systems theory

General Systems Theory is of fundamental importance in looking at the world and our interaction with it. This new scientific understanding of life, based on the concepts of non-linear dynamics, represents a conceptual watershed. It brings in to question the everyday understanding that the world operates like a machine and that there is a direct relationship between cause and effect, input and outcome. Casting off the overly reductive and mechanistic assumptions of the old science, Systems Theory opens upon the fecundity of chaos, complexity, and self-organisation. It underpins the principles of ecology.

Very simply Systems Theory says that there are many causes and many effects in any given situation. This complex interplay of conditions can look chaotic and confused but in fact have patterns of interaction. All systems are a complex interaction of information matter and energy. This systems view of life has several fundamental properties:

  • All systems are whole in themselves. Known as Holons. Holons are comprised of sub systems (atoms are a subsystem in a cell) and are integral parts of larger systems (a cell is a subsystem of the liver) they are part of hierarchies of complexity (cell-liver-person-family-society). With increasing complexity there is also increasing fragility, a decrease in structural stability.
  • All systems have internally generated goals (a red blood cell’s internal goal is to carry oxygen) and are self-regulating. This is achieved by feedback mechanisms which are of two kinds:
    • Balancing feedback, which stabilises the internal goal (the body’s goal to maintain an even temperature is maintained by sweating and shivering).
    • Re-enforcing feedback, which increases the deviation from the internal goal. In this way systems can either change (the temperature rises to a fever and the infection in the body is overcome) or they can collapse (the fever fails to control the infection and the person dies).
  • Systems are not reducible to their parts. The properties of water are not in any way similar to the properties of hydrogen and oxygen, its components. The emergent properties which arise when the constituent parts come together are not predictable. The nature and capacities of a system derive from the interactive relationships of its parts. This is sometimes called synergy.

Importantly systems theory challenges the assertion that we can act as if we can control the world. It brings in to question the belief that humans are superior beings, separate from nature which we can dominate by our superior intellect. These ways of thinking are profoundly embedded in the culture of the Industrial Growth Society. However, as the ecological saying goes: 'It is not just that the world is more complex than you think; it is more complex than you can think.'

Systems theory and ecology

The principles of ecology are fundamentally based on a systems view of life. Human beings are not seen as separate from nature. Humans are part of the dynamic web of life on the planet and cannot exist without the complex systems of life that support them.

The ecological principles of networks and cycles driven by solar energy, partnership, diversity and dynamic balance could not be understood without the concept of non-linear dynamics.

These principles are directly relevant to our health and well being. We are embedded in the cyclical processes of nature. We depend on the purity of air and water and soil for our health and these are supported by the natural systems and other beings on the planet.

It also shows that where networks of life have been irrevocably damaged, as in some oceans areas, evolution is running in reverse. Higher (and systemically more fragile) organisms are being killed and primitive organisms, slimes and jellyfish, are thriving. We, as higher organisms very dependant on a viable and alive biosphere, need to take heed of this.

When we acknowledge our dependence on the biosphere ecological sustainability becomes vitally important. Systems theory shows us that we do not need to invent sustainable human communities from scratch, but can model them on natures eco-systems which have an inherent ability to sustain life.

Systems theory and social organisation

Systems theory is of increasing importance in the understanding of our social functioning. It helps us ask novel questions, and provides an analytical tool that acknowledges the complexity of out social interaction. Its application has lead to important insights and the understanding that man’s social structures are not independent from the material world.

It is able to provide a critique of our present social structures, for example the way that economic globalisation interferes with the inherent ability of the biosphere to sustain life.

It enables us to look at what kinds if social organisation would be helpful and how social change could be promoted.

It looks at the process of change, the importance of diversity, inclusively, the promotion of novelty and 'thinking outside the box' within organisations.

It would encourage participatory groups on a local scale networking and co-ordinating and sharing information on a global scale. It argues that social change in our network society develops from identities based on the rejection of the Industrial Growth Society’s values. It sees that ethics at all levels are indivisible from the promotion of a life sustaining future.

On a more personal level it promotes the dignity if the individual, the importance skills and learning and the necessity of innovation. It encourages us to acknowledge our underlying values of care for each other and the world based on our life experience.

Finally it connects people with the material world and provides the principles of eco design, looking at ways that we could survive in a sustainable future.