Environment, Development and Sustainability

, Volume 13, Issue 1, pp 1–17

Using critical systems thinking to foster an integrated approach to sustainability: a proposal for development practitioners

Article

Abstract

Throughout the development sector, there is increasing recognition of links between the environment and aspects of development such as poverty alleviation, health, income generation, and agriculture. While furnished with a diverse range of perspectives and approaches, development practice is in need of ways to better conceptualize the interactions between the social, environmental, and economic dimensions of sustainability so that opportunities for simultaneous improvement in human and ecological well-being can be identified more readily. Critical systems thinking is proposed as a way for development practitioners to conceptualize and act toward the integration of these economic, social, and environmental dimensions and, in so doing, support communities to nurture both human and ecosystem well-being. Four desirable attributes of a critical systems thinking approach to development are identified based on development literature, critical systems literature, and the author’s research into sustainability in semi-rural communities in Vietnam. The four attributes are ‘a systems thinking approach;’ ‘an ethical base to action and choices;’ ‘critical reflection permeates processes;’ and ‘appreciation of diverse views and application of diverse approaches.’ These attributes are described and then offered as the basis for further discussion of the ways in which simultaneous improvement of human well-being and ecosystem health can become an integral part of development practice.

Keywords

Critical systems thinking Ethics Integrated approaches Sustainability Development practice 

