Saturday, December 3, 2016

Saving the Planet Kung Fu Part 2: Systems Theory Basics

This is the second part of a three part series explaining the basics of Living Systems Theory and its importance for creating a sustainable world. 

The Fireworks Galaxy

In the first part of this series, Saving the Planet Kung Fu Part 1: Let’s Paradigm! I discussed the impact of our mechanical worldview, and the impact it has had on us and our planet, and our need for a new model of the world.

With an understanding of the basics of Living Systems Theory (LST), we can begin to see the world in a very new way. Living Systems Theory is a new paradigm and is like a lens or tool you can use to see the world. Fundamentally LST is a model, and it is a very useful one as long as we don’t forget that it too is a model. Issues arise when we mistake our models for the vast complexity and richness of reality. Remember the wise professor, “All models are wrong! Some are just more useful than others.”

For centuries we have been obsessed with parts and objects, yet we’ve ignored the organization of and the relationships between those objects and parts. We’ve obsessed over entropy, the tendency of order to descend into chaos, yet we’ve completely missed that there are also self-organizing principles in the universe through which order appears out of chaos. Life itself is an example of order forming out of chaos. How else did a highly organized molecule like DNA, or for that matter a living cell form out of random disorganized primordial goo, without an under lying pattern, or force, which caused some  organization out of disorder (chaos) to take place? The evolution of life on earth and of the universe itself has been from chaos to complexity and order. Atoms formed, gasses condensed into stars, planets formed out of disorganized gas clouds, galaxies formed, and so on.

Looking at parts can be useful, but you will only get one type of information. In other words, our current mechanical model is only concerned with the goal, while systems theory is focused upon the process needed to reach the goal. Examining relationships between objects and how they are organized completes, or at least expands, the model of our world. Living systems are much more accurately modeled using systems modeling, rather than mechanical models because mechanical models tend to be too simplistic; living systems such as biological and ecological systems are far more complex, dynamic, and interconnected than we previously thought and yet we continue to use mechanical models to track living systems and to model reality.

Systems theory creates a model of the world based upon observing how systems are organized and the relationships between systems through negative and positive feedback loops, nested networks of smaller systems within larger ones, leverage points, structural couplings, bifurcation points, evolution (system change/adaptation/learning), and energy/information flow. A living system exhibits characteristics such as autopoesis (meaning self-making, self-maintaining, self-replicating; which, is something your car can’t do), as well as, learning and adaptability to changing conditions. This is a bit technical, but stay with me and I’ll do my best to explain these key principles to you.

Negative feedback loops resist change- they function to keep a system the same (maintain a pattern or the ‘ideal’) despite outside pressure and influence. A simple negative feedback system would be the thermostat in your house which attempts to keep a constant (ideal) temperature inside your house while conditions fluctuate outside. A positive feedback loop amplifies change exponentially each time around the loop and will keep growing until an outside influence stops the amplification. An example of this is the feedback between a microphone and speaker. It will keep getting stronger until you either move the microphone away (essentially breaking the feedback circuit) or the speakers blow up.

Basically, complex systems are made up of many negative and positive feedback loops interlocking and balancing each other out. For example, a living cell regulates its internal environment with its external environment through feedback in order to maintain its specific pattern of organization; the cell ideally maintains a state of balance (the technical term is homeostasis). Therefore, a cell would be a system maintaining a specific organizational pattern and is a model of a negative feedback loop. If the external environment changes in a way that prevents this pattern of organization to persist—a new pattern must be adopted or the cell will die. The point of choosing between reorganization or ‘death’ is known as a bifurcation point and these points are preceded with increasing bouts of instability or ‘chaos’ as the system tries to stay the same despite the increasing pressure to change (like bailing a sinking ship). A leverage point is like a point in the system or a way to introduce change; a new way to organize.  It is literally ‘where can I apply pressure to create change with the least resistance?’

It is easy to picture a single cell existing within a static environment acting on the cell and creating the pressure to change. However, there isn’t just one cell, and one static external background environment. This single cell is affected by all of the other cells making up its external environment, and that cell is simultaneously affecting all the other cells in its environment. The activities, actions, and behaviors of each cell are feedback for every other cell. Every cell is creating its environment co-creatively, in relation to the other cells in the system. It is a constant dance of input and output, growth and change, stability and balance. This is true at every level, from the cell, to organs, to our bodies, to our families and small groups, to societies, ecosystems, and our planet and beyond. Instead of discrete parts composing a whole, we have smaller wholes making larger wholes; a nested network of systems within systems.

 As mentioned before, systems function through positive and negative feedback loops and we see this in the functioning of ecosystems and in our bodies. Feedback is important because it is information which ensures the system is working the way it is intended to; it is imperative, to the survival of the system, that there is a free flow of this information throughout the system. Imagine trying to ride your bike with a blindfold on… It is also important that a system is able to get accurate information. A system will freeze and fail if it receives conflicting information. For instance, if I was trying to go to LA from San Francisco, I would consult a map and read the road signs to ensure I was on the right road and going in the right direction. If I am hostile to feedback, or if I just ignore it altogether, I very easily could find myself at the Canadian border, arriving at the ocean, or end up driving right through LA toward the Mexican border without realizing I had passed my intended destination.

Our cells ignore feedback at their (and our) peril. A cancer cell is a cell that no longer accepts feedback from the cells around it, in particular contact inhibition; where a healthy cell will stop dividing once it makes contact with the cells surrounding it. A system which ignores feedback risks catastrophic damage not only to itself, but to the larger systems it is linked to, which can result in one system failing after the other—a cascade failure. A cancer cell is deadly to itself and to the entire body. When a person dies it can have devastating effects on a family, particularly if that person was the primary financial supporter. That single cancer cell run amok could have farther effects, though most likely not catastrophic, throughout the network of systems linked to larger systems depending on who that person was and what purpose or function they served in society; such as, if they were the president of the United States. The effects become less catastrophic further out because the larger system has fail-safes, redundancies (back-ups), buffers, and multiple connections to other and larger systems—structural couplings. For instance, there is more than one person who can be president or the family can receive assistance from the surrounding community (and the more friends they have, the more connections in the larger community; that is the more structural couplings, then the more ‘resilient’ they are).

However, this is not to minimize the value of the lost person—the system still suffers. A person is a unique expression and is not the same as a cog in a wheel or an easily replaced part. The system will never be the same again; however, the system as a whole will persist and still thrive. We are all immensely important… and at the same time we are not! This is how the larger system of Life continues to persist even in the face of death and change. New cells take the place of old cells as they die so we may persist; until one day we don’t. Cancer is a good example of how one single cell can wreak havoc when it no longer responds to feedback. It is critical for systems to know what is going on, to understand its effects so it can adjust and adapt in order to maintain homeostasis within and without.

In my next post in this series, Saving the Planet Kung-Fu Part 3: Epiphenomenal, we will take things to the next level!


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Capra, Fritjof. (1996). The Web of Life: A new Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. Anchor Books: New York.

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