The Depth of Our Systems

Image by Josie Welsh – 2011

My wife and I have an ongoing, light-hearted, disagreement about our approaches to sustainability. I’m careful about disagreeing with her, because she’s pretty sharp, and I’m usually proven wrong when I disagree with her. However, on this one, I’m blazing my own path. Her argument is common. I hear it all of the time, from people of all different backgrounds. She likes to take personal responsibility for living in the way that she feels is sustainable, and I tend to focus on the really big picture systemic failures of our institutions. She buys the high-efficiency light bulbs, the cloth grocery bags, and the high-efficiency appliances. I, well, I mostly complain about the failures of our institutions to move on issues of sustainability. I read a lot about it, take classes, and being a designer, I try to incorporate it into my professional work. I do fully support her in her efforts, because they are in the right direction, however, her decisions feel insignificant when we are in desperate need monumental, landslide changes. I know, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Ghandi said it, I know. I get it. The republican friends of mine suggest that the market place will change if consumers change what they want….yeah, right. I’m not that nieve.

I’m a designer. I see the power of marketing to direct what consumers want. Billions of dollars are spent every year on marketing, whose sole purpose is to define/direct what people want to buy. There is a whole technology to marketing that tracks everything you buy, and knows what you need, before you even know you need it. When you go to Target, or Wal-Mart, well, they knew you were coming, and they pretty much know what you want to buy. But, that’s a whole different blog post….

My question is, why is it so hard to live my own principles, rather than that of the large institutions? I wrote a little about it, yesterday, in the “Wishful Thinking” post.  Societies create man-made systems (bubbles) to live within, frequently being separate from the impact of nature. Society strongly discourages living in a way that is inconsistent with the accepted norms. The thousands, upon thousands, of systems that we engage everyday are set up with particular rules that we generally need to follow. Stepping outside the bubble can be costly, inconvenient, and puts an individual at a severe disadvantage in most aspects of life. Living in the bubble is not a matter of personal choice. Laws and regulations define what you are allowed to do, and going against the grain can land you in jail with heavy fines.

Systems, be it legal systems, business systems, social systems, building systems, or environmental systems, are interesting things, and have similar properties worth understanding. Donella Meadows defines a system as, “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something.” She continues to say there is, “an integrity or wholeness about a system and an active set of mechanisms to maintain that integrity. Systems can change, adapt, respond to events, seek goals, mend injuries, and attend to their own survival in lifelike ways, although they may consist of nonliving things. Systems can be self-organizing, and often are self-repairing over at least some range of disruptions. They are resilient, and many of them are evolutionary. Out of one system another completely new, never seen before imagined system can arise.”

Systems are everywhere. Our bodies are a great example of an integrated, living, dynamic, complex system. A bicycle, or a tornado, is a good example of a non-living system. Systems are nested and networked together. Your body has hundreds of systems within it, and they are all working in cooperation to keep your body working as a single organism. A temperate rainforest is a system, with tens of thousands of systems working in cooperation, which allows the forest to be a healthy single organism. Of course, the rainforest is a component of the biosphere as well.

There are political and economic systems, transportation and power systems, as well as social and family systems, and many, many thousands more.

Most of the modern ideology, including the industrial revolution was created out of the idea that an object is the sum of its parts. We’ve worked very hard to fragment everything and understand the pieces so that we might be able to reassemble them into a coherent, meaningful whole. We keep looking deeper and deeper to find some essential truths about the way the world works, and we never seem to get there. We never seem to answer life’s big questions. The problem is that, in reality, an object is more than the sum of its parts. If, for example, you considered the human body by breaking apart all of the major systems, then started studying the heart, lungs, bones, and brain, you would learn a little about a human. But then you’d break down the organs into tissues, and the tissues into cells, and the cells eventually into molecules. You’d keep digging deeper, breaking the molecules into single atoms, then into sub-atomic particles, looking for that underlying truth that will make sense of everything. Unfortunately, when you get to quantum physics, all of the normal rules go out the door, and everything gets really strange. Particles can be in multiple places at the same time. Particles can move and not move at the same time. What have we learned about being a human?

Unfortunately, not enough.

