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