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Study Notes: The Web Of Life

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Fritjof Capra. The web of life: a new scientific understanding of living systems.
- The book is about a new understanding of life at all levels of living systems -- organisms, social systems, and ecosystems.
Part One - The Cultural Context
     1.  Deep Ecology - A New Paradigm
Part Two - The Rise of Systems Thinking
     2.  From the Parts to the Whole
     3.  Systems Theories
     4.  The Logic of the Mind
Part Three - The Pieces of The Puzzle
     5.  Models of Self-Organization
     6.  The Mathematics of Complexity
Part Four - The Nature of Life
     7.  A New Synthesis
     8.  Dissipative Structures
     9.  Self-Making
    10.  The Unfolding of Life
    11.  Bringing Forth a World
    12.  Knowing That We Know  
01. Deep Ecology - A New Paradigm
Crisis of Perception:
    The world can no longer be understood in isolation. 
    Systemic problems are interconnected and interdependent. Outdated worldview, as a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with overpopulated and globally interconnected world, failed to see how different problems are interrelated. 
    From systemic point of view, the resolution requires a radical shift to sustainability. "A sustainable society is one that satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of future generations." (Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institure)
- The Paradigm Shift:
    The new concepts in physics have brought about a profound change from the mechanistic worldview of Descartes and Newton to a holistic ecological view. It took a painful long time to overcome the crisis of change, but in the end we were rewarded with deep insights into the nature of matter and its relation to the human mind.
    A social paradigm is defined as "a constellation of concepts, values, perceptions, and practices shared by a community, which forms a particular vision of reality that is the basis of the way the community organizes itself."
    The paradigm shift is the shifts in perceptions and ways of thinking.
- Deep Ecology:
    A holistic view is also called ecological view (but adding perception of processes and connection with natural and social environment), seeing the world as an integrated (functional) whole rather than a dissociated collection of parts (to understand the interdependence of the parts accordingly). 
    Shallow ecology is anthropocentric, or human-centered. It view human as above or outside of nature, as the source of all value, and ascribes only instrumental, or "use" value to nature. Deep ecology does not separate humsn - or anything else - from natural environment but sees a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent.
    Deep ecological awareness is spiritual or religious awareness. In human spirit (or as the mode of consciousness) the individual feels a sense of belonging, of connectedness, to the cosmos as a whole (in its deepest essence). "The essence of deep ecology is to ask deeper questions." (Arne Naess)

Social Ecology
    Based on the ideal philosophical and spiritual basis for an ecological lifestyle and for environmental activism, social ecology focuses on cultural characteristics and patterns of social organization that have brought about the current ecological crisis. The common ground ... recognition is that anti-ecological nature of many of social and economic structures and the technologies is rooted in the "dominator system" of social organization. 

    Eco-feminists see the patriarchal domination of women by men as the prototype of all domination and exploitation in the various hierarchical, militaristic, capitalist, and industrialist forms. The ancient association of woman and nature links history and environment is the source of a natural kinship between feminism and ecology. Thus, female experiential knowledge is a major source for an ecological vision of reality.
- New Values:
    Self-assertive thinking - rational, analysis, reductionist, linear ...
    Integrative thinking - intuitive, synthesis, holistic, nonlinear ...
    Self-assertive values - expansion, competition, quantity, domination, ...
    Integrative values - conservation, cooperation, quality, partnership, ...
    Power, in the sense of domination over others, is excessive self-assertion.
    Power, as influence of others, is more appropriate for the new paradigm.
    The paradigm shift includes a shift in social organization from hierarchies to networks.
- Ethics
    Scientific facts are NOT independent of what we do and therefore independent of our values. Scientific research is NOT value-free. Scientists are responsible for their research intellectually and morally.
    The connection between an ecological perception of the world and corresponding behavior is not a logical but a psychological connection. Logic does not lead us from the facts that we are an integral part of the web of life to certain norms of how we should live.
    The paradigm shift in science, at its deepest level, implies a shift from physics to the life sciences.


02. From the Parts to the Whole:
    Substance and Form - Cartesian Mechanism - The Romantic Movement - 1900s Mechanism - Vitalism - Organismic Biology - Systems Thinking - Quantum Physics - Gestalt Psychology - Ecology 
    According to the systems view, the essential properties of an organism, or living system, are properties of the whole, which none of the parts have. These properties are destroyed when the system is dissected, either physically or theoretically, into isolated elements. The nature of the whole is always different from the mere sum of its parts. 
    The properties of the parts are not intrinsic properties but can only be understood within the context of the larger whole. 
    Systems thinking concentrates not on basic building blocks, but on basic principles of organization. System thinking is "contextual", which is the opposite of analytical thinking. 
    Analysis means taking something apart in order to understand, whereas systems thinking putting it into the context of a larger whole.
    The solid material objects of classical physics dissolve at the subatomic level into wavelike patterns of probabilities. These patterns, moreover, do not represent probabilities of things, but rather probabilities of interconnections.
    Quantum physics show that we cannot decompose the world into independently exists element units. As we shift our attention from macroscopic objects to atoms and subatomic particles, nature does not show us any isolated building blocks, but rather appears as a complex web of relationships among the various parts of a unified whole.
    In the formalism of quantum theory the relationships are expressed in terms of probabilities, and the probabilities are determined by the dynamics of the whole system. Whereas in classical mechanics the properties and behavior of the parts determine those of the whole.


