A systemic perspective on life

By Torbjörn Rydberg

AgroecologyinPractice2014
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

A mind like compost?

by Mary Logan

On Top (Gary Snyder, Axe Handles, 1983, p. 11)

All this new stuff goes on top
turn it over       turn it over
wait      and water down
From the dark bottom
turn it inside out
let it spread through, sift down,
even.
Watch it sprout.

A mind like compost.

As our world views begin to shift, there will be much discussion about critical thinking. Shifting world views expose flaws in people’s thinking, from the ways we protect our ideas, to inaccurate assumptions, and to the inferences that result. This is in part because fundamental assumptions of our society are beginning to show cracks. There are many descriptions of critical thinking, but most of them do not go far enough in describing the synthesis necessary in describing our global problems. Ecological, macroscopic, and systems-based critical thinking are necessary to ask the proper questions about our global problems. Continue reading A mind like compost?

Hair of the dog, or, the limits of technology

By Mary Logan

This post is about the hopeful idea that technology is going to save us from having to adapt to descent. A recent article describes an episode of geopiracy to geoengineer the ocean, so we’re back at climate again, since this example provides particular insights and illustrations into our blindspots about the limits to growth and the limits of technology. Almost all environmental articles now mention climate, whether it is warranted in the discussion or not, so it is hard to avoid the topic. We are shoehorning every environmental problem into the same size small shoe of solutions. Is it lack of ecoliteracy? I also continue to beat this drum because one of Odum’s great concerns was that misunderstandings about the interconnected nature of our problems would lead to geoengineering of the planet. He recognized the hazards of industrial scale manipulation of the biosphere, and the danger of relying on the industrial machine for fixes.

Asking wrong questions….

Climate change is a situation where we have fastened on a subset of the real problem, which is population and economic growth. So we immediately frame the solution set in an even smaller space, which is geoengineering, or financial wizardry, or some other narrow solution to the wrong problem that benefits only a few, and further damages the environment. 

We have trained our minds to focus and analyze, thus we anxiously narrow our frame of reference when faced with big problems. Einstein said that  problems cannot be solved by the level of awareness that created them. He meant seeing the big picture, and avoiding doubling down on behaviors that got us where we are now. Or, in colloquial terms, What how fellow, thou knave, I pray thee let me and my fellow have a haire of the dog that bit us last night. And bitten were we bothe to the braine aright (Drunkard.com, from 1546). The idea that the hair of the dog was a cure dates back to the Greek, who believed that a dog bite would heal more quickly if you ate dog hair. Is technology a hair-of-the-dog cure for our energy bender?

We’re going to have to shift our world views to adapt. In an ongoing quest to broaden worldviews to consider the hierarchy of energy, here are some recent climate articles as examples of the limits of technology. Continue reading Hair of the dog, or, the limits of technology

Is climate change a euphemism for growth?

by Mary Logan

I have become sensitive to the silences that come during discussions about the world with others who view the world through a microscope. Silence or a change of topic suggests either denial of my point of view or failure to grasp my frame of reference. While I am peering through an energy lens or macroscope, others may view the world through a lens where money or some other construct makes the world go round instead. One question that stops conversations cold is, “What if our greatest societal challenge is not climate but growth?” That challenge sometimes elicits a glare signifying indignation or perhaps a sense of betrayal that I’m stepping away from my supposed congregation.

Two mechanisms may be occurring when speakers frame climate change as the most important problem that the world has to face. If one’s view of the world is that energy is unlimited, and that we can grow infinitely, and that the environment has a limitless ability to absorb our pollution, then growth is not an important issue. While most people probably know in their hearts that infinite growth is not sustainable, they do not know that energy has limits. So speakers may use a euphemism to subconsciously displace the problem of growth with climate change, since we have been taught the goal of economic growth as a fundamental precept of our society. Secondly, speakers who focus on climate may fail to grasp the severity of the problem of peak oil, because of declining net energy or emergy yields. Thus we lump other assaults on ecosystems such as growth of population, growth of the economy, extraction of resources and other forms of pollution within the problem of climate change. These problems are inextricably connected, but we prioritize them differently depending on our ability to think like a system. Continue reading Is climate change a euphemism for growth?

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?

Thinking Like a System about Climate Science

by Mary Logan

H.T. Odum spent formative years interrupting his undergraduate study during World War II as a tropical meteorologist in the Panama Canal zone, which helped him to develop understanding of the energetic basis of global systems. He was generally less disturbed about the threat of climate change than he was about our coming bottleneck due to peak oil, proposing that the greatest and most impacting effect of climate change would would be greater extremes and wider swings in weather. On the subject of climate, he was

A little ice-age in Anchorage

unsure about whether heating due to greenhouse gases would cause significant rises in sea level or not; one early hypothesis of his in the 1980s was that if heating caused more water vapor to go into the air, then more snow and ice could form in polar regions at high altitudes. Glaciers might melt at their toes at sea level, but might actually accumulate in ice fields, perhaps counteracting the relative rise in sea levels. While there is accumulating evidence that sea levels are rising, and the jury is still out on glaciers at high altitudes/latitudes, there are certainly greater extremes in weather.  I ponder these questions as I write about the intersection of climate and peak oil this morning, looking out my window in Anchorage, a weather sample of n=1. We are victims of the polar jet and La Niña here in Alaska this winter, and I’m wondering when it’s all going to melt?!? Continue reading Thinking Like a System about Climate Science