Ecosystems are central to the study of ecology. One cannot have a discussion about ecology or the environment without including systems thinking. 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.
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 little 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.
Hierarchies involve ranking and parts of the hierarchy are above or below other parts. Many, if not most human collectives mimic this type of ranking hierarchy. The military hierarchy is a prime example as well as most corporate structures. Even schools have a ranking system. Power and freedom, as well as salaries, are commensurate with the rank or level within the hierarchy. Something we discovered during the pandemic is that the so called worker bees, generally the low folks on the totem pole of rank and salary, were also considered the most essential workers. From an ecological perspective, these types of hierarchies, associated with patriarchy, are sources of domination, oppression and inequity. This creates imbalance and injustice, unlike the organization of natural systems. Many human social hierarchies tend to distort and disrupt the holistic patterns of order found in the living systems of the natural world.
A more natural and equitable way of viewing the world is through the perspective of holarchies. Holarchies or Holons, coined by Arthur Koestler (1967) in The Ghost in the Machine, comes from the Greek words holos, meaning whole and on, which denotes a particle or part. Holon describes the relationship between entities that are self-complete wholes and, at the same time, entities that are viewed to be dependent parts of other wholes. Everything in nature is both a whole and a part. Holarchies are nested structural ordering systems of containment and interdependence. Viewing ecosystems from the holarchy perspective is more congruent with how nature works. Conventional hierarchies involve power structures that do not exist in nature. For example, the body does not issue commands to organs and organs do not control cells, they simply contain them. Organs and cells function independently of each other, but are still responsive to the whole in terms of feedback systems and interactions within the body. The hierarchal ranking structure of many of our human societal systems are not reflected in natural systems and viewing ecosystems from the holarchy perspective is more congruent with how nature works (Metzner, 2017).
Consider the wholes and parts within our bodies. Our bodies are a collection of 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. 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. These systems allow exchange of materials with the environment and movement of material to and from the body’s cells. Cells contain organelles that mirror similar functions and similar processes occur in our bodies and also 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, our breath. 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, ecosystems and solar systems. This type of thinking can apply to any system from cyber systems to social systems.
Thinking in isolated 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, and the organisms that consume the insects or the crops. 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 natural ecosystems. 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.
In Wendell Berry’s (1981) The Gift of the Good Land, he discusses solving problems based on nature’s patterns. He gives several examples, farming, energy production, sanitation systems, and education, of how bad solutions solve problems for a single purpose or goal, such as increased production. Typically, such solutions achieve remarkable increases in production, but at extortionate biological and social costs. Such solutions always involve a narrow and simplified definition of the problem without consideration of the whole system. These are also short sighted and do not fully consider all possible outcomes. A truly good solution is good because it is in harmony and balance with the larger patterns of nature.
Often the solution worsens the problem, serving one good at the expense of another or of the entire system itself, involving a net loss to nature, agriculture, and people. We know that sometimes a part may be sacrificed for the whole; a life may be saved by the amputation of a non-viable foot. But we also know that such narrow solutions are desperate, irreversible, and destructive. Many medications have difficult side effects. Blood thinners may reduce the possibility of having a stroke, but patients have to be careful about cuts and bleeding. It also turns out that over time, blood thinners cause reactions to sunlight and patients have to reduce time in the outdoors. We treat one symptom by causing other symptoms. Think of the relationship between coal-fired power plants and air conditioners. Burning coal increases atmospheric warming which requires the use of electricity to run air conditioners to deal with the heat. No one prospers by such short-sighted solutions except the suppliers of fuel and equipment.
Berry discusses the irony of modern agri-business methods that model industry, such as monocultures and feedlots, which destroy the health of the soil and in the end, affect the health of human communities. These monocultures tend to go with a whole set of agricultural problems: soil erosion, soil compaction, infestations of pests, weeds, and disease, pollution of the watershed. And they are also accompanied by a set of economic problems that involve dependence on equipment, fuels, fertilizers, as well as subsidies and credit. Feedlots, may increase food production, but this industrial approach to living organisms allows large-scale greed to profit from inhumane treatment of animals. We too often treat domestic animals as though they are just meat and from an industrial perspective, the goal is to maximize production. But living organisms are not cogs in a clock. In nature, grazing organisms would feed mostly on grasses rather than grains such as corn. Corn actually makes cattle ill, causing abscesses in their digestive systems. To deal with the ill cattle, they are medicated with copious amounts of anti-biotics, which do end up in the meat we consume. This may add to antibiotic resistance in humans. Beyond the inhumane treatment of animals, feedlots impact many nested holons.
Let us drill down into just one aspect of the issues of feedlots: manure. Think of all that is involved in just the manure-removal problem. The sheer concentration of animals and their waste becomes a health problem for the animals themselves, for the local watershed, and for adjoining ecosystems and human communities. If you have ever driven past a feedlot, you have smelled what I am describing. A good agricultural solution would not pollute or erode a watershed. What is good for the water is good for the ground, what is good for the ground is good for the plants, what is good for the plants is good for animals, what is good for animals is good for people, what is good for people is good for the air, what is good for the air is good for the water. These Holons are fully interconnected and interdependent.
The real problem of food production occurs within a complex, mutually influential relationship of soil, plants, animals, and people. If the manure is disposed of without returning it to the soil that produced the feed, a serious problem of soil fertility is involved. The strength of a farm is in the soil. When farmers put plants and animals in relationships of mutual dependence, as they are in nature, they create a reciprocating pattern of the farm that is biological, not industrial. When solutions to problems involve fertility, soil health, sanitation etc, proper solutions add up to health. A good solution should not enhance one person by the distress or impoverishment of another. In a biological pattern, the exploitive means and motives of industrial economics are immediately destructive and ultimately suicidal. A systems oriented solution would include the cell, the body, the particular ecosystem and end with the biosphere. Perhaps it is not until health is set down as the goal, rather than profit, that we can achieve beneficial systematic solutions. A real solution to production problems would be ecologically, agriculturally, and culturally healthful: the health of the soil, of plants and animals, of farm and farmer and farm community. All of these involved in the same inter-nested pattern- an ecological Holon.