Patterns, Flows, and Interrelationship
By Molly Young Brown ©2002
I picked up a vague mystical feeling that we must look for the same sort of processes in all fields of natural phenomena–that we might expect to find the same sort of laws at work in the structure of a crystal as in the structure of society, or that the segmentation of an earthworm might really be comparable to the process by which basalt pillars are formed. (Gregory Bateson, in Berman, 1984)
General Systems Theory (GST), arising out of the biological sciences, attempts to map general principles for how all systems work, especially living systems. Instead of examining phenomena by attempting to break things down into component parts, GST explores phenomena in terms of dynamic patterns of relationship. This shift in focus– from things frozen in time to dynamic relationships–underlies systems thinking.
What do we mean by a “system”? We could use the term “system” for any pattern of relationship, from an atom to a galaxy, from a cell to an ecosystem. As a system, I function through relationships within and around “me.” These words flow onto this web page through a myriad of complex interrelationships within this “body-mind.” As you read them, the words create a relationship between you and me, as you process them within the intricacies of relationships within your body/mind. My words are intelligible to you because of the complexity of relationships that form the language and culture we share.
Certain patterns of relationship and information flow seem to inhere in all living systems, in plants, animals, ecosystems, social groupings, communities, and organizations. Out of these patterns, our very universe forms itself, and all life within it.
I. Every living system functions as a whole, manifesting properties that are not evident in its parts. As the old saw tells us, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. A human being is something more than just a conglomerate of carbon, oxygen, and water, mixed in with a few other minerals. A human is even more than a conglomerate of cells and tissues. How these elements, or cells and tissues, are organized makes for humanness, and for the distinctiveness of each individual human system as well. So at each new level of systemic organization, new properties and capacities emerge, often beyond anything we humans might predict.
Science has often tried to describe or define a system by enumerating the properties of its parts, tried and ultimately failed. Describing electrons, photons, neutrons, and so forth doesn’t give us an complete picture of an atom. Even if we try to include the relationship of the electron to the nucleus, the protons to the neutrons, and so on, we fall short. Similarly, in the macrocosm, we cannot define a nation by enumerating its citizens and their characteristics, its laws, its institutional structures, and so on. A nation is a “whole” comprised of all its parts and all their interrelationships, and the irreducible properties that emerge from this dynamic process.
II. Remarkably, the “parts” of each “whole” are also “wholes.” Every living system is made up of subsystems and in turn holds membership in one or more larger systems, forming a kind of “nested hierarchy”– systems within systems, circuits within circuits, fields within fields. For example, our bodies are made up of a respiratory system, a digestive system, a reproductive system, and so on. Our bodies even contain tiny ecosystems for various symbiotic microbes that help us digest our food and keep the proper chemical balance in various fluids. At the same time, our bodies are part of larger systems: families, communities, and ecosystems that provide them with food, air, water, and other life necessities. Our “waste products” in turn provide food, air, water and other life necessities to other parts of these larger systems. We are “nested” within these larger systems, and “nest” other (sub)systems within us.
These nested hierarchies are of a totally different structure than the kind of hierarchy of power so familiar to human societies. No one individual rules at the top; instead, in a sense, the collective membership of a system governs the whole by the magic of synergy. Mutual benefit and cooperation among the parts, and between the “parts” and the “larger whole” guide the relationships. A subsystem may specialize to perform needed functions of coordination, but we would hardly say the nervous system is the “boss” of our body. It simply carries messages around about what is happening elsewhere and what responses are required. Even when we look at business organizations as living systems, we see that the “boss” is really only another “part” of the system with a specialized job to do. The whole organization, including the lowest paid employee along with the boss, comprises the “larger whole” in the hierarchy.
Unfortunately, few bosses or employees understand the relationship of subsystem to larger system, and frequently act in ways that disrupt the healthy systemic functioning of their organizations. CEO’s may assume that because they are “on top,” their own needs and perspectives matter more than anyone else’s; they may make decisions based more on personal preference than on organizational needs. Disgruntled employees may blame their bosses for low morale and fail to notice how their own complaining and diminishing productivity contributes to the overall problem. And even organizations utilizing systems principles within their management philosophy may fail to consider the larger wholes of which they are but subsystems– larger wholes like the socio-economic communities and ecosystems upon which they utterly depend. Most of us fall into the mind-trap from time to time of thinking of ourselves as separate from everything else, forgetting we are completely interconnected and nested within the human family and the biosphere of the earth.
III. Marvelously and miraculously, living systems respond to change; they survive and thrive within constantly changing environmental conditions, and with the constant flow through them of energy, substances, and information. This in-and-out flow would result in the immediate demise of a system if it could not maintain its structure, its essential patterns over time. But living systems do this; they maintain their form in a kind of fluctuating, dynamic balance. Warm-blooded animals, for example, maintain a body temperature within a certain range; all living creatures take in nourishment in some form, and manage to carry out the necessary responses to receive that nourishment, whether by absorbing sunlight (and leaning towards the light) or by seeking and consuming other organisms. Although we can see changes over time in the faces of our friends, we still recognize them; they maintain a coherency in the pattern of their facial structure, as old skin cells die and slough off and new ones are created, as muscle tone changes, and through variable weather conditions and life stresses.
