Think Like an Ecosystem, See Solutions

International Livestock Research Institute
Women harvest sorghum in Andhra Pradesh, India. In this region, women have taken the lead in helping their villages move toward sustainable farming practices.

For the coming generation, the critical challenge is an interior one—a shift inside us that could trigger a tectonic shift outside.

Feel-good hokum, you say? Let me attempt a logical case.

As we watch ice caps dissolve, forests burn, and species vanish forever, we have to ask: Is our species really so dense that we can’t see that we are destroying our own life-support systems? Or, are humans so evil—narrowly self-interested and grasping for immediate reward—that we care not about the suffering we’re creating?

The next generation must have good answers to such questions—a good working theory about why we’re in this mess—in order for Rio+40 to bring better outcomes than its predecessors. So here’s what I propose. Let’s stop merely fighting to save our ecological home. Let’s learn from it. What if our real problem is that we’ve not yet begun to “think like an ecosystem”? And what if the real solution is to start doing so right now?

For me, thinking like an ecosystem means moving from a fixation on limiting or growing quantities of things—from greenhouse gas to food calories—to focus increasingly on the quality of relationships, that is, whether they further life.

Thinking like an ecosystem means appreciating that all organisms, all elements of a system, are shaped by all others in a relational world characterized by three qualities: connectedness, continuous change, and cocreation.

In biological systems, “there are no privileged components telling the rest what to do,” writes Oxford physiologist Denis Noble. “There is rather a form of democracy [involving] every element at all levels.” The shape of life, Noble explains in The Music of Life, emerges through the interactions of all elements.1 At its deepest, this insight lies at the heart of great wisdom traditions, and scientists now tell us that it is the nature of nature.

And we’re beginning to get it in regard to the natural world. But what if, simultaneously, we applied the same insight to our human ecology?

For, clearly, it is this ecology—that of human organisms relating to one another—that’s at the heart of the matter. Since few of us live pre-industrial lives directly interacting with plant and animal life on its own terms, how we impact the natural world is today almost entirely mediated through social ecology—through our political and economic rules and norms determining, or at least greatly shaping, our personal options and our impact.

To readers of Solutions this is obvious: Even cultures with roughly comparable physical amenities and infrastructure differ markedly, for example, in CO2 output per person. Even a super-motivated American environmental activist, who cut her emissions to almost half that of her neighbors’, would still disrupt the climate as much as the statistically average German, who makes no special effort to reduce her environmental impact, does.2

And we know why. For one, public choices made Germany—cloudy Germany—the producer of almost half of the world’s solar power in 2010, though the country ranks sixty-third in land area worldwide.3,4 Germany’s Feed-in Tariff policies, which reward households with a good rate of return for the clean energy they produce, have made it relatively easy and economical to become a household energy-producer.5

Or, consider that the average American recycles and composts about half that of the average German.6,7 A key reason isn’t the German’s greater personal virtue, but each society’s public choices: Two decades ago, for example, Germany launched a Green Dot labeling system requiring companies either to take responsibility for recovering their own packaging (impractical for most) or to contribute to the cost of the government’s recycling it. Now, in 23 European countries, the Green Dot fee structure rewards companies for minimizing their packaging.8,9 Plus, Germany makes recycling especially convenient with at-home receptacles plus color-coded neighborhood bins, including one for household waste.

It’s obvious that differences among our societies flow from public choices, which create the context in which the individual functions.


Ingmar Zahorsky
Though the country ranks sixty-third in land area worldwide, smart public policies led Germany to produce nearly half of the world’s solar power in 2010. Here, a farm in southern Germany uses rooftop solar panels to power a portion of its operation.

Thus it’s the quality of the decisions we humans make together that determines the fate of our earth. And, I argue, the “quality” of these common decisions, their effectiveness, is largely determined by how they are generated:

  • how inclusive are the voices participating in decision making,
  • how complete is the relevant input considered,
  • how transparent is the process, and
  • to whom are decision makers accountable?

Still, many of us environmentalists in and outside government devote scarce attention to this all-important how in the making of common decisions. More often, we focus intently on the design of, and choice among, policies. We berate, beg, and shame politicians to do the right thing, and outside the chambers, we regale and rally citizens to make better personal choices.

In choosing these foci, we’re implicitly saying that the real challenge is inside people—can we get laggards to do the right thing? In so limiting ourselves, we can miss the key lessons of thinking like an ecosystem: What’s happening on the outside? What is the influence of context? Our species is, after all, like any other in an ecosystem, where the traits that individuals express depend a lot on external stimuli, that is, on the conditions in which they operate.

Conditions that Elicit Our Best

From there, we can ask, simply: What conditions bring out the best and the worst in our species? We know that human beings, having evolved in tribes, retain the social capacities for cooperation, empathy, and fairness that enabled our species to thrive over eons of time.10,11 Yet history and laboratory experiments on us also confirm, just as certainly, that most of us—not just an evil few—can be callous, in fact, unspeakably cruel to one another.12,13

Over the grand—err, not so grand—sweep of human history, three conditions seem virtually certain to elicit the very worst in us: the extreme concentration of power, secrecy, and a culture of blame. But there’s great news here as well. With an eco-mind focused on context and the quality of relationships within the system, what to do appears pretty straightforward: we strive to flip this proven-negative context. In other words, we work for the ongoing dispersion of power through inclusive decision making, transparency in human relationships, and moving from the “blame game” to a culture of mutual accountability.

