Nature matters: Systems thinking and experts
Nature matters: Systems thinking and experts

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Nature matters: Systems thinking and experts

1.3 Framing nature matters as systems

Much of what is considered Nature is often codified as ‘systems’ – natural systems, ecosystems, ecological systems and/or environmental systems. Systems thinking is an active cognitive endeavour to conceptually frame reality. A key feature of framing Nature in terms of systems is the appreciation given to the multiple interrelationships and interdependencies that exist in the natural world.

The Thing – that is, the repercussions of the eighteenth-century European industrial revolution – and Nature both occupy the realm of the ‘unknowable’, a force that appears to have a life of its own; the difference being that Nature is a little less predictable than the Thing. One significant difference between the Thing of industrial revolution (and its aftermath) and Nature is the level of human complicity involved. The industrial revolution is clearly much less of a naturally ordained event, but rather something very much driven by human purpose. Although Nature does have human involvement, and events such as climate change are driven by human purpose and activity (though the actual level of drive might be contested), the Thing is more knowable and predictable than Nature. We can explain the Thing in terms of systems: economic systems, the capitalist system, financial incentive systems, labour systems, etc. These systems matter because we can appreciate the underpinning human purposes behind them. But what of Nature? What capacity do we have for understanding the interrelationships between component entities of natural systems – and does it matter for environmental responsibility if we cannot assign purpose?

One of the first and most famous formal expressions of thinking about the natural world in terms of systems with interdependent parts was through the work of systems dynamics, as pioneered by Jay Forrester. In 1968, an elite group of industrialists and academics formed the Club of Rome, a global think tank whose remit was to elaborate on what they termed ‘the predicament of mankind’. On his way back from a meeting of the Club in 1970, Forrester drafted a systems dynamics model of the problems associated with the world – a model later referred to as ‘World1’. He went on to publish a revised version of this model, ‘World2’, in his 1971 book World Dynamics. Meanwhile, under the influence of Forrester, a team of systems modellers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who had been commissioned by the Club of Rome published their report The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al., 1972), which caused considerable controversy. The authors used what they saw as key variables – resources, population, industrial output, food supply and pollution – to make predictions about the future of industrial society. Their findings predicted that, assuming constant growth of the global economy in circumstances of limited resource availability and limited capacity for the ecosphere to assimilate pollution, industrial society would collapse within a hundred years. The authors stated that the key way to avoid this doomsday scenario was to reduce global consumption levels. Until the early 1990s, discussion of this solution was dominated by debate on population control.

Although the book was widely read and discussed, most readers found the prescriptive ideas in The Limits to Growth hard to swallow. Economists were generally still of the opinion that ecological resources were not a limiting or constraining factor on economic development. Not surprisingly, it was the economists who were quick to pick up on the shortcomings in the modelling scenarios (shortcomings that the authors had acknowledged anyway). Amongst the aggregates of variables feeding into the computer simulations, for example, no attention was paid to economic variables such as the differential price value of natural resources, or to the potential of future technological developments.

The problems of forecasting change were later embraced by the authors of The Limits to Growth. Twenty years after their original publication, three of the authors revised their scenarios in a new book, Beyond the Limits (Meadows et al., 1992), refining Forrester's ‘World2’ model to produce the ‘World3/91’ model. (A further refinement was made in 2000 by the Institute for Policy and Social Science Research, who generated a ‘World3/2000’ model.) In giving greater acknowledgement to the potential of human technological inventiveness, Meadows et al. celebrated initiatives concerning the efficiency of resource use and provided a more optimistic note with regard to future technological innovations. However, their main argument – suggesting natural limits to economic growth – remained unchanged.

Another significant development in the twentieth century that provided a framing of interdependencies in the tradition of thinking about systems was chaos theory and complexity science. Edward Lorenz (1917–2008) was a pioneer in this field and the originator of the term ‘butterfly effect ’ – his 1972 ‘butterfly talk’ at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is now a celebrated work. Like the authors of The Limits to Growth, Lorenz worked at MIT. Box 5 provides extracts from one of his many obituaries.

Box 5 Chaos theory and interdependencies

Edward N. Lorenz, the MIT meteorologist whose efforts to use computers to increase the precision of weather forecasts inadvertently led to the discovery of chaos theory and demonstrated that precise long-range forecasts are impossible, died of cancer [on] Wednesday at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was 90.

Lorenz was perhaps best known for the title of a 1972 paper,‘Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly 's Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?’ The memorable title pithily summarised the essence of chaos theory – that very small changes in a system can have very large and unexpected consequences.

Although the chaos theory was initially applied to weather forecasting, it subsequently found its way into a wide variety of scientific and nonscientific applications, including the geometry of snowflakes and the predictability of which movies will become blockbusters.

His work ‘profoundly influenced a wide range of basic sciences and brought about one of the most dramatic changes in mankind's view of nature since Sir Isaac Newton,’ wrote the committee that awarded him the 1991 Kyoto Prize for basic sciences in the field of earth and planetary sciences.

By showing that there are limits to the predictability of many systems, Lorenz ‘put the last nail in the coffin of the Cartesian universe and fomented what some have called the third scientific revolution of the 20th century, following on the heels of relativity and quantum physics,’ said atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The roots of chaos theory trace back to at least the late 19th century, when French physicist Henri Poincare discovered to his chagrin that it was not possible to calculate the stability of a celestial system containing more than two bodies – at least using techniques available at the time.

