Our Earth Is A Living System

This blog essay is the second in a six part series that is based on the premise that:

  • A crisis within the human population could destroy our race by the year 2050.
  • We humans are engaging in a behavior of infinite growth on a planet with limited resources.
  • Our children and their children have the power to save the human race from destruction.

The text of these blog essays is the draft version of my new book entitled “Lessons From Our Web Of Life – Empowering Stewards of Nature” which will be offered in early 2018 as a free PDF version. Here is a description of the book. The book will contain case studies and lesson sets that are not included in this blog essay series. You are strongly encouraged to use the comment space in this essay to offer your comments, opinions, and corrections. You will be acknowledged in the book. 

The six blog essays are:

Everything in nature, including human beings, belongs to, contributes to, and derives its existence from a network of interrelated systems. There is no such thing as a separate thing. 

Everything within Nature is interconnected and interdependent. Everything that happens is connected to something else that happens. Interdependence is an important word that refers to the tendency of all creatures in Nature  to be linked and mutually dependent upon each other.  If we were to draw a diagram of this interdependence, we would see a massive network of living creatures, including ourselves, either directly or indirectly connected. This network of life is commonly called a “living system”. 

Interdependence is a defining feature of all of Nature because Interdependence is necessary for the transportation and the transformation of life’s vital flow of energy. Earth’s connectedness with the sun’s energy is of primary importance because that energy drives all life. Throughout our Earth’s  living systems, this energy from the sun is transported and then transformed into forms of energy that are useful to plants and animals.

While we may not realize it, we humans encounter and connect with living systems every moment of our lives. Our bodies are interconnected, self-maintaining systems. Every person we meet, every organization we work with, every animal, every tree, and every ecosystem is a living system that transports and transforms energy.

A thorough understanding of Nature’s living systems, as well as energy flow within these systems, is key to the development of conservation programs by human beings. When a conservation program developed by humans proves ineffective, it is usually because there was insufficient comprehension of living systems and Nature’s energy flow within these systems.

This essay and its accompanying resource list focuses on the characteristics of living systems. We will discuss Nature’s energy flow within living systems in greater detail in the next essay in this blog essay series.

Nature is composed of hierarchal, interconnecting living systems.  The terms “ecosystems”, “complex systems”, and “living systems” have the same meaning. Living systems are the vehicles  by which Nature’s energy, the operating currency of Nature, is transported and transformed. Ecosytems cycle energy and nutrients obtained from external sources. By understanding where and how energy flows within an ecosystem, we can understand how an environment operates. We can build this understanding by first studying what modern science has to say about systems.

Simply stated, a system is a collection of objects that somehow interrelate with each other to function as a whole and produce some effect that no single object within the system could do on its own.

Earlier in the 20th century, the modern scientific worldview chose to explore and describe both man-made systems and Nature’s living systems using a worldview known as “reductionism”. Reductionism is the theory that any system, simple or complex, can be described by analyzing its parts. The reductionist worldview holds that the behavior of a system is nothing more than the sum of the behaviors of its parts. For example, the idea of reductionism is that you can describe how an entire automobile operates by disassembling it, laying the parts on the garage floor, and calculating how each part functions.

As twentieth century biologists realized with increasing frustration, reductionism cannot explain the self-renewing processes of life. And equally important, reductionism cannot predict what Nature’s living systems will do. A familiar example is government biologists who set annual quotas on the number of elk that can be killed by hunters. Their reasoning is that these calculated quotas will result in an ecological balance between elk and their environment. These calculated quotas erroneously focus on Nature’s building blocks as independent entities and not Nature as a system of interdependent entities. Furthermore, it has been erroneously assumed that these government scientists had the power to predict how Nature would respond. We will note further in this chapter that the behaviors of living systems are not predictable by mankind

David Suzuki, in his book “Legacy” notes that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring:

“..taught me that in focusing on parts of Nature, in examining them in controlled conditions in flasks and growth chambers, we study artifacts, grotesque simplifications of the real world, scrubbed of the context of weather, climate, and seasons, devoid of variations in temperature, humidity, and light….while studying bits of Nature under controlled conditions can provide powerful insights, we had to be very cautious in extrapolating those tests to the real world”.

