Reading 6.1 introduces you to a different emphasis in systems thinking and practice. Instead of analysing a situation in terms of objects you can focus on process – i.e. the processes that are going on within the system of interest as determined by the system’s purpose. This shift in conceptualisation could be considered radical and revolutionary. Since the Enlightenment, our main aim has been to divide, categorise and label people and things. This ‘objectification’ has served us well in resolving simple problems (and created, or postponed the resolution, of more complex problems). Yet, identifying clear boundaries, and therefore objects, within complex and dynamic non-linear systems, especially when these concern human activities, is becoming increasingly challenging. And this comes at a time when we have known more about most issues than we ever did. Where exactly we insert boundaries amongst these flows to identifying objects (the systems themselves and their constituent components) is often more to do with personal values, worldviews and past experience, rather than rational thought.
Process management is therefore a fundamental aspect of systems thinking and practice, fundamental to using different modes of communication, including computer-based mathematical models, and fundamental to monitoring, evaluating and changing the impact we are having on Earth system processes. Readings 6.2, 6.3 and 6.4 focus on the role of information flows and feedbacks in determining behaviour. A key concept introduced in these readings is the role of information flows between natural and human systems, and how these could determine co-evolution and co-adaptation.
The ‘humans-integrated-within-Earth-system-flows’ model presented in this block may disconcert some individuals. But let us consider for a moment that we are indeed just ‘temporary dynamic objects in our environment’ with feedback flows of energy, matter and information amongst ourselves and with our surrounding environment. These interactions can therefore create positive or negative feedback loops, which can either sustain or undermine our own quality of life and the long-term viability of the Earth system as a whole. I attempt to expand on this point in the final reading, Reading 6.5 on co-evolution, concluding with the idea of a symbiotic and dynamic relationship between individuals, society, and the environment.