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National Environmental Summit Students at Catawba Learn about Whole System Thinking

07/31/11 by Kathy Chaffin

RMI’s Lena Hansen tells Summit students about whole system thinking. (PHOTO CREDIT: SETH HOLTZMAN)

SALISBURY – High school students attending the “Redesigning Our Future” National Environmental Summit at the Center for the Environment on the Catawba College campus had the opportunity to learn from representatives of one of the country’s leading authorities on energy solutions.

Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in Colorado – which cosponsored the July 20-24 summit – is committed to mapping and driving the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy and energy efficiency. The nonprofit research and consulting organization works with all sides in the national energy debate, including policymakers, businesses and even those opposed to its efforts.

Marty Pickett, executive director and general counsel for the institute, joined Dr. John Wear, executive director of the Center, in welcoming rising high school juniors and seniors from all over the country to the opening on July 20. “We’re delighted to be here and excited to share some of our knowledge and work that we do at RMI,” she said.

“We also work with business leaders from communities, heads of states of small countries and big companies from Coca-Cola to Texas Instruments to Duke Energy, right here in North Carolina, so this is really different for us but really exciting for us … to have an opportunity to work with the business and other leaders of tomorrow.”

Pickett, who serves on the Center for the Environment’s Board of Advisors, said she was particularly excited that the summit included students interested in pursuing different types of careers. The five staff members of RMI at the summit also come from diverse backgrounds, she said, including international studies, landscape painting, rodeo and politics.

In workshops on July 21 and 22, four other RMI staff members introduced students to the concepts of whole system thinking and collaboration, concepts they use in their work. Both afternoons, students were divided into smaller groups to give them a chance to try both methods to solve hypothetical environmental problems.

For Chloe Green of Lenoir, a rising junior at Caldwell Early College High School, and Melissa Gold, a rising senior home-school student from Denton, the Rocky Mountain Institute workshops were among their favorite parts of the summit. “They were quite interesting and enjoyable,” said Green, who described herself as “an environmental nut.”

Gold, who is planning to apply to Catawba’s environmental program, said she especially enjoyed Friday’s afternoon workshop on collaboration. “I feel like that’s something I need to work on,” she said.

McKenna O’Connell, a rising senior at R-S Central High School in Rutherfordton, said she enjoyed learning about the whole system thinking concept and the role-playing exercise on collaboration. Her group was assigned to decide the future of a community lake, and O’Connell played the part of a city councilwoman aspiring to run for governor.

Her real goal, she said, is to graduate from the University of Colorado or the University of South Carolina and work as a green consultant in sustainability. Working for RMI or an organization like it is her dream job, she said.

Whole System Thinking

Lena Hansen, principal with RMI’s electricity practice, offered an overview of whole system thinking – including what it is, how to use it and its various characteristics. Jesse Morris, RMI’s transportation analyst, followed on how to make sure the right questions are being asked to address specific problems, while Mathias Bell, consultant with RMI’s electricity practice, concluded with advice on learning from natural systems that have evolved over long periods of time. “So those are really just three lenses through which we can understand whole system thinking,” Hansen said.

There are all types of systems, she said, including ecosystems, planetary systems, mechanical systems and human systems. Hansen said whole system thinking focuses on understanding the relationships between different parts of the system, including what or who the parts are and how they interact with one another.

“The real truth of the matter,” she said, “is that most of the world’s big problems – hunger, war, environmental problems, climate change – these are all system failures and they cannot be solved by addressing only one of the parts. It’s impossible. They’re too big and complex.

“The only way we’ll ever be able to find effective solutions to these huge problems is by being able to take a step back and understand the systems and look for the root cause of the problems ….”


Jesse Morris, RMI’s transportation analyst, leads students in an exercise.

Morris explained the importance of asking the right questions in addressing environmental issues and thinking outside the box to consider possibilities to problem solving. When it comes to the challenge of cutting down on emissions, for example, he raised such questions as what would happen if every person worked at home one day a week, car pooled for recreational activities, shared vehicles to do errands and/or biked with children to school.

He challenged students at a session led by Michael Kinsley, senior consultant for RMI’s communities and campuses, to ask more questions. For example, when they began discussing the problem of the packing waste generated by ordering textbooks, he asked if they even needed books when they can use various eBook devices instead. This changed the whole nature of the discussion.

Bell said people can learn how to deal with environmental issues by studying how natural systems have evolved, adopted and failed. “What can we do to learn from nature and use it to help solve some of our problems?” he asked.

Leonardo da Vinci, for example, studied birds to sketch his vision of an airplane. The Wright Brothers did the same thing and developed the first successful biplane.

As planes evolved, he said, designers continued to model birds, designing the cockpits like the heads of kingfishers.


On July 22, Kinsley, a former elected official, led a workshop on collaboration, explaining what it is, when to do it, how and with whom. He said it wasn’t an area at which he naturally excelled.

When he started getting interested in environmental issues and trying to influence people to change their behaviors, Kinsley said he would develop a long speech or position paper and then give a presentation in his efforts to persuade them.

“Those efforts I’m sure got our allies, our friends, more active and more vocal,” he said. “But in retrospect, I didn’t change anybody’s mind. I didn’t change anybody’s behavior, except our allies became a little more active.”

It was after he took a course in mediation that Kinsley learned about effective collaboration. Even that wasn’t easy, he said.

At first, Kinsley reverted back to his old habit, listening to both sides and then saying, “A, you need to do this, and B, you need to do that.”

After dividing students into groups to do a role-play activity concerning a lake in the community of Dragonfly, he encouraged them to use the following pointers on collaboration:

*Employ active listening by acknowledging, empathizing and clarifying.

* Set aside differences and disagreements to solve mutual problems.

* Hear concerns and ideas before telling them yours.

* Understand their interests before telling them yours.

* Describe your interests instead of defending your position.

* Join them before expecting them to join you.

* Explore relevant problems and possible solutions by asking questions rather than stating positions.

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The Center for the Environment at Catawba College was founded in 1996 to provide education and outreach centered on prevalent environmental challenges and to foster community-oriented sustainable solutions that can serve as a model for programs throughout the country. For more information, visit www.centerfortheenvironment.orgor

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