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Sustainability & Systems Thinking Peg Cornell Crescent Valley High School. The Fish Game. We are going to run a fishing industry

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the fish game
The Fish Game
  • We are going to run a fishing industry
  • Each person in the group will fish for swordfish in the same ocean. One person in each group will act as the banker, and control the envelope of fish (“nature”). To start the game, the banker will put 20 fish in the middle of the table (the “ocean”).
  • Twenty fish is this ocean’s carrying capacity for swordfish.
  • Traditionally, people fish for swordfish in the three following ways:

1) Harpoon fishing: take one fish

2) Long-line fishing: take two fish

3) Free-for-all long-line fishing: take three fish

  • Each person can take up to three fish per turn, depending on the instructions for that game.
the fish game1
The Fish Game
  • After each round when all players have taken their fish, the banker (“nature”) will count the number of swordfish left and add 25% to the pot, up to, but not exceeding, 20 fish (round up if you need to).
  • Example: If there are 12 fish left, 3 fish (25% of 12) will be added to the pot, bringing the total up to 15.
  • The added fish represent the number of baby swordfish made by the swordfish that were left after everyone has taken their fish (the ones that were left in the ocean to reproduce).
  • In real life, swordfish produce far fewer than 25% new offspring each year—they are like humans in that they have few children over the course of their lifetimes.
  • The goal of each game: To have as many fish as possible after playing all 10 rounds.
the fish game2
The Fish Game
  • There are four ways to play the game:
  • Game 1: Everyone chooses a fishing technique at the start of the game and sticks with it until the end of the game
  • Game 2: Everyone chooses a fishing technique, but can change technique each turn during the game
  • Game 3: Everyone is a harpoon fisher, and can take no more than one fish each round
  • Game 4: Everyone can choose any fishing technique and can change that technique each turn. At the end of each round, add 10% instead of 25%. (You still can’t exceed the carrying capacity of 20 fish.)
fish game data
Fish Game Data

Round Consumption Accumulation Fish Stock

(# Fish You Took) (Total # Fish You Have) (# Fish in the Ocean












fish game reflection
Fish Game Reflection

How many of you made it through all 10 rounds in

every game you played?

If your system crashed, why did it crash?

fish game reflection1
Fish Game Reflection
  • If your group ran out of fish before you were able to play 10 rounds, then the way your group fished collectively resulted in more fish being taken from the ocean than what the ocean was able to replenish.
  • We call that unsustainable.
We need to teach sustainability

in a deliberate and thoughtful way

because students are constantly exposed to unsustainable practices, which are both easy and common


A sustainable practice is one that does no long-term environmental, social or economic harm, and that meets the needs of the current generation without jeopardizing the ability of future generations of humans and other species to meet their needs.

fish game reflection2
Fish Game Reflection

What were you thinking?

Thinking drives behavior.

Behavior causes results.

mental models
Mental Models
  • An individual’s thought process about how something works in the real world
  • They help shape our behaviour and define our approach to solving problems and carrying out tasks
  • Why are they important to recognize and acknowledge?
“We don’t see things as they are.

We see them as we are.”

~ Anais Nin

classic mental model
Classic Mental Model
  • The Titanic
  • Assumption of Scarcity
  • There isn’t enough to go around.
  • We’re going down anyway, so grab all you can, while you can.
classic mental model1
Classic Mental Model
  • The Bummer
  • Things are the way they are and there is nothing I/we can do about it.
classic mental model2
Classic Mental Model
  • The Social Trap
  • If others do it, I may as well.
  • If no one else does it, why should I?
classic mental model3
Classic Mental Model
  • The Self-Serve
  • Maximize Gains for Self
  • The “invisible hand” leads all individuals, in pursuit of their own self-interests, to produce the greatest benefit for society as a whole (and vice versa).
classic mental model4
Classic Mental Model
  • The Rescue
  • Theory of Confidence
  • The market, technology or someone or something will take care of it.
classic mental model5
Classic Mental Model
  • The Way We Were
  • This is the way we have always done things, why should we change?
  • The way things used to be is the way they are now.
classic mental model6
Classic Mental Model
  • The Illusion of Away
  • Our trash goes away, our pollution goes away, our oil spills go away, our food comes from away, etc.
classic mental model7
Classic Mental Model
  • The Illusion of Other
  • You are different from me.
  • Humans are separate from nature, there is a hierarchy of living things.
classic mental models
Classic Mental Models
  • What’s behind what people say?
    • “Humans are the central and most significant entities in the universe”
    • “Resources are unlimited and everything is substitutable”
    • “We are in control”
    • “I wasn’t thinking at all”
mental models1
Mental Models
  • Incomplete and constantly changing
  • Not accurate
  • Uncertainty about their validity doesnotprevent them from being used even if incorrect
results of these classic mental models
Results of These Classic Mental Models
  • We often operate without the information we need
  • We ignore and/or can’t see the feedback
  • If we cannot hear or see feedback, we cannot perceive relevant data for our brains to filter
  • We exhibit characteristics of insanity
  • Our “fixes” backfire on us or we shift the burden
mental models2
Mental Models
  • How might you use the concept of mental models with your students?
  • How do mental models impact sustainability?
Toward Sustainability

“We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking

we used when we created them.”

