Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is an approach to analysis that involves looking at the different aspects of a problem holistically. It is based on the idea that various parts of a system interrelate, and therefore must be viewed and considered comprehensively. Systems thinking leads to finding connections that otherwise could not be discovered if a problem were not examined holistically.

Figure 1. Systems thinking sketch of water pollution cause by animal agriculture

Figure 1 displays the system of the problem of water pollution caused by animal agriculture. There are four aspects of the problem depicted in the figure: causes, solutions, limitations of the solutions, and those impacted by the solutions. Red arrows depict causal  relationships between parts of the problem. Arrows going from  solutions to an entity or  group impacted by the solution are marked with either a plus or minus sign. A plus sign signifies that it is a positive impact on the entity or group, while the minus sign signifies a negative impact on the entity or group.

Based on my sketch, the two causes that must be addressed in order mitigate the problem are large scale lobbying of industries that produce animal products, as well as the demand for cheap animal products. These two factors are the driving forces of the numerous other causes of the water pollution, and are also leading limitations of all the solutions. This is because lobbying of the animal product industry and demand for cheap animal products leads to the government providing massive subsidies to such industries. These subsidies give massive power to the animal product industry, leading to corporate control of the government. As long as the industry is wealthy and there is demand for cheap animal products, it will continue to raise animals industrially. If animals continue to be mass produced for their products at the current rate, excessive amounts of manure will keep polluting bodies of water.

The solutions of water pollution caused by animal agriculture are all limited by the corporate control the animal product industry has over the government. While this corporate control is in place, it is difficult to end the leading causes of the problem discussed above: lobbying of the industry and demand for cheap animal products. The industry is being overly subsidized, making it wealthy enough to hire lobbyists to advocate on its behalf. These lobbyists outnumber individuals and nonprofits lobbying in support of animal welfare and the environment. Additionally, the control the industry has over the government leads to legislation that limits transparency of factory farms. For instance, Ag-gag legislation makes it illegal to investigate and publicize activities of factory farms. Without the elimination of such legislation, most individuals will remain unaware of environmental and animal welfare issues of the industry, and will continue to support them through a demand for cheap animal products. Unless people are presented with images and video footage of the animal abuse and environmental hazards in factory farms, individuals are most likely to not feel morally obligated to take action.

Solutions must be based on the fact that the demand for cheap animal products and large scale lobbying of the industry lead to government subsidies that give the animal product industry excessive power. Corporate control simultaneously drives the other causes of the issue, and acts as a major limitation of the solutions. Thus, there is a vicious cycle of industry power and a lack of transparency. Therefore, through campaign finance reform, the government must stop subsidizing the animal product industry in order to eliminate the industry’s control, despite the large scale of lobbying done by the industry. Additionally, policy and regulation must be made to increase the transparency of the industry. If Ag-gag laws are eliminated, more people will have access to information about issues regarding animal welfare and environmental problems within the industry. The increase of education and awareness that would follow may decrease the demand for cheap animal products, and increase the demand for plant based options. It will be difficult to change this legislation, and simultaneously reduce the demand of cheap meat, due to the cyclical nature of the problem. However, it is possible if people who are already aware of issues associated with the industry use their knowledge and passion to spread awareness to individuals and elected officials. If society demands both the elimination of cheap animal products and increased transparency of the industry, policy and regulation must be put in place that will reduce the demand for cheap animal products.

All of the solutions in my sketch positively affect other countries, those who use or live near polluted water, farm animals, as well as marine and aquatic organisms. However, they negatively affect corporations and factory farm employees. However, I do not believe these negative consequences on corporations and their employees should prevent increased awareness and policy reform from taking place. While animal product industries may suffer as a result of increased consumer knowledge and a lack of government financial support, other industries that are more sustainable may flourish in their place. For example, industries researching and producing plant-based foods and in-vitro meat production may be in higher demand. The success of such industries is not merely economically beneficial, but also sustainable. Additionally, while factory farm employees may negatively benefit in the form of job loss, there will be an increase of jobs in market of plant-based foods. These jobs are not only more sustainable, but also safer and less emotionally damaging for employees.

The causes, solutions, limitations of solutions, and those impacted by solutions of water pollution caused by animal agriculture are deeply interconnected as depicted in my systems thinking sketch. Currently, there is a vicious cycle of corporate control of the government that decreases transparency and keeps the demand for cheap animal products high through a lack of consumer knowledge. In order to mitigate water pollution caused by animal agriculture, policy and regulation must be changed, as well as the subsidization of the animal product industry. While some corporations and individuals will me negatively impacted by these changes, the long term economic, social, and environmental benefits of the changes outweigh short term negative impacts.

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