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Why this course?

Professor Tom Oliver introduces the concept of systems thinking and why it's important in tackling the climate and biodiversity crisis.

I’m Tom Oliver, Professor of Applied Ecology and Research Dean for Environment at the University of Reading. In this video, I explain why we need to think differently about the climate and biodiversity crisis.

My strongly held view is that we won’t make any progress with reversing the damage we’ve caused to our environment until we grasp how much everything is connected to everything else. For too long, we’ve tackled one problem at a time, ‘solving’ one issue at the expense of another. My research is focused on quantifying the impacts of land use and climate change on wildlife and studying the resilience of ecosystem functions in the face of biodiversity loss. I’ve published widely on environmental risk, biodiversity and ecosystem resilience, and have written a critically acclaimed popular science book The Self Delusion: the surprising science of how we are connected and why that matters. But understanding the bigger picture is one thing, reversing the destructive trends is another. That’s where systems thinking comes in. I’ll introduce you to the concept and show you how you can put it to use in your own sphere of influence, to make a genuine difference to the climate and biodiversity crisis.

The course

The course is divided into two ‘Weeks’, each of which should take about 3 hours of flexible study to complete.

In Week 1 you’ll look at why mindsets matter. You’ll be introduced to the shortcomings of the technological and economic ‘solutions’ that have been proposed for tackling the climate and biodiversity crisis. You’ll also discover why policy makers in the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are talking about the need for changes in our values and cultures.

In Week 2 you’ll see how vital it is to take a step back and consider the big picture before proposing sustainable solutions. The consequences of our disconnection from nature and from each other are exposed and you’ll hear from the RSPB wildlife charity about the steps they’re taking to address this. US Presidential advisor, Gus Speth explains the necessity for fast action and you’ll be introduced to a practical systems mapping tool that’ll help you analyse the issues affecting you.

By the end of the course, you’ll be able to:

  • critique superficial technological and economic ‘solutions’ that address one issue but ignore the wider effects on interlinked systems
  • assess your own values to identify how what’s important to you affects your actions and priorities
  • engage with diverse worldviews and broaden your perspectives on issues of climate and biodiversity
  • practice analysing problems using simple systems mapping tools to help you understand the bigger picture, and
  • demonstrate competency in and a mindset attuned to systems thinking.


This course will be facilitated by a mentor team at certain points during the year. Even if the mentor team aren’t active, you’ll get a lot out of this course by interacting with your fellow learners in the discussion areas.

Your Turn

I ended the video by asking you a question, ‘can you suggest one way you, personally, can make a difference to the climate and biodiversity crisis by thinking differently?’ Share your answer in the Comments area on this Step. If you don’t feel ready to share your thoughts at this stage, read through those posted by other learners and ‘like’ a comment you agree with.

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Using Systems Thinking to Tackle the Climate and Biodiversity Crisis

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