Ecoliteracy – A Systems View Of Life

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“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in the community but his ethics prompt him to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).” –– from Aldo Leopold “A Sand County Almanac” 1949

The Systems View of Life Is A Unifying Vision

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. Any living system, whether it be an organism,an ecosystem, or a social system, is an integrated whole whose properties cannot be reduced to those properties of smaller parts.

Author Jeremy Lent suggests that we must understand Nature as a networked system: 

“The systems perspective offers important insights into the nature of reality that upend many assumptions forming the basis of the predominant worldview. It tells us that the relationship between things is frequently more important than the things themselves. It emphasizes that everything in the natural world is dynamic rather than static, and that biological phenomena can’t be predicted with precision: instead of fixed laws, we therefore need to search for the underlying organizing principles of nature.”
“These principles, it reveals, occur across widely different domains, from heart rhythms to climate variations and from lake ecologies to internet social media connections. It also shows how self-organized systems are fractally embedded within one another: a cell may be part of an organism, which is part of a community, which is nested within an ecosystem, which in turn is part of Gaia.”

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.

Without A Relationship With Nature, We Have No Life

We commonly think of the word “relationship” to describe a  personal, romantic, or passionate attachment of some kind. One might say: “I have a great relationship with my daughter”. Or, in your Facebook profile, you might state “I am in a relationship with Sandy Smith”. But rarely do we hear or read about the most important kind of human relationship that is so critical to the maintenance of life itself. This kind of relationship is a relationship with Nature.

Perhaps one reason for this omission is that much of humanity does recognize our dependency on Nature. In our “me” societies, our hubris suggests that we can control Nature. This arrogance prevents us from admitting that, while Nature can survive without us, we cannot survive without Nature.  Many scholars point out that the unchecked, exponential population growth of the human race will result in the resources of the Earth being unable to supply food for humans within the next 50 years. This dire prediction has come about because humanity has failed to look upon Nature as a relationship.

Some years ago, Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi published a seminal book entitled “The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision” .  Capra is well known as one of the fathers of modern systems science. Since the 1960’s, modern science has undergone a major paradigm shift by recognizing that:

…the material world, ultimately, is an evolving and ever-changing system in which complex structures are developed from simpler forms. Nature is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships. The planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system. A central characteristic of this systems view of life is that all living systems are complex networks where there are countless interconnections between the biological, cognitive, social, and ecological dimensions of life.

An ecosystem is greater than the sum of its parts. It cannot be defined by looking separately at each of its interconnected parts. In addition, the high complexity of an ecosystem makes it impossible to predict.

The problem is that the society of mankind is unable to grasp this fundamental truth. Humanity fails to see that we are part of the relationship. We cannot stand aside from something that we are part of. If we affect Nature, we affect ourselves. For example, if we pollute the air, we might  suffer climate change.

The human concept of economics is another powerful example of how we might end up damaging or destroying relationships within human society by damaging Nature. Capra notes that:

The outstanding characteristic of most of today’s economic models – whether they are promoted by economists in government, in the corporate world, or in academia – is their assumption that perpetual economic growth is possible. Such undifferentiated and unlimited growth is seen as essential by virtually all economists and politicians, even though it should by now be abundantly clear that unlimited expansion on a finite planet can only lead to disaster. Since human needs are finite, but human greed is not, economic growth can usually be maintained through artificial creation of needs by means of advertising. The goods that are produced and sold in this way are often unneeded, and thus are essentially waste. The pollution and depletion of natural resources generated by this enormous waste of unnecessary goods is exacerbated by the waste of energy and materials in inefficient production processes. The continuing illusion of unlimited growth on a finite planet is the fundamental dilemma at the roots of all the major problems of our time.

Indeed, we humans are an integral part of Fritjof Capra’s systems view of life.

What does the term “systems view” mean when it is applied to life? It implies looking at a living organism in the totality of its relationships. But clearly, the idea of a relationship of interdependence with Nature is ignored by most of the human race. Instead, we pursue a reckless dominance that might wipe out our species.

In April of 2018, the Ecologist Journal published an essay by Fritjof Capra entitled “The Way To Sustain Life Is To Build And Nurture Community” . 

Capra’s essay is a wonderful summary of modern systems science thinking that has been completely ignored by many organizations who are carrying on “conservation” projects in Nature. What follows is a series of quotes from Capra’s essay that suggest a new way of thinking about conserving Nature. 

The Systems View of Life Requires A New Kind Of Thinking

Today, it is becoming more and more evident that concern with the environment is no longer one of many “single issues.” It is the context of everything else — of our lives, our businesses, our politics.”

