Systems Approach

It is helpful to think of the environment and environmental problems in terms of systems. The word system comes from the Greek word "synhistanai," from which we also get "synthesize," meaning "to place together." Fritjof Capra, the founder of the Center for Ecoliteracy in California, defines a system as "an integrated whole whose essential properties arise from the relationships between its parts." In his book, The Web of Life1, Capra describes six characteristics of ecological systems. Each of these properties have to be understood and acknowledged in systems-level thinking. We list below the properties and their characteristics.

  1. Networks : Interdependence, diversity, complexity
  2. Boundaries : Scale and limits
  3. Cycles : recycling of resources and partnership
  4. Flow-through : Energy and resources
  5. Development : succession and co-evolution
  6. Dynamic balance : self-organization, flexibility, stability, sustainability

Reflection on each of these terms shows how the related properties play an important role in maintaining our natural environment, and all activity around us, whether this activity is initiated by humans or not.

Scientists have used the concept of systems for quite some time (e.g. nervous and digestive systems in physiology). However, scientists have often overlooked larger systems, choosing instead to narrow their study to the pieces or elements, and neglecting the "big picture." Systems science and systems engineering became more prevalent as people began to think of groups of technological devices working together to achieve a desired end--as, for example, in a power system. But the idea of systems is applicable in all fields. For example, we have political systems, ecosystems, climate systems, etc. Systems theory is a rapidly growing field. Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972), a German-Canadian biologist and philosopher, is credited with being the creator of systems theory. His "General System Theory" (1967) is considered a classic work.

Systems may be examined at different levels depending on the context of the problem being studied. For example, one may think of the whole automobile as a system, or of its engine as a system. In a larger context, automobiles can be thought of as an element of the environmental system due to the tremendous impact they have on air quality.

Ecology and environmental science are latecomers to the sciences. The pieces that physics, chemistry, botany, and zoology provided have been pieced together only in the last century. Lately, we have come to appreciate how important it is to think of the whole system when we think about the environment and our relation to it. An understanding at the systemic level means understanding not just isolated components, as has been historically emphasized, but also the relationships that connect these components.

Systems have properties that are not always predictable from those of components. Thus while the individual components and parts of the atmosphere obey the laws of physics, the weather system, as a whole, is hard to describe completely and correctly. This is why weather prediction is difficult. The challenge of predicting system interactions and behaviors from the known properties of components is discussed further in the section on "Science as a Model."

Exploration of the properties of dynamical systems--systems in which all the components are constantly changing--led to the science of "chaos," a short word used now to describe the behaviors of complex systems. James Gleick writes in his book Chaos: Making a New Science2, "Chaos breaks across lines that separate scientific disciplines. Because it is a science of the global nature of systems, it has bought together thinkers from fields that had been widely separated" (page 5). While we do not examine chaos theory closely in this text, we need to be aware that a system has properties that are not simply extrapolated from the properties of its components.

For the purposes of this text, we have partitioned the entire environmental system, including humans and governance and conceptual systems, into seven systems. Of course these systems do not work in isolation from each other, and we have attempted to provide links for cross-reference. The systems used in this text to describe the environment are:

  1. Ethical System
  2. Atmospheric System
  3. Energy System
  4. Materials System
  5. Ecological System
  6. Institutional System
  7. Health & Risk System


[1]Capra, Fritjof. The Web of Life : A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1996.

[2]Gleick, James. Chaos: Making a New Science. Penguin Books, 1989.

  ©Copyright 2003 Carnegie Mellon University
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 9653194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.