world’s plant species; in addition, tropical forest can regulate the climate, storing water like a huge sponge, and it also helps to prevent soil erosion and provide a shelter to indigenous people; besides, the rainforests provides huge possibilities for developing medicines, and it’s said that humans have only learned to use 1% of all the plants species in the rainforest (Rainforest Concern 2018).

Secondly, Name the variables. There are a lot of variables in terms of deforestation, such as the number of lost forest, the number of extinct animal and plants species, average annual deforestation rate, causes of deforestation in a specific area, amount of funding for saving the forest and so on. Butler (2017) identifies that over the past four decades more than 20% percent of the rainforests have been lost. The detailed table and the diagram is at Appendix 2. As the variables in the diagrams shows, in 1970, 97.6% of the tropical rainforests in Amazon area remained intact, but in 2017, only 80.9% of the rainforests remains, and it indicates that this trend is likely to continue; during these years, the annual forest loss in 1995 and 2004 peaks at 29,059 and 27,772 square kilometers respectively;although the annual forest loss dramatically declines after 2005, there is still a slight grow in recent years such as from 2014 to 2016 (Butler 2017).

Moreover, we can also take a look at the causes of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon from 2000 to 2005, which is illustrated at Appendix 3. As the pie chart shows, the biggest cause for deforestation in Brazilian Amazon forest is cattle ranching, making up 65 to 70%. Small scale agriculture comes second, responsible for 20 to 25% of the deforestation. Some other reasons like large-scale agriculture, logging and others constitute 8 to 15% all together. The footnote of this pie chart states that some other reasons include mining, fires, dams, urbanization and road construction and that although logging directly leads to degradation instead of deforestation, logging is still responsible for deforestation for the clearing that comes later. By analyzing the variables, we can get a clear picture about the status of deforestation and then connecting them together in order to solve the problem. That’s why I strongly agree with the statement that systems thinking is critical in developing solutions to sustainability challenges like deforestation.

Thirdly, determine the system boundaries. In the case of deforestation, the geographical boundary is appropriate and important in finding the solutions to deforestation.The tropical area’s tree density is very high but the forest cover around Brazilian Amazon area is highly likely to change, which is a warning to us for urgent action (Our World in Data 2018).Fourthly, sketch the trends. At the second step, the trend of lost forests over the last few decades in Brazilian Amazon is analyzed. We can also take a look at the trend of world population and cumulative deforestation from 1800 to 2010, the diagram of which can be found at Appendix4. The trend in the diagram indicates that as the population grows, the cumulative deforestation increases; however, after 2000, the degree of population increase is lager than the deforestation degree, but the trend for deforestation is still growing, which may indicate that more efforts are still needed to cope with deforestation issue (Williams 2002).

Fifthly, make the system visible. The stock-flow diagrams and feedback loop diagrams can make the issue more visible and clear (Senge 2006). In the case of deforestation, the stock-flow diagrams can be found at Appendix 5. As we can see from the diagram, the tropical rainforest can be seen as the stock, and human activities can either add trees or reduce trees in the stock. What’s more, the feedback loop diagram which is at Appendix 6 can also give insights into how tropical rainforest deforestation can influence the climate. As the feedback loop diagram shows, there’s a feedback loop relationship between the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Prentice (2004) points out that actively growing forests can remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in its plant tissues, therefore, massive removal like firing the forest would release theses stored carbon back to the atmosphere.

That is why researchers claim that deforestation is largely responsible for climate change (Wong 2000). Sixthly, look for leverage for sustainability. As far as I’m concerned, human impact plays a quite significant role in deforestation, especially the deforestation in tropical rainforest. Therefore, human need to do something about it. For the corporations, they can raise fund and require a donation from the society to gather the economic power for the saving tropical rainforests. Besides, the top-down strategy also matters. If world’s governments and leaders work together, they can not only increase world’s environmental awareness but also make long-term plan for sustainable development (Eden 1994).

In conclusion, I strongly agree with the statement that systems thinking is critical to developing solutions to sustainability challenges, such as deforestation. To begin with, systems thinking offers a framework like the triple bottom line to measure the deforestation issue from economic, social and environmental lines, which not only facilitates our understanding of the deforestation issue but also give insights into the solutions of this problem. What’s more, six steps of systems analysis provides more details about deforestation, so that we can get a clear picture in terms of interactions and relationships. By telling the story, naming the variables, determining the system boundaries, sketching the trends, making the system visible, we can find the leverage for sustainability eventually.

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