Student Reflections of Systems Thinking: Selected Journal Entries 2016

During the Agronomy 375 class, students had a weekly assignment to journal any reflections they had on Systems Thinking. Below are highlights from the 2016 students’ journals.

A Bar as a System

I am now starting to realize when I think in terms of systems.  I know that earlier in the semester I was starting to think in terms of systems, but now I am recognizing when I am thinking in systems and it is more often than I probably could have imagined.  Just this weekend, while in a bar with some friends, I couldn’t help but look around at everything and everyone around me.  Wondering why everyone was there, where they came from, are they just visiting friends like I am, are they with friends, how old are they and other questions.  I was very aware of my surroundings looking at all of the social interactions and the bartenders, bouncers and dishwashers handling their nightly duties.  The whole bar as a system was very interesting because of the social systems within it and the unpredictable actions of each individual that could alter the whole system of the bar.  For example, during the Badger Football game everyone in the bar had something in common and was probably there for the same reason and their actions were consistent with what was going on within the game.  Then after the bar, the newcomers or people who stayed were most likely there for a different reason and their actions were random and unpredictable.  One certain thing said or done could alter the whole social system within the bar and may even alter the whole bar system.  Can social systems be within another system like that?  I view the overall system of the bar as a separate system because there are specific duties and goals that the bar has while everyone within it has their own goal in mind in terms of a social system, but elements within a social system are abstract while elements in the bar are physical.

The reason that I bring all of this up is because last week after noticing that I am thinking in terms of systems, I also realized that I have been looking and acting in terms of systems thinking my whole life.  I realized that as far back as I could remember, I always ask “why” and always try to understand why certain things happened and every aspect and event that lead up to that and that follow.  I am always thinking about the consequences of every decision I make in life as well as others decisions when their decisions involve me.  I always want to know the reasoning behind people’s decisions and interactions with others because I like to know how they got there and where they are going. To know that, I need to know the certain events which lead up to that point so I can better understand the entire system of that whole interaction and part of his or her life.  I just always like to know every detail about every story and every interaction or decision because I like to be informed and put all of the elements and interconnections together to better understand why and what will come of it.

My Role in the Food System

I am just one person. What can I really do to help? Do my actions even matter? They do. At this point in my life, I know that they do. I have not always known this, and I still do not always act as I should with this knowledge. Knowledge truly is power, and I have definitely abused my power at times. I am an educated, privileged consumer in our food system, and this comes with great responsibility. I neglect these responsibilities at times, sometimes without thinking and sometimes even with great thought behind it. I know that I should not really buy those berries because they are not in season and chances are they were not grown or harvested in the most ethical or sustainable way. I stand in the grocery store, staring at them, knowing I have the money to spend and the complete power to choose. Some days I tell myself I can wait until the summer when I can buy them from a local farmer, other days, I buy the berries, I eat the berries, and I smile. We cannot act perfectly responsibly and sustainably all the time. Or maybe we can, and we should, but realistically, at this point in my life, I settle for doing my best, rather than being perfect.

These choices, these debates in my head, my heart, my wallet, have been ongoing for years. I first became interested in learning more about our food system when I was thirteen years old. Seventh grade was the year filled with bar and bat mitzvahs every single weekend. The reception in the morning, the party at night, gifts comprised of checks written by our parents that the recipient would save for the future or donate to someone in greater need. One of my classmates had a different idea. We would still all gather together for dinner and dancing on Saturday night, but during the day, all of my classmates, and our families if they were able, would meet at The Greater Chicago Food Depository and spend a few hours volunteering. I do not remember the day that well. I remember that we worked with corn flakes. Bagging them or boxing them or something that required us to wear hair nets and rubber gloves. There were more corn flakes than I had ever seen and probably more than I will ever see again. But why were we really there? Who was going to eat these corn flakes? Why are there so many? Do people really eat this many corn flakes? Are they even good for you? Questions filled my developing brain, but I did not inquire. I scooped the corn flakes, chatting with friends on either side, and then I went about my day, getting ready for the party later. We would not be eating corn flakes.

