a brief note on systems theory

movement with or without direction & intentionality?
strange imprints on a nettle leaf in Ireland

Originally posted on my website: hannahlclose.com.

This post is part of an informal ‘learning journal’ documenting loose thoughts and half baked insights arising from my participation in the Engaged Ecology MA at Schumacher College.

‘Systems theory’ and ‘systems thinking’ have been in my vocabulary for a few years. Still, I never took the time to understand them beyond the assumption that they were ways of seeing and interpreting the world as a networked, interconnected, relational ‘system’, or a multitude of interlocking systems feeding into, and dependent upon one another. I took that to mean it was ‘good’, and therefore didn’t pry further.

This way of seeing has potential for dissolving our Western separatist and hyper-individualised perspectives — it offers us a view of ourselves embedded within and connected to the wider ‘system’ of nature alongside other humans, and yet, following this week’s study at Schumacher, I couldn’t help but feel some hesitation about the metaphor of a ‘system’ which guides this school of thought.

Part of this week’s homework was watching Adam Curtis’ documentary, ‘The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts’. Curtis disdains the machine metaphor present at the heart of the term ‘ecosystem’ (which heavily influences, and is influenced by systems theory/thinking). He recounts the origins of the term as coming from Freud’s analogy of the human mind to an electrical ‘system’, which later inspired the ecologist Arthur Tansley to coin the term ‘ecosystem’ in 1935, now revered by contemporary ecologists and environmentalists across the globe.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why understanding nature by analogy with a machine is uncomfortable.

Despite this, and despite my work on metaphor for Perspectiva, I had never questioned the term ‘ecosystem’, or the disciplines of ‘systems theory/thinking’. A ‘systemic’ view of life, I believed (and still do to some extent) offered a view of life that could lead to flourishing as opposed to the destruction we currently see.

The nature of a system is that is has boundaries, and according to systems theory, these boundaries can be applied to the natural and ‘unnatural’ world (a contested notion). For example, a coral reef is a system, a city is a system, and if we get granular we can also say that a bathtub is a system! In a way, perceiving the natural world through this lens feels like a half truth — yes, we can discern certain boundaries between the ocean, the forest, and the desert, but in doing so, are we really helping cultivate a holistic view, or are we merely separating the world into pieces again, albeit on a larger scale? I still believe this theory and way of thinking can be useful when exercised skilfully, but the metaphor is unfortunate.

Similarly, my unconscious belief in the ‘balance of nature’ myth (which also depicts a system of binaries — balanced and unbalanced) has unravelled in the past week. The metaphor derives from (ironically) both capitalism and creationism. Specifically, economic thought and theistic idealism that determine equilibrium as a central feature of nature (and therefore reality). The system, so goes the metaphor, will always strive to balance itself out because it is logical or divine law to do so. Ecologists spent decades operating under this delusion. The natural world is far more variable than our linear models and idealistic perspectives can predict, which begs the question:

How long before we realise the limits of the term ‘ecosystem’? Is there a worthy replacement? or am I getting too hung up on terms… perhaps not.

Additionally, we read Henri Bortoft’s brilliant but dense ‘Counterfeit and authentic wholes: Finding a means for dwelling in nature’. Bortoft proposes the radical idea that the whole may not, in fact, be greater than the sum of its parts, and that (even more radically) the whole can be experienced through the parts.

‘Because the whole is in some way reflected in the parts, it is to be encountered by going further into the parts instead of standing back from them’.

This blows ‘getting a birds-eye view’ out of the water. Surely, ‘she says’, if it is linear, ‘left-brain’, hyper-rational ways of thinking that are causing the world to burn, the last thing we should encourage is further dissection?! well, to dissect dissection out of the picture equally dissects part of life. Here is where the ‘balance’ metaphor might come in useful — dissection is not *always* bad, too much dissection, however, is. Anyway, I digress.

Bortoft also raises some interesting points like: ‘the implication is that the whole always comes later than its parts’ — pointing to our ways of perceiving time and ‘progress’ as linear and ‘forward facing’, and to the ‘whole’ as the ultimate apotheosis of the parts, which are its inferior and undeveloped manifestations. Perhaps the whole and its parts can co-arise and inter-be… He says:

‘Awareness is occupied with things. The whole is absent to awareness because it is not a thing among things. To awareness, the whole is no-thing, and since awareness is awareness of something, no-thing is nothing. The whole which is no-thing is taken as nothing, in which case it vanishes’.

Perhaps this is why systems theory is so appealing to the Western mind. The entirety of the world ‘system’ is too large to even begin to contemplate — I say ‘entirety’ because I’m not referring to ‘isolated’ systems like the weather, industry, internet etc., but instead to everything — and anyone who has tried to create anything close to a ‘theory of everything’ has failed, unsurprisingly. Systems theory allows us to break the world down into multiple systems so that we can get closer to a picture of the whole by virtue of the relationships between parts — sometimes — because it would be impossible to connect all parts, but in some way all parts are connected.

Timothy Morton’s notion of a ‘hyper-object’ — that which is too abstract and complex for the human mind to hold — applies well here.

Complexity theory, which I haven’t yet learned about, may come in to redeem the limitations of systems theory — intuitively it sounds that way — but I could be wrong.

I’ve run out of time! but for now, I leave you these half baked thoughts.

Curator @ Advaya | Associate @ Perspectiva | Engaged Ecologist @ Schumacher C. | Former founder @ Experimental Thought Co. | hannahlclose.com