IV. At the same time, living systems adapt themselves to changes in their environment they learn, grow, develop, evolve.
When the mouse population in a region suddenly declines because of an epidemic, the predators who adapt to a new prey survive; those who remain determined “mouse-avores” starve. Life events affect us and change us, and we can see these changes reflected in the nevertheless familiar faces of our friends. The ability of living systems to adapt and self-organize allows them to defy the second law of thermodynamics, which insists that everything runs down and returns to a state of disorganization and homogeneity. Not so for living systems! They continuously reorganize themselves into ever more complex patterns and interrelationships.
Relationships and patterns happen through flows of information; I receive information through my senses as systems within and around me interact, and my response joins that flow. Riding a bicycle, I enjoy a relationship with the bicycle and the road and the landscape through the feedback I receive from seeing, hearing, the sensations of pressure against my body, and my kinesthetic sense of movement and position. When information flow is impeded or interrupted, relationship suffers and my response to my environment may be faulty. If I close my eyes, I may not receive information about my bike/body’s relationship to a rock, and fail to make the necessary adjustments to avoid crashing.
To maintain coherency of form, systems tend to respond to the flow of information in ways that counteract any deviation from their established patterns of interaction. Systems thinkers call this interchange between system and environment “negative feedback” because it reduces deviation. Such responses change the system’s relationship to the environment to restore conditions to a tolerable range. When we become overheated, for example, negative feedback loops within our body create perspiration, the evaporation of which cools our bodies back to within our optimal temperature range, reducing the deviation of our temperature from this norm. Negative feedback regulates every aspect of systemic functioning; it essentially defines and delimits every system, in complex and interpenetrating webs.
However, things change in large ways as well as small. Changes in the inner or outer environment may be such that the established patterns of response cannot accommodate them. Systems must adapt themselves, must find new responses. They must deviate from their established patterns; they must seek responses that will bring them back into harmony with their environment. A response that formerly reduced deviation fails to do so under the new conditions; the deviation goes unchecked and even amplifies, becomes greater. Some systems theorists call this process “positive feedback.” If this amplification continues long enough, it becomes “runaway positive feedback” which eventually– or quickly– destroys the system. For the system to survive, it must quickly establish new response patterns adapted to the new demands of the environment and supported by negative feedback once again.
Positive feedback may not occur in nature by design unless it is pre-ordained to be part of a more inclusive negative feedback loop (e.g. birth process), or by accident. Within social systems, however, positive feedback can be deliberately induced or prolonged by inputting a “kick” at some point in an existing loop, or by suppressing negative feedback.
Positive and negative feedback operate together in living systems. If a system only maintained itself according to established patterns (as most mechanical systems do), it would be unable to adapt to changing conditions in the environment and eventually wear out, or blow up, or collapse. This is why we humans must constantly tinker with our machines to keep them functioning. If a system only experienced positive feedback, it would have no “integrity,” it would maintain no pattern and instantly cease to exist as a coherent whole. So while adapting to changing conditions when incited by positive feedback, all living systems maintain themselves through negative feedback, and reduce deviation around new response patterns as soon as possible.
And here we humans consistently get ourselves into trouble, because we suppress negative feedback deliberately through lies and cover-ups, and unconsciously through denial and self-deception. Negative feedback from the natural environment might slow our industrial jihad; negative feedback from those impoverished by our economic system might diminish corporate profits. So we allow positive feedback loops to continue dangerously unchecked; for example, we continue to manufacture more and more automobiles, requiring more and more oil to fuel them, depleting existing sources and requiring the search for ever new sources, destroying more and more delicate ecosystems, driving up prices, forcing Third World peoples off their lands, increasing poverty for many and wealth for a few, creating wars, and on and on. We ignore the signs that resource depletion, pollution, and social effects are reaching lethal limits. When those lethal limits are reached, negative feedback will finally bring the ecosystem back into balance–but without us, and without thousands of other species under environmental threat today.
Remembering Our Interrelatedness
Within the earth-based cultures, both ancient and those few surviving today, ritual and art constantly reminded people of their relationship to the larger wholes of community and nature. Rituals, art, and social customs served as negative feedback to self-maintain the relationships of individual to the whole. Shamans and elders were systems thinkers, applying systems principles quite effectively, although the language and metaphor they used to express them were quite different from ours today. Birth and funeral rites reconnected people with the Earth from which they arose and to which they returned. Coming-of-age ceremonies helped the individual feel valued within the embrace of the community, honoring their individuality while reminding them of their responsibilities to the whole. A hunter praying to the soul of the animal he killed reminded himself of his kinship with the animal, even as he took care of his own “self-interest” in acquiring food. Seasonal festivals engendered feelings of gratitude and respect for the elements and life forms that fed, clothed, and housed the people.
Constantly reminded of their interconnectedness with all of life around them, indigenous people’s choices tended to be in harmony with the good of the whole. Earth-based cultures tended to self-maintain and self-organize harmoniously with their environment. Occasionally a community would make fatal errors and destroy its habitat. Witness the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico who apparently cut down all the surrounding forests and eventually had to abandon their town site altogether. But their numbers were few and their impact on the wilderness limited.