Even though The logic of reductionism has been shown to be incomplete, the reductionist process is still used by many biologists to design and implement real world conservation programs. However, those who have embraced systems thinking look at the processes of Nature instead of Her components. They see Nature as a highly interconnected group of systems.  Processes such as the cells of organisms, human bodies, a forest, or an entire planet, are not just a heap of disjointed parts.  They are dynamically organized “systems”. These processes all involve the transportation and the transformation of the energy necessary for life. Modern systems science has realized that each element in a system is part of a larger interconnected pattern that connects and evolves by discernible principles.  This fresh worldview has spread throughout much of the natural and social sciences. But somehow, it has escaped the attention of many individuals and groups who work and teach in the life sciences.

What follows are descriptions of the characteristics of living systems.

Nature’s Living Systems Are Self Organizing and Leaderless

By shifting their focus to relationships instead of separate entities, scientists made an amazing discovery that was new to the western mind.  They discovered that Nature is capable of organizing Herself. Scientists set out to discern the principles by which this phenomenon occurs.  They found these principles are simple and constant throughout the observable universe including sub-organic, biological, and ecological systems. Human-based mental and social systems are also self organizing.

One way of looking at a group in Nature is to observe and study the complex collective behavior of the group. We can can easily view complex collective behavior in bird flocks, animal herds, and fish schools where each individual creature follows relatively simple rules of movement with no central control or leader. This ability of a system of organisms to make its own structure more complex is called “self-organization”. Self-organization produces unpredictability. No amount of information at the level of the individual component can reveal the organizational pattern of the system. Yet, paradoxically, it is the combined behaviors and interactions of individual components that define behaviors at a system level. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This “whole” is the “emergent behavior” of the system. Bird flocks, fish schools, and animal herds are examples of emergent behavior.  Within complex collective behavior, energy and information are passed between individuals in a group.

Nature’s Living Systems Are “Complex Systems”

The study of Nature is the study of her living systems and how energy flows within these systems. Using the terminology of Western Science, a living system is a “complex system”.  The terms “complex systems”, “living systems”, and “ecosystems” are synonymous.

By definition, a complex system has a large number of members capable of interacting with each other and adapting to their environment without a leader or a blueprint.

The interaction between members may occur with immediate neighbors or distant ones. The members can be all identical or different. They may move in space or occupy fixed positions. They can be in one of two states or have multiple states.

Ant colonies are complex systems that are sometimes described as living “super-organisms”. They are extremely complex, leaderless, and unpredictable. Yet these colonies exhibit systematic order. The ant colony is the result of many tiny individual ants working in a community of ants to create and sustain an entire colony. The colony possesses characteristics that none of its individual ants possess.

Different complex systems in Nature, such as bird flocks, immune systems, brains, and human social systems have much in common. These commonalities include complex collective behavior, the ability to pass information and energy, resilience using feedback mechanisms, and hierarchal structures. We can easily view complex collective behavior in bird flocks, animal herds, and fish schools where each individual creature follows relatively simple rules with no central control or leader. It is the collective actions of vast numbers of these individuals that give rise to the complex and changing patterns of group behavior. Complex collective behavior is very difficult or impossible for humans to predict or control. This lack of predictability is a fundamental reason why some conservation programs are ineffective.

In the course of contributing to the group’s collective behavior, every individual in a complex system both transports energy and transforms energy. Connectivity between an individual fish (or a bird, or a human in a crowd) and its nearest neighbors is essential if a living system is to exist. In the case of fish schools, the connection between individual fish is the effects of each individual’s sensory organs that define proximity. The phenomena of this emergent behavior in groups is one form of proof that connections in Nature are absolutely essential if a systems like fish schools, bird flocks, or human crowds are to exist.

Nature’s Living Systems Are “Open” Systems

Nature’s living systems are defined as  “open systems” because they permit the inward and outward flow of energy and matter. Any open system can interact with systems or components external to itself. In the course of these interactions, energy can be both transported and transformed within and between systems. These processes permit the variety and intelligence of life forms to arise from interactive currents of matter, energy, and information.  Human beings are open systems.

The Whole Is Greater Than The Sum of Its Parts

Each system, whether it be a tiny atom or a huge galaxy, is a whole.  That means that it is not reducible to its components.  Its distinctive nature and capacities derive from the dynamic relationships of its parts.  This interplay is synergistic (two plus two equals five), generating emergent behavior and new possibilities, which are not predictable from the character of the separate parts.  For example, the forward motion of a car cannot be predicted from the explosive combination of oxygen and and gasoline in the car’s engine before that combination occurred.

