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

Uncharted territory for a system in overshoot

By Mary Odum

http-:www.flu.gov:planning-preparedness:community:community_mitigation.pdf 1918 pandemic CFR = <3%. Where would Ebola’s CFR line be on this graph?

We are in uncharted territory with the Ebola virus disease (EVD). The last time we had a plague that was this deadly was the Black Death in the 14th century, when there were only 450 million people in the world. That pandemic killed 30% to 70% of the population. There is no benchmark for EVD, which kills 3 out of 4 people it touches, and is emerging into a global population of 7 billion.

Ulgiati et al., 2011, Emergy-based complexity measures in natural and social systems - Emergy flows plateau in modern Rome as an example of a high-transformity system
(Ulgiati, Ascione, Zucaro & Campanella, 2011, Fig. 1) Emergy-based complexity measures in natural and social systems – Emergy flows plateau in modern Rome as an example of a high-transformity system

This pandemic signifies a turning point for society in response to peak oil, highlighting the problem of globalization for a planet of 7 billion people. We have lost control of a deadly outbreak, and our responses to its exponential growth are linear at best, ensuring that this plague will most likely spread further. Many in first world countries think we are immune to plagues. How might transmission of EVD change as it moves from a low-resource or low-transformity setting in West Africa to resource-rich (high-transformity) countries?  How might the battle against this epidemic change as it breaks out into different environments?

Continue reading Uncharted territory for a system in overshoot

Taboo topics–nuclear waste

by Mary Logan

Sometimes  we are better defined by what we don’t talk about than the topics that our media, politics, and culture do focus on. Talking about radiation is taboo. Since radioecologists discovered energetic systems principles during the study of radioactive fallout, we can frame the discussion of nuclear waste hazards using systems principles, thus illustrating how the principles apply to our modern economies. This is a complex issue, so it is important to always start with topics by viewing the larger scale first to understand the big picture. We need to know why understanding this new hazard, radiation in the environment, is necessary, since our governing leaders are denying the dangers. We need to understand the linkages between the physics, chemistry, and ecology of nuclear waste. Continue reading Taboo topics–nuclear waste

Healthcare for All in the U.S?


by Mary Logan

The discussions in the US this week surrounding the constitutionality of health insurance payment mandates and the fact that my terminal degree is in health policy helped me to choose a topic for this week’s post. The US Supreme Court question that the Justices are examining this week has to do with the issue of insurance payment mandates for individuals—is it constitutional? The goal of Obama’s The Affordable Care Act is a goal of healthcare for all within the existing system. One primary argument of those supporting the plan is that, while not perfect, the plan is a good start in transitioning to a universal healthcare system. Yet the plan and the current discussions make a number of unstated assumptions about a healthcare system embedded within a capitalist, free market economic system of the wealthiest country on the planet. These assumptions need to be exposed in order to view the problem systemically. I would suggest that these assumptions are not even correct to begin with for the existing system, and that the assumptions will become even less true in a permanently declining economy associated with peak oil. Rousseau said, “Good laws lead to the making of better ones; bad laws bring about worse.” In my opinion, creating bad laws now that assume that the current system can grow infinitely only lead to further catastrophe. Continue reading Healthcare for All in the U.S?

Whatever Happened to Hierarchies in Ecology?

by Mary Logan

A previous post explored the cognitive dissonance that occurs when we fail to recognize the true energy basis for global problems such as climate change. This week’s post follows up with another example of cognitive dissonance in the sciences; the disconnect in relating  the energy basis of ecosystems to that of economies. Soddy (1926) describes the essential nature of understanding the energy basis for society: Continue reading Whatever Happened to Hierarchies in Ecology?