I want to say one word to you.

In the movie The Graduate, a young Dustin Hoffman plays Benjamin, a recent college grad wondering what to make of his life. He’s approached by Mr. McGuire, a friend of his parents:
McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

I have similar, one-word advice for water resources specialists: Systems.

Perhaps you’re as confused as Benjamin, or maybe it’s old news. I find that most practitioners fail to comprehend how important systems thinking is to good water resources management, good policy, good everything. A lack of systems thinking produces unanticipated problems in every field. Systems thinking prevents many problems.

The standard definition is that systems thinking is holistic – it considers not just the component of interest but also the linkages and interactions of all the other components affected by and affecting that component. It recognizes the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.

That’s too dry to be meaningful, so here’s an example: A dam on a river pools water upstream, flattening the slope and slowing the flow. The flow rates also change downstream, reducing some flows and increasing others, depending on the dam’s operational rules. Sediment deposits in the upstream pool and erodes downstream of the dam, changing the river bed and water surface profile. Those changes propagate upstream and downstream great distances, altering river hydraulics far from the site. Water temperature, residence time, evaporation, and reaeration rates change as the flow is slowed and stored, sometimes changing water quality.  Groundwater rises or falls depending on demand vs supply. Some aquatic species prefer impounded water, others can’t handle it, so the biological community changes. Lakeside properties become desirable home sites, so septic systems, fertilizer and pesticide runoff increase. Construction site erosion contributes faster runoff and more sediment. Increased population increases needed water, highway, school, and other government services, so tax revenue must rise. The effects, both favorable and unfavorable, spread farther and farther from the dam, affecting the physical, biological, economics, and social fabric of an entire region.

A transportation example: The U.S. manages transportation by looking only at one mode at a time instead of a system for moving people and goods. Each mode – highway, railway, airline, waterway and pipeline – has a separate set of practitioners and advocates when they should be viewed as an integrated system of balanced choices. With few exceptions, mass transit is managed as a competitor to personal vehicles instead of a complimentary component of a single system. Politicians rant about subsidizing Amtrak while happily supporting massive subsidies for highways, which encourage urban sprawl, requiring still more highways.

The Corps of Engineers has attempted to address systems effects in water resources with programs like Regional Sediment Management and Engineering with Nature. EPA has long advocated a watershed approach to air and water quality issues. Both run up against hard political boundaries that limit the approach. Some local and state departments of transportation, notably Mississippi’s, demonstrate an enlightened understanding of transportation as a multi-modal system, but the U.S. Congress and Federal DOT wear blinders, seeing only one piece, one project at a time.

What to do? First, teach systems thinking in school, starting with high school and continuing in college and professional schools. Professional societies can organize conferences and encourage systems-oriented papers just as they do case studies, with a separate journal section. They can offer continuing education on systems approaches in various disciplines. They can educate the public, politicians, and agencies. As individuals, we can search out books and short courses to help us open our horizons. A good place to start is the book, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, by Donella H. Meadows. We can educate and encourage our elected officials to think in terms of holistic systems.

Are you listening? “Systems.”

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