Nature’s Living Systems Can Self-Stabilize And Maintain Their Own Equilibrium

Thanks to the continual flow of matter, energy, and information, living systems are able to self-stabilize and maintain their equilibrium.   This self stabilization enables living systems to self-regulate amidst changing conditions in their environment.  This process, known as feedback, monitors the effects of their own behavior and realigns their behavior with pre-established norms, much like a like a thermostat. Feedback processes are how living systems learn and evolve.  If this feedback process is blocked or ignored, by human or other activity, there is a risk of system collapse.

Every object or organism within a system is influenced by its own actions as well as its surrounding environment.  One example of feedback is thermoregulation in warm-blooded animals. Cooling of the blood stimulates certain centers in the brain which “turn on” heat-producing mechanisms in the body. Through certain physiological processes, the body temperature is then brought back to the normal level.

Nature’s systems are not predictable because the effect of Nature’s feedback loops is non-linear. A nonlinear relationship is one in which the cause does not produce a proportional effect.  These non-linear relationships result from the systems feedback mechanisms which are, in turn, usually driven by unpredictable influences external to the organism being affected.  The sudden appearance of a predator is an unpredictable event which will cause an organism’s feedback system to respond in a non-linear fashion. Feedback systems that respond to a number of different unpredictable influences result in the complexity and unpredictability that we see in Nature’s living systems and their organisms.

Nature’s Living Systems Evolve In Complexity With Time

Living systems not only maintain their balance amidst the flux of energy and matter, but also evolve in complexity.  When challenges from their environment persist, living systems can fall apart or adapt themselves into new and more functional states using the feedback phenomenon.

Complexity in Nature is universal. You cannot describe any living system such as an ecosystem by doing mathematical equations, by simply using your logic, by soliciting the consensus of the public, or by chatting with government naturalists sitting around the table at a meeting called to decide on what to do about an ecological situation. The only way to find out how any living system will behave and what will happen is to actually run the system – something that is usually impossible to do.

Nature’s Living Systems Are Nested Hierarchies

Living Systems are hierarchal. Systems are nested within systems. A given subsystem becomes part of a larger system. With this hierarchal structure comes the connectivity necessary for energy and information flow between systems. The cells in our bodies become organs which operate to serve the entire body. Our body is connected to the energy and oxygen producing systems provided by our environment. And so on.

Every living system is a whole in its own right. It is comprised of subsystems, and simultaneously is an integral part of larger systems.  This results in “nested hierarchies” which are systems within systems, processes within processes.

Each new hierarchal level – say from atom to molecule, cell to organ, person to family – generates new emergent properties that are not reducible to the properties of the separate parts.  In nested hierarchies,  order tends to arise from below, as well as summoned or inspired by its environment..

Living Systems Are Sensitive To Initial Conditions

One of the most important characteristics of living systems is their sensitivity to initial conditions. In ecological terms, a small change in how one cares for an ecosystem may ultimately result in unpredictable and catastrophic events later in time.

A Summary of Living Systems Characteristics

Here is a summary of the characteristics of living systems:

  • Highly connected – created through the irreversible exchange of energy, mass, and information between intedependent elements and systems. 
  • Hierarchal – little systems make up bigger systems.
  • Highly complex – where new behavior can emerge and small events can result in huge effects.
  • Partly ordered and partly disordered.
  • Self organizing – with leaderless emergent behavior where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
  • The system is not reducible to the original elements. Instead, there are new emergent properties that are not predictable by examinuing the original elements.

Most Conventional Practices For Conserving Living Systems Will Not Work 

Our scientists in their ivory towers as well as ecologists in the field continue to debate about the best way to conserve our earth. The two popular and competing conservation strategies either prohibit people from occupying “protected” land areas or permit and encourage human involvement in land use. Both strategies have a fatal flaw. The flaw is that it is impossible for humans to predict or control the future activities of Nature.  These key facts are ignored by many workers in the field of conservation when they try to develop conservation programs.

This raises the question: If we impose our reasoned action on a system that has neither a leader nor predictable results, how can we expect a given outcome? The answer is that we can’t! The idea that man can control Nature is one of the most misguided illusions of those who profess to be stewards of Nature.

The systems worldview of life fails to resonate with current conservation practices which assume that human input will achieve a predictable result. Conservation managers set reference points and targets based on the assumption that equilibrium or a steady state will be achieved. This idea is blatantly false. Indeed, Nature’s living systems are dynamic. They are always moving. Equilibrium shifts as Nature’s feedback systems adjust. Human predictability is impossible. Consequently, current conservation practices will ultimately be ineffective. Later in this essay series, we will discuss conservation policies that are more appropriate for our Earth’s living systems.