03. Systems Theories
Criteria of Systems Thinking
    - the shift from the parts to the whole.
    Systemic properties are destroyed when a system is dissected into isolated elements.
    - the ability to shift one's attention back and forth between systems levels.
    The systemic properties of a particular level are called "emergent" properties, since they emerge at that particular level.
    The system thinking is "contextual" and environmental thinking.
    As quantum physics showed so dramatically, there are no parts at all. What we call a part is merely a pattern in an inseparable web of relationships. Therefore the shift from the parts to the whole can also be seen as a shift from objects to relationships. The objects themselves are network of relationships, embedded in larger networks.
    Descartes wrote in "Discourse on Method": In so far as [the science] borrow their principles from philosophy, I consider that nothing solid could be built on such shifting foundations.
    The bootstrap philosophy not only abandons the idea of fundamental building blocks of matter, it accepts no fundamental entities whatsoever - no fundamental constants, laws, or equations. The material universe is seen as a dynamic web of interrelated events. None of the properties of any part of this web is fundamental; they all follow form the properties of the other parts, and the overall consistency of their interrelations determines the structure of the entire web.
    This implies that physics can no longer be seen as the most fundamental level of science. We can draw a "tree" in a picture without roots (the foundation) to represent a "tree" depends on our perception. "What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning." (Heisenberg)
    Science can only deal with limited and approximate descriptions of reality (to obtain approximate knowledge about an infinite web of interconnected patterns. "Science advances through tentative answers to a series of more and more subtle questions which reach deeper and deeper into the essence of natural phenomena." (Louis Pasteur)
Process Thinking
    Systems Thinking is always process thinking. 
    The goal of tektology, as "the science of structures", was to clarify and generalize the principles of organization of all living and nonliving structures: Tektology must clarify the modes of organization that are perceived to exist in nature and human activity; then it generalized and systematize the modes; further to explain them, that is, propose abstract schemes of their tendencies and laws .... Tektology embraces the subject matter of all the other sciences.
    Bogdanov defined organizational form as "the totality of connections among systemic elements. Bogdanov distinguished three kinds of systems: organized complexes, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; disorganized complexes, where the whole is smaller than the sum of its parts; and neutral complexes, where the organizing and disorganizing activities cancel each other.
    The stability and development of all systems can be understood in terms of two basic organizational mechanisms: formation and regulation. The dynamics of formation consists in the joining of complexes through various kinds of linkages. The tension between crisis and transformation is central to the formation of complex systems. Organizational crisis manifests itself as a breakdown of the existing systemic balance and at the same time represents an organizational transition to a new state of balance. Living systems are open systems that operate far from equilibrium. A "bi-regulator" is a system regulates itself with no need of external regulation.
General Systems Theory
    According to the second law, the entropy of a closed physical system will keep increasing, and because this evolution is accompanied by increasing disorder, entropy can also be seen as a measure of disorder. Some mechanical energy is always dissipated into heat that cannot be completely recovered. Thus the entire world machine is running down and will eventually grind to a halt.
    General system theory is a general science of "wholeness". In elaborate form it would be a mathematical discipline, in itself purely formal but applicable to the various empirical sciences. (P.47) General system theory should be ... an important means of controlling and instigating the transfer of principles from one field to another, and it will no longer be necessary to duplicate the discovery of the same principle in different fields isolated from each other. (P.49) 


