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Living Systems


The greatest revolution of our time is in the way we see the world. The mechanistic paradigm underlying the Industrial Growth Society gives way to the realization that we belong to a living, self-organizing cosmos. General systems theory, emerging from the life sciences, brings fresh evidence to confirm ancient, indigenous teachings: the Earth is alive, mind is pervasive, all beings are our relations. This realization changes everything. It changes our perceptions of who we are and what we need, and how we can trustfully act together for a decent, noble future.

My Teachers

Ervin Laszlo introduced me to systems theory through his writings (especially Introduction to Systems Philosophy and Systems, Structure and Experience). He later worked with me as advisor on my doctoral dissertation (later adapted as Mutual Causality) and on a project for the Club of Rome. Gregory Bateson, through his Steps to an Ecology of Mind and in a summer seminar, also shaped my thought, as did the writings of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Arthur Koestler, and Hazel Henderson (among numerous others).

After my formal studies, I learned a lot more: about biological systems from Tyrone Cashman, and economic systems from Kenneth Boulding. Donella Meadows taught me about the planetary consequences of runaway systems (I used her book Beyond the Limits in my own classes), and Elisabet Sahtouris taught me to see self-organizing systems in evolutionary perspective (I assigned her book Gaia: From Chaos to Cosmos in my courses). I am grateful for a year of informal seminars with Fritjof Capra, as he prepared The Web of Life.

Gaia Theory

Adapted from Coming Back to Life

Insights from systems theory transform our perceptions of our planet. James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis studied the chemical balances of our atmosphere and discovered that they are maintained within the narrow limits necessary for life, by self-regulating processes. These are the hallmark of a living system.

Thankfully, Lovelock did not call this hypothesis, soon to become a theory, the "hypothesis of self-regulative processes of the biosphere" or something which would have made it much more respectable to his fellow scientists. Instead he listened to his friend, novelist William Golding, who suggested he call it Gaia for the early Greek goddess of the earth, thereby catching people's poetic imagination. Like the Apollo photo of Earth from space, this image of Earth as a whole living being has transformed the way many of us now think of our planet home. No longer a dead rock we live upon, the Earth is a living process in which we participate. Earth, as a home for life, is a being that we can both harm and help to heal. Earth takes on a presence in our consciousness, not unlike the presence of gods and goddesses in the lives of our early ancestors.

(For further reading on the Gaia theory, see Animate Earth, Stephan Harding (Green Books, Ltd), The Global Brain: Speculations on the Evolutionary Leap to Planetary Consciousness, Peter Russell (J.P. Tarcher, Inc.), Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, J.E. Lovelock (Oxford University Press), Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Evolution from our Microbial Ancestors, Lynn Margulis and David Sagan (Allen & Unwin).

Positive Disintegration

Adapted from Coming Back to Life

Dangers to their survival move living systems to evolve. When feedback tells them--and continues to tell them--that their old forms and behaviors have become dysfunctional, they respond by changing. They adapt to such challenges by seeking and incorporating more appropriate norms. They search for values and goals which allow them to navigate in more varied conditions, with wider connections. Since its norms are the system's internal code or orga-nizing principle, this process--which Ervin Laszlo calls "exploratory self-reorganization"--is a kind of temporary limbo. To the mind it can be very disorienting. Psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski names "positive disintegration." It can feel like dying.

In periods of major cultural transition, the experience of positive disintegration is widespread. Such is the case now for us in this time of Great Turning. Everywhere anomalies appear: developments that don't fit our expectations, or in systems terms, that don't match previously programmed codes and constructs. Bereft of self-confidence and old coping strategies, we may feel that we and our world are falling apart. Sometimes we panic or shut down; sometimes in desperation we get mean and turn on each other.

It helps to recall that in the course of our planetary journey we have gone through positive disintegration countless times. The life living through us repeatedly died to old forms and old ways. We know this dying in the splitting of the stars, the cracking open of seeds in the soil, the relinquishment of gills and fins as we crawled onto dry land. Our evolution attests to this, and so does our present lifetime, as we learned to move beyond the safeties and dependencies of childhood. It is never easy. Some of the uglier aspects of human behavior today arise from fear of the wholesale changes we must now undergo.

To let ourselves feel anguish and disorientation as we open our awareness to global suffering is a part of our spiritual ripening. Mystics speak of the "dark night of the soul." Brave enough to let go of accustomed assurances and allow old mental comforts and conformities to fall away, they stand naked to the unknown. They let processes which their minds could not encompass work through them. Out of darkness, the new is born.

Teaching Business Sustinability

The Work That Reconnects, including its "spiral" pattern, is presented here in systems theoretical terms for a business readership.

Teaching Sustainability: Whole Systems Learning

Chapter by Molly Brown, M.A. and Joanna Macy, Ph.D. in Teaching Business Sustainability, Greenleaf (2004)

Teaching sustainability to business people, or anyone else for that matter, requires more than additional data, more than a list of rules. It requires a fundamental shift in attitude, in the way people think and feel. We must address the root causes of our unsustainable practices, which lie deeply in our assumptions about the relationship of humans to the natural world, and in our relative ignorance of the functioning of living systems, including human systems.

