Systems Thinking: Population & Biodiversity

Linking Population, Gender, and Biodiversity



Modern science has been heavily influenced by 18th century reductionist thinking, emphasizing the ability to understand the whole in a "machine-like" or mechanistic way by a detailed understanding its parts. As scholars of Global Change, the events we study on a day-to-day basis are inevitably outgrowths of complex interactions within geological, biological, and social systems, or combinations thereof – hence a systems thinking approach.


Mechanistic Thinking

Systemic Thinking













 Table 1: Mechanistic thinking versus systemic thinking


In this activity, you will be introduced to the idea that by developing a deeper understanding about the underlying structure of global social and environmental problems (i.e., by taking a systems perspective), we can begin to intervene strategically to influence the system as a whole to solve global problems.


Before Coming to Class

First, read the Introduction to Systems Thinking,, and New York City Garbage Example portions of the lab. Then, read an article by the WorldWatch Institute entitled Linking Population, Women and Biodiversity (Chapter 3 State of the World 2003, p. 38-61).   This article explores the linkages between population, women and biodiversity, as well as examining gender inequality.  Lastly, the article discusses ways to empower women, which has important implications for both population and biodiversity.


While reading the article, take note of cause and effect relationships postulated by the authors throughout the paper. Think about these in the context of systems thinking and causal loop diagrams. In class, we will use this article to create causal loop diagrams to investigate the relationships between society and environment.


Introduction to Systems Thinking - What is a System?


What is Systems Thinking?


Systems thinking is a recent phenomenon in science emphasizing deeper understanding, interconnectedness and dependence of parts of the systems as opposed to the Cartesian way of looking at distinct parts to understand the whole. Systems thinking allows us to understand how systemic structures lead to patterns and events. For example an increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration (systemic structure) from fossil fuel combustion may give us a pattern of increased global temperatures (pattern). This in turn may alter events and cause sea-level rise or increased severe weather (event).


How is Systems Thinking Useful?


New York City Garbage Example

To better understand what we mean by systems thinking let’s use the garbage sanitation system in New York as an example system (from “Systems Thinking”, Peter Senge & Raju Mandhyan). This system contains a Population (P), Garbage (G), Bacteria (B), Disease (D), Sanitation Facilities (S), Modernization (M) and City Migration (C). Look at the green loop (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Green loop of NYC garbage systems thinking diagram


Figure 2: Population dynamics of a balancing loop


It is often useful in systems thinking to talk yourself through the system. First choose a direction (increase or decrease) and a logical starting point for the green loop. Population (P) is a good place to start.



Let’s look at another loop using the NYC garbage. First choose a direction and a logical starting point for the pink loop (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Pink loop of NYC garbage systems thinking diagram


Figure 4: Population dynamics of a reinforcing loop – exponential growth or decline



Now that you are familiar with both the balancing and reinforcing loops, walk yourself through the other two loops in the system (Figure 5 and Figure 6). What kind of loops are they?

Figure 5: Blue loop of NYC garbage systems thinking diagram


Figure 6: Red loop of NYC garbage systems thinking diagram


In Class Activity

  1. Team up in pairs and create two causal loops of 4 or more elements from the article Linking Population, Women and Biodiversity. Make sure that one loop is reinforcing and one is a balancing loop.
  2. Add (+) and (-) to the (S) and (O), and record your reasoning.
  3. Get together and explain loops to each other; decide on one reinforcing and one balancing loop and draw it on a board or piece of paper.
  4. Each group will present their two loops to the class.


After Class

Choose one of the following discussion questions and write half to a full, single-spaced page response using supporting examples and careful thought.  Submit this assignment on Canvas.


Questions for Discussion

Once the students have presented their causal loop diagrams to the class, discuss the connections between population, gender and biodiversity. Use the following questions to guide the discussion.


Question 1

What are some of the differences between the causes of the transformation of Earth’s natural systems in developing and industrialized countries?


Question 2

What are some intervention points in the gender inequality, population growth and declining natural resources spiral?


Question 3

What benefits does female empowerment provide?


Question 4

What benefits does an environment with rich biological diversity provide?


Question 5

How is the population growth of the United States different to that of other industrialized nations? What consequences might this have for resource consumption?


Question 6

What is a biological hotspot? What problems have arisen in many hotspots around the world? What is causing these problems?


Question 7

What role does urban population growth and urbanization play in ecological decline? How is gender related to urbanization?


Question 8

How do world markets and exposure to the world trading system alter farming and put pressure on ecosystems?


Question 9

How can recognizing the important role of women in the working process improve land stewardship? Why is land ownership by women important? What are some barriers to these processes?


Question 10

What programs and policies could be implemented to improve gender inequality and protect biodiversity hotspots?


Question 11

What can you do in your life to improve biodiversity and gender equity?