04. The Logic of the Mind
- The Cyberneticists
    Cybernetics is derived from the Greek "kybernetes" ("steersman"), and defined by Norbert Wiener as the science of "control and communication in the animal and the machine."
    The cyberneticists were neither biologists nor ecologists; they were mathematicians, neuroscientists, social scientists, and engineers. They were concerned with a different level of description, concentrating on patterns of communication, especially in closed loops and networks. The investigation led to concepts of feedback and self-regulation and then, later on, to self-organization.
- Feedback
    A feed back loop is a circular arrangement of causally connected elements, in which an initial cause propagates around the links of the loop, so that each element has an effect on the next, until the last "feeds back" the effect into the first element of the cycle. The consequence ... results in self-regulation of the entire system. Feedback, in Wiener's words, is the "control of a machine on the basis of its actual performance rather than its expected performance."
    Example: steersman [accessing deviation from course] - [counter-steering] - [change of deviation] to oscillate /'aser.let/ trajectory /trer'dzekteri/ around the preset direction.
    Two kinds: self-balancing ("negative") or self-reinforcing ("positive"). Feedback loops are frequently composed of both positive and negative causal links, and the overall character is easily determined simply by counting the number of negative links (even or odd) around the loop. 
    Self-reinforcing feedback had also been known as "vicious circle" or described as "self-fulfilling prophecy". 
- Information Theory
    Information theory is concerned mainly with the problem of how to get a message, coded as a signal, through a noisy channel. 
- Computer Model of Cognition
    Recent developments in cognitive science have made it clear that human intelligence is utterly different from machine, or "artificial", intelligence. The human nervous system does not process any information (in the sense of discrete elements existing ready-made in the outside world, to be picked up by the cognitive system), but interacts with the environment by continually modulating its structure. ... human intelligence/memory/decisions are never completely rational but are always colored by emotions, as we all know from experience. Our thinking is always accompanied by bodily sensations and processes. Even if we often tend to suppress these, we always think with our body; and since computers do not have such a body, truly human problems will always be foreign to their intelligence. 
    The spiritual impoverishment and loss of cultural diversity though excessive use of computers is especially serious in the field of education. 
    The use of computers in schools is based on the now outdated view of human beings as information processors, which continually reinforces erroneous mechanistic concepts of thinking, knowledge, and communication. 
    In the computer model of cognition, knowledge is seen as context and value free, based on abstract data. But all meaningful knowledge is contextual knowledge, and much of it is tacit and experiential. 


05. Models of Self-Organization
- Applied Systems Thinking
    The method of strategic thinking is known as "systems analysis".
- The Rise of Molecular Biology
    The triumph of molecular biology resulted in the widespread belief that all biological functions can be explained in terms of molecular structures and mechanisms. 
- Critique of System Thinking (P.78)
- The Importance of Pattern 
    Throughout the history of Western science and philosophy there has been a tension between the study of substance and the study of form. The study of substance starts with "What is it made of"; the study of form with "What is its pattern?"
- Networks - the Patterns of Life
- Emergence of Self-Organization Concept
- Dissipative Structures
- Laser Theory
- Hypercycles
- Autopoiesis - the Organization of the Living (P.95)
- Gaia - the Living Earth


06. The Mathematics of Complexity
    The mathematics of complexity (technically known as "dynamical systems theory") is not a theory of physical phenomena but a mathematical theory whose concepts and techniques are applied to a broad range of phenomena. 
    Classical Science - linear: y = x + 1, or y = f(x)
    By the end of 19th century scientists had developed w different mathematical tools to model natural phenomena -- exact, deterministic equations of motion for simple systems; and the equations of thermodynamics, based on statistical analysis of average quantities for complex systems. - Both featured linear equations. (P.122)
- Feedback and Iterations
- Poincare and the Footprints of Chaos
- Trajectories in Abstract Spaces
- Strange Attractors
    The trajectory is called an "attractor", because mathematicians say, metaphorically, that the fixed point at the center of the coordinate system "attracts" the trajectory. A closed-loop trajectory is a "periodic attractor", whereas the trajectory spiraling inward is a "point attractor".
    3 basic types of attractors: point attractors, corresponding to systems reaching a stable equilibrium; periodic attractors, corresponding to periodic oscillations; and so-called strange attractors, corresponding to chaotic systems.
    A typical example of a system with a strange attractor is the "chaotic pendulum". The Ueda attractor is a trajectory in a 2-dimentional phase space that generates patterns that almost repeat themselves, but not quite. 
    One striking fact about strange attractors is that they tend to be of very low dimensionality, even in a high-dimensional phase space, thus represents a high degree of order. 
    Chaotic behavior, in the new scientific sense of the term, is very different from random, erratic motion. With the help of strange attractors a distinction can be made between mere randomness, or "noise", and chaos. 
- The "Butterfly Effect"
    In chaos theory, minute changes in the system's initial state will lead over time to large-scale consequences (characterized by extreme sensitivity to initial conditions), like the half-joking assertion that a butterfly stirring the air today in Beijing can cause a storm in New York next month - a striking example of how a simple set of nonlinear equations can generate enormously complex behavior.
- From Quantity to Quality
    Whereas conventional mathematics deals with quantities and formulas, dynamical systems theory deals with quality and pattern.
- Fractal Geometry
    Mandelbrot created fractal geometry -- "a language to speak of clouds" -- to describe and analyze the complexity of the irregular shapes in the natural world around us.
    The most striking property of these "fractal" shapes is that their characteristic patterns are found repeatedly at the descending scales, so that their parts, at any scale, are similar in shape to the whole. (... using cauliflower as an example ...) The shape of the whole is similar to itself at all levels of scale.
    Other examples of self-similarity in nature: rocks on mountains, branches of lightning, borders of clouds, coastlines, a river delta, the ramifications of a tree, or the repeated branchings of blood vessels.
    The strange attractors are exquisite examples fractals. If parts of their structure are magnified, they reveal a multilayered substructure in which the same patterns are repeated again and again. Thus it has become customary to define strange attractors as trajectories in phase space that exhibit fractal geometry.
    Another important link between chaos theory and fractal geometry is the shift from quantity to quality. ... it is impossible to predict the values of the variables of a chaotic system at a particular time, but we can predict the qualitative features of the system's behavior. Similarly, it is impossible to calculate the length or area of a fractal shape, but we can define the degree of "jaggedness" in a qualitative way.
    Fractal dimension: A jagged line on a plane fills up more space than a smooth line, which has dimension 1, but less than the plane, which has dimension 2. The more jagged the line, the closer its fractal dimension will be to 2. Similarly, a crumpled-up piece of paper fills up more space than a plane but less than a sphere. Thus the more tightly the paper is crumpled, the closer its fractal dimension will be 3.
- Complex Numbers
    The square root of a negative number is called "imaginary", "fictitious", "sophisticated", or "impossible". 
    In general, any complex number z = x + iy, where x is called the "real part", and y the "imaginary part", "i" is the square root of -1.
- Patterns within Patterns
    Many fractal shapes can be generated mathematically by iterative procedures in the complex plane.


