X. Ecosystems

This is the 10th and final posting on whole systems thinking. It is also the first in a new series on ecology.

The word “ecology,” comes from the Greek oikos “household.” Ecology then is the study of the “Earth Household.” In The System’s View of Life: A Unifying Vision, Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luise define an eco-system as “an integrated and interactive system of biological and physical components.” It can be as small as a termite mound, a rotting log, or as big as an ocean. Forests, tundra, scrubland, swamps, mangrove rivers, and deserts are all ecosystems. 

As living systems, irrespective of size, they interact with the environment in a continuous flow of energy and matter, are subject to entropy or disintegration, are self-making (autopoietic), open to randomness, facilitate the emergence of new order, operate within a network where each component helps to transform and replace other components, and their interactions are conscious, determined by their own internal organization. (The italics indicate topics of previous posts in this series). 

According to the above-mentioned authors, ecosystems “do not possess self-awareness, language, or culture, so there’s no justice or democracy within them.” Also, they note that there’s no greed or dishonesty. Because living systems have survived five mass extinctions over the past 500 million years, ecosystems provide a perfect model for how to live sustainably. They offer five principles of ecology and recommend we use them as guidelines for building sustainable human communities. In summary, here are Nature’s fundamental characteristics from a whole-systems perspective: 

1. Interdependence. All members of an ecological community are interconnected in a vast and intricate network of relationships, the web of life. What happens to one, happens to all. The success of the whole community depends on the success of its individual members, while the success of each member depends on the success of the whole community.

2. Cyclical. Sustainable patterns of production and consumption need to be cyclical, imitating the cyclical processes in nature. The First Nations understood this—take only what is needed, use everything possible and recycle what’s left. 

3. Renewable Resources. The only truly renewable sources of energy are solar, wind, thermal, hydropower, biomass, etc. “By disregarding this ecological fact, political and corporate leaders, again and again, endanger the health and well-being of millions around the world.”

4. Cooperation. Partnership is an essential characteristic of sustainable communities. The cyclical exchanges of energy and resources in an ecosystem are sustained by pervasive cooperation. “Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.”

5.  Flexibility. The flexibility of an ecosystem is a consequence of its multiple feedback loops, which tend to bring the system back into balance whenever there’s a deviation from the norm due to changes in the environment. In nature, everything changes constantly.

6. Diversity. An ecosystem is resilient when it contains many species with overlapping functions that can partially replace one another. In the human community, diversity means many different relationships, which provide many different approaches to solving a problem. A diverse community is resilient because it can adapt to changing circumstances—but only if there’s a truly interconnected community, sustained by a web of relationships. The greater the quality of diverse relationships, the greater will be the community’s power to adjust to change. 

Contemplating The Personal And Social Aspects Of Ecosystems 

The current era of human evolution is marked by a revolution in perception. At every level, there’s a battle being waged between the paradigm of independence and interdependence. In Blessed Are The Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint, theologian Sallie McFague makes it explicit. “Are we singular, independent, separate entities that end with our own skins, or are we both formed and sustained by our radical interdependence with all other living creatures as well as the systems that maintain life?” 

The philosophy of separation inherited from the 18th century Enlightenment, fueled by the American Dream, and amplified by movies and the mass media, has resulted in an image of human fulfillment that is selfish, materialistic, and individualistic. Instead of loving and respecting nature, the earth, and people for what and who they are, unregulated market capitalism has quantified them according to their utility. The consequence of objectifying—putting a value on—natural resources and people (who are quantified by degrees of experience, education, and usefulness relative to generating income) has been the normalization of competition, fighting, corruption, insatiable consumption, and winning. Even war. I’m reminded of the greedy seagulls in Finding Nemo who scramble after Nemo and then a crab shouting, “Mine, mine, mine!” It’s the mantra of individualism.

The caterpillar’s immune system is still trying to protect itself as a caterpillar—and to me, that’s what our insistence on clinging to the oil age is all about. From a biological perspective, it’s the job of the old system to protect itself as long as possible. But it’s equally the job of the new system to rally its forces until it can overcome the old immune system and build the new.

Elisabet Sahtouris (Evolutionary Biologist)

We know the old system doesn’t work and we know why: it’s in opposition to natural processes. And it’s killing the planet. Fortunately, increasingly—and in part by witnessing the damage individualism has done to the earth, including the fracturing of civilization in many countries—an awakening is occurring: the realization that it’s not too late to align with natural processes. 

While it can be painful in many ways to witness the death throes of “It’s all about me,” especially when it seems pervasive, we can immediately affect the shift in our own lives to “It’s about all of us together, equal members of the Earth Community” by thinking that way— loving all living beings, paying attention to, caring for, respecting and considering other people, animals, and the environment. Changing perception and lifestyle is a major challenge. But we take our cue from systems science: emergence, the realization of a higher-level reality occurs as the parts change. It may seem small and insignificant, but every scrap of material I recycle, plastic cup or straw I don’t use, light I turn off, mileage I save, gas, electric, and water I conserve, vote I cast, appliance I repair rather than replace and so on is an act of loving and respecting the planet. At least, given my circumstances and where I am, it’s what I can do.

The idea that our planet is alive, and further, that every mountain, river, lake, and forest is a living being, even a sentient, purposive, sacred being, is not a soppy emotional distraction from the environmental problem at hand; to the contrary, it disposes us to feel more, to care more, and to do more. No longer can we hide from our grief and love behind the ideology that the world is just a pile of stuff to be used instrumentally for own ends.

Charles Eisenstein

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