How systems theory can help us reflect on the world

| 6th March 2018
The Ecologist was an early adopter of systems theory after its launch in 1971. The way of thinking has come to influence a range of disciplines, from ecology to change management. In the first in a series of articles on systems theory, Dr ROBERT BIEL argues that its application can be effective in healing the rift between society and nature

The fundamental proposition is that there are certain similarities in the way all systems work.  If we understand this we will feel “at home in the universe”.

‘Theory’ might sound drily intellectual, but actually the systems perspective is a holistic way of reflecting on the world, which involves the whole of our being: in recent research, the mind is not separate from the body, nor from feelings.   

My own pathway into systems thinking came from two angles. I’ve taught at university about international political systems. I’m also a food-grower, practising agroecology (a way of food-growing which respects and mimics nature). Initially these two strands were dislocated from each other; however bit-by-bit I began to understand the commonalities.

The fundamental proposition of systems theory is that there are certain similarities in the way all systems work. If we understand this we will - to quote the title of an interesting book on systems theory -  feel “at home in the universe”.  The great practical relevance  of this idea is that, if we apply a common set of principles to nature and to society, this may heal the rift or alienation between them.

The heart of systems theory is perhaps the notion of complexity and self-organisation - a perspective closely related to feeling.  We will explore this in subequent articles; and for some key readings, see below. But here, as an introduction, I’ll just pick up on one term from the system vocabulary: feedback.  


Colloquially, ‘positive feedback’ sounds like something nice, but in systems terminology it can have distressing implications: it describes any situation where the output is also an input. Thus, in acoustics, microphones produce a screech when placed too close to the speakers because their output becomes an input to the mic, which in turn feeds into the speakers, and it escalates.

This can be used creatively. At a historic performance in 1969, legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix gave a great example of the artistic use of feedback. It’s a mixture of science, art - and social commentary. The tune he plays is the Star-Spangled Banner, commenting on the Vietnam war, its blowback into US society, the feedback loops between different registers of violence and alienation.

A great applications of systems thinking is the work of James Lovelock, and here too, feedback is a central theme. For example, global cooling could trigger the expansion of polar ice-caps, making the earth whiter and hence reflecting more heat and making it colder still. But the earth-system, like Hendrix, can play creatively with its feedback, maintaining some equilibrium and regulation. This is what we risk losing today, if there’s a tipping-point leading to global warming feedback. 

This brings us to a fundamental question: how does social deprivation relate to the ecological problem?

Tackling disempowerment

One might argue that the climate situation is so serious, we should prioritise it over everything; if we don’t get this right there’s no room for any human society, equitable or otherwise.  But then, I would say, the changeover to sustainability is an enormous undertaking, requiring the energies of society as a whole: hence we must therefore address the disempowerment of the vast majority.  This is why I proceed from a ‘red-green’ perspective, which is socially radical as well as environmentally conscious.  

From this perspective, the exploitation of resources, and of people, are closely linked. To understand this, let’s consider an issue which has always preoccupied environmentalists: growth.  

What permits any system (the earth-system, an individual animal, or a society) to flourish (i.e. to generate complexity) is the existence of a flow: energy/matter enters in, and a degraded form (technically known as entropy) is excreted. 

In nature, that degradation is okay because there’s a larger flow through the system as a whole: the entropy excreted by an animal is welcomed back as fertiliser, facilitating a new cycle of life. 

The problem with capitalist/industrial society is that the flow is linear: scarce resources are drawn in, and an unabsorbable form of entropy excreted, i.e. garbage and greenhouse gas.  

But what’s the imperative for this system to keep growing? Here, I would draw upon a contribution from Karl Marx and view growth through the lens of accumulation.

Accumulation is in essence a feedback loop: grabbing portions of nature (land, resources) permits a minority to accumulate wealth, which in turn becomes an entitlement to accumulate more wealth.

The tendency of this feedback loop is both to deplete resources (increasing pollution in the process), and to concentrate the control of wealth/resources in an ever-narrowing stratum of society - typically 0.1%.  

This suggests a way systems theory can explain linkages between environmental and social problems; and not just problems, but hopefully also solutions. In later articles, I will consider how self-organisation may provide a connecting principle in a mixed ecological/social sustainability.


Here are a few texts which I have found interesting, just to give an idea of the rich perspectives opened up by systems thinking.  

This is not to propose any dogma: the systems/complexity approach is not homogeneous and there’s much diversity and debate (which is fitting for a theory whose whole emphasis is against over-simplification and reductionism!).  

Nonetheless, there are some common themes running through these texts.  An important question is how we engage with science.  

Ecologists are very serious in upholding science, most urgently over the climate issue, yet at the same time we’re rightly suspicious of mechanistic approaches which simplify and dominate nature and make it amenable to corporate control.  

What these texts explore is a radical re-definition of our understanding, highlighting the way structures emerge out of the fabric of complex systems themselves.  This has major implications for a realignment of knowledge with a more bottom-up restructuring of our societies.

De Rosnay, J. The Macroscope, New York (Harper and Row) 1979

Goodwin, Brian, Interview, GenEthics News, Issue 11, March/April 1996 

von Bertalanffy, Ludwig General System Theory, extracts, 1968

Montuori, Alfonso. Complex Thought: An Overview of Edgar Morin’s Intellectual Journey, Conference paper, Integral Theory, 2013

Holling C. S. Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems Ecosystems  4: 390-405. 2001

Heylighen, Francis. ‘Complexity and Self-organization’ in Bates, Marcia J. and Mary Niles Maack, Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences.  London: Taylor & Francis 2008

Prigogine, Ilya and Isabel Stengers. Order out of Chaos – Man’s New Dialogue with Nature. Toronto (Bantam) 1984

This Author

Robert Biel teaches political ecology at University College London and is the author of The New Imperialism and The Entropy of Capitalism. He specialises in international political economy, systems theory, sustainable development and urban agriculture.