“The great challenge of our time is to build and nurture sustainable communities, designed in such a manner that their ways of life — businesses, economies, physical structures, and technologies — do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life.”

“The first step in this endeavor, naturally, must be to understand how nature sustains life. It turns out that this involves a new ecological understanding of life. Indeed, such a new understanding of life has emerged in science over the last 30 years.”

“The systems view of life requires a new kind of thinking — thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context.”

“One of the most important insights of the systemic understanding of life is the recognition that networks are the basic pattern of organisation of all living systems. Ecosystems are understood in terms of food webs – i.e., networks of organisms; organism are networks of cells, organs, and organ systems; and cells are networks of molecules.”

“The network is a pattern that is common to all life. Indeed, at the very heart of the change of paradigms from the mechanistic to the systemic view of life we find a fundamental change of metaphors: from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network. “

” Today, it is becoming more and more evident that concern with the environment is no longer one of many “single issues.” It is the context of everything else — of our lives, our businesses, our politics.”

” Sustainability, then, 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.”

“Today, it is becoming more and more evident that the major problems of our time — energy, environment, climate change, economic inequality, violence and war, and so on — cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are all interconnected and interdependent. They require corresponding systemic solutions — solutions that do not solve any problem in isolation but deal with it within the context of other related problems.”

“Unfortunately, this realization has not yet dawned on most of our political and corporate [and scientific] leaders who are unable to connect the dots. Instead of taking into account the interconnectedness of our major problems, their so-called ‘solutions’ tend to focus on a single issue, thereby simply shifting the problem to another part of the system — for example, by producing more energy at the expense of biodiversity, public health, or climate stability. Moreover, our leaders refuse to recognize how their piecemeal solutions affect future generations. What we need is solutions that are systemic and sustainable.”

Ecoliteracy And The Understanding Of Nature’s Systems Is Vital To Sustainable Living 

In the coming decades the survival of humanity will depend on our ecological literacy — our ability to understand the basic principles of ecology and to live accordingly.”

“This means that ecoliteracy must become a critical skill for politicians, business leaders, and professionals in all spheres, and should be the most important part of education at all levels — from primary and secondary schools to colleges, universities, and the continuing education and training of professionals.”

“We need to teach our children, our students, and our political and corporate leaders the fundamental facts of life — for example, that one species’ waste is another species’ food; that matter cycles continually through the web of life; that the energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun; that diversity assures resilience; that life, from its beginning more than three billion years ago, did not take over the planet by combat but by partnerships and networking.

Environmental Educators Hold The Key To Altering Humanity’s Misguided Worldview About Nature

Is there any hope of building an ecoliterate worldview of systems thinking within humans? I think so !! Despite the irresponsible ignorance of a large number of humans, many of our children and future generations do not hold this destructive point of view. Their minds are fresh and responsive to awe and wonder. Through environmental education programs that emphasize Earth’s web of life, they are likely candidates for embracing the idea of relationships and interdependence. By being shown how to identify and protect energy connections in Nature, they become effective stewards of our Earth.

Through hands-on, place-based education:

  • Ask each student to describe his or her relationship with a plant or animal.
  • Ask students to draw a complete food web diagram, INCLUDING THEMSELVES,  of the ecosystem that they are observing.
  • Have the students play the Web of Life game that includes themselves.
  • With care, guide the students away from consumerism.

Hopefully, with these ideas and other ideas, our children can develop an ecoliterate “relationship consciousness” and become legacy builders — Nature’s evangelists for future generations.

Here is a current list of essays about ecoliteracy for your consideration. This list will expand with time.

For Your Further Consideration

This essay is part of a series of essays about ecoliteracy that present ideas to environmental educators, students,  and all stewards of Nature.   These ideas come from some of our modern great thinkers. The emphasis in these essays will be on two key ideas:

  1. Our earth is a living system that transports and transforms energy to all life. The key to an active ecoliteracy that results in a healthy environment for all life on earth is the building of a systems view of life into the minds and hearts of humanity, This worldview is based the fact that all of Nature is interconnected and interdependent.
  2. Environmental education is not simply offering facts. Environmental education must be hands-on and take place outdoors if ideas, facts, and effective conservation strategies are to become a consciousness in the minds and hearts of our youth. Environmental education must include the passing of this consciousness to future generations.

Please Comment 

The purpose of my essays is to develop a dialog with my readers. You are strongly encouraged to comment on this essay in the space provided below.

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.