Introduction: The famous naturalist and professor Aldo Leopold’s suggestion that “only a mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf” reminds us that to understand how ecosystems function, we need to “think like a mountain." If you’ve never heard this quote, it’s time to read A Sand County Almanac! And if you are a student of agricultural ecology or a related field at the University of Massachusetts, perhaps it’s time to take a class in Agricultural Systems Thinking.
Think Like a Mountain to Create Sustainable Systems
Industrial agriculture violates just about every ecological principle we know in an attempt to maximize short-term financial success. Leopold was tough on industrial farming in his 1949 essay in which he wrote that farmers and ranchers have “…not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.” We have dead zones in the oceans, anti-biotic resistant bacteria developing from factory farms, nitrates in the groundwater, herbicides in the surface water, floods and drought, and on and on…..
We must do better!
Overview: Systems thinking is a way of understanding complex real-world situations
such as those often encountered in sustainable food and farming and other environmental careers. Systems tools are needed to complement more traditional discipline-focused scientific approaches when a problem under study:
1) is complex;
2) involves multiple relationships; and/or
3) involves human decision-making.
This course will introduce students to systems tools for unraveling complexity and integrating their learning from previous courses and experience. For examples of systems tools, see my blog posts here.
1. Students will learn to reflect on and to integrate knowledge gained from previous
courses and experiences relating to their major in sustainable food and farming.
2. Students will practice General Education learning objectives such as oral
communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and interdisciplinary perspectives.
3. Students will learn to apply their ability to integrate knowledge across disciplines
and use systems tools to make decisions in complex real-world situations.
Instructor: Dr. John M. Gerber, Professor
308 Bowditch Hall; 545-5301
Main webpage: http://people.umass.edu/jgerber/
Secondary webpage: http://www.justfoodnow.org/
International Blog: http://world.edu/author/john-gerber/
Local Blog: http://justfoodnowwma.wordpress.com/
Course Format: The course will meet twice a week to learn and practice how to apply systems thinking tools to real-world food, farming and other environmental scenarios. The classroom environment will be designed to encourage co-learning of all participants.
Grading: Grading will be based on successful completion of weekly homework assignments, participation in discussions both online and in class, attendance, and a final systems project. Students will keep copies of all homework and class assignments in a folder or portfolio. At the end of the semester, students will meet individually with the instructor to discuss what they have learned and to determine an appropriate grade.
Required Text: Krafel, P. 1999. Seeing Nature: Deliberate Encounters with the Visible World. Chelsea Green Publishing Company, Vermont. (available online or you may purchase a copy in class).
Additional Readings - Selections from:
1. Capra, F. 1996. The Web of Life. Anchor Press.
2. Holmgren, D. 2009. Future Scenarios. Chelsea Green Press.
3. Meadows, D.H. 2008. Thinking in Systems. Chelsea Green Press
4. Senge, P. et al. 1994. The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization. Doubleday Publishing Group.
5. Wilson, K. and G.E.B Morren Jr. 1990. Systems Approaches for Improvement in Agriculture and Resource Management