With an eco-mind we see that, since we’re all connected, we’re all implicated. So the blaming can stop and the problem solving can take off. Or, more accurately, the manifestation of solutions can take off, for right now solutions to each of our great crises are already known or well within reach, be it for mass poverty, an out-of-whack carbon cycle, or species destruction. Exemplary, effective approaches are here, ready to take to scale. Our task is to generate the specific conditions, such as the three I’ve suggested above, in our social ecology that have proven to be most likely to elicit our pro-social capacities.

But how?

Leverage Points to Change a System

We circle back to the rewards of thinking like an ecosystem.

Systems maven, the late Professor Donella Meadows, taught us to think in patterns of connection and therefore to focus on leverage points: those points of entry into a system at which a small change triggers big change. In her seminal 1999 article, “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System” assessing the power of 12 such points of leverage, Meadows ranked those involving the paradigm—the set of assumptions from which the system emerges—as most powerful.14

Taking her advice to heart means challenging the mechanical paradigm out of which today’s policy choices too often arise. We work, for example, to crack the mindset in which the environment is the “other” with which we have to negotiate our existence: as in bargaining for the best trade-off between environmental health and job creation, or between ecological thriving, on the one hand, and comfort and beauty, on the other. Through evidence, metaphor, and story, we expose such framing as baseless.

But right up there among leverage-point royalty, according to Meadows, is “the goal of the system.” Affect the goal, and you affect the whole, is how I think of it. And how is a goal set?

Certainly, the four aspects comprising the “how” of common decision making—who’s included, how transparent the process is, what input gets considered, and to whom do decision makers report—end up determining the quality of societies’ goals.

Okay. Now we’re getting somewhere. We can focus on the improving quality of our common decision making process and be certain we’ve got real leverage in creating the world we want.


Neil Palmer/CIAT
A farmer harvests her millet crop in Ghana. In West Africa, citizen juries have advocated for the involvement of farmers in setting the direction of agricultural research.

We can start by acknowledging that today, in most of the world’s most powerful societies, the goal-setting process is grossly lacking. Typically, highly exclusive processes determine who can get to the table and, even in nominal democracies, those few at the table are typically more accountable to interests funding their candidacies than to the people who elect them. Plus, the range of input which decision makers are required to consider is often narrow.

It’s not working. It can’t work, and now it is clear why. It ends up creating conditions perversely aligned with human nature, that is, bringing forth the worst and tamping down the best. With this clarity, we’re energized to create the opposite, the dimensions of common decision making—such as those I offer above—that both embody and potentially create conditions positively aligned with our nature, that is, eliciting our pro-social qualities while keeping our capacity for brutality and callousness in check.

And there’s a word for it: democracy! We can’t let that word be discredited because it’s been a victim of abuse. With an eco-mind, however, we might add a modifier and call it Living Democracy, suggesting an ever-evolving culture of engagement and mutual accountability that, of course, includes formal political decision making but goes far beyond it, too.

As environmentalists, seeing through an eco-mind lens, our vision changes. We perceive the Arab Spring, not as a separate political development emerging “over there,” but as tender green shoots essential to planetary environmental flowering. And we participate wholeheartedly in campaigns pursuing, for example, full disclosure of political contributions, and transparency in government more widely, as well as public funding of elections, as the very foundation of effective environmentalism. In the United States, for example, public passion for these issues is growing, and in the U.S. Congress today legislation is pending for “fair elections” via the funding of campaigns from public sources combined with small donations from citizens.15

And we celebrate and help to further the proliferating examples of less formal, small “d” democracy that are already manifesting environmental solutions.

One example is community forestry, in which central governments are effectively devolving authority for forest protection to local management by citizen groups. From Mexico to Rwanda to India and beyond, it is working. In India, 10 million households are involved in officially sanctioned Forest Management Groups.16-18

Small “d” democracy is also emerging in the large, southern India state of Andhra Pradesh, hard hit by farmer suicides and pesticide-related illness. Today, almost one million Self-help Groups led by women are taking the lead in village organizing to move toward sustainable farming practices, now supported by state agencies.19,20

Yet another sighting of Living Democracy at the community level is the citizen-jury process that brings diverse voices together to weigh critical issues, with opportunity to learn from experts from all sides. Here, the pioneering work of the International Institute for the Environment and Development is taking the tool global. In West Africa, since 2010, several citizen juries, after weighing agricultural development priorities, have come out strongly for the involvement of farmers in setting the direction of agricultural research and rejected a focus on hybrid and genetically modified seeds that make farmers dependent on corporate suppliers.21

From fair elections to citizen juries, all are examples of people standing up to protect and create forms of common decision making that embody precisely the qualities of inclusion and accountability necessary to create effective solutions. They are examples of thinking like an ecosystem in which we become as excited about generating effective, democratic decision making as we are about our distinct issue passions. Al Gore was right when he reminded us that, “in order to solve the environmental crisis, we have to solve the democracy crisis.”22