07. A New Synthesis
- Pattern and Structure
    The concept of self-organization originated in the recognition of the network as the general pattern of life, which was subsequently refined by Maturana and Varela in concept of autopoiesis. The new mathematics of complexity is essentially a mathematics of visual patterns -- strange attractors, phase portraits, fractals, and so on -- which are analyzed within the framework of topology ...
    The key to a comprehensive theory of living systems lies in the synthesis of two approaches -- the study of pattern (or form, order, quality) and the study of structure (or substance, matter, quantity). Living system has 2 key criteria: its pattern of organization and its structure. 
    The pattern of organization of any system, living or nonliving, is the configuration of relationships among the system's components that determines the system's essential characteristics. That configuration of relationships that gives a system its essential characteristics is what we mean by its pattern of organization.
    The structure of a system is the physical embodiment of its pattern of organization. Whereas the description of the pattern of organization involves an abstract mapping of relationships, the description of the structure involves describing the system's actual physical components -- their shapes, chemical compositions, and so forth.
- Three Key Criteria
    The process (such as growth, development, evolution in a living system) is the third criterion for a comprehensive description of the nature of life. The process of life is the activity involved in the continual embodiment of the system's pattern of organization. It is the link between pattern and structure. 
    The three criteria -- pattern, structure, and process -- are totally interdependent, are three different but inseparable perspectives on the phenomenon of life. In a nutshell, I propose to understand autopoiesis as the pattern of life (organization of living systems); dissipative structure as the structure of living systems; and cognition as the process of life.
    Cognition is inextricably linked to autopoiesis. In the new theory all living systems are cognitive systems, and cognition always implies the existence of an autopoietic network. Although the structure of a living system is always a dissipative structure, not all dissipative structures are autopoietic networks. 
- Autopoiesis, the Pattern of Life
    Autopoiesis, or "self-making", is a network pattern in which the function of each component is to participate in the production or transformation of other components in the network. In this way the network continually makes itself. It is produced by its components and in turn produces those components. 
- Dissipative Structure, the Structure of Living Systems
    The living system is both open and closed -- it is structurally open (to the flow of energy and matter), but organizationally closed (the system maintains a stable form autonomously through self-organization). 
    Example: vortex funnel of whirlpool in a bathtub. (P.169)
    The dissipative structures can maintain their stability only as long as there is a steady flow of matter from the environment through the structure. A living dissipative structure, such as an organism, needs a continual flow of air, water, and food from the environment through the system in order to stay alive and maintain its order. The vast network of metabolic processes keeps the system in a state far from equilibrium and, through its inherent feedback loops, gives rise to bifurcations and thus to development and evolution.
- Cognition, the Process of Life
    According to the theory of living systems, mind is not a thing but a process -- the very process of life. The organizing activity of living systems, at all levels of life, is mental activity. The interactions of a living organism -- plant, animal, or human -- with its environment are cognitive, or mental interactions. Thus life and cognition become inseparably connected. Mind -- or, more accurately, mental process -- is immanent in matter at all levels of life. 


