Theory of Living Systems – Part 2

Hello! Today we will see how the basic principles of ecosystems organization can be used to build sustainable human communities. Thus, taking into account the experience of over three billion years of evolution of Earth’s ecosystems, following are their principles (based on the book “The Web of Life” by Fritjop Capra):

Interdependence: all members of an ecological community are interconnected in a vast network of relationships, the web of life. Then, the interdependence (mutual dependence of all vital processes at organisms) is the nature of all ecological relationships. Thus, it is important to change our perception of parts to whole, from objects to relationships, content to standard, i.e., think in a systemic way. A sustainable human community is aware of the multiple relationships among its members, nurturing the community means nourishing those relationships. So the success of the whole community depends on the success of each of its members and the success of each member depends on the success of the community as a whole.

Recycling: being open systems, all organisms in an ecosystem produce waste, but what is waste for one species is food for another, so that the ecosystem as a whole remains free of waste. One of the main disagreements between economy and ecology comes from the fact that nature is cyclical whereas our industrial systems are linear. Therefore, we extract resources and turn them into products and waste. Sustainable patterns of production and consumption need to be cyclical, as in nature. To achieve these cyclical patterns, we need to redesign at a fundamental level our business and our economy. As examples, could be used more solar energy (which is the basic source of energy for ecosystems) and gradually implement ecological taxes (to prices better reflect the real costs).

Cooperation: at the ecosystems the cyclic exchanges of energy and resources are sustained by widespread cooperation. In actual human society, the economy emphasizes competition, expansion and domination; but the ecology emphasizes cooperation, conservation and partnership (seems that we are going the wrong way …). In human communities, partnership means democracy and personal empowerment, because each community member plays an important role. As a partnership proceeds, each partner begins to better understand the needs of others. In a true partnership, confident, both partners learn and change, they co-evolve.

Flexibility: in an ecosystem, is a consequence of its multiple feedback loops, which tend to bring the system back into balance whenever there is a deviation from the standard, due to changing environmental conditions. The lack of flexibility manifests itself as tension and this occurs when one or more system variables are pushed to its extreme values, which will lead to an enhanced rigidity throughout the system. Thus, administering a social system (an enterprise, a city or an economy) means finding the optimal values for the variables of the system. If we try to maximize any variable instead of optimizing it, this will lead to the destruction of the system as a whole. The principle of flexibility also suggests a corresponding strategy for resolving conflicts. In every community there will always be contradictions and conflicts that cannot be resolved in favor of one or the other side. For example, the community need for stability and change, order and freedom, tradition and innovation. These inevitable conflicts are much better solved by establishing a dynamic equilibrium, rather than hard decisions that favor one side only.

Diversity: at ecosystems, the role of diversity is closely linked with the network structure of the system. A diversified system is also flexible because it contains many species with overlapping ecological functions that can partially replace each other. In ecosystems, the complexity of the network is a consequence of their biodiversity and thus a diverse ecological community is an elastic community. In human communities, ethnic and cultural diversity can play the same role. Diversity means many different relations, many different approaches to the same problem. However, diversity is a strategic advantage only if there is a really vibrant communication, supported by a web of relationships. If the community is aware of the interdependence of all its members, diversity will enrich all relationships and thus enrich the community as a whole as well as to each of its members.

Now consider how these principles can be applied in your life. Thinking to understand, feel, change…

About Ana Marques

Woman, scientist, consultant. But above all, a common human being, willing to help, share, transform!
This entry was posted in Sustainability Concepts, Sustainability in practice. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Theory of Living Systems – Part 2

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  3. Julius Neviera says:

    Thanks for interesting posts, they again instilled my interest in system theory. I had 3 year course at university, it was experimental and concentrated on system analysis and descriptive skills, but that was nearly 10 years ago.
    I sure hope that increasing interest in sustainability and systems thinking will reinforce building of systems paradigm.