References

  1. Abeysuriya, K. (2008). A pathway to sustainability in urban sanitation for developing Asian countries. Sydney, Sydney: University of Technology.Google Scholar
  2. Asian Development Bank. (2009). Nature + nurture: Poverty and environment in Asia and the Pacific. www.adb.org/Documents/books/Nature-Nurture/default.asp. Accessed 3 August 2009.
  3. Asian Productivity Organisation. (2002). Green productivity: Integrated community development for poverty alleviation: APO demonstration projects in Vietnam 1998–2001. www.apo-tokyo.org/gp/51-5gpdpvietnam.htm. Accessed 24 Oct 2005.
  4. Australian Agency for International Development. (2008). Annual report 2007–2008. http://www.ausaid.gov.au/anrep/rep08/pdf/anrep07_08.pdf. Accessed 23 May 2009.
  5. Australian Council for International Development. (2008). ACFID code of conduct: Guidance document. http://www.acfid.asn.au/code-of-conduct/guidance/12.08_full_doc.pdf. Accessed 26 July 2009.
  6. Barton, J., Emery, M., Flood, R., Selsky, J., & Wolstenholme, E. (2004). A maturing of systems thinking? Evidence from three perspectives. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 17(1), 3–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bawden, R. (2003). Valuing the epistemic in the search for betterment: The nature and role of critical learning systems. In G. Midgley (Ed.), Systems thinking V4. London: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  8. Bawden, R. J., & Packham, R. G. (1998). Systemic praxis in the education of the agricultural systems practitioner. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 15(5), 403–412.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Beauchamp, T. (2008, 2 January 2008). The principle of beneficence in applied ethics. Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Fall 2008 edition). http://plato.stanford.edu/fall2008/entries/principle-beneficence/. Accessed 6 April 2009.
  10. Becker, E., & Jahn, T. (Eds.). (1999). Sustainability and the social sciences: A cross-disciplinary approach to integrating environmental considerations into theoretical reorientation. Paris Frankfurt London New York: Zed Books.Google Scholar
  11. Bell, S. (1998). Self-reflection and vulnerability in action research: Bringing forth new worlds in our learning. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 11(2), 179–191.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bell, S., & Morse, S. (2005). Delivering sustainability therapy in sustainable development projects. Journal of Environmental Management, 75(1), 37–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Bosch, O. J. H., King, C. A., Herbohn, J. L., Russell, I. W., & Smith, C. S. (2007). Getting the big picture in natural resource management-systems thinking as ‘method’ for scientists, policy makers and other stakeholders. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 24(2), 217–232.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Cabrera, D., Colosi, L., & Lobdell, C. (2008). Systems thinking. Evaluation and Program Planning, 31(3), 299–310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Chambers, R. (1983). Rural development: Putting the last first. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.Google Scholar
  16. Chambers, R. (1992). Rural appraisal: Rapid, relaxed and participatory. In IDS discussion paper 311. Brighton: Institute of Development Studies.Google Scholar
  17. Chambers, R. (2008). PRA, PLA and pluralism: Practice and theory. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of action research: Participative inquiry and practice (2nd ed., pp. 297–318). Los Angeles: Sage.Google Scholar
  18. Chambers, R., Pacey, A., & Thrupp, L. A. (Eds.). (1989). Farmer first: Farmer innovation and agricultural research. London: Intermediate Technology Publications.Google Scholar
  19. Chile, L. M., & Simpson, G. (2004). Spirituality and community development: Exploring the link between the individual and the collective. Community Development Journal, 39(4), 318–331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Churchman, W. (1970). Operations research as a profession. Management Science, 17, B37–B53.Google Scholar
  21. Conway, G. R. (1985). Agroecosystem analysis. Agricultural Administration, 20(1), 31–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Conway, G. R. (1987). The properties of agroecosystems. Agricultural Systems, 24(2), 95–117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Crawford, P. (2004). Aiding aid: A monitoring and evaluation framework to enhance international aid effectiveness. Sydney, Sydney: University of Technology.Google Scholar
  24. Daily, G. C. (1997). Introduction: What are ecosystem services? In G. C. Daily (Ed.), Natures services: Societal dependence on natural services (pp. 1–10). Washington DC: Island Press.Google Scholar
  25. Duraiappah, A. K. (2004). Exploring the links: Human wellbeing, poverty and ecosystem services. http://www.unep.org/dpdl/poverty_environment/PDF_docs/economics_exploring_the_links.pdf. Accessed 10 Oct 2004.
  26. Dyball, R., Brown, V. A., & Keen, M. (2007). Chapter 9: Towards sustainability: Five strands of social learning. In A. E. J. Wals (Ed.), Social learning: Towards a sustainable world (pp. 181–194). Wageningen: The Netherlands Wageningen Academic Publishers.Google Scholar
  27. Flood, R. L. (1999). Knowing of the unknowable. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 12(3), 247–256.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Flood, R. L., & Romm, N. R. A. (1996). Plurality revisited: Diversity management and triple loop learning. Systems Practice, 9(6), 587–603.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Frost, A., & King, C. (2004). Co-learning in rural research: Questions of relevance and rigour in the generation of knowledge. Paper presented at the 1st Australian Farming Systems Conference, Toowoomba.Google Scholar
  30. Ghaye, A., & Ghaye, K. (1998). Teaching and learning through critical reflective practice. London: David Fulton.Google Scholar
  31. Gregory, W. (2003). Discordant pluralism: A new strategy for critical systems thinking. In G. Midgley (Ed.), Systems thinking (Vol. 4, pp. 123–142). London: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  32. Holmgren, D. (2002). Permaculture: Principles and pathways beyond sustainability. Hepburn, Victoria: Holmgren Design Services.Google Scholar