08. Dissipative Structures
- Structure and Change
    Recycling is a key principle of ecology. Being open systems, all organisms in an ecosystem produce wastes, but what is waste for one species is food for another, so that wastes are continually recycled and the ecosystem as a whole generally remains without waste.
- Nonequilibrium and Nonlinearity
    The key to understanding dissipative structures is to realize that they maintain themselves in a stable state far form equilibrium. A living organism is characterized by continual flow and change in its metabolism, involving thousands of chemical reactions. An organism in equilibrium is a dead organism. The state of life is a state far from equilibrium.
    Farther away from equilibrium, the fluxes are stronger, entropy production increases, and the system no longer tends toward equilibrium. On the contrary, it may encounter instabilities leading to new forms of order that move the system farther and farther away from the equilibrium state, so that dissipative structures may develop into forms of ever-increasing complexity.
    Far from equilibrium, the system's flow processes are interlinked through multiple feedback loops, and the corresponding mathematical equations are nonlinear; the farther, the greater is its complexity and the higher is the degree of nonlinearity in the mathematical equations describing it.
    The behavior of a dissipative structure far from equilibrium no longer follows any universal law but is unique to the system. Near equilibrium we find repetitive phenomena and universal laws. As we move away from equilibrium, we move from the universal to the unique, toward richness and variety. This, of course, is a well-known characteristic of life.
    Due to the highly nonlinear nature of the equations and exists even when there are no bifurcations. Because of repeated feedback loops -- or, mathematically, repeated iterations -- the tiniest error in the calculations, caused by the practical need to round off figures at some decimal point, will inevitably add up to sufficient uncertainty to make predictions impossible. 
- Points of Instability
    The points of instability at which dramatic and unpredictable events take place, where order emerges spontaneously and complexity unfolds, are perhaps the most intriguing and fascinating aspect of the theory of dissipative structures. 
    A bifurcation point is a threshold of stability at which the dissipative structure may either break down or break through to one of several new states of order. What exactly happens at this critical point depends on the system's previous history. Depending on which path it has taken to reach the point of instability, it will follow one or another of the available branches after the bifurcation. 
    At the bifurcation point, an extraordinary sensitivity to small fluctuations in its environment. A tiny random fluctuation, often called "noise," can induce the choice of path. The future path of the system can never been predicted. ... in a sense, it is those random fluctuations that lead to the emergence of new forms of order. 
- A New Dialogue with Nature
    The description of dissipative structures that exist far from equilibrium requires a nonlinear mathematical formalism, capable of modeling multiple interlinked feedback loops -- which are catalytic loops (nonlinear and irreversible chemical processes) in living organisms lead to instabilities through repeated self-amplifying feedback. 
    At the bifurcation point (a point of instability), the system's behavior is inherently unpredictable. In particular, new structures of higher order and complexity may emerge spontaneously. 
    Key characteristics of dissipative structures:
    - the sensitivity to small changes in the environment
    - the relevance of previous history at critical points of choice
    - the uncertainty and unpredictability of the future
    Instead of being a machine, nature at large turns out to be more like human nature -- unpredictable, sensitive to the surrounding world, influenced by small fluctuations. Accordingly, the appropriate way of approaching nature to learn about her complexity and beauty is not through domination and control, but through respect, cooperation, and dialogue. 


09. Self-Making
- At the Edge of Chaos
    Complex binary networks exhibit three broad regimes of behavior: an ordered regime with frozen components, a chaotic regime with no frozen components, and a boundary region between order and chaos where frozen components just begin to "melt". Kauffman's central hypothesis is that living systems exist in that boundary region near the "edge of chaos". Deep in the ordered regime the islands of activity would be too small and isolated for complex behaviour to propagate across the system. Deep in the chaotic regime, on the other hand, the system would be too sensitive to small perturbations to maintain its organization. Thus natural selection may favor and sustain living systems "at the edge of chaos", because these may be best able to coordinate complex and flexible behavior, best able to adapt and evolve.
- Structural Coupling
    A realistic picture of autopoietic networks must include a description of how living systems interact with on another and , more generally, with their environment. 
    The central characteristic of an autopoietic system is that it undergoes continual structural changes while preserving its weblike pattern of organization. The components of the network continually produce and transform one another, and they do so in two distinct ways: cyclical changes of self-renewal (to maintains its overall identity or pattern of organization), and developmental changes of creating new structures (new connections in the network).
    Structural coupling establishes a clear difference between the ways living and nonliving systems interact with their environments. The behavior of nonliving system can be calculated by applying the basic laws of Newtonian mechanics. The resulting behavior of living system is generally unpredictable.
    As a living organism responds to environmental influences with structural changes, these changes will in turn alter its future behavior. In other words, a structurally coupled system is a learning system. Responding to the environment, consequently continuing adaptation, learning, and development are key characteristics of the behavior of living beings. 