Once we’ve broken our bodies down and studied each part, would we expect to see humans build great cathedrals? Would we expect great paintings, or weapons of mass killing? Would we expect to see expressions of pain, compassion, and love that happens millions of times throughout the world everyday? The answer is simply no. It is because there are emergent properties that come out of a complete and healthy system, that can’t be expected by studying the parts alone. Systems are actually more than the sum of their parts. For example, a heart has a unique purpose beyond what its cardiac tissue, nerve tissue, and blood tissue understand. The heart has an additional purpose of supporting the rest of the circulatory system, while the cardiac tissue in the heart is only concerned with the health of the heart itself.

A bicycle, as another non-living example, is a system with a very particular configuration of parts, and a defined purpose. The components have a specific relationship with one another to be considered a bicycle. The components alone cannot achieve the purpose of the bicycle, unless the relationship between the components is correct. You can’t study just the parts of a system and understand what the system does. You must focus on the relationship between the parts as well, and look for patterns that might clue you in to its purpose. Quantum mechanics actually suggests that there are nearly no parts at all, and that all we have are relationships. Have you ever wondered how far they can keep dividing particles up and finding smaller, and smaller pieces?

So, humans are systems, living among systems. To keep our larger ecological systems healthy we know that we need to do our part, just like the heart and the bicycle wheel must do their part. However, our systems are not set up correctly. Our transportation systems cover the landscape in concrete and asphalt, and belch too much CO2 into the air. Our electricity comes from coal, our food comes from fertilizer, which comes from oil. Our “waste” is everywhere, including the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Almost all of our infrastructure and institutionalized systems have been created without consideration for the health and well-being of the larger ecosystem that we are a part of. Clean air fills our lungs, and rain falls from the sky to water our crops. These things are essential to our lives. They are the result of other systems, that are doing their jobs well, for our benefit. We are failing to do our job, therefore we are hurting the whole.

I feel that the bulk of the responsibility to fix our environmental problems falls into the hands of those who design major systems. That would be policy makers, executives, designers, engineers, and others. Our socio-economic-political system has created a bubble that doesn’t allow me to easily be sustainable. I’m penalized for rubbing against the grain. I can do the small things at home, that will make a tiny difference to the world’s environmental problem, but changing transportation systems, economic and regulatory systems, and education systems will make major, long-lasting contributions to our survival. The infrastructure and transportation within our cities should be coordinated with systems ecologists to understand how to gracefully integrate man-made systems into natural systems in a mutually healthy way. It needs to be required by our governments, not because it is a moral issue, but because it is a safety and welfare issue for the larger organism that we live within, and therefore for ourselves.

Being Less Bad is NOT Being Good

Back in 2002, a decade ago, architect William McDonough co-authored a book with chemist Michael Braungart called “Cradle to Cradle.” This extraordinarily influential book recognizes that the concept of “waste” doesn’t actually exist. In all other species, one’s waste is another’s nutrition. They are called energy and material flows. I touched on this in my previous post, called Autopoiesis. McDonough points out that our current linear paradigm is one of cradle to death, where we harvest raw materials, ship them, store them, manufacture them into a new form, store them again, sell them, use them, and dispose of them into a landfill in a form that no other species can use. What he suggests is that our linear “Cradle to Death” mentality must change to a circular, interconnected “Cradle to Cradle” mentality, where the waste of any industrial/economic process becomes food for some other process. We must change our linear way of thinking in order to meaningfully participate in the web of life. Otherwise the planet has no use for us.

Chapter 2: “Why Being “Less Bad” is No Good, has particular meaning to me. In the book, and again in this video, McDonough describes an example where someone may be driving a car 100 miles per hour to the south, when their desired destination is to the north. No matter how much they slow down, they simply will not get to a northern direction, by driving south, unless they change directions. Similarly, if they are headed toward a cliff, slowing down might extend their lives, but they will still go over the cliff unless they change directions. A very large percentago of the green movement focuses on eco-efficiency, which is simply slowing down, and not changing direction. I am so tired of seeing figure heads and company advertisements for improvements in sustainable design, when, in most cases, they are continuing to make products and policies that are taking us further in the wrong direction, even if it is at a slower pace. Efficiency, for a hateful purpose, is still wrong.

