Just about everything around us is a system or at least part of one. Many of the most entrenched challenges in the world today are part of larger systems. Unfortunately, it may be our mental models (or lack thereof) that prevent us from making system changes in favor of sustainability. To visualize this, I thought I would apply the Systems Thinking approach to one of sustainability’s most complex issues: Energy.

Why energy?

Well, energy is a complex problem with many interrelated parts. Its challenges and opportunities require a different kind of thinking and innovative (imaginative) solutions. As is well known, the fundamental problem with energy is that we are infinitely dependent on it from finite supplies of fossil fuels. As demand increases and supply becomes scarce, the problem becomes more acute. This is coupled with perplexing economic, environmental, and social consequences of burning fossil fuels.

According to the latest reports from the International Panel on Climate Change, burning fossil fuels and industrial processes account for about 78% of the total GHG emissions increase from 1970 to 2010.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is being tackled on all scales and from all angles. This includes among other things tracking the carbon cycle, adoption of clean energy, and innovating transport systems. It also includes attempts by society (especially businesses) to reduce or cut fossil fuel use in the goods and services they use and deliver.

Businesses have an important role to play in changing the energy/GHG emissions dynamic if they shift, or better expand, their thinking. One way is to change the mental models about the sourcing and use of energy resources. Businesses do not have full control over the energy system as a whole. But doing what they can (individually and collectively) to think through and influence a change will make a big, if not systematic difference. This may start with optimizing energy use and progress to adopting clean energy technologies. Did you ever stop to think that these very solutions were born out of Systems Thinking?  

How can Systems Thinking help sort out one of sustainability’s greatest challenges?

For those unfamiliar with the concept, Systems Thinking is a method of critical thinking. It is used to analyze the relationships between the system's parts as a framework for better decision-making. It is based on a specific view of the world.

Systems thinking is the ability to:

Putting this in the energy context, it means looking at everything energy is connected to or touches upon. This means the economy (supply and demand of goods and services), resource extraction, infrastructure (transmission), and transportation. It also means looking at impacts such as pollution, GHG emissions, and climate change. And people dynamics such as population growth, human health, and poverty alleviation, among others.

All of these parts fit together to make up the energy context or landscape as depicted above. So when businesses source or consume energy it is important to think beyond what turns on the lights or delivers products and services. It is critical to look at the parts and interactions of the integrated whole and what the risks and impacts are beyond the office walls.

So, how can the habits of a Systems Thinker help in assessing energy sourcing decisions and use?

Through Systems Thinking we approach the world in a different way. For example, systems thinkers see the big picture, identify circles of causality, and understand how the structure of a system produces its behavior. They recognize the benefits of looking at problems from different perspectives. Altogether these habits can help focus deeper thinking skills across all domains including energy.

To illuminate how a systems thinker might think about energy sourcing and use, let’s look at some of them more closely.

  • Look at the big picture. When we think of the energy we consume (as individuals and businesses) we might not think about the bigger picture. Energy consumption happens in a much larger context including geology, geography, population dynamics, economics, societal needs and environmental and human health. If we only think about the energy we use, we may not take into account the environmental and social externalities of sourcing and usage decisions. But, if we make connections between energy use and environmental and societal health we might start to make alternative choices or change our behavior.
  • Identify the circular nature of complex cause and effect relationships. There are usually large exploration, mining and drilling costs and impacts in sourcing nonrenewable energy sources. The burning of fossil fuels to generate energy contributes significant environmental and social impacts even if unintended. To a large extent this comes in the form of reduced quality of life for humans and ecosystems, as well as, monetary costs.
  • Recognize that a system’s structure generates its behavior.  Since the energy structure is enmeshed with the economy (supply and demand) its behavior is closely linked to it. Some energy sources have greater up-front costs to develop while others have greater or lesser continuing costs and impacts. These costs often drive the system’s volume or capacity to make it economically feasible or viable. Whether we like it or not, this growth-oriented behavior begs environmental and social impacts. To cope with those impacts, we can change the behavior that begets them rather than deal directly with the impacts themselves.
  • Look for ways to make the system work better: General patterns may be found in energy system interactions that may help explain the system and reveal solutions to the problems. Changing the patterns of interaction between the parts (e.g., emissions and climate change) and you are on the way toward solving larger problems. If resolved systemically this potentially means a full-scale shift to affordable, secure, safe and clean energy for the benefit of society, environment, and economy as a whole.

The Upshot: Energizing our Thinking through Systems Thinking

A large-scale transition away from fossil energy poses a great challenge for society. This includes businesses of all sizes. One thing's for sure: energy use cannot be treated in isolation. There are consequences and impacts of its consumptive use (positive and negative). Many systems suffer from the fact that the original goal no longer makes sense in the current context (e.g., economic growth at the expense of climate change). Pursuit of economic goals alone will cause the system to pursue narrow objectives and limited performance indicators. This leaves the illusion of progress, while heading toward system collapse. By this I do not mean the collapse of just the energy system, but possibly atmospheric and/or planetary systems.

But through an approach like Systems Thinking we can look at the energy system’s leverage points. We have the opportunity to see feedback loops. And we can create buffers and general system flexibility through alternative practices, technologies, and innovation. The most effective leverage point in a system is the ability to transcend current thinking to “thinking outside the box.” This allows us to make changes to the system, and most importantly, to take into account new goals and realities.

In the words of Albert Einstein:

“The problems we have created in the world today will not be solved by the level of thinking that created them.”

The effects of energy have worldwide consequences. It is important for society (including businesses) to continue to use Systems Thinking to consider the expansive reach and unintended consequences of energy sourcing and use. This fuels transformational thinking and change that (with collective resolve) will inevitably lead to a paradigm-shift toward a new energy system.

Sustrana’s online platform for sustainability planning and management helps you identify energy related projects that contribute toward this end. If you would like support in learning how - contact Sustrana's CEO, Jennifer Anderson, at janderson@sustrana.com.