10. The Unfolding of Life
- Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism
    According to the neo-Darwinist theory, all evolutionary variation results from random mutation -- that is, from random genetic changes -- followed by natural selection. But it is fundamentally flawed, not only because it is based on reductionist concepts, but also because it was formulated in an inappropriate mathematical language. "The language of life is not ordinary arithmetic and algebra, but chemistry." (Margulis)
    Research has shown that a single gene may affect a wide range of traits and that, conversely, many separate genes often combine to produce a single trait. It is thus quite mysterious how complex structures could have evolved through successive mutations of individual genes. 
- The Systems View of Evolution
    The evolution did not proceed through continuous gradual changes over time, caused by long sequences of successive mutations. Throughout evolutionary history there have been long periods (hundreds of thousands of years are quite the norm) of stability, or "stasis", without any genetic variation, punctuated by sudden and dramatic transitions. 
- Evolution through Symbiosis
    Symbiosis, the tendency of different organisms to live in close association with one another and often inside one another (like the bacteria in our intestines), is a widespread and well-known phenomenon. 


11. Bringing Forth a World
- The Santiago Theory (P.266)
    The specific phenomenon underlying the process of cognition is structural coupling. An autopoietic system undergoes continual structural changes while preserving its weblike pattern of organization. It couples to its environment structurally in other words, through recurrent interactions, each of which triggers structural changes in the system. The living system autonomous. The environment only triggers the structural changes; it does not specify or direct them. 
    The living system not only specifies these structural changes, it also specifies which perturbations from the environment trigger them. The structural changes in the system constitute acts of cognition. By specifying which perturbations from the environment trigger its changes, the system "brings forth a world". 
    A living organism brings forth a world by making distinctions. Cognition results from apattern of distinctions, and distinctions are perceptions of difference. (P. 305)


