This simple question is central to understanding systems thinking and how to apply it. We need to pay more attention to the way we think about the world and how we make sense of our observations. Thich Nhat Han’s poem Interbeing invites us to pay more attention to the fundamental interconnections within the system that supports life on Earth. It invites us to pay attention to our profound interbeing with the planetary biosphere.
In any application of systems thinking, how exactly we define the ‘system in question’ and where we draw the (mental) boundaries that help us to define the system, will also influence what we can learn from applying whole systems thinking. Alfred Korzybsky famously reminded us that: “The map is not the territory!”
If everything is fundamentally interconnected and interdependent, any systems we are focussing our attention on is a mental abstraction, or a frame of reference, a map we are establishing in order to be able to understand better how to intervene in a way that may help to steer the system towards regenerative patterns and increased adaptive capacity. Actually, let me rephrase that: how to participate appropriately in nested wholeness with an intention of increasing health and adding value so that the whole can thrive.
Starting from ‘the story of place’ is central to regenerative practice. As we focus on place we also need to pay attention to the ‘proximate whole’ — the larger system our ‘system in question’ is embedded in, as well as, the various subsystems that interact to bring forth our system in question. Doing this, it helps to keep in mind that place is fractal in dimension. That is to say our local place is at one at the same time the community we are working in, its bioregion and the entire planet manifesting in place. What we do here affects everywhere.
Co-creating diverse regenerative cultures everywhere — in time to avoid cataclysmic climate change — is certainly a complex challenge. It requires us to find solutions to the multiple converging crises we are facing. In order to do so we need a whole systems approach so we can avoid — to the extent possible — that today’s ‘solutions’ turn into tomorrow’s ‘problems.’
So how do we define a system?
“A System is a set of elements or parts that is coherently organized and interconnected in a pattern or structure that produces a characteristic set of behaviours, often classified as its ‘function’ or ‘purpose’.”
— Donella Meadows, 2008
Where we draw the systems boundaries defines what system we are talking about. One example of applying systems thinking to science is the Gaia Hypothesis first proposed by James Lovelock, which has since developed into the field of Earth Systems Science that underlies much of the work of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Earth Systems Science conceives of the planetary system we call Earth — it might be more appropriately named Water — as a self-regulating and evolving system, in which living components like flora, fauna, microorganisms and fungi all interact with the non-living components like rocks, minerals, water and atmospheric gases, in such a way that life itself helps to create and maintain the conditions within the biosphere in ways that are conducive to the continued existence and evolution of life as a whole.
The interbeing of what we call alive and what we classify as dead is also something we should pay more attention to. It might be a limiting understanding to separate the two into mutually exclusive categories. The physicist David Bohm addressed this issue of the immanence of life in matter as follows:
“As the plant is formed, maintained and dissolved by the exchange of matter and energy with its environment, at which point can we say that there is a sharp distinction between what is alive and what is not? Clearly, a molecule of carbon dioxide that crosses the cell boundary into a leaf does not suddenly ‘come alive’ nor does a molecule of oxygen suddenly die when it is released into the atmosphere. Rather life itself has to be regarded as belonging in some sense to a totality, including plant and environment. It may indeed be said that life is enfolded in the totality and that, even when it i s not manifest, it is somehow ‘implicit’ in what we generally call a situation in which there is no life.”
— David Bohm (1983, p.194)
It thus best serves to think of Gaia — our living planet — as an interbeing of life and matter. The two are intricately relating to each other through interconnections like the carbon-cyle, geological processes, and the water-cycle, in order to serve the purpose of creating conditions conducive to the continued evolution of life on Earth. The lithosphere, cryosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere are interconnected systems that science has identified to better describe how the planetary system functions.
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Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.
Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures