father with 2 young kids, little boy sitting up on his fathers shoulders

Ecosystems Thinking with Gopal Dayaneni

Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect. – Chief Seattle

Ecological Systems Thinking is a first-semester course in the USMA program at AULA, along with Science for Urban Sustainability. Gopal Dayaneni inherited instructorship of the course from colleague and mentor, Gilda Haas, after graduating from the program in 2014. Dayaneni has been involved in fighting for social, economic, environmental and racial justice through organizing & campaigning, teaching, writing, speaking and direct action since the late 1980’s.

He brings his lived experience as a long-time activist and educator to the course and loves that teaching it gives him an opportunity to distill his varied experiences into cohesive thought-based tools that students can apply to their lives and work.

The goal of Ecosystems Thinking is to help students establish a thinking-method and approach for their study and work that is interconnected, complex, and web-like rather than linear. “Ecosystems thinking is a way of applying principles of ecology to understanding the systems around us, both ecological and social. We are interested not in “things,” or “parts” but in relationships and the whole,” said Dayaneni.

All things are bound together.

Dayaneni considers his identity as a father to be intrinsic to his work, which makes perfect sense for an individual engaged in complex, ecological systems thinking. It brings to mind the Seven Generations Principle, the ancient Iroquois philosophy that we should consider what has been done in the seven generations before us, and choices we make today should be designed to sustain our planetary resources seven generations into the future.

All things connect.

The class looks at both foundational systems theory— from Donella Meadows and Fritjof Capra to Vandana Shiva and Chief Seattle. They explore the works of notable writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Naomi Klein, and also the work of every-day grassroots intellectuals and movement activists working on everything from Climate Justice to the Right to Housing. They seek to understand how all issues are connected and how practical tools such as permaculture, agroecology, true cost accounting, and narrative power analysis, can help us live and work into “a vision of the world we want.”

Ecosystems Thinking, in line with the operating philosophy of the USMA program, emphasizes working directly with community-based organizations and creating co-learning opportunities for students and program partners, whom students work with intensively during the residencies. Through the direct experience and program elements such as The Big Question Lab (another contribution of Gilda Haas), students have the opportunity to practice the frameworks and tools on real-world problems through both their fieldwork placements and the intensive residencies where they work collaboratively with community-based organizations.

“Ecological Systems Thinking increases our tolerance for complexity by providing us with principles, frameworks and pragmatic tools to help us make meaning of the world, our place in it and the possibilities for transformation,” says Dayaneni. “It allows us to both squint onto the horizon and remember our way forward as we navigate the complexities of the transition before us.”

Humankind has not woven the web of life.

Dayaneni expressed that one of his main goals is to engender a high tolerance for complexity, but he thinks that his daughter said it best when she was about eight-years-old:

“The web of life is more of a tangle.”- Ila

Malia Gaffney holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She lives in LA.
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