~Albert Einstein

sustainable mental model
Sustainable Mental Model
  • Live by the natural laws
  • We must operate within natural laws and principles rather than attempting to overcome them.
  • They are non-negotiable.
sustainable mental model1
Sustainable Mental Model
  • Consider the 7th generation when making decisions
  • What legacy will we leave our children?
  • A guiding principle of the Iroquois Nation
sustainable mental model2
Sustainable Mental Model
  • We are all responsible
  • Everything we do and everything we don’t do makes a difference.
  • “In the face of rapid destruction of the natural world, how much should we care? First, it is pointless to care for things we cannot affect. Care is squandered where it overreaches our power. Second, our power should not overreach our care. Not to care for things we affect is to act carelessly - that is, destructively.”

~John Nolt

Professor, Environmental Ethics

The University of Tennessee

sustainable mental model3
Sustainable Mental Model
  • We are all in this together
  • We are dependent on each other and on the natural systems upon which all life depends
  • We are all connected and part of a system - the web of life
systems thinking
Systems Thinking

Let’s experience a system!

the systems game
The Systems Game
  • Stand in a large open space, either indoors or out.
  • Select two other people in the group, without indicating whom you have chosen.
  • Move so as to keep at all times an equal distance between you and each of these two people. Note: This does not mean just standing at the midpoint between the two other people.
  • What did you experience?
the systems game1
The Systems Game
  • This activity provides a direct experience of the dynamic nature of open systems.
  • It is very useful in dramatizing the new paradigm view of reality, especially these two features of it:
  • 1) Life is composed not of separate entities, but rather systems - relations between the entities
  • 2) These relations are continually self-organizing
systems thinking1
Systems Thinking
  • The parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, rather than in isolation.
  • Views "problems" as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to specific parts, outcomes or events and potentially contributing to further development of unintended consequences (“revenge effects”)
  • Stands in contrast to Descartes' scientific reductionism.
systems thinking2
Systems Thinking
  • Reductionism or mechanistic thinking was the scientific worldview from the Renaissance to the early 1900’s.
  • Newton’s Laws of Motion
  • Mechanistic thinking proposed that the universe is completely understandable and completely predictable.
  • Mechanistic thinking suggests it is possible to understand the whole by understanding the separate parts.
systems thinking3
Systems Thinking
  • Systems thinking suggests that understanding the parts in isolation is not sufficient to understanding the whole.
  • Can you think of an example in which reductionist thinking resulted in a social, economic or environmental problem?
systems thinking4
Systems Thinking
  • The Easter Island society collapseddue to extensive deforestation and intensive agriculture.
  • Read Jared Diamond’s account at
systems thinking5
Systems Thinking
  • Many oppose the reintroduction of the wolf into Yellowstone.
  • However, the top predator’s return has triggered a cascade of unanticipated positive changes in the park's ecosystem.
  • Wolves benefit scavengers, young trees, and other associated species.
  • See William Ripple’s work on trophic cascades at OSU,

You can understand systems thinking without understanding sustainability, but you cannot understand sustainability without understanding systems thinking.

sustainability reprise
Sustainability, Reprise

A sustainable practice is one that does no long-term environmental, social or economic harm, and that meets the needs of the current generation without jeopardizing the ability of future generations of humans and other species to meet their needs.