  33. Hundloe, T. (2007). From Budha to Bono: Seeking sustainability. Docklands, Victoria: JoJo Publishing.Google Scholar
  34. Ison, R. L. (2002). Systems practice and the design of learning systems: Orchestrating an ecological conversation. http://systems.open.ac.uk/page.cfm?pageid=publications. Accessed 7 December 2006.
  35. Ison, R. L. (2003). Development in theory and practice of the concept of agroecosystems. In EISFORIA (Publication of the graduate program of agroecosystems of the centre of agrarian sciences of the Federal University of Santa Caterina (Vol. 1, pp. 122–158). Brazil Access 2003.Google Scholar
  36. Ison, R. L., Maiteny, P. T., & Carr, S. (1997). Systems methodologies for sustainable natural resources research and development. Agricultural Systems, 55(2), 257–272.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. IUCN. (2006). Investing in environmental wealth for poverty reduction: Annotated bibliography. Prepared on behalf of the poverty-environment partnership. http://www.unpei.org/PDF/InvestingEnvironmentalWealthPovertyReduction-Bib.pdf. Accessed 10 July 2005.
  38. Jackson, M. C. (2003a). Systems thinking: Creative holism for managers. West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons Ltd.Google Scholar
  39. Jackson, M. C. (2003b). The origins and nature of critical systems thinking. In G. Midgley (Ed.), Systems thinking V4 (pp. 77–92). London: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  40. Jiggins, J., & Röling, N. (2000). Adaptive management: Potential and limitations for ecological governance. International Journal of Agricultural Resources Governance and Ecology, 1(1), 28–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Jiggins, J., Röling, N., & van Slobbe, E. (2007). Chapter 23: Social learning in situations of competing claims on water use. In A. E. J. Wals (Ed.), Social Learning: Towards a sustainable world. Wageningen: The Netherlands Wageningen Academic Publishers.Google Scholar
  42. Keiner, M. (2004). Re-emphasizing sustainable development—the concept of ‘evolutionability’ on living chances, equity and good heritage. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 6, 379–392.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. King, C. A. (2000). Systemic processes for facilitating social learning: Challenging the legacy. Uppsala: Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.Google Scholar
  44. Loeber, A., van Mierlo, B., Grin, J., & Leeuwis, C. (2007). Chapter 3: The practical value of theory: Conceptualising learning in the pursuit of a sustainable development. In A. E. J. Wals (Ed.), Social learning: Towards a sustainable world (pp. 83–98). The Netherlands Wageningen Academic Publishers: Wageningen.Google Scholar
  45. Malinen, A. (2000). Towards the essence of adult experiential learning: A Reading of the theories of Knowles, Kolb, Mezirow, Revans and Schon. Jyvaskyla: SoPhi University of Jyvaskyla.Google Scholar
  46. Mancini, F., Termorshuizen, A. J., Jiggins, J. L. S., & van Bruggen, A. H. C. (2008). Increasing the environmental and social sustainability of cotton farming through farmer education in Andhra Pradesh, India. Agricultural Systems, 96(1–3), 16–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Manuel-Navarrete, D., Gallopín, G., Blanco, M., Díaz-Zorita, M., Ferraro, D., Herzer, H., et al. (2009). Multi-causal and integrated assessment of sustainability: The case of agriculturization in the Argentine Pampas. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 11(3), 621–638.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Meppem, T., & Gill, R. (1998). Planning for sustainability as a learning concept. Ecological Economics, 26, 121–137.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Midgley, G. (1996). What is this thing called CST? In R. L. Flood & N. R. A. Romm (Eds.), Critical systems thinking: Current research and practice (pp. 11–24). New York and London: Plenum Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Midgley, G. (2000). Systemic intervention: Philosophy, methodology and practice. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.Google Scholar
  51. Midgley, G., Munlo, I., & Brown, M. (2003). The theory and practice of boundary critique: Developing housing services for older people. In G. Midgley (Ed.), Systems thinking volume IV: Critical systems thinking and systemic perspectives on ethics, power and pluralism. London: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  52. Midgley, G., & Ochoa-Arias, A. E. (2001). Unfolding a theory of systemic intervention. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 14(5), 615–649.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Midgley, G., & Ochoa-Arias, A. (2004). Community operational research: OR and systems thinking for community development. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.Google Scholar
  54. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. (2005). Ecosystems and human well-being: Synthesis. http://www.millenniumassessment.org/en/Products.Synthesis.aspx. Accessed 20 May 2005.
  55. Mollison, B., & Holmgren, D. (1978). Permaculture 1 a perennial agricultural system for human settlements. Melbourne: Transworld Publishers.Google Scholar
  56. Morrison, J. L. (1992). Environmental scanning. In A primer for new institutional researchers http://horizon.unc.edu/courses/papers//enviroscan/. Accessed 3 August 2009.
  57. Narayan, D. (2005). Conceptual framework and methodological challenges. In D. Narayan (Ed.), Measuring empowerment: Cross-disciplinary perspectives (pp. 3–38). Washington DC: The World Bank.Google Scholar
  58. O’Connor, M. (2007). The “Four Spheres” framework for sustainability. Ecological Complexity, 3(4), 285–292.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Paehlke, R. (2001). Environmental politics, sustainability and social science. Environmental Politics, 10(4), 1–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Palmer, J., Smith, T., Willetts, J., & Mitchell, C. (2007). Creativity, ethics and transformation: Key factors in a transdisciplinary application of systems methodology to resolving wicked problems in sustainability. In 13th ANZSYS conference, systemic development: Local solutions in a global environment. Auckland, New Zealand. Accessed 20 May 2008 Access 2007.Google Scholar