I was completely unaware of my privilege. Or maybe I was somewhat. My mom explained to me that we were there to prepare food for people who go to food banks and food pantries. Some people cannot afford to go to grocery stores like we can. Not all people eat three wholesome meals a day. These corn flakes could be a big staple in their diet, and we needed to care about other people because we have the means and the responsibility to do so. I understood her words, I thought. I liked the idea of helping people, because it made me feel good, frankly. I felt good thinking about other people being happy eating their corn flakes. Personally, I did not enjoy corn flakes, they were a bit dry for my taste. I preferred my mom’s homemade crepes and fresh strawberry compote.

I grew up privileged, clearly, and still to this day I consider myself extremely lucky and well off in terms of my finances, family relations, education, and in basically every way possible. My fridge is always full of food and my closet is always full of new clothing. Some days I feel grateful, some days I feel guilty. I do not know why I was born into this particular family or financial situation. I do not usually question it. What I do question however, is what I can do to ensure that other people are able to enjoy the same luxuries in life I have been able to enjoy. I do not mean the luxuries of a nice pair of leather boots and a leather jacket to match. These are things that I have, but do not need, things I appreciate, but do not necessarily deserve. These things seem silly when I think about what the would luxury could mean to another person. It is a luxury that I get to walk right downstairs to my local grocery store. I get to stroll the aisles, picking and choosing whatever I like. I do my best to stick to a budget, but I know that I can afford the organic option, I can afford the fair trade variety. It is a luxury that I can access a grocery store at all.  I will be exploring this relationship between food and money in my presentation, and if I were to teach a course on food systems, I would focus plenty of time around the injustices in the system, and the systems of oppression and power working within that system. I believe that many of the issues in our food system are complex, or wicked, and while we may not be able to completely solve these problems today, we must work to manage them and improve the diets and lives of every citizen in our nation. We need to give everyone access to nutritious food, and give everyone a voice and the tools to speak up.

Ignorance, Perception, and 'the Like'

It is so easy to be unaware. Our focus as humans is often entirely centered on the people around us: we hear what other people are saying, take in their physical appearance, and judge their actions as well. While we certainly have agency in what we ourselves do and say, we do not sense ourselves from the point of another. We don’t see, listen to, or judge our actions as if we were an outsider looking in. With this in mind, it can be very difficult to see and acknowledge the points where we may not be representing ourselves in the best way.

In class this week, it was pointed out that many of us overuse filler words such as “like” or “um,” to the extent that it can detract from the points we are trying to make in class or in a presentation. When this was first acknowledged, very few people had noticed it in themselves, or even heard it in the speech of others. I was slightly more aware of it, if only because I used filler words so much when I was young that my mother would correct me every time I used them at the dinner table. (That being said, I am sure I use the word “like” frequently in my speech with friend in informal situations. I may appear slightly more eloquent in class because I try to put thought into the few words I say before I say them).

The situation became slightly more difficult when our individual usage of the word “like” was called out in a way by Cathy and Will during our syllabus discussion. It was difficult, and at times frustrating, for speakers to determine whether the usage was appropriate given the context, or used as more of a colloquialism. One of the biggest frustrations I sensed in my classmates was a slight feeling that this exercise was preventing them from truly getting their ideas across, as they were focusing less on what they were saying and more on how they were saying it. While this was justified —we were having a rather important conversation relating to the syllabus we are creating—it is situations like these, brainstorming in an informal but still professional/academic environment, where concise and intentioned language can offer a speaker a greater sense of prestige and, depending on the context, respect.

There is rarely a “good time” to start or change something, especially when the changes made will be unnatural or challenging to an individual. However, through action grows perception. As Cathy stated, just telling us we were using an unnecessary amount of filler language did not make us stop. It was only after we individually received a tap of the quarter that it became abundantly clear to us. We thus had more agency over our speech, and by the end of the class we were overall speaking with more eloquence. Our “action” of speaking with more intention and less filler increased our perception of the problem, and then we were able to fix it.

Imperceptions of this nature are not only common in human behavior, but in systems as well. If there is a problem in a system, it can be difficult to perceive until the very last moment, by which time it may be too late to fix. If we use filler words to such an extent that they are common in our formal speech patterns, we may lose credibility in our public speaking, which could result in a number of consequences in our professional and academic careers.  So too can it be in systems. However, if the problem is noticed (typically by someone at a higher level in system hierarchy), by seeing the problem occur repeatedly it can be studied more closely, and by being studied and understood it can hopefully be corrected.

