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Welcome to Week 2

This exercise guides you through what we mean by 'blinkered thinking' and helps you explore its implications
© University of Reading

Welcome to Week 2 of ‘Using Systems Thinking to Tackle the Climate and Biodiversity Crisis’. Last week you looked at why depending on economic and technological solutions alone, won’t avert the crisis. You heard Bob Watson, Chair of the IPCC, explaining why a very different and transformative approach is needed.

In Week 2, we’ll argue that rediscovering our connection with nature and with each other is a prerequisite for tackling the climate and biodiversity crisis and demonstrate how that might be achieved. We’ll show how that re-connected mindset, along with systems mapping tools, can be used to analyse problems more effectively and lead to solutions that really will tackle the crisis at both a local and international level.

First, we’ll introduce you to the concept of ‘blinkered thinking’ – a common pitfall when trying to solve complex problems – by reflecting on the issue of palm oil.

Palm oil is a common ingredient in numerous products from cosmetics to food, and the industrial scale of its production is threatening diverse ecosystems around the world. Many people are concerned about the impact our dependence on palm oil is having on climate and biodiversity and they argue that the use of palm oil should be banned.

As you explored in Week 1, systems thinking is about recognising that any issue can be considered from multiple viewpoints. Take a look at this infographic showing the various perspectives of many different stakeholders.

Smallholder: “My small family-run palm oil plantation has enabled me to afford to send my children to school.” Politician A: ": Palm oil production has not only transformed our economy it has led to a reduction in rural poverty" - Displaced landowner: “I sold my land to a palm oil company but it was undervalued as I had no access to legal representation and I never received the compensation I was promised.” - Food producer: “My company takes responsible sourcing of palm oil seriously so our customers can use our products in good conscience.” - Retailer: “We have been advised by our corporate social responsibility department NOT to stop stocking palm-oil based products ” - Consumer: “I’d like to stop using products containing palm oil but I don’t know what the lists of ingredients mean and there doesn’t seem to be a sustainable alternative” - Environmentalist: “Acquisition of farmland for palm oil plantations is driving people into ecologically sensitive areas such as forests and wetlands.” - Plantation owner: “Palm oil is the most efficient crop I can grow. If I changed to another one I would have to cultivate more land to produce the same amount of oil.” - Energy provider: “With the Palm Oil Mill Effluent available to us we can provide cheap, clean, reliable and carbon neutral energy to our customers.” - Politician B: “Palm oil is degrading our country’s natural resources and the loss of biodiversity will result in us losing valuable tourism revenue.”

© University of Reading. Diagram from Engaging with Controversies in the Food System, EIT Food.

A sole focus on reducing the ecological impacts of palm oil could lead to a complete ban on its use. But is this the right solution? What might be the possible negative impacts of this narrow (‘blinkered’) approach?

One of the ‘solutions’ that has emerged to address this issue is the creation of a global certification system for sustainable palm oil. Do you think this certification manages to better navigate the needs of different stakeholders?

In the Comments area, share your initial response to this issue, the solution you might propose and any weaknesses and strengths you see in it. Take time to read through the comments other learners have posted and (respectfully) respond to their suggestions with your own perspectives on the matter. We hope the resulting discussion threads will illustrate the diverse range of views on this issue and the difficulties inherent in solving it.

In the next Step, you’ll see how common the ‘blinkered thinking’ approach is by examining the UK government’s policy of tax breaks to improve fuel efficiency in cars – intended to cut carbon emissions and help the environment.

© University of Reading
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Using Systems Thinking to Tackle the Climate and Biodiversity Crisis

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