12. Knowing That We Know


Epilogue: Ecological Literacy
    Reconnecting with the web of life means building and nurturing sustainable communities in which we can satisfy our needs and aspirations without diminishing the chances of future generations. For this task we can learn valuable lessons from the study of ecosystems, which are sustainable communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms. To understand these lessons, we need to learn the basic principles of ecology. We need to become, as it were, ecological literate. Being ecological literate, or "ecoliterate," means understanding the principles of organization of ecological communities (ecosystems) and using those principles for creating sustainable human communities. We need to revitalize our communities -- including our educational communities, business communities, and political communities -- so that the principles of ecology become manifest in them as principles of education, management, and politics.
    --{Comparing living and nonliving systems}--
    The theory of living systems discussed in this book provides a conceptual framework for the link between ecological communities and human communities. Both are living systems that the same basic principles of organization. They are networks that are organizationally closed, but open to the flows of energy and resources; their structures are determined by their histories of structural changes; they are intelligent because of the cognitive dimensions inherent in the processes of life. 
    Of course, there are many differences between ecosystems and human communities. There is no self-awareness in ecosystems, no language, no consciousness, and no culture; and therefore no justice or democracy; but also no greed or dishonesty. We cannot learn anything about those human values and shortcomings from ecosystems. But what we can learn and must learn from them is how to live sustainably. During more than three billion years of evolution the planet's ecosystems have organized themselves in subtle and complex ways so as to maximize sustainability. This wisdom of nature is the essence of ecoliteracy. 
    Based on the understanding of ecosystems as autopoietic networks and dissipative structures, we can formulate a set of principles of organization that may be identified as the basic principles of ecology and use them as guidelines to build sustainable human communities. 
    The first of those principles is interdependence. All members of an ecological community are interconnected in a vast and intricate network of relationships, the web of life. They derive their essential properties and , in fact, their very existence from their relationships to other things. Interdependence -- the mutual dependence of all life processes on one another -- is the nature of all ecological relationships. The behavior of every living member of the ecosystem depends on the behavior of many others. The success of the whole community depends on the success of its individual members, while the success of each member depends on the success of the community as a whole. --{interdependence}--
    Understanding ecological interdependence means understanding relationships. It requires the shifts of perception that are characteristic of systems thinking -- from the parts to the whole, from objects to relationships, from content to patterns. a sustainable human community is aware of the multiple relationships among its members. Nourishing the community means nourishing those relationships. --{relationship}--
    The fact that the basic pattern of life is a network pattern means that the relationships among the members of an ecological community are nonlinear, involving multiple feedback loops. Linear chains of cause and effect exist very rarely in ecosystems. Thus a disturbance will not be limited to a single effect but is likely to spread out in ever-widening patterns. It may even be amplified by interdependent feedback loops, which may completely obscure the original source of the disturbance. --{nonlinear}--
    The cyclical nature of ecological processes is an important principle of ecology. The ecosystem's feedback loops are the pathways along which nutrients are continually recycled. Being open systems, all organisms in an ecosystem produce wastes, but what is waste fro one species is food for another, so that the ecosystem as a whole remains without waste. Communities of organisms have evolved in this way over billions of years, continually using and recycling the same molecules of minerals, water, and air.
    --{Cyclical nature vs linear human systems}--
    The lesson for human communities here is obvious. A major clash between economics and ecology derives from the fact that nature is cyclical, whereas our industrial systems are linear. Our businesses take resources, transform them into products plus waste, and sell the products to consumers, who discard more waste when they have consumed the products. Sustainable patterns of production and consumption need to be cyclical, imitating the cyclical processes in nature. The achieve such cyclical patterns we need to fundamentally redesign our businesses and our economy.
    Ecosystems differ from individual organisms in that they are largely (but no completely) closed systems with respect to the flow of matter, while being open with respect to the flow of energy. The primary source for that flow of energy is the sun. Solar energy, transformed into chemical energy by the photosynthesis of green plants, drives most ecological cycles. 
    The implications for maintaining sustainable human communities are again obvious. Solar energy in its many forms -- sunlight for solar heating and photovoltaic electricity, wind and hydropower, biomass, and so on -- is the only kind of energy that is renewable, economically efficient, and environmentally benign. By disregarding this ecological fact, our political and corporate leaders again and again endanger the health and well-being of millions around the world. The 1991 war in the Persian Gulf, for example, which killed hundreds of thousands, impoverished millions, and caused unprecedented environmental disasters, had its roots to a large extent in the misguided energy policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations. 
    --{Inefficient human economy}--
    To describe solar energy as economically efficient assumes that the costs of energy production are counted honestly. This is not the case in most of today's market economies. The so-called free market does not provide consumers with proper information, because the social and environmental costs of production are not part of current economic models. These costs are labeled "external" variables by corporate and government economists, because they do not fit into their theoretical framework. 
    Corporate economists treat as free commodities not only the air, water, and soil, but also the delicate web of social relations, which is severely affected by continuing economic expansion. Private profits are being made at public costs in the deterioration of the environment and the general quality of life, and at the expense of future generations. The marketplace simply gives us the wrong information. There is a lack of feedback, and basic ecological literacy tells us that such a system is not sustainable.
    One of the most effective ways to change the situation would be an ecological tax reform. Such a tax reform would be strictly revenue neutral, shifting the tax burden from income taxes to "eco-taxes". This means that taxes would be added to existing products, forms of energy, services, and materials, so that prices would better reflect the true costs. In order to be successful, an ecological tax reform needs to be a slow and long-term process give new technologies and consumption patterns sufficient time to adapt, and the eco-taxes need to be applied predictably to encourage industrial innovation. 
    Such a long-term and slow ecological tax reform would gradually drive wasteful and harmful technologies and consumption patterns out of the market. As energy prices go up, with corresponding income tax reductions to offset the increase, people will increasingly switch from cars to bicycles, use public transportation, and carpool on their way to work. As taxes on petrochemicals and fuel go up, again with offsetting reductions in income taxes, organic farming will become not only the healthiest but also the cheapest means of producing food.
