Taking the Systems View: climate change as a driver of SDG implementation

Posted on December 22, 2016 by

This is a guest post by Dr. Daniel Christian Wahl, Head of Innovation at Gaia Education, which is based out of Findhorn Ecovillage.

Once the doors closed on yet another United Nations climate gathering – this time in Marrakech – Paula Caballero, director of the climate program at the World Resource Institute, summed up a growing insight among world leaders and their governments. An adequate response to climate change has to be based on the deeper connections between the urgency to avoid dangerous runaway global warming and meeting all of the Sustainable Development Goals as soon as possible:

“At COP22, there was growing recognition that countries will not reach their sustainable development goals without addressing climate change, nor can climate change be addressed without promoting sustainable development. The continued well-being of our economies and societies demands urgent action towards a zero-carbon, climate resilient world” (WRI, 2016).

Humanity as a whole needs to learn to collaborate to urgently reduce CO2 emissions and begin to embark on programmes aimed at bio-sequestering atmospheric carbon in diverse forests, healthy soils and ecosystems, nutritious food, and diverse bio-materials that will provide the feedstocks for the circular, regionally focussed bio-economies of the future.

Yet the challenge goes much deeper than that. A whole systems response to climate change is about moving beyond carbon myopia to create complex solutions that match the complexity of the converging crises. These solutions need to simultaneously address fossil resource depletion, rising fundamentalism, populism, and terrorism, breakdown of social cohesion, stark inequality and multiple drivers for mass migration.

In essence, rather than framing climate change as the inevitable herald of difficult times ahead, we need to reframe it as the catalyst of an urgently needed transformative response at the species level. A response that heralds new opportunities, if we learn to collaborate in creating a world that works for all.

The leadership needed for such a transformative response might be provided by the most diverse collaborative network of nations after the United Nations itself. The Commonwealth includes more than a third of humanity on half of the world’s landmasses, with its 52 member states spread across all continents, uniting all the major faith groups, and more than 60% of its population under 30 years of age. It represents not only a large part of the future of humanity, but also 31 of the 37 most climate change endangered nations. In her address at COP 22, Baroness Patricia Scotland, the Secretary General of the Commonwealth said:

“The Commonwealth’s priority is to move from commitment to action. … a month ago we convened a groundbreaking and dynamic gathering on ‘Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change’. It brought together biologists, ecologists, oceanographers and regenerative development specialists to consider ways of reversing the human impacts on climate change. Our focus was to develop positive actions for the living world to restore climate balance including biomimicry, permaculture, ecological engineering and circular economies. It is through such pioneering approaches … that progressive global consensus can be built to create a saver and more sustainable future for all” (Commonwealth Secretariat, 2016).

As an educational charity with an 11 year track record in practical and community focussed education for sustainable development that has reach learners from 101 countries, Gaia Education was invited to contribute to this new initiative of the Commonwealth Secretariat. The focus over the following months will be to support existing and establish new pilot projects in some of the Commonwealth countries. From June 2017 onwards, the aim is to multiply such efforts across the 52 nations of the Commonwealth.

Aiming to reach a global impact by spreading solutions that work rather than scaling them up, the Secretariat, Gaia Education and many other contributors will collaborate in developing effective programmes to help communities help themselves in ways that increase their water, food, and energy security. Practicing regenerative agriculture, soil and ecosystems regeneration, agro-forestry and increasing local bio-productivity not only helps to reduce atmospheric CO2 but creates the basis for vibrant regional bio-economies and thriving climate resilient communities in the process.

Gaia Education defines ecological design as “elegant solutions carefully adapted to the bio-cultural uniqueness of place.” The NGO’s 125-hour face-to-face and 400-hour online programmes in ‘Design for Sustainability’ introduce learners to synergistic win-win-win solutions that become possible if we stop seeing problems like climate change and their solutions in isolation but begin to take a systems view of life. Understanding humanity’s collective dependence on planetary life support systems invites us to move from competitive to collaborative advantage. Humanity has to learn from the central insight of biomimicry: “Life creates conditions conducive to life” (Benyus, 1996).

By building on the ground capacity for local communities to help themselves – with global support and collaboration – a transformative response to the climate crisis is possible. Experts agree that we can reverse the trends towards rising average temperatures and reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations within this century. An integrative whole systems design perspective can inform a shared path of regenerative development that will enable all of humanity to implement all of the Sustainable Development Goals in diverse ways that are both community-led and place-sensitive. Let us stop framing climate change as the greatest threat to humanity and reframe it as a potentially transformative opportunity to redesign the predominant human impact on Earth from degeneration to regeneration!


Learn more about Gaia Education at their website or follow them on Twitter and Facebook. Their online course in Ecological Design begins on January 2, 2017, and runs for 8 weeks.

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