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Thinking Systems



SYSTEM: An organized collection of interrelated elements that performs one or more functions. (The Communication Handbook)
ECOSYSTEM: The interacting system of a biological community and its environmental surroundings.

One of the exciting things about environmental learning is its special focus on how things are connected. Ecological thinking always reminds us to learn, not just different plants or animals, or kinds of ecosystems, but how they interact with one another, and how they depend on each other for what they need in life in other words, how systems work. No plant or animal exists alone. All living things depend on a particular mixture of food, water, oxygen, soil, microorganisms to break down their food, temperature range, seasonal changes, and life cycles to let them grow, reproduce and live healthy lives.

Systems thinking, in the study of climate change, invites students to look at the interactions of organisms including humans within the earth systems of which they are a part. Despite the world of architecture and technology which surround us, humans are not outside of a separate “environment” which is beyond and separate from their everyday spheres of activity. The water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat, and all the resources and fuels we consume are other parts of our environment which we “consume” and give back to that environment in a more or less harmful way. And the ways in which we alter our own natural environment can in turn have an effect on us.


Systems thinking then is very useful not only in studying how the world works, but in guiding the safe and sustainable design of future policies and technologies. Systems thinking is important to develop better, more ecologically sound technologies for the future.

One of the most important systems thinking concepts is that in nature there is no waste. Matter cycles through the earth’s systems, both the living and non-living systems, driven by energy from the sun. Living organisms evolve, cooperate, consume, and relate in complex webs of interactions before they die and are reabsorbed into other living systems. In developed human society, about half of what we produce turns into waste, much of which is altered in ways that make it impossible to return it to the natural environment without causing some kind of harm. In this, we are unique.

The vast amount of harmful waste produced by human societies is a sign that we are causing an imbalance in natural systems. When we study natural systems, we can begin to learn how they carry out their functions so efficiently, with no waste, and improve our own designs by imitating nature more closely.

An Introduction to Systems Thinking: Dr. Art’s Guide to Planet Earth

An excellent reference for introducing systems thinking to students is Dr. Art’s Guide to Planet Earth by Art Sussman. The systems concept is introduced in this simple, clear and well-illustrated text to explain how the earth works. It then goes further to explain that because of our technologies and our large population, we humans can each do things that contribute to changes in the earth’s systems (English): to global climate, to the earth’s ozone shield, and to the web of life itself.

Knowing that we are able to change the way the planet works makes it important for us to develop a deeper understanding of what Dr. Art calls the earth’s operating system. And that, the author claims, is the key that will lead us to make the kinds of changes necessary for a healthy future.

Systems thinking is presented in terms of three principles that explain how the planet Earth works: cycles of matter, flows of energy, and the web of life.

Matter Cycles

The basic principle here is recycling of matter. Essentially all the matter on Earth was here from the beginning, and is used over and over again. In terms of matter, the earth is called a “closed system.” In terms of material, there is nothing new under the sun, except for an occasional meteorite. Actually meteorites (albeit small mostly) are quite frequent.

Energy Flows

The function of our planet’s systems depend on a constant supply of energy from the sun. This energy flows first through space and then through the earth’s living and non-living systems until eventually it leaves the earth in the form of heat. The earth is an “open system” in terms of energy.


Life Webs

A vast and complex web of inter-relationships links all living things on earth to each other and the cycles of matter and the flows of energy. Dr. Art describes the earth’s biosphere as a “networked system.”

All environmental issues can be explored with the help of these three basic concepts. In learning about any environmental issue, a deeper understanding of what is really happening can be gained by exploring the roles of matter, energy and living organisms.

How do Systems Thinkers think?

Thinking in terms of systems means thinking about the “big picture.” How does everything work together? How is what I’m learning part of a bigger system and how does it affect that system? How is it affected by that system? Everything on earth is part of a system that is in turn part of other systems. Systems thinkers think in context. Which is why we introduce the concept of systems thinking in this exploration of climate change in context.

Systems thinkers have an understanding of the concept system and how it applies to an organization (natural or human).

  • a system is a dynamic and complex whole, interacting as a structured functional unit in equilibrium
  • information flows between the different elements that compose the system
  • a system is a community situated within an environment
  • information flows from and to the surrounding environment via semi-permeable membranes

Source: Art Sussman, Dr. Art’s Guide to Planet Earth