  61. Peavey, F. (2003). Strategic questioning: An experiment in communication of the second kind. http://www.crabgrass.org/site/. Accessed 16 July 2005.
  62. Percy, R. (2005). The contribution of transformative learning theory to the practice of participatory research and extension: Theoretical reflections. Agriculture and Human Values, 22, 127–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Pretty, J. N. (1995). Participatory learning for sustainable agriculture. World Development, 23(8), 1247–1263.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Pretty, J., & Chambers, R. (1994). Towards a learning paradigm, new professionalism and institutions for sustainable agriculture. In I. Scoones & J. Thompson (Eds.), Beyond farmer first: Rural people’s knowledge, agricultural research and extension practice (pp. 182–202). London: Intermediate Technology Publications.Google Scholar
  65. Quality Assurance Group, & PIA/OPRE. (2000). Promoting practical sustainability. http://www.ausaid.gov.au/publications/pdf/sustainability.pdf. Accessed 23 January 2009.
  66. Redclift, M. (1999). Chapter 14: Dance with wolves? Sustainability and the social sciences. In E. Becker & T. Jahn (Eds.), Sustainability and the Social Sciences: A Cross-disciplinary approach to integrating environmental considerations into theoretical reorientation (pp. 267–273). London: Zed Books in association with UNESCO and the Institute for Social-Ecological Research.Google Scholar
  67. Rihani, S. (2002). Complex systems theory and development practice. London: Zed Books.Google Scholar
  68. Rist, S., Chiddambaranathan, M., Escobar, C., & Wiesman, U. (2006). “It was hard to come to mutual understanding”. The multidimensionality of social learning processes concerned with sustainable natural resource use in India, Africa and Latin America. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 19, 219–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Robinson, J., & Tinker, J. (1995). Reconciling ecological, economic and social imperatives: Towards an analytical framework. Sustainable development research institute discussion paper http://www.sdri.ubc.ca/documents/Reconciling_Ecological.pdf. Accessed 3 February 2006.
  70. Röling, N. G. (1994). Facilitating sustainable agriculture: Turning policy models upside down. In I. Scoones & J. Thompson (Eds.), Beyond farmer first: Rural people’s knowledge, agricultural research and extension practice (pp. 245–248). London: Intermediate Technology Publications.Google Scholar
  71. Smith, T., Willetts, J., & Mitchell, C. (2006). Permaculture as a systems ecology approach to enhancing well-being and ecosystem services: Aligning practice, theory and outcomes, Biennial conference of the international society of ecological economics: “Ecological sustainability and human wellbeing”. Delhi, India Access 2006.Google Scholar
  72. Smith, T., Willetts, J., & Mitchell, C. (2007a). An integrating framework for sustainable communities. The International Journal of Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability, 2(6), 79–88.Google Scholar
  73. Smith, T., Willetts, J., & Mitchell, C. (2007b). Identifying synergies between permaculture and systems theory for learning and acting toward sustainability. In Biennial conference of the Australian and New Zealand society of ecological economics: “Redefining sustainability”. Noosa, Australia Access 2007b.Google Scholar
  74. Taylor, E. W. (2001). Transformative learning theory: A neurobiological perspective of the role of emotions and unconscious ways of knowing. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 20(3), 218–236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Ulrich, W. (1987). Critical heuristics of social systems design. European Journal of Operational Research, 31, 276–283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Ulrich, W. (2003). Beyond methodology choice: Critical systems thinking as critically systemic discourse. Journal of Operational Research Society, 54(4), 325–342.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Umaña, A. (2002). Generating capacity for sustainable development: Lessons and challenges, Choices. Accessed 1 June 2009 Access 2002.Google Scholar
  78. UNDP-UNEP Poverty-Environment Initiative. (2008). Environment, climate change and the MDGs: Reshaping the development agenda. In A poverty environment partnership event in support of the UN high level event on MDGs. http://www.unpei.org/PDF/Success-stories-for-MDG-side-event.pdf. Accessed 10 May 2009.
  79. Van Den Berg, H., & Jiggins, J. (2007). Investing in farmers—The impacts of farmer field schools in relation to integrated pest management. World Development, 35(4), 663–686.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Van Manen, M. (1977). Linking ways of knowing with ways of being practical. Curriculum Inquiry, 6, 205–228.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Wadsworth, Y. (2008). Is it safe to talk about systems again yet? Systemic Practice and Action Research, 21(2), 153–170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Woodhill, J., & Röling, N. G. (1998). The second wing of the eagle: The human dimension in learning our way to more sustainable futures. In N. G. Röling & M. A. E. Wagemakers (Eds.), Facilitating sustainable agriculture: Participatory learning and adaptive management in times of environmental uncertainty (pp. 46–71). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  83. World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987). Our common future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  84. World Resources Institute. (2005). The wealth of the poor: Managing ecosystems to fight poverty. World Resources Series. http://pdf.wri.org/wrr05_lores.pdf. Accessed 12 September 2005.
  85. World Resources Institute. (2008). Roots of resilience—Growing the wealth of the poor. http://pdf.wri.org/world_resources_2008_roots_of_resilience_chapter5.pdf. Accessed 6 February 2008.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Sustainable FuturesUniversity of TechnologySydneyAustralia

Personalised recommendations