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Nature: A system of systems

"The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think." -- Gregory Bateson, An Ecology of Mind.

Piecemeal ecology does not work.

Forty years have passed since the founding of Greenpeace and the first UN environment meeting in Stockholm, fifty years since the groundbreaking Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, and 115 years since Svante Arrhenius warned that burning hydrocarbons would heat Earth’s atmosphere.

Today, we have more environmental groups and less forests, more “protected areas” and less species, more carbon taxes and greater carbon emissions, more “green” products and less green space. These failures are not necessarily the fault of environmental groups, who have helped slow down the destructive impacts the industrial juggernaut, but the failures do demonstrate that all our collective efforts are not yet remotely enough.

For example, observing the “Living Planet Index” of species diversity, we find that after 1980 – even with the creation of new endangered species regulations, parks, and protected areas – terrestrial and marine species have declined. For the last thirty years, even with a massive increase in wilderness groups, species diversity has plummeted and the rate of decline has accelerated.

Likewise, as we gain 30% energy efficiency in heating buildings, we double the average space-per-person and then add more people, resulting in 300% more space to heat. The Rio+20 Conference proved once again that government conferences change nothing. After thirty years of climate deals, we have more CO2 emissions each year, not less. After forty years of international ocean dumping bans, the oceans are more toxic and more acidic, not less.

Paper parks & false hopes

“...leave a margin, a sanctuary, where some of life’s beauty can take refuge.”

-- Roman Gary, The Roots of Heaven.

In July 2011, Camilo Mora, from University of Hawaii and Dalhousie University, and Peter F. Sale, from the UN University in Ontario, Canada, published “Ongoing global biodiversity loss and the need to move beyond protected areas.”

Their report shows that since 1965, land based “Protected Areas” (PAs) have grown by 600% to 18 million square-kilometers. Marine PAs have grown by 400% to about 2.1 million sq-km. However, in both cases – on land and in oceans – biodiversity has declined, and the rate of decline has increased.  Since 1974, terrestrial biodiversity has plummeted by about 40% and since 1990, in twenty years, the marine index has declined by 21%.

Mora and Sale site problems with the size and management of the protected areas, failure to protect enough area for home ranges and dispersal, and growing threats to large scale ecosystems. Such threats trace back to growing human populations and consumption demands on environments.

The authors support the establishment of protected areas but warn that these areas alone will not stop biodiversity decline without larger, systemic programs. Mora points out that most protected areas are really just “paper parks” in name only, but not truly protected.

Sale says flatly, “Protected areas are a false hope in terms of preventing the loss of biodiversity.” He points out that the 2010 global biodiversity protection agreement signed in Nagoya, Japan pledged to preserve 17 % of land area and 10 % of oceans. Sale says it is “very unlikely those targets will be reached,” due to the growth of human demand for every available resource. Furthermore, “Even if those targets were achieved, it would not stop the decline in biodiversity.”

In “paper parks,” plants and animals disappear to poachers, development, and industrial pressure for logging and mining. Often, without adequate enforcement, industrial developers simply ignore protection rules. Similarly, in the 1980s, environmentalists fought for and won international bans on pelagic whaling and toxic dumping, yet we continue to fight to enforce the bans as they are routinely ignored by whalers and the toxic waste industries.

Furthermore, park boundaries cannot restrain pollution and global warming impacts. Typically, when a forest or coral reef is protected, the neighbouring area is overharvested by industry and often decimated, breaking natural ecosystem links. Finally, this study points out that ecosystems require appropriate scale to allow for variations in ecological diversity, richness, abundance, synergies, and co-dependence.

Even so, Mora, Sale and many other biologists and ecologists have warned that we cannot stop biodiversity decline without putting limits on human population and consumption growth. “There is a clear and urgent need for additional solutions,” the authors warn, “particularly ones that stabilize ... the world’s human population and our ecological demands.”


“The hard part about change is, well...you actually have to change.” 

 Jon Cooksey, director, How to Boil a Frog.

