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Ecological Literacy – Systems thinking!

Rising food prices together with the price of oil and a series of so-called “natural” catastrophes dominate the news every day. At the same time, there is a lot of confusion. Why are world food prices increasing so quickly and dramatically? Why is world hunger rising again after a long steady decline? What do food prices have to do with the price of oil? Why is it so important to grow food locally and organically? In this brief talk, I shall try to show that a full understanding of these issues requires a new ecological understanding of life (a new “ecological literacy”) as well as a new kind of “systemic” thinking – thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context.

Indeed, over the last 25 years, such a new understanding of life has emerged at the forefront of science. I want to illustrate this new understanding by asking the age-old question, what is life? What’s the difference between a rock and a plant, animal, or microorganism? To understand the nature of life, it is not enough to understand DNA, proteins, and the other molecular structures that are the building blocks of living organisms, because these structures also exist in dead organisms, for example, in a dead piece of wood or bone.

The difference between a living organism and a dead organism lies in the basic process of life – in what sages and poets throughout the ages have called the “breath of life.” In modern scientific language, this process of life is called “metabolism.” It is the ceaseless flow of energy and matter through a network of chemical reactions, which enables a living organism to continually generate, repair, and perpetuate itself. In other words, metabolism involves the intake, digestion, and transformation of food.

Metabolism is the central characteristic of biological life. But understanding metabolism is not enough to understand life. When we study the structures, metabolic processes, and evolution of the myriads of species on the planet, we notice that the outstanding characteristic of our biosphere is that it has sustained life for billions of years. How does the Earth do that? How does nature sustain life?

Ecological Literacy

To understand how nature sustains life, we need to move from biology to ecology, because sustained life is a property of an ecosystem rather than a single organism or species. Over billions of years of evolution, the Earth’s ecosystems have evolved certain principles of organization to sustain the web of life. Knowledge of these principles of organization, or principles of ecology, is what we mean by “ecological literacy.”

In the coming decades, the survival of humanity will depend on our ecological literacy – our ability to understand the basic principles of ecology and to live accordingly. This means that ecoliteracy must become a critical skill for politicians, business leaders, and professionals in all spheres, and should be the most important part of education at all levels – from primary and secondary schools to colleges, universities, and the continuing education and training of professionals.

We need to teach our children, our students, and our corporate and political leaders, the fundamental facts of life – that one species’ waste is another species’ food; that matter cycles continually through the web of life; that the energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun; that diversity assures resilience; that life, from its beginning more than three billion years ago, did not take over the planet by combat but by networking.

All these principles of ecology are closely interrelated. They are just different aspects of a single fundamental pattern of organization that has enabled nature to sustain life for billions of years. In a nutshell: nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities. No individual organism can exist in isolation. Animals depend on the photosynthesis of plants for their energy needs; plants depend on the carbon dioxide produced by animals, as well as on the nitrogen fixed by bacteria at their roots; and together plants, animals, and microorganisms regulate the entire biosphere and maintain the conditions conducive to life.

Sustainability, then, is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships. It always involves a whole community. This is the profound lesson we need to learn from nature. The way to sustain life is to build and nurture community. A sustainable human community interacts with other communities – human and nonhuman – in ways that enable them to live and develop according to their nature. Sustainability does not mean that things do not change. It is a dynamic process of co-evolution rather than a static state.

Systems thinking

The fact that ecological sustainability is a property of a web of relationships means that in order to understand it properly, in order to become ecologically literate, we need to learn how to think in terms of relationships, in terms of interconnections, patterns, context. In science, this type of thinking is known as systemic thinking or “systems thinking.” It is crucial for understanding ecology, because ecology – derived from the Greek word oikos (“household”) – is the science of relationships among the various members of the Earth Household.

Systems thinking emerged from a series of interdisciplinary dialogues among biologists, psychologists, and ecologists, in the 1920s and ’30s. In all these fields, scientists realized that a living system – organism, ecosystem, or social system – is an integrated whole whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts. The “systemic” properties are properties of the whole, which none of its parts have. So, systems thinking involves a shift of perspective from the parts to the whole. The early systems thinkers coined the phrase, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

What exactly does this mean? In what sense is the whole more than the sum of its parts? The answer is: relationships. All the essential properties of a living system depend on the relationships among the system’s components. Systems thinking means thinking in terms of relationships. Understanding life requires a shift of focus from objects to relationships.

For example, each species in an ecosystem helps to sustain the entire food web. If one species is decimated by some natural catastrophe, the ecosystem will still be resilient if there are other species that can fulfill similar functions. In other words, the stability of an ecosystem depends on its biodiversity, on the complexity of its network of relationships. This is how we can understand stability and resilience by understanding the relationships within the ecosystem.

Understanding relationships is not easy for us, because it is something that goes counter to the traditional scientific enterprise in Western culture. In science, we have been told, things need to be measured and weighed. But relationships cannot be measured and weighed; relationships need to be mapped. So there is another shift: from measuring to mapping.

In biology, a recent dramatic example of this shift happened in the Human Genome Project. Scientists became acutely aware that, in order to understand the functioning of genes it is not enough to know their sequence on the DNA; we need to be able to also map their mutual relationships and interactions.

Now, when you map relationships, you will find certain configurations that occur repeatedly. This is what we call a pattern. Networks, cycles, feedback loops, are examples of patterns of organization that are characteristic of life. Systems thinking involves a shift of perspective from contents to patterns.

I also want to emphasize that mapping relationships and studying patterns is not a quantitative but a qualitative approach. Systems thinking implies a shift from quantity to quality. A pattern is not a list of numbers but a visual image.

The study of relationships concerns not only the relationships among the system’s components, but also those between the system as a whole and surrounding larger systems. Those relationships between the system and its environment are what we mean by context.

For example, the shape of a plant, or the colors of a bird, depend on their environment – on the vegetation, climate, etc. – and also on the evolutionary history of the species, on the historical context. Systems thinking is always contextual thinking. It implies a shift from objective knowledge to contextual knowledge.

Finally, we need to understand that living form is more than a shape, more than a static configuration of components in a whole. There is a continual flow of matter through a living system, while its form is maintained; there is development, and there is evolution. The understanding of living structure is inextricably linked to the understanding of metabolic and developmental processes. So, systems thinking includes a shift of emphasis from structure to process.

All these shifts of emphasis are really just different ways of saying the same thing. Systems thinking means a shift of perception from material objects and structures to the nonmaterial processes and patterns of organization that represent the very essence of life.

This essay is adapted from a speech Fritjof Capra delivered at a professional development institute, “Linking Food, Health, and the Environment,” hosted by the Center for Ecoliteracy and Teachers College Columbia University in the summer of 2008.

Michael K. Stone

 

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