Many business people are coming to recognize the obvious: the goal of maximizing profit must necessarily come second to the welfare of the living world, its human and non-human beings, and its cycles of air, water, and carbon that support life on earth. They are coming to recognize that we must include all the costs of production--including the ecological and human costs--in our business accounting and responsibility. Externalizing these costs, as we have been doing, wreaks havoc on our economy, our social fabric, and our life support system. (See Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce, 1995, for a fuller explanation of "externalizing costs.")

Sustainability requires whole systems learning, in order to see the wider context in which we function, and the web of relationships upon which all life depends.

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How Life Organizes

Drawn from Coming Back to Life

Instead of looking for basic building blocks, these life scientists took a new tack: they began to look at wholes instead of parts, at processes instead of substances. They discovered that these wholes--be they cells, bodies, ecosystems, or even the planet itself--are not just a heap of disjunct parts, but are dynamically organized and intricately balanced "systems," interdependent in every movement, every function, every exchange of energy and information. They saw that each element is part of a vaster pattern, a pattern that connects and evolves by discernible principles. The discernment of these principles gave rise to general living systems theory.

By shifting their focus to relationships instead of separate entities, scien-tists made an amazing discovery--amazing at least to the mainstream western mind. They discovered that nature is self-organizing. Or rather, assuming that to be the case, they set about discerning the principles by which this self-organizing occurs. They found these principles or system properties to be awesomely elegant in their simplicity and constancy throughout the observable universe, from sub organic to biological and ecological systems, and mental and social systems, as well. The proper-ties of open systems which permit the variety and intelligence of life-forms to arise from interactive currents of matter and energy are four in number.

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The Nature of Our Power

Adapted from Coming Back to Life

As our pain for the world arises from our systemic interexistence, so does our power. Yet the generative creativity operating in and through open systems is very different from our customary notions of power.


The old concept of power, in which most of us have been socialized, orig-inated in the worldview which assumed reality to be composed of discrete and separate entities--rocks, plants, atoms, people. An Aristotle classifying these entities into categories or a Newton or Galileo studying their vectors and velocities all worked with that assumption. Power came to be seen as a property of those separate substances, inferred from the way they could appear to push each other around. It became identified with domination. It was equated with the exertion of one's will over oth-ers, limiting their choices; This is a linear, unidirectional view of causality, in which power is a zero-sum game: "the more of it you have, the less of it I have"; "if you win, I lose." It fosters the idea, furthermore, that power correlates with invulnerability. To keep from being pushed around, defenses are needed. Armor and rigidity make one more powerful, less likely to be influenced or changed, i.e. dominated by the other.

From the systems perspective this notion of power is both inaccurate and dysfunctional. The exertion of greater force can certainly serve to defend oneself and others, but that function is one of protection, not to be confused with the generation of new forms, behaviors, and potentials. That capacity operates more organically and reliably from the bottom up, as "power-with." Systems scientists call it synergy.

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The Holonic Shift and How to Take Part in It

All living systems--be they organic like a cell or human body, or supra-organic like a society or ecosystem--are holons. That means they have a dual nature: As both systems and subsystems, they are wholes in themselves and, simultaneously, integral parts of larger wholes.

In this step-wise organization of living systems, emergence is a universal and striking feature. At each holonic level new properties and new possibilities emerge, which could not have been predicted. From the respective qualities of oxygen and hydrogen, for example, one could never have anticipated the properties that emerge when these elements interact and make water.

From the systems perspective, mind or consciousness arises by virtue of feedback loops that permit living systems to self-correct, adapt and evolve. Self-reflexive consciousness seems to emerge only at the level of humans and some other large-brained mammals. Here the system's internal complexity is so great that it can no longer meet its needs by trial and error. It needs to evolve another level of awareness in order to weigh different courses of action; it needs, in other words, to make choices. Decision-making brings about self-reflexivity.

Self-reflexive consciousness does not characterize the next holonic level, the level of social systems. In tightly-knit organizations with strong allegiances, one can sense an "esprit de corps" or group mind, but this mentality is still too weak and too loose for direct response on its own behalf. The locus of decision-making remains within the individual, susceptible to all the vagaries of what that individual considers to be of "self-interest". Yet might not survival pressures engender a collective level of self-interest in choice-making--in other words self-reflexivity on the next holonic level?

Fearful of fascism, we might reject any idea of collective consciousness. It is important, therefore, to remember that self-organization of open systems requires diversity of parts. A monolith of uniformity has no internal intelligence. Healthy social systems require a plurality of views and the free circulation of information. The holonic shift does not sacrifice, but instead requires, the uniqueness of each part, the distinctiveness of its functioning and its perspective.

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