by Zoe Weil

Because life in our world – both ecological and societal – is dependent upon interconnected systems, to be a solutionary it is also essential to become a systems thinker, able to identify the interlinking components that contribute to the challenges we face.

Over time, and despite revolutionary and positive innovations and breakthroughs in science, governance, food production, health care, economics, and more, we have developed entrenched, interrelated systems that have caused, and continue to cause, escalating problems.

Although many of our most effective, efficient, and powerful systems have brought great opportunities and liberties and have alleviated tremendous suffering and injustices, our current energy, production, transportation, agricultural, political, and economic systems perpetuate many of the challenges and crises before us.

Attempting to solve a problem in isolation may potentially exacerbate another problem inextricably linked through various systems, and while it’s not easy to take everyone’s interests into consideration, it’s necessary in order to avoid partial solutions and/or solutions that help one group while harming another.

Here are a few examples of solutions embraced in the United States that have helped alleviate one problem while exacerbating another:

  • As we have worked to expand our economy in order to create more prosperity for people, we have contributed to more resource depletion and pollution.
  • As we have developed systems to increase the production and reduce the cost of food, we have created both environmentally destructive agricultural systems as well as confinement operations that are cruel to animals, resource intensive, and highly polluting.
  • As we have outsourced production to developing countries to better compete in the marketplace, keep costs low for consumers, and increase company revenues, we have lost the ability to effectively monitor working conditions and ensure that people producing clothes, food, electronics, etc., overseas are paid a living wage, treated fairly, and work in safety. Moreover, modern supply chains make it difficult to ensure that slaves and children are not used in the production of many of the goods we purchase. Outsourcing has also meant the loss of U.S. jobs.
  • As we have tried to ensure that chemicals entering our environment are safe, we have subjected millions of sentient animals to painful toxicity tests in which chemicals are force-fed to them in quantities meant to kill.

Addressing and changing entrenched and interconnected systems is challenging. When an entire society is structured around certain systems (such as centralized energy grids) it is difficult to move from the predominant system (e.g., fossil fuels) to less centralized systems (e.g., solar, tidal, and wind). Transforming such systems becomes challenging because of other systems (e.g., political and economic).

Thus, to prepare young people to think comprehensively and deeply about interrelated challenges and to solve problems systemically and wisely, we must educate them to make multiple connections and seek answers that do not cause new problems while solving existing problems.

Students need to be able to understand complex, interconnected systems; evaluate them thoughtfully; and become systems thinkers and changers. It is with the combined cognitive capacities of critical, creative, and systems thinking that they can become truly effective solutionaries.

Find out more in my book (from which the above is excerpted), released March 2016, from Lantern Books.

Jane Goodall testimonial for Zoe Weil's new book, with sunflower in back