    Eco-taxes are now under serous discussion in several European countries and are likely to be introduced in all countries sooner or later. To remain competitive under such a new system, managers and entrepreneurs will need to become ecologically literate. In particular, detailed knowledge of the flow of energy and matter through a company will be essential, and this is why the newly developed practice of "eco-auditing" will be of paramount importance. An eco-audit is concerned with the environmental consequences of the flows of material, energy, and people through a company and therefore with the true costs of production. 
    Partnership is an essential characteristic of sustainable communities. The cyclical exchanges of energy and resources in an ecosystem are sustained by pervasive cooperation. Indeed, we have seen that since the creation of the first nucleated cells over two billion years ago, life on Earth has proceeded through ever more intricate arrangements of cooperation and coevolution. Partnership -- the tendency to associate, establish links, live inside one another, and cooperate -- is one of the hallmarks of life. 
    In human communities partnership means democracy and personal empowerment, because each member of the community plays an important role. Combining the principle of partnership with the dynamic of change and development, we may also use the term "coevolution" metaphorically in human communities. As a partnership proceeds, each partner better understands the needs of the other. In a true, committed partnership both partners learn and change -- the coevolve. Here again we notice the basic tension between the challenge of ecological sustainability and the way in which our present societies are structured, between economics and ecology. Economics emphasizes competition, expansion, and domination; ecology emphasizes cooperation, conservation, and partnership.
    The principles of ecology mentioned so far -- interdependence, the cyclical flow resources, cooperation, and partnership -- are all different aspects of the same pattern of organization. This is how ecosystems organize themselves to maximize sustainability. Once we understand this pattern, we can ask more detailed questions. For example, what is the resilience of these ecological communities? How do they react to outside disturbances? These question lead us to two further principles of ecology -- flexibility and diversity -- that enable ecosystems to survive disturbances and adapt to changing conditions. 
    The flexibility of an ecosystem is a consequence of its multiple feedback loops, which tend to bring the system back into balance whenever there is a deviation from the norm, due to changing environmental conditions. For example, if an unusually warm summer results in increased growth of algae in a lake, some species of fish feeding on these algae may flourish and breed more, so that their numbers increase and they begin to deplete the algae. Once their major source of food is reduced, the fish will begin to die out. As the fish population drops, the algae will recover and expand again. In this way the original disturbance generates a fluctuation around a feedback loop, which eventually brings the fish/algae system back into balance.
    Disturbances of that kind happen all the time, because things in the environment change all the time, and thus the net effect is continual fluctuation. All the variables we can observe in an ecosystem -- population densities, availability of nutrients, weather patterns, and so forth -- always fluctuate. This is how ecosystems maintain themselves in a flexible state, ready to adapt to changing conditions. The web of life is a flexible, ever-fluctuating network. The more variables are kept fluctuating, the more dynamic is the system; the greater its flexibility; and the greater is its ability to adapt to changing conditions. 
    All ecological fluctuations take place between tolerance limits. There is always the danger that the whole system will collapse when a fluctuation goes beyond those limits and the system can no longer compensate for it. The same is true of human communities. Lack of flexibility manifests itself as stress. In particular, stress will occur when one or more variables of the system are pushed to their extreme values, which induces increased rigidity throughout the system. Temporary stree is an essential aspect of life, but prolonged stress is harmful and destructive to the system. These considerations lead to the important realization that managing a social system -- a company, a city, or an economy -- means finding the optimal values for the system's variables. If one tries to maximize any single variable instead of optimizing it, this will invariably lead to the destruction of the system as a whole.
    The principle of flexibility also suggests a corresponding strategy of conflict resolution. In every community there will invariably be contradictions and conflicts, which cannot be resolved in favor of one or the other side. For example, the community will need stability and change, order and freedom, tradition and innovation. Rather than by rigid decisions, these unavoidable conflicts are much better resolved by establishing a dynamic balance. Ecological literacy includes the knowledge that both sides of a conflict can be important, depending on the context, and that the contradictions within a community are signs of its diversity and vitality and thus contribute to the system's viability.
    In ecosystems the role of diversity is closely connected with the system's network structure. A diverse ecosystem will also be resilient, because it contains many species with overlapping ecological functions that can partially replace on another. When a particular species is destroyed by a severe disturbance so that a link in the network is broken, a diverse community will be able to survive and reorganize itself, because other links in the network can at least partially fulfill the function of the destroyed species. In other words, the more complex the network is, the more complex its pattern of interconnections, the more resilient it will be.
    In ecosystems the complexity of the network is a consequence of its biodiversity, and thus a diverse ecological community is a resilient community. In human communities ethnic and cultural diversity may play the same role. Diversity means many different relationships, many different approaches to the same problem. A diverse community is a resilient community, capable of adapting to changing situations. 
    However, diversity is a strategic advantage only if there is a truly vibrant community, sustained by a web of relationships. If the community is fragmented into isolated groups and individuals, diversity can easily become a source of prejudice and friction. But if the community is aware of the interdependence of all its members, diversity will enrich all the relationships and thus enrich the community as a whole, as well as each individual member. In such a community information and ideas flow freely through the entire network, and the diversity of interpretations and learning styles -- even the diversity of mistakes -- will enrich the entire community.
    These, then, are some of the basic principles of ecology -- interdependence, recycling, partnership, flexibility, diversity, and, as a consequence of all those, sustainability. As our century comes to a close and we go toward the beginning of a new millennium, the survival of humanity will depend on our ecological literacy, on our ability to understand these principles of ecology and live accordingly.


Appendix: Bateson Revisited
1.  A mind is an aggreate of interacting parts or components.
2.  The interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference.
3.  Mental process requires collateral energy.
4.  Mental process requires circular (or more complex) chains of determination.
5.  In mental process, the effects of difference are to be regarded as transforms (that is, coded versions) of events that preceded them.
6.  The description and classification of these processes of transformation disclose a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena.

Written by Boathill

2008-09-20 at 21:00

Posted in book, study notes

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