Why we need system thinking to save the planet

People make a ton of choices every day, some more conscious (reflective) and some outside our awareness (unconscious). Many of these daily choices come with a climate cost. Our brain isn't designed to always make the conscious and calculated decisions needed to slow down climate change. How realistic is it to ask the individual to change their behaviors for the sake of the climate?  

Do I take a long shower in the morning just to wake me up? Do I top my breakfast sandwich with ham or something plant-based? Do I take the car to work today because I feel too lazy to bike? We know that saving our planet requires most people to make significant changes in their lifestyle. We also know that changing not only our minds but also our lifestyles is tricky. 

People constantly take mental shortcuts to make swift decisions and reduce cognitive load, and emotions significantly affect our behaviour. Decisions we make could be completely different depending on whether we are stressed, calm, frustrated, or happy like a clam.

Furthermore, to avoid cognitive dissonance (the mental discomfort we feel when our actions don't align with our values or attitudes) and maintain a positive self-image, we often find arguments as to why it is reasonable to act in a certain way. This thinking is called motivational reasoning. Rather than re-examining a contradiction to our self-image, it's much easier to reject it. This has implications, not least for the climate. 

In a paper, researchers studied whether the moral motive behind causing CO2 emissions spills over how much people think is needed to compensate (by planting trees) for the emissions. The participants got to estimate how many trees were required to compensate for the carbon emissions released by vehicles traveling with different moral motives. The results across two experiments showed that people believe larger carbon offsets are needed to compensate for emissions caused by traveling for immoral reasons compared to moral reasons. 

Even though these reasons have nothing to do with what is being compensated for, people base their judgments of carbon offset requirements on moral motives. This means that if an action feels moral in one aspect (e.g. social), it affects the moral severity in another dimension (environmental). The effect was equivalent across individual differences in carbon literacy, gender, and the unit (kilograms or tons) where the CO2 emissions were expressed to the participants. These results emphasize the role of emotion in how people perceive carbon offsetting.1 

More focus should be put on the system

A big takeaway from the study is that more focus should be put on system change (S-change) rather than Individual change (I-change). Context matters, and if the system built around the individual isn't enabling the behavior to occur, it won't occur. We need to think more about how things are connected and that changing only one part of the system isn't enough to create a more sustainable future. For this, we need to rely more on system thinking, which is a way of making sense of complex issues by looking at them in terms of wholes rather than isolated parts. This approach has been used to explore and develop effective changes in complex contexts, which in turn have been enabling systems change.

System mapping

A concrete way to transform system thinking into practice is using System Mapping. Shortly described, it's a visualization of a system, such as its feedback loops, actors involved, and their relationships. System mapping aims to get a simplified and broader understanding of a complex system that can bring different actors on the same page, which is necessary for collective action purposes, e.g., climate action. It can also help us detect the most prioritized problems, which can lay the ground for a more optimized high-impact strategy. 

If we want our systems to stop producing a particular negative outcome, we need to focus our attention on redesigning some of the dynamics in the system (the feedback loops that form it) that are driving those bad outcomes.2 

People's climate-friendly actions are just one part of the puzzle, and we need to understand better how all aspects are related. Relying on human lifestyle changes will only get us so far, and we are excited to see how system thinking will be used for social and environmental change.

1 Sörqvist, P., MacCutcheon, D., Holmgren, M., Haga, A., & Västfjäll, D. (2022). Moral spillover in carbon offset judgments. Frontiers in Psychology, 13. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.957252

2 Dzhartova, V. (2021). Systems mapping as a tool for social change. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/reimagined-futures/systems-mapping-as-a-tool-for-social-change-11cfc5e7098b