THE BLOG
01/29/2013 04:45 pm ET | Updated Mar 31, 2013

If You Cut a Cow in Half, Do You Get Two Cows?

With so many big issues to be decided in coming months -- Will President Obama's actions on climate change match his newly strong rhetoric? Will the Keystone pipeline be approved? Will Shell Oil be permitted to resume efforts to drill in the Arctic? -- I've been thinking of a recent conversation with Linda Booth Sweeney, who often teaches systems thinking to children.

Sometimes, she said, she presents four-year-olds with a picture of a cow and asks, "If you cut a cow in half, do you get two cows?"

"No way!" they shout.

The kids understand that a cow has parts that belong together and have to be arranged in a certain way for the cow to live. You can't have the tail in front and the nose in back.

But adults often miss this simple truth about systems integrity, as well as many of the other principles that explain how living systems work. And, Sweeney says, echoing the words of Joseph Campbell, "People who don't have a concept of the whole, can do very unfortunate things..."

The lack of a systems understanding helps explain why, in recent months, reports about Shell's efforts to drill in the rough and ice-filled waters of the Arctic have often been reduced to two questions: Can it be done safely (something now being reconsidered in an urgent U.S. Department of the Interior review)? And how much oil could be unearthed if the quest proves successful ("potentially enough to fuel 25 million cars for 35 years," according to the New York Times)?

What's often missing is a consideration of how drilling in the Arctic connects to other issues, such as climate change. In other words, given the connection between fossil fuels and our warming planet, should we even consider drilling for more oil?

But in an unheralded bit of good news coming out of the education world, a growing number of educators are helping young people develop a better understanding of the complexity of the world around them by teaching them to think in terms of relationships, connectedness and context.

The Center for Ecoliteracy, for example, advances education for sustainable living that helps young people to better understand the principles of living systems; anticipate unintended consequences (such as accidents, which, thanks to the 2010 BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, many of us now think about); and make invisible connections visible.

In a illustration of how to make the invisible visible, Sweeney recently helped a group of students visualize what happened when wolves were removed from Yellowstone National Park after ranchers complained that they were attacking sheep and cattle. She made cards to represent the aspen trees, beavers and, of course, wolves, sheep and ranchers. Then she gave the students yarn to make the connections -- showing, for example, that when the wolves were removed, the moose and elk population soared, which led to depletion of the shrubs and plants and fewer nesting areas for the birds.

"Then it really hit home -- the connections you can't see," she said. And that is the critical leap you have to make to understand how living systems work, says Sweeney. "Most connections you can't see. In real life, you have to imagine them."

Lisa Bennett is coauthor of Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence (2012) and Director of Communications for the Center for Ecoliteracy, a nonprofit dedicated to education for sustainable living.