Every path to sustainability is paved with systems

Jan. 14, 3013

Sue Nichols, assistant director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability
Wolong, China

On my first visit to Wolong 10 years ago, I had a good-natured struggle with the name of the group with which I was tagging along. It’s a mouthful—Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability.

Back then I was the university’s senior science writer. I called it Jack’s shop—a journalist’s shorthand and cheerful homage to director Jack Liu.

But after days hiking the green, lush mountains looking for tracks, bits of fur, and poop that signal the shy pandas’ presence, “systems” made sense. I could see the pandas were a system—their struggle to keep showing up and adding more pandas.

Sue NicholsThere are systems all over—from the bamboo that pandas eat and so expertly hide among to the people scratching their existence out of the same hills, setting up shops, trying to ensure they show up every day and add more children.

So systems integration made sense—a fancy way of acknowledging that nothing happens alone.  A person chops down trees to heat the family home, clear a plot of land to grow cabbages. Those actions bump the panda system. Bamboo gets pushed out, feeding grounds fragment.  Governments create policy to protect the pandas, another system bump and a family business fails. The systems bump, they ricochet, bump again.

Sustainability—that’s the golden word. Sustainability points the way to make sure both humans and nature thrive. Every path to sustainability is paved with systems.  The Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability is a common purpose not just to study the individual struggle, but honor that the struggle to show up, stay strong and leave offspring is—and must be—a group effort.

A decade later I’m back in Wolong, this time not just an observer. Two years ago I returned to MSU as assistant director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability. I like to say I’ve gone native after a career of professional detachment.

Part of my mission is to make those words that I once viewed with affectionate bemusement resonate. Sing, even.

Here I find Wolong showing me that Mother Nature has her own ideas of systems integration. The 2008 earthquake has turned the earth itself inside out, exposing entrails of boulders and shards of shale. Nothing quite says integration like throwing a world asunder. The Wolong I visited in 2002 is gone.

My center is living all those words in the middle of a resurrection—working to understand the systems, figuring out the integration, and helping find the ways to sustainability. Resiliency—for all of us—is a powerful lesson to take into the rest of the world.

Spartans will.