The Systems View of Life | Our Pathway Into the Future

By Mark Phillips, via his blog

featured image, Cliff Matias | Standing Rock Youth gather with supporters in Brooklyn. The new scientific understanding of the universe reveals the radical interdependence of all life on Earth. 

A growing chorus of voices is acknowledging that the fundamental roots of the environmental disaster lie in the attitudes, values, perceptions, and basic worldview that we humans of the industrial-technological global society have come to hold. Many now understand that the worldview and associated attitudes and values of the industrial age have permitted and driven us to pursue exploitative, destructive, and wasteful applications of technology. The modern, industrial worldview was shaped by the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”
— Ralph Metzner, Psychologist and Professor Emeritus at California Institute of Integral Studies

As I described in a prior piece of writing on my personal blog, a major shift in my consciousness occurred when I attended the New Economy Coalition’s Commonbound conference and realized the seriousness of our global social and ecological crises. The conference shined a spotlight on our global political-economic system as a primary source of human injustice and environmental destruction and started me on a path exploring deep, systemic solutions. The work of the Tellus Institute served as the point of departure for exploring research into these crises based on systems science and systems thinking. As I dove deeper into the community of practice around this work, over and over again I heard people describe an important and defining moment in human history that we are currently in the midst of: the transition from an industrial, Cartesian reductionist worldview to an ecological, living systems worldview based in the new scientific paradigm of systems theory and holism.

The language of systems thinking came out of that crisis scientists confronted in the 1920s. Ever since Descartes, they had been searching for the smallest particle—from organisms to cells to molecules to quarks. But when they thought they had found the fundamental constituents of matter, they suddenly realized there are no fundamental constituents. It is all a web of connections and interrelations. ”
— Fritjof Capra, Interview with Great Transition Initiative

It took me about a year of poking and prodding to get a basic sense of why the new scientific paradigm and the worldview it implies are relevant to today’s problems, particularly the way we think about the economy and ourselves in relationship to nature. The most important source of knowledge on the subject was, for me, the work of Physicist and celebrated author Fritjof Capra and his collaborative magnum opus with Pierre Luigi Luisi, the Systems View of Life. The book provides a comprehensive overview of the history of science and the emergence of systems theory and the new scientific understanding of the universe in the 20th century; the last section explores the implications of the systems view of life for global society and issues like healthcare, economics, and agriculture.

If you don’t want to read that giant tome, there’s also a variety of great resources freely available online that you could start with. Transition to an Ecological Worldview, a chapter from Ralph Metzner’s book Green Psychology is freely available online and provides a great summary of the subject. The Center for Ecoliteracy in California also has a fantastic selection of resources around ecological education, food and sustainability, and system change. I like this summary of systems thinking from Fritjof Capra, and his essay “The New Facts of Life.” And if you prefer videos, Bill Reed of the Regenesis Group has an exceptional presentation on the subject as related to design.

“Systems thinking emerged from a series of interdisciplinary dialogues among biologists, psychologists, and ecologists, in the 1920s and ‘30s. In all these fields, scientists realized that a living system – organism, ecosystem, or social system – is an integrated whole whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts. The “systemic” properties are properties of the whole, which none of its parts have. So, systems thinking involves a shift of perspective from the parts to the whole. The early systems thinkers coined the phrase, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” – Fritjof Capra

My sense is that to understand the significance of this shift in human consciousness, it was essential to first understand the history of science and how the work of mainly Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes shaped some three centuries of human progress. The worldview that emerged from the insights of these men shaped our understanding of the universe as a non-living mechanism with a human knowledge system based on siloed reductionism, paving the way for an industrial and anthropocentric approach to human development detached from the larger web of life on earth. The latest scientific developments reveal that this reductionist worldview is now an antiquated mental model that does not accurately represent the nature of reality. What we now know is that the universe is an entirely interdependent, unified, and dynamic whole in which everything exists in relationship to everything else.

To understand how these overarching mental models influence us, imagine placing a highly concentrated red dye in a small stream and watching it flow into a larger stream to a larger river and finally into a large lake. There, though greatly diluted, it permeates the entire lake and all inhabitants of the lake now live in a delicately pink world. Furthermore, the lake remains color-tinged for a very long period of time after the original distant stream is cleared of dye.” – Bill Reed, Regenerative Design Expert

The implications for this shift in consciousness are profound and require us to reimagine all human systems, which originally emerged from that pervading mental paradigm of separation and reductionism established through the enlightenment. Here is a brief list of examples, which by no means reveal the rich diversity of work being done around this transition:

  • Organizations: Work from the likes of Peter Senge and Frederic Laloux is reinventing the way humans manage organisations and collectively meet needs. The shift occurring is from top-down hierarchies built on the machine metaphor to dynamic decentralized structures better aligned with how natural, living systems work. This also requires us to bring greater racial and socio-economy diversity into our organizations to better represent the whole of humanity.
  • Social Change: Approaches like collective impact transcend the conventional non-profit paradigm of working on problems in an isolated and piecemeal manner. The Interact Institute for Social Change is exploring systems approaches to social justice and sustainability.
  • Healthcare: Reductionism necessarily allowed for the advent of deeply specialised inquiry into highly complex areas of the human body, but treatment is still applied from the fragmented perspective of these specialities. Integrative and holistic methods of healthcare respond to the need to treat the human body as one living system embedded within a social and natural environment.
  • Agriculture: Ecological agricultural methods like agroecology, permaculture, and holistic management offer natural, organic, and decentralised pathways to growing food, albeit through a radical departure from our corporate-industrial agriculture system that controls the majority of global food production.
  • Development and Design: Regenerative design takes the implications of the ecological, living systems worldview and applies it to designing human architecture and infrastructure. Regenesis Group has done pioneering work in this area and recently released a book on the subject.
  • Economics: The work of systems scientist Donella Meadows and ecological economist Herman Daly reveals the deep flaws of our economic system and the need to resituate the economy within its larger, primary context, the biosphere. A global chorus of voices manifest in the Degrowth movement and New Economy Movement are calling for an economy that recognises human welfare and ecological sustainability before financial profit.

The challenge now before humanity is to align our way of being with the latest understanding of what it means to be alive. While applied systems thinking has been studied and popularised by folks like Peter Senge, it is essential that these disciplines are also nested within a larger consciousness of our membership in an evolving community of life on Earth. Otherwise, the application of this knowledge towards increasing corporate profits or more effectively managing industrial agricultural systems is driving us along the same trajectory we’ve been on for the past couple of centuries.

Instead, what we need is a fundamental rethinking of how we live. As Thomas Berry says, “we must reinvent the human at the species level”. Whether or not we take an anthropocentric (humans > nature) or biocentric (humans = nature) worldview, the key is that our human presence is optimised within the health of the planet as a whole system and that we inhabit the earth in a mutually beneficial manner with other life forms.  The scientific paradigm that has emerged in the last century is our pathway to a new way of interacting with ourselves, each other, and the universe as it has always been.

About the Author, Mark Phillips
I am passionate about creating a thriving human – earth relationship, with a fascination for the intersection of enterprise, economy, and ecology, and the creation of a new economy “in service to life”. I actively support and evangelize cooperative and social enterprise, local investment, and soil carbon sequestration through regenerative agriculture methods. My professional and academic profile can be found here. You can also find me on Twitter at @MarkjPHL