For example, on April 1, 2010, the Obama administration officially kept their promise to raise the required fuel economy of all vehicles by 4 percent per year, which has officially resulted in new vehicles that are required to get an average fuel efficiency of 35.5 mpg by 2016. Environmentalists and democrats hailed it as a wonderful achievement. I agree that it is better than what it would have been, but unfortunately, it fails to deal with the deeper problem of transporting people in a healthier ways. The amount of energy that it takes (…and the greenhouse gases produced) to make, transport, and assemble a car with all of its associated tires, engines, electrical parts, windows, seats, and fluids, that come from manufacturing plants from around the world, is simply enormous. Additionally, the roads, parking lots, bridges, and parking structures divide neighborhoods, wilderness areas, and catch and concentrate toxic runoff.  If we take a moment, and consider that concrete used to construct our transportation infrastructure can weigh up to 150lbs per cubic foot, and the making of concrete produces about 1 ton of CO2 for every ton of concrete made, we can conclude that the 10 yards of concrete that a typical cement truck carries represents 20.25 tons of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. The next logical question is to ask how many cement trucks does it take to build 10 miles of roadway? It is a staggering amount of greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere. Additionally, from a different perspective, the environmental damage caused by capturing, transporting, and refining oil has been recorded in many, many places. Finally, don’t forget about the insurance industry and the aftermarket parts industry that both have toxic energy and material flows as well. To suggest that raising the fuel efficiency of new cars is a major benefit to humanity is simply false. The benefits are just too little.

It is an extremely timid step. It is not even a step in the right direction. We are still burning massive amounts of fossil fuels. Where is the bold leadership in this country? Where is the vision? This same argument can be made for almost every product made. A walk through any discount store will immerse you in a world of labels claiming their “greenness.” Nearly every one of them are doing it simply as a marketing effort to keep up with the deception that their competitors are putting out into the world. Flourescent Light Bulbs are another great example. They all contain mercury, known to cause neuromuscular and organ problems, and they are sold by the millions. Yet, at the same time, we are getting warnings from the EPA about the increased risk of eating fish as a result of their increased mercury levels. Where is all that mercury being harvested from, how is it being processed, and how is it being recycled into natural (or man-made) systems? Flourescent bulbs are definitely a better energy solution, but not necessarily on the correct path because they are not fully integrated into the web of life. Almost non of the products sold today are healthfully participating in the energy and material flows of nature, and continue to sever our relationship with nature as a result.

Finally, I would like to consider the diagram above, reproduced from Bill Reed’s book, “The Integrative Design Guide to Green Buildings.” I will write more about it in the future, but it really shook up my ideas about sustainable design when I first saw it. At the time, I had been a central part of a small LEED designed building, and was intimately familiar with the requirements of such a rating system. I thought I was doing the right thing, and proud of the work, until I understood this diagram. It starts at the bottom, with Conventional Design, which is what nearly all buildings are designed to be. Market pressures compel most owners to design to minimum code standards, because the undereducated assumption is that anything else is going to cost more money. This lowest category has been described as being one step above breaking the law. What most people think of as “Green Buildings” or “High Performance Buildings”, are represented in the next group up. They would likely be those buildings that have achieved some level of LEED certification. They tend to be cleaner, more efficient, and do less damage to the environment, but are still using the same technologies and paradigms as conventionally design buildings. They are eco-efficient, but simply less bad. Above that, is the break-even level of sustainability, where our buildings are inert to their surroundings, neither helping, nor hurting them. And finally, at the top levels of the diagram, there are restorative and regenerative buildings. These designs will actually engage the networks of communities and environments that they sit within in a positive healthy way. Their material and energy flows will become always healthy for the organisms that are in their systems. It is a powerful diagram, and one that is applicable to all fields. I think it is the defining diagram of our time.

Can you imagine an economic system that incents industrial processes, transportation systems, and housing that produce healthy “waste” that can be used and sold as food for another organism or industrial process? It is huge mental shift, but there are inspired people who are working on it.


The human body is about 70% water. More specifically, it is about 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10 % hydrogen, 3% nitrogen, 1.4% calcium, 1.1% phosphorous, and a host of others that fall below .25%. ( Most people have heard this fact in some form, but have you ever stopped to really think about what that really means? Rocks could be made up of the same elements, or ocean water, or dead trees, or soil. What happens at the elemental level that allows carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen to rise to the level where they create an organism that experiences love, and creates beauty in the world? It is a profound question, because we literally are the earth, yet we all know that living things are somehow different than rocks and air.