Ecological literacy – The Path To Human Survival

In June of 2009, ecoliteracy.org  published an important  essay that offered a basis for how we humans must develop a relationship with Mother Earth in order to survive as a race. The essay was based upon ideas first proposed by  Fritjof Capra, the father of modern systems thinking. The essay brings together the living systems ideas presented in this chapter as well as the material in the previous chapter on the current unsustainable pathways of the human race. We end this chapter with a paraphrased summary of the ecological ecoliteracy essay.

What is Life?

The difference between a living organism and a dead organism lies in the basic process of life which is called “metabolism.” Metabolism is the ceaseless flow of energy and matter through a network of chemical reactions. This enables a living organism to continually generate, repair, and perpetuate itself through the intake, digestion, and transformation of food. Metabolism is the central characteristic of biological life. Said another way, life is the transportation and transformation of energy.

The fundamental facts of life are that:

  • No individual organism can exist in isolation. Nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities. 
  • Life, from its beginning more than three billion years ago, did not take over the planet by combat but by networking. Diversity assures resilience and survival.
  • Energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun.
  • Matter cycles continually through the web of life.
  • One species’ waste is another species’ food.

Animals depend on the photosynthesis of plants for their energy needs. Plants depend on the carbon dioxide produced by animals, as well as on the nitrogen fixed by bacteria at their roots; Together plants, animals, and microorganisms regulate the entire biosphere and maintain the conditions conducive to life.

Human Beings Depend On Ecological literacy

We need to “understand how Nature sustains life because sustained life is a property of an entire ecosystem rather than a single organism or species. Over billions of years of evolution, the Earth’s ecosystems have evolved certain principles of organization to sustain the web of life. Knowledge of these principles of organization is what we mean by ‘ecological literacy’.”

The survival of humanity depends upon our ecological literacy – our ability to understand the basic principles of a connected Nature and how to live accordingly. This means that ecological literacy must become a critical skill for all humans to embrace if we are to remain on Earth.

Systems Thinking

In order to become ecologically literate and to survive on this Planet, we need to learn how to think in terms of relationships among the various members of the Earth Household. A living system – organism, ecosystem, or social system – is an integrated whole whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts. These “systemic” properties are properties of the whole, which none of its parts have. Consequently, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Systems thinking  means that understanding life requires a shift of focus from objects to relationships. Each species in an ecosystem helps to sustain the entire food web. If one species is decimated by some natural catastrophe, the ecosystem may still be resilient enough to survive if there are other species that can fulfill similar functions. In other words, the stability of an ecosystem depends on its biodiversity. Biodiversity is a popular word that describes the complexity of Nature’s network of relationships. Nature’s ecosystems


Sustainability is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships. It always involves a whole community. This is the profound lesson we need to learn from Nature. The way to sustain life is to build and nurture community. A sustainable human community interacts with other communities – human and nonhuman – in ways that enable them to live and develop according to their nature. Sustainability does not mean that things do not change. It is a dynamic process of co-evolution rather than a static state.

Current world problems

Once we become ecologically literate, we can understand the processes and patterns of relationships that enable ecosystems to sustain life. We can then understand that the major problems of our time cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems. This means that they are all interconnected and interdependent. Virtually all our environmental problems are threats to our food security. The vicious circle of humanity’s population growth  pressure and poverty leads to the depletion of resources. This means falling water tables, wells going dry, shrinking forests, collapsing fisheries, eroding soils, grasslands turning into desert, and so on. The depletion of resources, aggravated by human triggered climate change, produces failing governments that can no longer provide security for their citizens. Terrorism then becomes a means for temporary human survival.

All of these problems must be seen as different facets of one single crisis — a lack of ecological literacy. It derives from the fact that most people in our society, and especially our political and corporate leaders, subscribe to the concepts of an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, globally interconnected world.

There are solutions to the major problems of our time. Systems thinking and ecological literacy are two key world views that must be part of a new paradigm that portrays the vital interconnections between food, health, and the environment. This profound transformation in the global thinking of all humans is needed for humanity to survive.

With the ideas that are presented in this essay, we now move on to talk about energy flow within Nature’s living systems. 

Worth Your Extra Attention

Here is a resource list for further study of the systems worldview that is introduced in this essay.

Please Comment and Subscribe

This blog essay is a draft chapter in a book that I will publish in January of 2018. Your comments and your suggestions regarding this chapter would be greatly appreciated.

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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

7 Responses to “Our Earth Is A Living System”


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