That was a shock because Newton's laws of gravity and motion promise order and predictability, and Poincare concluded that there must be other equations that would eliminate the problem. In the absence of computers, however, there was little anyone could do to test that thesis.

Lorenz worked out the math involved and reported his findings in the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences in a 1963 paper called ‘Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow.’

Lorenz later said that he had planned to use a sea gull as an illustration, but that an MIT colleague suggested a butterfly would have more impact. He chose Brazil for its alliterative value.

According to the Web of Science online database, Lorenz's original paper has now received at least 4000 unique citations by subsequent authors, making it one of the most prolifically cited papers of all time.

(Source: Maugh, 2008)

Activity 4 Climate modelling and chaos theory

When convenient, spend 20 minutes searching on the internet to determine the current state of climate change modelling.

A prominent contemporary writer in the same traditions of systems dynamics and chaos theory is Fritjof Capra. Capra is more influenced by the ideas of non-linear dynamics coming from complexity science and chaos theory, but is able to describe the significance of these ideas in more accessible terms of systems thinking.

The following reading is perhaps one of the most popular expressions of systems thinking in the domain of environmental responsibility and sustainable development.

Activity 5 Systems thinking for environmental responsibility (1)

Read ‘The web of life’ by Fritjof Capra (1996).

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Capra is a physicist. Like other scientists, he draws inspiration from thinking about systems, and in particular thinking about living systems. He regards systems principally as interrelated entities constituting the ‘web of life’ (p. 1):

The more we study the major problems of our time, the more we come to realise that they cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are interconnected and interdependent. For example, stabilising world population will only be possible when poverty is reduced worldwide.

Systemic problems arise from the interrelationships and interdependencies of entities associated with a system. Thinking about complex issues associated with the environment in terms of systems provides a powerful framework for understanding and getting a grip on the issues. Capra equates systems thinking with ecological holistic thinking and its accompanying language and understanding, which he calls ecoliteracy. Developing ecoliteracy requires attention to concepts of interrelatedness and interdependence. Thus, returning to Talbott's metaphor of having an effective ecological conversation, ecoliteracy may provide the lingua franca (or common language) for mediating conversation. In other words, understanding the principles of ecology can provide the conceptual devices that are necessary to flourish in a sustainable ecological world. Such ideas of interrelatedness and interdependence have resonance amongst senior managers in both public and private sectors, particularly on issues of climate change – as demonstrated in the continual calls for ‘joined-up thinking’ (Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2 The call for ‘joined-up thinking’

In a later work, Capra expands on the ecoliteracy described in his book The Web of Life and shifts his attention towards ecodesign:

My extension of the systems approach to the social domain explicitly includes the material world. This is unusual, because traditionally social scientists have not been very interested in the world of matter. Our academic disciplines have been organised in such a way that the natural sciences deal with material structures and the social sciences deal with social structures, which are understood to be, essentially, rules of behaviour. In future this strict division will no longer be possible, because the key challenge of this new century – for social scientists, natural scientists and everyone else – will be to build ecologically sustainable communities, designed in such a way that their technologies and social institutions – their material and social structures – do not interfere with nature's inherent ability to sustain life.

Activity 6 Systems thinking for environmental responsibility (2)

Read ‘Hidden connections’ by Fritjof Capra (2002).

The framework used by Capra is one based on the science of living systems. Despite the obvious power of tools such as systems dynamics and modelling that are associated with complexity sciences, there remain challenges on at least two fronts: first, in attempting to capture the immense complexity of nature; and second, in trying to meaningfully engage people, particularly those who are not scientifically literate, with ecoliteracy and its significance. Systems models of this type are complex.

The following is an extract from the concluding chapter of Beyond the Limits, which discusses the difficulties of addressing environmental problems through the type of literacy associated with systems analysis (Meadows et al., 1992, pp. 223–4):

In our search for ways to encourage the peaceful restructuring of a system that naturally resists its own transformation, we have tried many tools. The most obvious ones are displayed throughout this book – rational analysis, data, systems thinking, computer modelling, and the clearest words we are capable of finding to express new information and models. Those are tools that anyone trained like us in science and economics would automatically grasp. Like recycling, they are useful, necessary, and not enough.

We don't know what will be enough. But we would like to conclude this book by mentioning five other tools we have found helpful, not as the ways to work toward sustainability, but as some ways to work toward sustainability. We are a bit hesitant to discuss them because we are not experts in their use and because they require the use of words that do not come easily from the mouths or word processors of scientists. They are considered too ‘soft’ to be taken seriously in the cynical public arena. They are visioning, networking, truth-telling, learning, and loving.

Activity 7 Thinking about systems and responsibility

Make a note of your reaction to the extract from Beyond the Limits. How might this extract resonate with the two endeavours of environmental responsibility? What implications might it have for any formal framing device?

So far in this section I have considered systems more in terms of hard, real-world entities – nature typically understood as ecosystems. In the following subsection, a more critical systems literacy is introduced in which a softer notion of systems as human conceptual devices is examined for its relevance to environmental responsibility.


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