  4. Neil Davidson says:

    Hi Ana, I largely agree with your comments, and practice this approach in helping to map ‘ecosystems’ of players in the linked social-ecological systems in which they co-exist interdependently (whether they realize this or not!). I have developed several diagrams to help to show the overlaps and help groups identify alternative pathways to solving wicked problems associated with path-dependency and assumptions of ‘the only ways’ things can be done from within current system constraints. Presencing the emerging whole, i.e. the new system map, is proving to be a powerful way of helping to co-develop new maps with diverse groups.

    I do not have a website (yet!) but would be happy to share the diagram with you if you send me a return email.


  5. Jordi Morrós says:

    Interesting your post.

    These days I have read this article of professor Robert Gray:

    I think that is also an interesting contribution.

  6. Jim Cory says:

    Hi Ana,

    I liked your article using ecosystem theory to help us understand sustainability. I agree with most of your statements, but wonder whether instead of “cooperation” we should think “opportunism”. What appears as cooperation from the outside is really a complicated interaction between organisms, which can at times be competitive, parasitic, symbiotic, or nurturing. Life is presented with opportunities (or alternatively, limitations) in the environment and those organisms that take advantage of them survive and proliferate.

    What we need now perhaps is a clear understanding of the limitations facing us, which discussions like yours help facilitate. Then we can begin to look for opportunities that can compensate for these constraints and help us overcome them.


  7. Eric says:


    You have stimulated my mind with the topics you have presented. I struggle mostly due to my lack of research. I wonder how we could implement a theory of this sort. I am thinking of the workplace, the economy, our community…Implementation of a sound systems theory would require sacrifice by somebody or something. Our current system (I live in the United States) promotes competition and dominance…something always loses. In your system all prosper…but I do believe some will lose as well. Let me present an example of nature that has caused an issue in central New York State in our beautiful Finger Lakes. The lakes have been deteriorated by the presence of the zebra mussel. It happened because fisherman were not properly draining their boats after boating on Lake Erie. Then they would take their boat to the Finger Lakes and transport zebra mussels from Lake Erie. What has resulted is a out of control multiplicity of zebra mussels in the Finger Lakes which has reduced certain types of vegetation and plankton. This has resulted in a loss of certain species of fish in those infected lakes. The fish were not able to survive as their food sources had been diminshed by the zebra mussel. This happens in society as well. I want to understand from your perspective how would we solve an issue like this? The issue of sacrifice or giving something up is what I assume will be your response. For instance finding an environment that is large enough that the habits of the zebra mussel have less impact? The fish had to sacrifice for the mussel..a solution would be the mussel sacrifice for the fish? If we translate this to society how could we get people to sacrifice for the good of all? I understand your flexibility and diversity theory and we would have to evolve together. That means someone has to change. Some of those who have to change/evolve do not want to because they like it where they are. How do we approach this? I am interested in your response.

    • Julius Neviera says:

      Interesting example of ecosystem change when influenced by outside factor. Lake as a system suffered from outside factor that influenced food balance and instilled changes in flora and micro fauna. People living on lake see increasing mussels numbers and are worried as they stick to everything that is thick. This particular species has sharp shell edges, people are less likely to swim. It is alarming, but changes are not necessarily negative. Zebra mussels while feeding cleans water, they contribute to sediment enrichment. Fish that feed on sediment have more food, more sunlight reaches lake floor, new vegetation grows and mussels themselves become food for number of predators. Over time lake ecosystem changes and reaches new balance and negative factor effect is removed.
      In the end for people lake as recreational place is lost, but as food source it is still there, maybe even richer.
      So what matters? Recreation? Nutrition?

      Every society has it’s goals. Every human society has a capability to change it’s goals. Ecosystem does not.
      I see sustainability as tool to change goals of society, to make society look at what actually matters. Over long period we as part of society lost one main instinct that drives all ecosystems – survival instinct.
      If there’s no humans, there’s no society.
      So if you have to loose some or your freedom rights to survive what will you choose? Freedom or survival?
      Extreme individualism is on the rise, but can you survive in arctic alone?
      So first one needs to choose what is he individualist or member of society…

  8. Great subject if we don’t get lost in it.
    Societies are fine if they don’t impose a straight jacket upon us.
    I don’t think anyone could sum it up better then George Carlin
    I’m more interested in the missing key to Evolution.

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