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

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Nature matters: Systems thinking and experts

1.4 Nature matters in terms of a critical systems literacy

The systems philosopher and social planner Werner Ulrich has long argued for a more ethically informed idea of systems. Before looking at Ulrich's ideas, however, it is worth returning to examine the relevance of the earlier Moore and Martell readings to this subject.

One of the hallmarks of systems thinking is a recognition of the limits of holism, relating to the problem of aesthetic framing expressed by Ronald Moore (2006, p. 263):

In the end, the framing controversy is about the variety of limits on attention. Everyone admits that our sensory exposure to the world is limited and that our way of making sense of, or appreciating, the world to which we are exposed is also limited. Not only are the limits inevitable, they are basic conditions of the intelligibility of our sensory world.

Systems thinking is often invoked as a holistic approach towards assuring comprehensiveness. Luke Martell (1995) makes his unease with the notion of holistic systems thinking clear in his criticism of ‘preservation of systems’ as a basis for attributing value to the environment. He identifies six problems with thinking about nature in terms of some idealised holistic system, which can be summarised as follows.

  1. The ‘fact’ of holism, and interdependencies between entities, can be questioned – it ought not to be taken as given.

  2. It is not enough to unquestionably associate ‘the natural’ with something worthy of respect. ‘Fetishising’ nature (that is, being obsessed with the value of nature) as something deserving of unquestioned respect can be dubious.

  3. Thinking of nature as systems serves only to make concrete a commonly perceived and unhelpful dichotomy between the social and the natural. Ecosystems tend to be viewed as being outside the social domain.

  4. Nature is contested terrain – it invites the allocation of human value as to whether it is good ( flourishing) or bad (destructive).

  5. Deferring to a pristine notion of Nature in terms of non-interference is not always the best course of action. Sometimes human intervention is not only good but essential.

  6. Systems cannot in themselves have intrinsic value. They may have value, but only in terms of an instrumental value to those individuals making up the system. It is the individuals that have intrinsic value.

Martell's critique and language assume that systems are real-world entities, but he also alludes to the idea that systems are socially constructed. There is in his language the notion that thinking about nature invokes different perspectives, and therefore limitations, on our understanding of nature.

A more fundamental problem was referred to earlier in the discussion of semiotics (see Box 2) – the idea of confusing the map with the territory. This might be significant particularly when systems are to be used not only as (inevitably partial) representations of reality, but also as mediating devices for effective ecological conversation with the purpose of generating meaning and value. The insights gained from an ecological systems approach to nature are also circumscribed by particular frameworks of thinking, and are therefore subject to the possibility of fallibility and inadequacy. Systems are maps – conceptual devices for making sense of complex realities and communicating with others about improving those realities. Worthwhile enthusiasm for the study of living systems can sometimes distract attention away from this basic premise behind systems thinking.

This represents one of three concerns outlined in the following reading by Werner Ulrich, regarding systems thinking for what he calls future-responsive management.

Activity 8 Systems thinking for environmental responsibility (3)

Read ‘Can we secure future-responsive management through systems thinking and design?’ by Werner Ulrich (2002).

The three concerns outlined by Ulrich might be paraphrased in terms of three imperatives of systems thinking:

  1. dealing meaningfully with holism

  2. engaging with multiple perspectives

  3. framing reality from a critical perspective.

Below, I expand a little on each of these three aspects in relation to identifying their significance for environmental responsibility.


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