Perspectives on Health Care

Today I am feeling a bit under the weather. It started yesterday with a sore throat, progressing to full-body flu-like symptoms by the end of the day. Luckily, I live in an area with advanced medical care standards and I have health insurance via my parent’s benefits. At 9:00 PM last night, I went on-line and schedule an appointment with a doctor at University Health Services for this morning at 9:00 AM. I went in, they took measurements, asked several questions, cultured my throat and sent me on my way. All in less than 20 minutes. All I needed was my ID, they didn’t even need payment at the time of service. Furthermore, if they determine that I need prescription drugs of any kind, they will email me to let me know that they are ready for pick up at the pharmacy less than a block from my apartment.

I think that my story is incredible. Not because of anything extraordinary about this time compared to other experiences I have had with heath care systems. I think it is incredible when you compare it to the experiences that other people in this country and around the world have every day with their health care. The ease of access to world-class care that I just experienced is something that I often take for granted. Some of the things I would never even think about that enable me to have that positive experience with taking care of my health are huge problems for other people; problems that prevent many from getting care that they need for diseases much more severe than a common cold.

Transportation can be a limiting factor. I walked five minutes down the street to the clinic this morning. If it were a little farther I could have used my moped to get there. How many people all over the world must travel ridiculously far, or through unsafe areas, to get basic care?

Availability of care providers can prevent prompt treatment. At University Health Services, there are many doctors, physician’s assistants, and nurses to efficiently care for a large patient load every day of the week. They usually have same-day appointments and always have next-day openings. It’s a one-stop-shop for many aspects of basic health care; they will see patients for everything from mental health to sexual health to primary care. There are many people in this country alone that must sit for hours in waiting rooms to see a care provider at walk-in clinics. With my mildly uncomfortable symptoms that I have today, I wouldn’t want to sit in a lobby for hours. I want to be where I am now, drinking hot tea nestled in a blanket on the sofa in my living room. I couldn’t imagine having something worse and waiting in a lobby for hours with coughing and sneezing adults and crying children.

Standard of care can vary widely. Today I received treatment from qualified residents that are getting their education at a top-tier university. If I wanted to, I could have requested a more experienced doctor with slightly more restricted availability. Furthermore, the facility itself and the instruments used are state-of-the-art. The level of confidence that instils in patients is meaningful. Everyone wants world-class care, however that just isn’t available in many parts of the world.

Payment and cost were never a concern for me today. I am covered by my parent’s health insurance, provided via their jobs with UW Health. Their billing info is already on file with University Health Services, I didn’t need to bring anything more than my student ID to check-in today. I will never see a bill for the co-pay (if any) associated with my visit. I often take that for granted. Furthermore, I have a well-paying job and some savings; after my appointment, I went down to the Walgreen’s and stocked up on soup, tea, and OTC meds. I didn’t think twice about spending $40 on unnecessary items that will just make me feel better. People say good health is priceless, but for many there are very real costs for their health. Some must make difficult choices to be able to afford health care –  foregoing other things they need.

This experience of mine has been a good chance to explore how perspective of a system changes from person to person. One’s circumstances have a large effect on their experience of a system such as health care. This understanding is applicable to my continued study of other systems.

Incentives, Actors, and Systems

In the busy lives most modern Americans lead, every choice is made at the cost of something else. These costs are in many ways set by parameters outside the control of the individual. For example, it is really easy to recycle plastic containers here in Madison. Most houses have large recycling bins picked up every week by the city. This makes the process really easy, and encourages residents to recycle what they can, because there is such a small exercise cost to placing the recyclable item in the correct bin.

As I realized a few weeks ago, despite my best efforts, it is much harder to compost than it is to recycle in Madison. For the first week or two of school I diligently collected bio-waste in small yogurt tubs or Tupperware containers with the intention of taking them to a compost drop-off location that I hoped to find near my apartment. I searched online and contacted environmentally-involved friends, but the closest spot I could find was Union South. For a few weeks I stored and transported my tubs of compost, but eventually I started tossing the occasional apple core into the trash and soon I wasn’t composting at all. What started as a valiant effort to do my part digressed into throwing plant waste into the trash along with everything else.

