A systemic perspective on life

By Torbjörn Rydberg

Some of the ideas in this post were originally published in the report, Agroecology in practice: Walking the talk (2014).

During my period as a teacher, my main interests have been open system thermodynamics and general systems theory for any system, including ecosystems, agricultural systems, energy systems, and economic systems. The method and theory for dealing with thermodynamics of open systems can be hard for many people to digest, but for natural scientists, classical thermodynamics with an analytical mechanistic worldview is still the dominating paradigm, which perhaps makes understanding general systems easier. The goal of this essay is to explain the shift from a quantitative mechanistic system perspective to a qualitative understanding of the web of life.

First we need to change our systems view from a mechanistic engineering view to an open systems perspective. We must broaden our view to include the world as one system full of processes interdependent upon each other, which works on different time scales as well as different size and spatial scales. This essay explains how I introduce fundamental concepts of self-organizing systems to students who are new to the discipline:

  1. Energy transformation and energy hierarchical organization, suggested as the fifth law of thermodynamics
  2. Maximum power and maximum empower, suggested to be the fourth law of thermodynamics for open self-organizing systems.

We need to use both of these concepts to understand sustainability of qualitative complex systems. These concepts impact how we measure and test systems performance such as productivity and efficiency. Continue reading A systemic perspective on life

Emergy: you spelled energy wrong!

by Mary Logan

EMergy–yes, that word is spelled correctly. Emergy with an EM, means the Energy Memory of something. What is Emergy, and how do I learn more about it? I have been getting requests for suggested readings about EMergy–so here is a brief explanation and some suggested links.

Science proposes to describe, explain, predict, and control. But when we talk about global problems of the biosphere, science often fails in explanation, prediction, and problem-solving. Many scientific disciplines have reduced themselves into specialized, competitive silos, protected from each other by separate terminology and reductionist theories. The lenses through which many scientists view the world are microscopic in nature, focusing on analysis and application, using statistical tools that break things down into smaller and smaller pieces.  This focus makes it difficult to even define the problems, much less find solutions. While analysis is a useful and important subset of the overall process, synthesis and evaluation of policies requires using an instrument such as a macroscope to view the world from a systemic perspective. Our lack of synthesis prevents us from seeing and evaluating the relationships, processes and structures inherent in the whole. And our grasp of the holistic big picture is what frames our view of society’s trajectory and the problems society faces.

How does one find a coherent way to grasp the big picture of how man exists on this planet? If we use a macroscope to analyze energy flows using Emergy Synthesis, then we  can capture the essence of complex, global systems, since a continuous flow of energy is the central issue to maintaining our complex civilization (or not). Understanding the nature of our energy basis is essential to understanding where we are headed as a civilization.  Continue reading Emergy: you spelled energy wrong!

Spatial emergy concentration and city living

By Mary Logan

How do cities concentrate energy and materials spatially? What is the relative emergy basis for modern cities, agrarian towns, and rural spaces? Do city dwellers use more or fewer resources than suburban or rural dwellers? Are big cities more sustainable in descent, as some propose, and how do we maximize empower in the future for our cities? Continue reading Spatial emergy concentration and city living