We exist in a complex ecosystem and policy solutions for problems like climate change need a systemic approach, writes Ecologist Professor Tom Oliver for the Cabinet Office’s Systems Thinking blog.

A fritillary butterfly

Above the rolling hills of south-west England, striking Large Blue butterflies once danced in large numbers above sweet-smelling thyme-filled grassland.

Over several decades the number of butterflies started to dwindle and no one knew why.

It turned out the butterflies needed red ants, whose nests they live in as caterpillars. The warmth-loving ants need the turf to be short, so they in turn depended on sheep and rabbits to graze the grasslands. The sheep and rabbits were affected by changing farming practices and the introduction of the myxoma virus (which causes myxomatosis).

It was this complex cascade of effects that ultimately meant that the Large Blue was declared extinct in the UK in 1979.

However, by understanding this complex system, conservationists were able to reintroduce the species, ensuring the management was just right, and now over 30 colonies thrive once again. A great outcome.

It’s not always the case that conservation research ends with a success story, but there are lessons that can be learned, and not just for ecologists, for policymakers too.

An ecologist’s view 

From what I’ve observed, policy solutions are often narrow in focus and are limited to a certain sector.

A genuinely interdisciplinary approach means we can identify and carry out multiple targeted interventions across sectors.

Recently, I was lucky enough to be able to work with researchers from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds to understand the factors that keep our food system ‘locked in’ to a state that is damaging to the environment.

What I learned from this work was that ultimately, how we transform from this environmentally-damaging food system goes beyond ecology, into the social sciences – fields like economics, business and psychology – and even ethics and philosophy.

If we are interested in solutions, we need to bring together disparate disciplines in more effective ways.

It is often multiple complementary policy interventions that make the difference. It has been a successful approach in the past. For example, smoking rates in the UK have been reduced through a combination of factors: awareness raising, taxation, regulation (banning smoking in public places) and alternative products (vaping). Each intervention set the ground for the next intervention. No single intervention would have been as effective.

Many governments are savvy to economic and regulatory factors, yet sociocultural factors related to social relationships, attitudes and mindsets are perhaps more neglected.

So, for example, an important consideration is getting people to somehow change their damaging behaviours: reducing demand for unsustainable products, for example. This depends on changing mindsets and attitudes. Systems thinker Donella Meadows called these ‘deep leverage points’.

If we can somehow encourage a more collective social and environmental identity, there is evidence to suggest that behaviours to protect the environment naturally follow.

These deep leverage points of changing mindsets and attitudes also can act as precursors for other levers of change.

If you can get people to see the environment and health benefits of a more sustainable diet, eating more vegetables and less red meat, for example, then they are more likely to support policies which further ‘change the rules of the game’, such as taxes on unhealthy and unsustainable products. These further make a sustainable diet the obvious and easy choice to make.

These ideas inspired me to go beyond my ecology day job and write The Self Delusion, which shows how solutions to big global problems, including climate change and biodiversity loss, can be found within our individual mindsets, in particular, our self-identity. It turns out that when people feel more connected to nature and to each other, they tend to be more pro-environmental and pro-social.

My own systems journey

So, my systems journey has taken me from studying how butterflies and ants are connected to looking at how humans are connected; from ecosystems to socio-ecological systems. I have made this journey because that is where the search for solutions to environmental problems leads.

It’s becoming a trend. For example, the European Environment Agency, on whose scientific committee I sit, has seen the composition of their committee change from subject specialists (hydrologists, atmospheric chemists, etc) to those who can work across disciplines to provide knowledge towards system transformations.

In the UK, our research councils have been merged to improve interdisciplinary working, and the Defra Systems Research Programme in which I now work interacts closely with these councils to improve the way science informs policy design. We are drawing on natural sciences and social sciences. In combination, these transdisciplinary approaches can allow a more ‘evidence-informed participatory democracy’.

A big hurdle in designing policy still lies in the structure of government. We inherit siloed departmental structures which is a barrier to addressing wicked environmental problems such as climate change and biodiversity loss.

Yet there are some green shoots emerging. People all over government seems to be taking their very own systems journey. I watch with excitement.