As I attempted and failed to regularly compost on campus, I kept thinking about how much harder our system makes it to compost than to throw things into a landfill. For most people, myself included, it’s prohibitively more difficult. Because of this imbalanced system, food waste that could become rich, life-creating soil is taking up space in a dump. Perhaps someone more environmentally motivated than I would continue to haul their apartment’s compost up to the Union every week, but amidst everything else I’m responsible for as a student, that task just fell through.

This, to me, is a prime example of an individual’s agency being exhausted by a system that is not conducive to their goals, however socially beneficial those goals may be. In economic terms, each individual is faced with a cost-benefit analysis where the larger system they’re a part of has large influence over the costs and, therefore, determines the individual’s actions. In the example I posed above, the costs of storing my compost and transporting it to the Union outweighed the moral benefits I felt by not wasting plant matter and helping minimize landfill usage. I feel badly that my decision went this way, but the costs were too high for me to continue composting during school under this current system.

If the city of Madison’s compost program (which was initiated in the summer of 2016) is found successful in the few neighborhoods where it was piloted, then this imbalanced system could flip and make it easier for all residents to compost. This would ensure eager composters continue to compost and might also get other residents to start composting as well. That is, if it became easier to compost in Madison, more people would participate because the personal costs of composting would likely be outweighed by the environmental and personal benefits associated with composting.

Though this was a fairly short example, my hope is that it conveyed my growing understanding of actors and incentives interacting within system. The easier it is for people to do something the more likely they are to do it. It would certainly be nice if the actions our system made easy were also good for the planet, and that’s frankly quite possible—it will just take a lot of work on the parts of people who care enough to do something.

Ecosystem Dynamics: Biological Control of Invasive Species

A very interesting topic that I think about every day is biological control of invasive species. Invasive species “are plants, animals, or pathogens that are non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration and whose introduction causes or is likely to cause harm. (” Often, these invasive organisms have been introduced by humans under both intentional and unintentional conditions. In the past, humans have attempted to eradicate invasive species via biological control means, this can involve introduction of a predator or pathogen that specifically targets the nuisance species. The complicated system that surrounds these stocks (invasive species and control organisms) has often extended beyond the scope of planners, and things have gone seriously awry in the past. Looking at a few case studies will help describe just how complicated these systems are.

One highly publicized case of biological control of a species is the introduction of the Hawaiian cane toad to North Queensland, Australia in 1935. The toad was brought in to biologically control the grey-backed cane beetle, which in large numbers can decimate sugar cane crops. Although the cane beetle is a native species to the region, the case remains relevant in exploring other systems involving invasive species.


The result of the introduction of the toad was absolute calamity. The cane toad stock grew exponentially and without an apparent limit. Not only did this population explosion bring many negative effects to the local ecosystem, such as the poisoning of the toad’s predators, it also failed to have any noticeable impact on the cane beetle stock. To this day, the cane toad has become a far bigger biodiversity issue as its range steadily grows across northern Australia, this problem overshadowing that of the cane beetle.

Currently, the Australian government is planning another biological intervention dealing with an entirely different organism in a completely different ecosystem – the invasive European carp which has taken over the River Murray. It is estimated that this carp species constitutes up to 80% of the fish biomass of the entire river system. The current proposal is to introduce a pathogen to the water body that targets only the European carp, a strain of herpes, cyprinid herpesvirus-3. Provided this virus proves to selectively cull the carp stock, there are some interesting effects researchers have looked at. For example, the decomposition process uses up dissolved oxygen in water. The simultaneous death and decomposition of thousands of tons of carp will lower the oxygen concentration in the river, possibly depriving desired native species of oxygen.

The undertaking of a biological control project is a risky affair, a small change in one sub-set of the system can have inconsistent and unpredictable effects elsewhere. I hope that the carp herpes-virus does not go the way of the cane toad, which if un-checked may continue to have a seriously harmful impact on the ecosystem. It is possible that researchers may look in to a pathogenic control of the toad, however, this will prove complicated as Australia is home to many other amphibian species which could become unintended casualties of a rogue virus or bacteria.