Helping Communities Think Systemically: An Interview with Eleanor Sterling

by Lisa Mastny


New Dream spoke with Eleanor Sterling, Director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and a member of our Board of Directors, about the need for “big picture” thinking to address the world’s most pressing environmental and conservation challenges.

Can you briefly describe your work with the American Museum of Natural History?

I direct the Museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC), which aims to mitigate critical threats to the world’s biological and cultural diversity. We work across the globe, across the tree of life, and across disciplines to better understand biodiversity and the relationship between people and the natural world around them.

One of the many important things the CBC does is to bring the Museum’s strengths in science, education, and outreach to local communities, especially those at the forefront of the biodiversity crisis. We foster collaboration at the local, national, and international levels in order to build professional, institutional, and community capacity for conservation. Our approach focuses on developing local leadership to provide a foundation for ongoing conservation activities. We are proponents of a global outlook but encourage local, community-based action.

You’re also a big proponent of systems thinking. Can you explain what you mean by this?

One of the things CBC seeks to do is raise people’s awareness that the choices we make as individuals, governments, businesses, etc. have an impact on human health, well-being, and the environment. By taking a systems approach, we encourage people to focus on the interrelationships or linkages among the different parts of a system and how they work together as a whole.

Oftentimes, scientists or policymakers focus in on just one part of a system, and by doing so they may create a larger problem than the one they were hoping to fix. For example, someone concerned about food shortages might choose to work on improving yields, by growing more grain per acre. But if they haven’t also thought about the potential problems with food distribution—transporting crops from the field to far-off tables—or if they don’t consider the downstream consequences of applying fertilizers or other chemicals to increase the yield, this can result in greater societal costs that aren’t currently factored in to calculations. We can’t continue to parse out issues and pretend that they’re separate from other issues, without major consequences down the line.

Why is it so important to take a bigger-picture perspective? And is it always practical to approach environmental and other problems this way?

One of our former students at Columbia University, Dr. Andrés Gómez, was trained initially as a veterinarian and then studied for his doctorate in Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology. He talks about how a vet is trained to hone in on a problem—for instance, trying to rid a single cow of an intestinal parasite. The vet may prescribe drugs that reduce the parasite threat, thus achieving a positive outcome for the individual cow. But when these drugs leave the cow’s body, they can impact a wide range of other organisms. They may kill off dung beetles that normally help break down the cow’s dung—recycling nutrients and keeping fly populations in check. A decline in dung beetle populations can result in a loss of biodiversity and an increase in pests, potentially boosting the spread of disease across the entire herd of cows. So Dr. Gómez asks, who should his patient be? The single cow? The whole herd? Or the ecosystem of which the cow is just one part?

Sometimes it’s difficult to determine the most effective level at which to tackle a problem. Part of the reason we focus in on subsets of a system is because it is so much easier than trying to envision all the connections across a system and understanding which are the most important. It helps to take interdisciplinary approaches to problems and to learn from other communities and specialists when addressing a problem, as this makes it easier for us to identify key connections.  

Can you provide an example of how CBC helps communities address conservation challenges from a systems perspective?

Part of our role is to help people understand the repercussions of their decisions, and to get them actively involved in generating outcomes that are more positive for the system as a whole. In 2007, we worked with the Greenbelt Native Plant Center in New York City to launch the Great Pollinator Project. The project leverages growing concern about the health of native pollinators and native plants by engaging a group of “citizen scientists” from around the community. These volunteers help us gather valuable data on the city’s bees in order to influence land management practices that will benefit local populations of these key pollinators.

Thirty percent of human crops depend on pollinators, and replacement costs for the free “services” that pollinators provide would be in the billions of dollars in the U.S. alone. In New York and other cities, most plants in community gardens, parks, and natural areas rely on bees to move pollen from flower to flower so that the plants can reproduce. Fortunately, because insect pollinators are small, there is much that can be done in urban environments to support them, even in small habitat patches.