  • The international organization The Natural Step ( has identified four systems conditions that must be in place for an entity to be considered truly sustainable
  • Remember the mnemonic
    • Take
    • Make
    • Preserve
    • Respect
  • We’ll consider schools in our examples
condition 1
Condition 1
  • Reduce and ultimately eliminate our dependence on nonrenewable resources such as fossil fuels, metals and minerals.
  • Use renewable resources whenever possible
  • Pay attention to what we take from the earth
condition 1 take
Condition 1: Take
  • What does this look like in a school?
    • Use efficient transportation for students and staff
    • Use local items to limit transportation requirements (e.g., food, office supplies, etc.)
    • Conserve electricity (even in Corvallis, about 70% comes from coal)
    • Limit the use of plastics, which are petroleum based
    • Reduce overall number of purchases
    • Purchase items made of recycled content (metals, minerals, plastics, etc.)
    • Other?
condition 2
Condition 2
  • Reduce and ultimately eliminate our dependence on persistent chemicals and our use of man-made, synthetic substances
  • Use biologically safe products whenever possible - safe for human health and the health of other species
  • Pay attention to what we make & leave in the atmosphere, lithosphere, biosphere and hydrosphere of the earth
condition 2 make
Condition 2: Make
  • What does this look like in a school?
    • Use nontoxic cleaning supplies
    • Use and dispose of laboratory chemicals properly
    • Use low/no VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints
    • Limit the use of plastics and other “disposables”
    • Don’t use pollutants or toxic substances
    • Evaluate new purchases (computers, printers, etc.) for toxins
    • Other?
condition 3
Condition 3
  • Reduce and ultimately eliminate our degradation of and encroachment on nature (e.g., land, water, wildlife, forests, soil, etc.)
  • Protect natural ecosystems whenever possible
  • Preserve biodiversity
condition 3 preserve
Condition 3: Preserve
  • What does this look like in school?
    • Reduce waste to limit landfill requirements (reduce, reuse, and recycle, in that order)
    • Reduce paper use to preserve forest ecosystems
    • Offer vegetarian and vegan food to reduce pollution and land and water degradation
    • Conserve water
    • Maintain exterior grounds without pesticides & herbicides
    • Protect riparian areas (in Corvallis, Jackson and Dixon creeks)
    • Restore native wildlife habitats on campus
    • Remove invasive species
    • Other?
condition 4
Condition 4
  • Support people’s capacity to meet their basic needs fairly and efficiently
  • Treat people with dignity and purchase materials that are produced using this principle whenever possible
  • This condition refers to social justice and human rights as an integral part of sustainability
  • Respect the rights of all people, both local and distant
condition 4 respect
Condition 4: Respect
  • What does this look like in a school?
    • Offer sweatshop-free school logo clothing
    • Treat colleagues, students,parents and community members fairly and with respect
    • Implement school district policies relating to social justice (e.g., no bullying, no harassment of students or staff, etc.)
    • Evaluate support for low income students (can they succeed without a computer at home, can they participate in sports, etc.)
    • Evaluate support for ELL and IEP students
    • Include sustainability as an integral part of classroom instruction
    • Other?
two final considerations

Two Final Considerations

Triple Bottom Line

Cradle to Cradle Design

triple bottom line
Triple Bottom Line
  • Consider and evaluate environmental and social value in addition to economic value
  • Businesses and organizations
  • For personal choices visit
    • shopper)
  • Remember as the “Three E’s”
    • Economic
    • Environment
    • Equity
cradle to cradle design
Cradle to Cradle Design
  • Rather than thinking that all items have a “lifespan”, with an end in the landfill, rethink items as never becoming waste
  • Items following cradle to cradle philosophy are designed to last forever or to be reused and recycled
  • There is a certification process (MBDC) for products similar to LEED, ranging from Basic to Platinum (
  • All chemicals in product identified down to 100ppm level (0.01%)
  • No PVC, chloroprene, or related chemical at any concentration
  • All materials and chemicals assessed for toxicity to human and environmental health
  • Strategy developed to optimize all remaining problematic chemicals
  • All materials defined as technical nutrients to be recycled or biological nutrients to be composted
resources references
Resources & References

The Cloud Institute for Sustainability (CIS), New York

Jamie Cloud (founder and director)

The Fish Game, Mental Models

The Society for Organizational Learning (SOL), Cambridge

Peter Senge (engineer, social systems theorist, founder of SOL, and director of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT)

Mental Models, Systems Thinking

The Natural Step (TNS), Sweden, Portland

Four Systems Conditions for Sustainability

The Sustainable Oregon School Initiative (SOSI), Portland

Lori Stole (manager)

Sustainable School Practices

The Center for Ecoliteracy, Berkeley

Frijof Capra (physicist, systems theorist, and director)

Books: The Turning Point,The Web of Life, The Hidden Connections

Movie: Mindwalk

resources references books
Resources & References: Books


Silent Spring, The Sea Around Us, Rachel Carson

Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, John Ryan

A Green History of the World, Clive Ponting

Earth Odyssey, Mark Hertsgaard

The Wild Trees, Richard Preston

Big Coal, Jeff Goodell

Garbageland: On the Secret Trail of Trash, Elizabeth Royt

The Diversity of Life, Biophilia, The Future of Life, E.O.Wilson

Mama Poc, Anne LaBastille

What We Leave Behind, Derrick Jensen

Human Rights & Social Justice

The Culture of Make Believe, Derrick Jensen

When Corporations Rule the World, David Korten

Nickel & Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich


Diet for a New America, The Food Revolution, John Robbins

Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser

Harvest for Hope, Jane Goodall

The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food, Food Rules, Michael Pollan

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver