MIT Systems Thinking Conference Provides Invaluable Lessons for Environmental Protection

By Linda Sheehan, S.B. 1985
December 16, 2010

Editor’s note: MIT alumna Linda Sheehan is Executive Director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, an environmental advocacy organization. In this article, she reflects on the benefits of attending the MIT SDM Systems Thinking Conference in October.

MIT has consistently generated major, innovative advancements in system dynamics theory and applications. So I felt extremely fortunate to be able to attend the October 2010 MIT SDM Systems Thinking Conference—which focused on climate change, a major element of our program work at the California Coastkeeper Alliance.

As the director of this environmental advocacy organization, it is my job to push the envelope of law and policy toward improving the health of California’s coast and waterways. Working closely with dedicated colleagues and members of the public, we have achieved significant victories for environmental health throughout California. Yet, even in environment-friendly California, our current system of environmental laws simply cannot protect us from ourselves.

Systems thinking provides a process by which we can begin to deconstruct the flaws in our current system of environmental laws and rebuild it from a mindset that acknowledges our deep connections with the environment.

At the SDM conference, presenters provided critical information that I was grateful to bring to the alliance’s environmental advocacy efforts in California, and to the COP16 climate change discussions in Cancún from which I recently returned. I particularly welcomed remarks by Associate Professor Andrew Scott of Architecture, who highlighted some of the misconceptions around the term “sustainable.” He appropriately noted that a “sustainable” community is one that is not only ecologically viable, but is also socially and economically viable. If implemented broadly, his key principles for a “flexible adaptable town”—including zero carbon buildings that can meet a variety of uses, “micro” energy generation measures, education and transparency of operations, and increasingly localized waste processing—would significantly improve both environmental health and human well-being.

Professor John Sterman of the System Dynamics Group also provided invaluable lessons from his participation in the Copenhagen COP15 climate change negotiations. These proved particularly useful not only to the alliance’s climate work, but also to our growing initiative to re-envision current “ecosystem governance” models into “legal rights for ecosystems.” Sterman relayed his work to bring a systems-based understanding to the decision-makers at Copenhagen. He then called for a movement to stem the impacts of climate change by changing behaviors—drawing on lessons from the civil rights and abolitionist movements. Sterman’s prescient insight into the necessary foundational changes in our behavior parallel the California Coastkeeper Alliance’s work to challenge the flawed baseline assumptions underlying our environmental laws.

Systems thinking moves us beyond Newtonian, cause-and-effect, linear processing and allows us to consider the inter-relations of the shifting elements of how we live in the world. It allows us to better comprehend the true ramifications of our actions, and adjust our behavior accordingly. Systems thinking is thus essential to developing holistic governance that is consistent with the substance of our interconnected relationships with each other and our environment.

The 2010 Systems Thinking Conference provided much-needed and highly regarded support for a new vision for how to live in concert with the Earth in the 21st century.

Linda Sheehan is an attorney, MIT Course X alumna, and Executive Director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, which represents 12 California Waterkeeper organizations on statewide water and coastal policy issues. The California Coastkeeper Alliance is a member of the international Waterkeeper Alliance, with almost 200 Waterkeepers worldwide.