Holistic Thinking

9 Oct


My own journey from environmental scientist (with a heavy emphasis on chemistry and biology) to sustainability scientist has meant that over time I have come to appreciate the importance of looking outside my own expertise and disciplinary background. The students that come from environmental backgrounds are commonly the ones who struggle most, at least at the beginning, with the holistic thinking in my sustainability courses. They seem to find it difficult to re-orient away from a central focus on natural systems to considering equally the economic, social, institutional, cultural, political and environmental together. I empathise with them because I struggled through this transition myself. This experience reminds me to be patient and to understand that this learning transition does take time and reflection to really be integrated into a new worldview of what sustainability is.

In my discussions with students I try to emphasise slightly unexpected examples what we explore the theoretical aspects of our learning material (what happens to my family, what’s happening in the news) to help students both to link theory to something that might be ‘real’ for them but also to think more broadly beyond natural systems.

In response, my students are increasingly exploring case studies which initially don’t seem to have an environmental focus. So far this year we have had analyses about the human body, a correctional facility, house construction in Bhutan, AIDs in Africa, growing a vegetable garden with kids and the GFC all of which, upon student analysis, have ultimately shown a very strong reliance on our natural systems. Students see it too:

‘I found it really interesting to see the huge variety of case studies that people had come up with, and how resilience theory could be applied to them all’.

I love these case studies because they challenge me in my holistic thinking too and what it shows is that complex systems management is just as relevant beyond the field of sustainability – all students these days should have the opportunity to learn it. It also makes it fun and interesting – something that is just as critical for student engagement as designing a course properly and having the right information for students to consider.

Adept holistic thinking is not something you commonly see in policy making and building this skill in the workforce of today and tomorrow is critical if we are to transition to a point where it is routine practice in decision making. I would like to share a lovely demonstration of holistic thinking in policy development for a Chinese city undertaken by Bruce Boyes. In his work Bruce shows us the power of holistic thinking for strategic planning. Enjoy!

Bruce Boyes Holistic Thinking