Systems Thinking

Nov. 27, 2016

One cannot have a discussion about ecology or the environment without including systems thinking. Ecosystems are central to the study of ecology. Contrasting with analytic thinking that separates and examines parts deductively, systems thinking shifts the focus to relationships, interactions, patterns and linkages of the parts of whole systems.

A cell is a tiny life system. Each organelle within a cell has a specialized function that contributes to the overall health and vitality of the cell. Our bodies are a collection of systems. These systems allow exchange of materials with the environment and movement of material to and from the body’s cells. Each cell is dependent on the circulatory system for transportation of materials, the respiratory system for exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen, the digestive system for breaking down food into usable nutrients and the excretory system for removal of metabolic wastes. Cells contain organelles that mirror similar functions and similar processes occur in ecosystems. Living systems also depend on the abiotic resources that earth cycles make available. For example, plants and photosynthetic algae in the oceans provide the oxygen we need to live. We are dependent upon these organisms for our very existence. Biotic systems depend upon the quality of these resources such as air, water, nutrients etc. For a quality living environment, each system and parts of the system must function in balance. A fancy biological term for this is homeostasis. And, of course, all of this is driven by the earth/sun system. The electromagnetic radiation from the sun is the source of energy for all life. Systems, nestled in systems within systems. And there are patterns shared from system to system. There is an ancient Hermetic maxim that reflects this nestling of systems. As above, so below. Ecosystems are system archetypes. Systems thinking certainly applies beyond cells, organisms and ecosystems. This type of thinking can apply to any system from cyber systems to social systems.

Since the Enlightenment, reductionist, analytic logic has been a driving force in our society and has wrought great technological advancement. But this reductionist lens has narrowed into a binary sort of thinking- an either/or; black/white paradigm with no middle ground or concern for the gray areas or relationships between. Our cultural norm tends towards hierarchal thinking. Thinking framed by dogmatic ideology is static and does not reflect the dynamic, changing reality of the nature of the world. I feel this kind of thinking has led to the polarization of our political and social lives. It does not follow the model pattern or archetype of holistic, natural systems, which is relational and inclusive.

Thinking in parts rather than wholes affects our approach to problem solving. For example, cancer is the result of cellular systems gone awry. The protocol for cancer is to poison the cancerous cells with chemicals and radiation or to surgically remove them. This affects other systems causing imbalances within healthy cells and body systems. The actual cause of cells mutating is rarely addressed so we don’t get to the root of the problem. If there is an insect problem with our crops, we apply pesticides, poisoning the insects for a quick and efficient fix. This neglects the whole system, the soil, the watershed, the organisms that consume the insects or the crops. Why are there too many insects and can a predator organism be introduced to consume the pests. The use of DDT in the past reduced insect problems, but also affected other organisms. For example, the American eagle became an endangered species due to its use. There have also been ecological problems related to introduction of a species that does not belong in an area such as the issue in Australia when rabbits overran the system. There are also problems related to removing a species from an ecosystem such as the extermination of wolves in the lower 48 states. Removing predators allowed deer populations to overrun their habitat and over time the deer populations were diminished. It is difficult to separate a problem from all the other factors in the system. Nothing in nature is isolated, everything lives in relation and interaction with other parts, other systems. The behavior of whole systems is greater than and unpredictable from the behavior and sum of the constituent parts when viewed separately.

Standing in contrast to reductionist thinking, systems thinking sets out to view systems in a holistic manner. Consistent with systems philosophy, systems thinking concerns an understanding of a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the elements that comprise the whole of the system. Systems thinking is contextual and concerns the big picture, connectivity, integration, pattern-seeking and relationships. 

"The time honored scientific approach of reductionism-- taking the watch apart to see how it worked--didn't get you anywhere with complex systems, because the interesting behavior seemed to arise from the spontaneous interaction of the components"  Michael Crichton