We modern humans, however, are vast in number, and our impact on the planetary environment is enormous. And we have forgotten who we are. We do not have rituals and social customs that reconnect us with Earth and our fellow living beings. We ignore our interdependence and interrelatedness with life around us, and our self-reflective consciousness has become like a loose cannon, wreaking havoc wherever it rolls. We have mistaken the tiny arc of “purposive rationality” for the whole circuit of information and contingency. We have used our creative capacities to destroy rather than enhance, to compete rather than celebrate, to respond haphazardly rather than carefully to changes around and within us.
Because we have not understood that we are each a subsystem within the larger systems of humanity and nature, we have constantly made choices as if our self-interest was separate from the welfare of the whole. And these choices, made in ignorance of the interrelatedness of things, have invariably lead to greater perturbations in the whole, in what can be described as runaway positive feedback loops. When I try to assert my own idea of my own self-interest, without regard to the effects of my action on the larger systems of which I am a part, my actions set up perturbations in the larger systems.
Much of the time, the larger systems are able to self-maintain around these perturbations, and I will receive feedback that causes me to change my actions accordingly. But I may also respond competitively, self-assertively, and intensify my behavior. This will perturb the larger systems even more, and the feedback I receive may become increasingly intense as well. Thus I have set up a runaway positive feedback loop by my careless and ignorant action, with damaging reverberations throughout the larger systems, and within my own immediate sphere of life. Elizabet Sahtouris (1989) writes:
Our greatest conflict is over whether individuals should sacrifice their individual interest to the welfare of the whole or whether individual interest should reign supreme in the hope that the interests of the whole will thus take care of themselves. No being in nature, outside our own species, is ever confronted with such a choice and, if we consult nature, the reason is obvious. The choice makes no sense, for neither alternative can work. No being in nature can ever be completely independent, although independence calls to every living being, whether it is a cell, a creature, a society, a species, or a whole ecosystem. Every being is part of some larger being, and as such its self-interest must be tempered by the interests of the larger being to which it belongs. Thus mutual consistency works itself out everywhere in nature (p. 26-7).
How do we fall prey to this nonsensical choice of “self-interest” over the interest of the larger whole? Self-reflective consciousness tempts us with such choice, it would seem, and allows us to filter the feedback we receive from the larger whole. We are able to ignore feedback that other creatures, who respond instinctively, cannot. To some extent, self-reflective consciousness demands that we do this, because we cannot accommodate in our conscious awareness all the information that presents itself to us, moment to moment. We have to filter and select.
Perhaps, then, our problem lies with the criteria we use to make these selections. And even these criteria are determined by our assumptions about who we are in relation to the world. We will screen out information that conflicts with our view, or that might prompt us to act in conflict with our view. So, once again, if I think I am separate and competitive, I will disallow information (feedback) on the harmful effects of my actions on other humans, other living beings, or the ecosystem. That information doesn’t matter much if I believe I exist separate from those others. I can ignore feedback about environmental catastrophes, or even deny its veracity, because I believe I exist apart from all that. “What is destroying our world is the persistent notion that we are independent of it, aloof from other species, and immune to what we do to them” (Joanna Macy, 1991, p. 13).
For millions of years as hunter-gatherers, humans regulated themselves in relative harmony with the ecosystem. Then somewhere along the line, perhaps with the development of agriculture, perhaps even later, a large group of humans fell into a kind of madness, a hubris that led us to believe we could function outside the balance of nature. We thought we could have our planet and consume it, too. We suppressed any information to the contrary and went about reconstructing things more to our liking (or at least to the liking of a powerful and wealthy elite). And we got away with it for a while, because the earth is a big place with lots of territory to pillage and trash and then move on. Globalization in recent decades has enabled large industries to extract what they need from land and labor, and leave the toxic wastes and cultural destruction in areas far from home, so that the devastating effects of their enterprises don’t directly affect the people in control. But now we are running out of room and the negative feedback loops are getting smaller. Our technologies are so powerful that their pollution circles the globe and affects the climate of the entire planet. Chernobyl poisoned all of Europe with radiation, and to a lesser extent, parts of North America. If we now begin to receive the informational feedback available to us, we can respond in ways that reduce our insane deviations from balance. We must pay attention to feedback about the effects of our behavior, so we can regulate and organize our human systems intelligently and maintain a viable habitat for humans and other living creatures on earth.
So we come full circle back to our original quandary: how do we remember who we are? How can we create reminders within our cultures of our interconnectedness with all of life? How can we set up better criteria for selecting information for our attention, so that we stop ignoring the very information we need to self-maintain and self-organize ourselves in harmony with the larger whole? We must grapple together with these questions in seeking to transform our consciousness and our culture towards sustainability.
Bateson, Gregory, in Berman, M. (1984). The Re-enchantment of the World. (New York: Bantam).
Sahtouris, Elisabet. (1989) Gaia: The Human Journey from Chaos to Cosmos. Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster.