Changing the system by changing system thinking: Reflections on the Overshoot Day

Aug 21, 2018 by

On Wednesday we went to the International Institute for Applied System Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg. While the setting with the Castle of Laxenburg was already quite spectacular, Arnulf Gruebler and Brian Faith provided us with two presentations that let us gain insight in unconventional interdisciplinary research approaches about global environmental, economic, technological, and social change.

How can system boundaries be drawn incorrectly? This is the first question that might arise reading Arnulf Gruebler’s lecture title. At the very beginning of his lecture he defined system boundaries as the borders that tell which elements to include in a system and which not. Hence an incorrect draw could be not to include an important element. For instance in the energy system the “end use“ is modeled outside of the system boundary. This has a big consequence, as we learned, because the biggest drop in energy efficiency in the global energy flow happens at the point of the end users. Therefore the biggest potential for improvement in energy efficiency is the user behaviour – not the always discussed and investigated input-side. In addition, dynamics of change are much faster on the demand side.

Why out of all IPCC-Scenarios none of them include this scenario of changing user behaviour? His take home message then comes as a passionate plea: change the common narrative of an inert system only changeable when the resource input structure changes. Change it – by including human, or more precisely consumer behaviour. A different boundary and a different scenario can be drawn, in fact one that could make us more optimistic and social innovations more probable to happen. Lastly, yet important Gruebler’s point was a plead for more integrated strategies, pointing out the SDGs’ potential to improve by integrating various SDGs to one strategy. We should stop silo thinking, work more interdisciplinary and urge for integrated perspectives in a science where interactions matter the most.

Brian Faith’s lecture was based on the assumption that all environmental problems are symptoms of our disability to see and manage systems. On this very day, August 1st was a Global Overshoot Day, meaning that with our consumption we have crossed the limit of what the earth can bear this year. Brian Faith wanted to point out that limits do not have to be bad, citing Jane Jacobs that they can in fact be a chance to invent a new future. How? By working along the biophysical limits.

Therefore Brian Faith introduced basic principles of how ecosystems work in order to be able to apply these to socio-economic systems. Ecosystems grow and then maintain what they have grown, creating a difference between net and gross production because of the respiration that is required for the maintenance. The net surplus is coming from the sun. The biggest difference to human systems is that our net surplus comes from fossil fuels, creating structures that we won’t be able to maintain. The biggest similarity is that ecosystems don’t try to maximize their efficiency, they work in a window between redundancy and efficiency; so do socio-economic systems, but they tend towards redundancy. All in all, this comparison pretty much shows that instead of focusing on economic growth, ecosystem models can serve as a good starting point for creating a regenerative economy.

During the afternoon we performed the World Climate Change negotiations (UN) simulation, in which the challenge was to reach the agreement of keeping CO2 emissions in a maximum of 2 Celsius degrees increase in the global temperature, by year 2100. To reach the agreement the countries and nations were supposed to perform rounds of negotiations and come up with decisions regarding several climate mitigation policies.

The simulation was very interesting, who experienced the difficulty of reaching agreement with other nations. Despite the fact that this is a global level issue, each country or group of countries still focused on their own interests which resulted in exhaustive negotiations to reach common ground. Generally, developed countries that already completed their industrialisation process pressured developing countries to reduce rates of deforestation and to act more effectively. On the other hand, developing countries claimed that they needed to keep the industrialisation process to improve citizens’ well-being. On top of that, developed countries were reluctant to provide the amount of investments needed to finance the transition towards a low carbon economy on developing countries.

Later, a general discussion about the feelings and thoughts of performing each nation’s roles provided interesting insights. Two main aspects were the feeling of helplessness derived from the reluctance of countries to act and accept the urgency of the situation. Also, the restriction of the solution to monetary values was highlighted. Other incoherences were pointed out, for instance that the developed countries were pushing developing countries to act on deforestation, not taking into consideration that those are responsible for feeding the Global North with huge land areas for monoculture. At the same time, developed countries failed on relieving the pressure on countries that rely on food export. It was suggested that industrialised countries should enhance the food sovereignty and foster campaigns for changing consumer behaviours concerning food. Meat consumption reductions campaigns should be prioritised since meat consumption has a tremendous impact in the carbon emissions.

As a conclusion, the UN simulation challenge provided an interesting overview of the global situation and the opportunity to experience each country’s perspective of the climate change issue. There is not much time left for discussing numbers, as scientists already affirmed that the 6th mass extinction is currently taking place in a fast-changing scenario that approximates to a turning point. Finally, it is undeniable that such negotiations are extremely necessary from a political and symbolical level, stimulating the nations to act. However, actions have to be taken within territories as soon as possible, demanding countries and citizens to take part in the problem while diplomatic agreements are not being effective.


Written by: Daniel Bergamo and Felizia Göltenboth

Based on the lectures by: Arnulf Gruebler (‘Reflections on how to draw system boundaries and implications when they are drawn “incorrectly”‘), Brian Fath (“Flourishing within Limits: Using ecological systems’ principles for regenerative economics”) and Helga Kromp-Kolb (“World Climate Simulation”)