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Environmental management and organisations
Environmental management and organisations

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4 Defining systems

A particular feature of this free course is the prominent inclusion of what can be called a ‘systems approach to environmental management’. But what do system and systems mean?

In one of the earliest modern written texts, Thomas Hobbes offers the following understanding:

By Systemes; I understand any numbers of men joyned in one Interest, or one Businesse.

Hobbes, 1651, p. 115

Echoing some aspects of Hobbes’ understanding, the Oxford English Dictionary provides one definition of system as:

A set or assemblage of things connected, associated, or interdependent, so as to form a complex unity; a whole composed of parts in orderly arrangement according to some scheme or plan.

OED (2013)

This has a number of interesting links to thinking about the interrelated nature of environment and environmental management. The Oxford English Dictionary offers more definitions, including the following:

A group, set, or aggregate of things, natural or artificial, forming a connected or complex whole.

Artificial objects or appliances arranged or organised for some special purpose, as pulleys or other pieces of mechanism, columns or other details of architecture, canals, railway lines, telegraphs, etc.

The prevailing political, economic, or social order, especially regarded as oppressive; the Establishment; any impersonal, restrictive organisation, with reference to business and social organisations and the operations or interactions they involve.

OED (2013)

These relate to systems that we can look at and see. But the word ‘system’ is more flexible. Here are some more ideas from the Oxford English Dictionary:

A set of principles, etc.; a scheme, method.

The set of correlated principles, ideas, or statements belonging to some department of knowledge or belief; a department of knowledge or belief considered as an organised whole; a connected and regularly arranged scheme of the whole of some subject; a comprehensive body of doctrines, conclusions, speculations, or theses.

OED (2013)

This second set, whilst not contradicting the first set, adds a different dimension to understanding ‘system’. The first set of definitions relate to systems that can be thought of as ‘out there’ or ‘in the world’. The second set relates to systems ‘in the mind’ or in abstract. This is an important distinction to understanding what is meant by ‘systems’.