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
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.
: Interdependence, diversity, complexity
: Scale and limits
: recycling of resources and partnership
: Energy and resources
: succession and co-evolution
balance : self-organization, flexibility, stability, sustainability
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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:
& Risk System
Fritjof. The Web of Life : A New Scientific Understanding of Living
Systems, New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1996.
James. Chaos: Making a New Science. Penguin Books, 1989.