For the past four years, our volunteer “Bee Watchers” have submitted observations from five boroughs to quantify the services these pollinators bring. The Museum has also used its world-class facilities to identify New York City’s 232 documented bee species, probably one of the most comprehensive inventories of bees in any urban center. While it would be hard or even impossible for scientists to survey such a vast area themselves, by collaborating with interested community members, we can gather information on general patterns and identify areas that merit greater scientific attention. Meanwhile, our volunteers benefit by learning more about the important role of pollinators and participating actively in local conservation efforts.

Do you feel like the conservation movement needs to do a better job in helping people make the connections between their everyday choices as consumers and some of the wider conservation challenges we face?

Conservation is intricately related to consumer culture. It’s important to get people to recognize that their individual actions have an impact, and that making behavioral change is crucial to protecting the global environment. One important area that addresses this link is change in America’s food system. The food choices that we make hugely impact the environment, and by raising awareness among consumers and changing consumer behavior, we can also bring about important political change.

More and more, we are seeing biodiversity conservation issues dovetail with health issues that affect people directly. For instance, climate change and pollution both have clear and potentially severe consequences for human and non-human species. In addition, we are starting to understand the connections between how we manage our lands and the consequences for human health, for instance in the patterns of loss of biodiversity and higher transmission of Lyme disease in the northeastern U.S., or the relationship between loss of forests and increase in malaria. As these connections become better understood, I believe we will see more collaboration between groups working on consumer culture issues and conservation biologists. 

What advice would you give to someone seeking to promote behavioral change in his or her community? Are there certain steps that you’ve found to be particularly helpful, in your own experience?

A first step we find to be helpful is what we call “zero time”—the time it takes to get to know a diverse set of people from a community and learn how the various community members perceive issues and problems. Only after this first step can project participants work to co-evolve understanding of the issues and potential solutions. Any project you undertake has to be relevant for the community with which you’re working, and the project’s relevance and importance should be embedded on a cultural level. As part of a community, you’re co-understanding and co-acting to create positive change.

What led you to work in the conservation field, and to work directly with communities? Was there a defining moment that influenced your career path and overall values?

My family always encouraged personal and professional commitment to excellence and concern for others. The town I grew up in, Davis, California, reinforced and enhanced these values, particularly in helping me better understand my role as a steward of the environment. Davis has a wonderful community spirit and a longstanding dedication to sustainability issues.

Davis was one of the first places in the U.S. to install bike lanes some 40 years ago, and we all rode our bikes everywhere. I recall biking to school in the 1970s, past student-built co-housing cooperative dome-homes and passing through the Village Homes neighborhood where most of the buildings incorporate solar energy technology. My family and friends would bike to the annual Whole Earth Festival, where we would sample soy ice cream. All of this sounds commonplace now, but it was all new then. I had teachers in grade school who continued to foster these values, and they helped me develop my interest in the living world around us.

You’ve been a member of the board of the Center for a New American Dream for several years. What drew you to New Dream, and what role do you see the organization playing in encouraging the kinds of systemic changes you’re advocating?

I first learned about New Dream when we developed a series at the Museum called “Living with Nature,” where we explored the importance of personal choice—in our food, energy, what we buy, how we spend our time locally, and how we raise our children. We wanted to make the connection between choices we make and the health of humans and our environment. We realized that [current New Dream board members] Betsy Taylor and Juliet Schor were leaders in these issues, and invited them to serve as panelists. I believe that New Dream continues to foster this important dialogue, helping people to address the big-picture challenges we all face by providing positive, inspiring examples of actions that people can take both as individuals and in their communities.

Eleanor Sterling is Director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and Director of Graduate Studies and adjunct faculty at Columbia University's Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology. She received her Ph.D and M.Phil. in  Anthropology and Forestry and Environmental Studies from Yale University and her B.A. from Yale College.