What Systems Thinking Taught Us In 2020

Written by Muhammed Akinyemi, Earth Charter Young Leader

Insects contribute up to $57 billion to the U.S. economy alone, just by existing. When many people see bugs, they perceive them as disturbances and immediately swoop in to eliminate them. What many humans do not know is that everything in our multidimensional ecosystem is linked. Ants’ activities affect our planet’s sustainability as much as (and possibly even more) humans’ actions. Part of our economies thrives because bugs exist.

In the same vein, what a person in Cairo does to the environment will affect people in New York. As organisms in the ecosystem, we are much more connected than we realise. And this is why we must pay attention to systems thinking.

What is systems thinking?

Systems thinking is a sensitivity to the circular nature of the world we live in; an awareness of the role of structure in creating the conditions we face; a recognition that there are powerful laws of systems operating that we are unaware of; a realisation that there are consequences to our actions that we are oblivious to. Systems thinking is a disciplined approach for examining problems more completely and accurately before acting. It allows us to ask more relevant and inclusive  questions before jumping to conclusions.

With systems thinking, we understand that individual actions have far-reaching cyclical consequences. Therefore, we have to examine situations as a whole; looking at the long term merits and hazards; eliminating selfish needs for communal sustainability with solving problems around us. Before you eliminate ants from your environment, you have to understand the consequences of that action on the environment and how it will come back to you as a disadvantage.

Using systems thinking for decision-making, we have to examine how actions will affect constituent units. For instance, if the government decides to reduce income tax, how will this affect education funding? Will this have an impact on providing for the homeless? If we choose to cut all trees, how will it affect the well-being of our environments?

Recognising the components will help identify weaknesses in the system and possible ways to either avoid them or resolve them. Systems thinking can be used to show the flaws in a system and solutions in that system. If left unattended, systems thinking can influence a chaotic chain of events around us.

Systems thinking examples from 2020

Twenty-twenty started with promises of being a great year. However, we were immediately introduced to humans’ interconnectedness when the COVID-19 pandemic swiftly spread across the world. With many people forced to stay at home, the pandemic soon had severe economic consequences shared around the globe. Frustrated by the pandemic and the lockdowns, having nowhere else to go, more people paid attention to social issues. By May 2020, the killing of George Floyd led to protests across the U.S. A scientific challenge had become economical, sociological and political.

Like in the U.S., other countries around the globe witnessed a series of protests. Some of these protests happened in Bahrain, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Belarus, Germany, Iraq, and other places. Systems thinking showed us we should no longer see a challenge as belonging to a country, or to people in an area, but rather see it as a challenge for every inhabitant of our planet. We are not alone, and we should not live like that. Towards understanding systems thinking and proffering recommendations, the Earth Charter document has a few notable outlines for us.

How the Earth Charter can help us in 2021

The Earth Charter is an ethical framework for building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society. It is centrally concerned with the transition to sustainable ways of living and human development. The Earth Charter recognises that ecological protection, eradicating poverty, equitable economic development, respect for human rights, democracy, and peace are interdependent.

To create a synergy between Systems Thinking and the Earth Charter, we can say that Systems Thinking acknowledges the interdependence of life, while the Earth Charter is an ethical document that guides our behaviour in the acknowledgement of this interdependence, and on how we can sustainably protect the world.

In planning for a sustainable Earth future using systems thinking approach, The Earth Charter has four pillars which are sub-divided into 16 principles:

I. Respect and Care for the Community of Life
1. Respect Earth and life in all its diversity.
2. Care for the community of life with understanding, compassion, and love.
3. Build democratic societies that are just, participatory, sustainable, and peaceful.
4. Secure Earth’s bounty and beauty for present and future generations.

II. Ecological Integrity
5. Protect and restore the integrity of Earth’s ecological systems, with special concern for biological diversity and the natural processes that sustain life.
6. Prevent harm as the best method of environmental protection and, when knowledge is limited, apply a precautionary approach.
7. Adopt patterns of production, consumption, and reproduction that safeguard Earth’s regenerative capacities, human rights, and community well-being.
8. Advance the study of ecological sustainability and promote the open exchange and wide application of the knowledge acquired.

