Written by Mike Pattenden and featured in The Times on 4 November 2021 during the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26)
Leonardo da Vinci believed that everything is connected. The idea is often repeated throughout history but is rarely applied in any depth at our teaching institutions or in the business world. A group of leading academics at the University of Plymouth are using their knowledge and experience to change that – and help save the planet in the process.
Plymouth is widely referred to as 'Britain’s Ocean City'. It is home to Marine Research Plymouth – a partnership of its three major science institutions: the Marine Biological Association; Plymouth Marine Laboratory; and the University of Plymouth Marine Institute, one of the foremost centres of learning in the world for marine research and related environmental issues.
“Plymouth has been a focus for marine science for over 100 years,” says Richard Thompson, Professor of Marine Biology. “We have in the southwest of England a confluence of species from southern waters and northern waters that provides immense biodiversity. Our environmental research here has led us to the realisation that events on land are inextricably linked with those in the sea.”
Professor Thompson is also Director of the Marine Institute and with Professor Will Blake, Director of the Sustainable Earth Institute, he is using Systems Thinking to shape an approach to environmental research. This takes interconnectedness to another level. It’s a school of critical thought that sees a problem as part of a much larger tapestry in which multiple elements are shaping and reshaping outcomes. For that reason, problems should be treated holistically rather than in isolation.
Systems Thinking is particularly useful for applying to environmental issues because it recognises the dynamic relationship between interacting factors and the value of transdisciplinary collaboration.
“We’ve become Systems Thinkers here,” explains Blake, “because we’re trying to solve complex problems, we have learnt through experience to practise it in order to find real solutions. These sorts of problems can’t be solved in a linear way or by one discipline or from a single perspective.”
Thompson’s research has made him the world’s leading expert on microplastics; he coined the term in a ground-breaking paper, Lost at Sea, in 2004. Since then he has broadened understanding of the impacts of plastics and put forward potential solutions to the problem.
“I spotted a proliferation of these tiny, granular pieces of plastic on beaches that had broken down from much bigger items 20 years ago, but it has taken this long to reach a consensus on the issue,” he says. “Now, policymakers and industry leaders are jumping at solutions. But we have to understand the wider circularity of the story. If people act independently without appreciating the complexity of the problem, there will be unintended consequences. I had one supermarket approach me with the idea of using bio-sourced plastics – until I pointed out that this alone wouldn’t stop the vast wastage.”