According to Fritjof Capra, in his book, “The Web of Life,” there are 3 key criteria for life to exist. I am going to briefly describe the first, which is “pattern of organization.” All of them overlap and are incomplete in themselves, so please bear with me as I work to get all of them described in future posts. Also, conciousness and self awareness is a further study beyond these descriptions, so don’t get to hung up on that. We’re just talking about the composition of life.

Autopoiesis is a term that simply means “self-making.” According to Capra, autopoiesis means that, “the function of each component is to participate in the production or transformation of other components in the network. In this way the entire network continually “makes itself.” It is produced by its components and in turn produces those components. In a living system, the product of its operation is its own organization.”

All life exists as networks of complex relationships. Each organism is a network of hundreds of living systems. Let’s consider a mammal. A mammal is a system comprised many hundreds of individual living systems, including circulatory, respiratory, nervous, and reproductive systems as well as many others. These are all systems that are alive and contribute directly to the wellbeing of the larger mammal. If we were to look at one of these systems, the circulatory system, we would find that it is comprised of individual living components, like the heart, or the blood vessels. If we take one of those components, the heart, we see that it is also a system in itself, comprised of cardiac tissue, nerve tissue, and blood tissue. Looking at only the cardiac tissue, we find that it is also a living system that has some unique characteristics, including a large number of mitochondria, which are also living systems in themselves. This process can ultimately take us down to the elemental levels of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and the others. Each are individual systems, constantly recreating themselves through the endless input (and expulsion) of energy and materials.

In exactly the same way that mammal’s subsystems are supportive of its well being, a mammal is an important piece of the many larger living systems that it lives within. In the way that a mammal cannot survive without its internal systems, the larger living ecosystem cannot survive without its healthy internal systems as well. The network of subsystems in an ecosystem need to be operating in a balanced, mutually beneficial way for the larger system to be healthy. Some people believe that all of the major ecosystems come together to create a single organism that we have named Earth, and that Earth is a single living system, playing its unique role in the universe. It is called the Gaia Theory, and I’ll write about it in future posts.

Each component, be it a human, a heart, or the mitochondria, have a unique role to play. They are individuals within themselves, with clearly defined boundaries, and defined purposes (purpose in the sense that they are simply doing what they are self organizing to do). In all cases, the components, at any scale, exists simply to create itself. As long as it is alive, the larger organism will survive. The form and composition of the living component will remain constant as energy and material flows through it. Think of your own body, and the energy and food that flows in and out of it, while you exist in the same form. In the natural world these energy and material flows move between components among a network, allowing the individual components to constantly create themselves, relatively unchanged. It is a very complex, integrated, and beautiful dance.

One must stop to consider what role the toxic pollution of the modern age has in this autopoietic network. It is difficult to not think of it as a cancer, or something of the like, because it is not a material or energy flow that contributes to the health of the overall organism that we are an integral part of.  We are creating man made materials that cannot flow through the networks and contribute to the ability of other organisms to recreate themselves. It is effectively cutting off the relationships that we have with the other living components of the earth, because our material flow with them is poison. In all design fields we must consider where our objects fit into this complex web of life, understand what material and energy flows we are exploiting, and which ones we will need to contribute to, in order to keep the larger ecosystems healthy. We must find our place in the network of living systems.

Finally, the next time that you look at that homeless person on the street, or that super scary insect, take care to consider what they truly are. They are nothing short of millions of living systems who have figured out a way to self organize themselves in such a way that oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus can rise to the level of love and beauty. They are an absolute walking miracle!

Warning to Humanity

This year is the 20th anniversary of the “Warning to Humanity”, that was issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1992. It seems unbelievable that the seriousness of this extraordinarily powerful statement has not provoked greater change than it has. It was signed by approximately 1700 of the world leading climate scientists, including most of the nobel laureates in science. Generally, the modern movement in sustainability started in the mid-sixties, which means that there was 27 years of development before this ultimatum was issued. It has now been an additional 2 decades since it’s release, and the cumulative 50 years of thought on the subject leads us to the same conclusion. “We are on a collision course with nature.” Why are our major institutions so slow to respond to such a serious threat? It seems that we are Comfortably Numb.

Maybe it’s time to re-read this important document:

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