III. Social and Economic Justice
9. Eradicate poverty as an ethical, social, and environmental imperative.
10. Ensure that economic activities and institutions at all levels promote human development in an equitable and sustainable manner.
11. Affirm gender equality and equity as prerequisites to sustainable development and ensure universal access to education, health care, and economic opportunity.
12. Uphold the right of all, without discrimination, to a natural and social environment supportive of human dignity, bodily health, and spiritual well-being, with special attention to the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities.

IV. Democracy, Non-violence, and Peace
13. Strengthen democratic institutions at all levels, and provide transparency and accountability in governance, inclusive participation in decision making, and access to justice.
14. Integrate into formal education and life-long learning the knowledge, values, and skills needed for a sustainable way of life.
15. Treat all living beings with respect and consideration.
16. Promote a culture of tolerance, nonviolence, and peace.

The Way Forward According to the Earth Charter

We must imaginatively develop and apply the vision of a sustainable way of life locally, nationally, regionally, and globally. Our cultural diversity is a precious heritage, and different cultures will find their distinctive ways to realise the vision. We must deepen and expand the global dialogue that generated the Earth Charter, for we have much to learn from the on-going collaborative search for truth and wisdom. Life often involves tensions between important values.

This can mean difficult choices. However, we must find ways to harmonise diversity with unity, the exercise of freedom with the common good, short-term objectives with long-term goals. Every individual, family, organisation, and community has a vital role to play. The arts, sciences, religions, educational institutions, media, businesses, nongovernmental organisations, and governments are all called to offer creative leadership. The partnership of government, civil society, and business are essential for effective governance.

To build a sustainable global community, the nations of the world must renew their commitment to the United Nations, fulfil their obligations under existing international agreements, and support Earth Charter principles with an international legally binding instrument on environment and development.

Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life. (The Way Forward, the Earth Charter).

Muhammed Akinyemi

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Akinyemi, Muhammed Adedeji.

I am AKINYEMI Muhammed Adedeji, a cross-sectoral editor, journalist and creative writer. I currently work at HumAngle —the authoritative, dominant voice in global media that reports, documents and provides solutions to human insecurity across Africa— as a sub-editor.

My interests are in development journalism, (space) tech, governance, history, economy, and human rights. I have published several works on these areas, with some translated to French. Some of my works have appeared on Space in Africa, SatNews Magazine, Sun-Connect, Contrepoints, New Dawn Newspaper, Nigerian Tribune, Sahara Reporters, African Liberty, HumAngle, Nigeria Abroad, Zikoko, and in other places.

Telling stories and facilitating the telling of important stories has been the hallmark of my career. Therefore, when I am not working as a storyteller, I help other storytellers as an editor. I have worked as an editorial assistant at African Liberty, editorial assistant at Minority Africa. Recently, I worked as the editor of Space in Africa, Africa’s leading space media, analysis and consultancy firm, before moving to HumAngle.

My academic background entails a bachelor of Law (LLB Hons) degree from the University of Ilorin, Nigeria. Afterwards, I attended the National Training Academy in Egypt, where I earned the African Presidential Leadership Program certification. I am an alumnus of Earth Charter’s Leadership, Sustainability and Ethics program, a certified World Literacy Foundation Ambassador, and a certified Global Citizenship Educator (GCED) under UNESCO-APCEIU.

In 2019, I started the Boot Camp X Leadership Academy for young Africans to connect with mentors across various fields like tech, community development, civic engagement and media. In 2020, the academy started a junior academy program for pre-varsity students.

I am very particular about collaborations; therefore, I advocate for systems thinking and sustainable leadership across the tri-sectors; private, public and nongovernmental. You can find out more about me on my website: muhammedakinyemi.com.