In practice, human efforts to protect and restore Earth’s ecological health have focused on a “species” or a “habitat” or some thing that needed protection. But this has failed to account for the fundamental nature of living systems. Earth’s ecology is not a collection of things. Rather, Earth’s ecology operates as interlocking, co-evolving systems, driven by feedbacks and interactions. The systems remain always dynamic, never completely stable, and always correcting for instability, the way a hummingbird adjusts in flight or a human bicycler maintains balance.  

Every subsystem in Nature interacts with others. Nothing exists alone in nature. Nothing survives alone in Nature. We talk about a “tree” and “soil” and “atmosphere,” for convenience, but none of these exist as they do without the others. There is no absolute division among these elements of the system. Indeed, biological and physical sciences do not describe “things.” Science describes relationships. “All division of the world into things,” warned Gregory Bateson, “is arbitrary.”

Global environmental strategies to date reveal isolated efforts but systemic failures. As planners and implementers of ecological wisdom, we have not yet grasped the complexity of systems, the rules, demands, and feedback mechanisms of complex living systems.

In short, human environmentalism has yet to embrace Earth’s biosphere as a living process. The biosphere itself exists nested in a geosphere and solar system, which generate materials and energy and information for all the subsystems. Deep within the biosphere, communities, families, organisms, organs, and cells represent finer subsystems.

An ecosystem represents a living system at the highest level of complexity we can imagine, and far beyond our ability to fully describe, manage, or predict. An ecosystem is not a thing. It is a web of relationships, a dynamic co-evolution of systems and subsystems, all nested within each other. Each subsystem draws matter, energy, and information across boundaries from more fundamental systems; decodes information and makes decisions; and passes new information, products, and waste, back into the larger systems. Nature works as a continuum. Ecosystems are not “managed” by any of the parts, and as far as human science knows, no ecosystem ever will be.

Ecosystems evolve patterns of relationship, which we call “rules,” but do not pre-determine outcome. Rather, the rules of nature’s “game” create trends and variations on themes. The variations and patterns that can repeat and replicate themselves become “alive” but they are never just “things.” Every subsystem within an ecosystem – from cell to society – remains a co-dependent process, interconnected with other dynamic processes.

In living systems, the continually altering flows of matter, energy, and information, reach states that ecologists call “dynamic equilibria” during which system instabilities oscillate within mutually supportive limits – a body, a forest, a neighbourhood of species –  for long periods of time. During such equilibria, randomness among the interactions give rise to new patterns, radical novelty, called by systems analysts “emergent behaviour,” a new pattern, which can influence the system to new directions.

Since co-evolving systems include random factors – as do chess games or hurricanes – they are not entirely predictable, even if one knows the rules. Thus – and this our society needs desperately to embrace – systems themselves evolve, and new relationships almost always include unintended consequences. Each subsystem – organ, body, society – within an ecosystem co-creates a complex web of processes with its neighbouring subsystems. Nature is a web of relationships. Our ecological efforts need to recognize and protect these complex relationships.

One strength of the human species is our acute ability to learn. Our society appears steeped in denial, but we can learn from our ecological mistakes. Our “solutions” to the challenges of ecology on a crowded planet have not yet been successful. “We’re winning a lot of battles,” Greenpeace Executive Director Kumi Naidoo said at the 40th anniversary of Greenpeace, “but we’re still losing the war.” Sadly, this is true. Every day, our planet is poorer, with less forests, less species, less fresh water and arable soil, and more desserts, more toxins, and more CO2 in the atmosphere. To reverse this, we need to learn about the systems in which we live.

A recent ad campaign from International Business Machines (IBM) imagines innovations to create “a smarter planet.” But Nature has news for IBM. The planet is already far smarter than any human engineer. We cannot manage Nature. Rather, we need to apprentice ourselves to Nature, to learn how Nature solves dilemmas and sorts out imbalances.   

For every species other than humans, the biggest environmental issue on Earth is Humanity. If we don’t change our ways, seriously and thoroughly change, then nature will eventually leave us behind and carry on without us.

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