6 | Systems Thinking for Sustainable Tourism

Limits to Growth Causal Loop Diagram for tourism

What can we learn from Systems Thinking about tackling the 'Boom and Bust' cycle identified in our example system, a nature-based coastal tourist resort?

In Systems terminology, 'Boom and Bust' is often called 'Overshoot and Collapse'. It is a very common pattern of behaviour in Systems.

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The Dynamics of Overshoot and Collapse

  • The positive feedback loop is the driving force behind exponential growth
  • Growth depends on use of a limited resource - here, a renewable one
  • Growth will, for a time, rise very rapidly
  • Eventually, demand on the limited resource is greater than its ability to renew itself (OVERSHOOT)
  • The resource collapses, and with it, the growth (COLLAPSE)

Overshoot happens when a population’s consumption exceeds the carrying capacity of its environment

Limits to growth graph
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Fisheries: A similar dynamic

Fisheries graph: credit John Sterman

Image (edited): 'Creating a Sustainable Society: Dynamics of Renewable Resources' by John Sterman

People thought there'd always be enough fish...

John Cabot

John Cabot, exploring Newfoundland in 1497, noted fish (cod) so thick that they practically blocked his ship.

Thomas Henry Huxley

'Probably all the great fisheries are inexhaustible; that is to say that nothing we do seriously affects the number of fish.' - Thomas Henry Huxley, 1883

But now..

90% of the world's fish stocks are reported as fully exploited or overexploited and, thus, requiring effective and precautionary management.
Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Report (2018)

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Lessons from Systems Thinking

Why Look for Known System Patterns?

Identifying common patterns of System behaviour increases understanding and provides access to established solutions for fixing similar problems. That's because systems with similar feedback structures produce similar dynamic behaviours. Identifying such feedback structures is one of the key skills of a Systems Thinker.

Changing the System

There are many systems that follow the 'Boom and Bust', or 'Overshoot and Collapse', pattern. Here are examples of measures that can help to bring such a system towards sustainability:

  • Strengthening the negative feedback loop or weakening the positive feedback loop
  • An example: instead of aiming for unlimited growth, deliberately limiting growth can slow down the main positive feedback loop
  • Taking care not to exceed the critical threshold beyond which the natural resource can regenerate itself
  • A combination of changing goals and careful monitoring and management can lead to a sustainable model, where environmental quality, industry and local jobs are all maintained over the longer term
  • Changing the structure of the system: on the next page we explore adding a new link from profits to investment in the local environment

'Running the same system harder or faster will not change the pattern as long as the structure is not revised.'
― Dennis Meadows, The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update

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Question 11: Which of the following are examples of renewable resources?

Check all that apply:

(Hint: Renewable resource are non-depletable or naturally replenishable.)

Fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas)
Solar energy
Wind energy
Uranium (for nuclear energy)
Geothermal energy (heat from the earth's core)
Prey, to a predator (eg rabbits or chickens, to a fox)

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Question 12: Which of the following are examples of systems that follow a similar 'Overshoot and Collapse' pattern?

Check all that apply:

(Hint: choose systems where something is being consumed, reduced or even killed by growth, so that growth cannot continue..)

A bacterial infection that kills the host
A thermostat-based heating system (where temperature is kept close to the chosen setting)
A 'goldrush' town whose population grows rapidly at first but is later abandoned
A forest fire that burns itself out
Product market saturation (eg adoption of an innovative product)

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