Cycles & Systems

The human tendency has been to think in terms of linear progression, and that’s the cultural story that has shaped our lives for a long time. It’s what led us to believe that more is better and bigger is best. And it’s what has put us in the situation where our systems are in a state of disintegration, where they can barely hold themselves together.

The concept of linear progression, like the idea of a flat world, is a 2-dimensional model and therefore more simplistic than the actual physics of reality. Physical reality has a more elegant order which is 3-dimensional and therefore able to proceed in sustainable ways.

Whole trumps Big

In our 20th-century rush toward linear progress, we overlooked the crucial point that humans work and play within the context of living systems.

Living systems are self-referential and consist of nested wholes. Therefore a living system continually evolves toward greater wholeness. A linear system, on the other hand, can only move toward bigness. And eventually, as we are now beginning to see, bigness becomes unable to sustain itself.

Life is designed to keep itself going, to regenerate.

Of course. Nothing else would make sense.

Describing living systems…

The emergence of systems thinking in the early 20th century marked a profound shift in viewpoint. At the time, the Cartesian paradigm of analytic thinking prevailed. It was thought that the way to understand how anything worked was to take it apart and study the pieces. But by the 1920s, it had become evident this only worked in limited ways. In the search for a better approach, systems thinking emerged.

In contrast to Cartesian analysis, systems thinking is based on the premise that the whole can only be understood in the context of a larger whole. And to understand the properties of the parts, we must consider the whole and its context.

By the 1980s, systems theorists had access to new non-linear mathematics and chaos theory, which increased the scope of their investigation. As a result, their work took a new direction and became known as Living Systems Theory.

The web of life…

Fritjof Capra was one of the physicists teaching Living Systems Theory. My big adventure of 1994 was taking a course with Capra at Schumacher College in England. He was in the early stages of writing his book, The Web of Life, and I developed the concept of intentional simplicity while studying living systems theory with him.

The mindset and choice of language of the living systems approach are energetically different from traditional thinking, as demonstrated by the tone of this list of terms:

  • networks
  • patterns
  • relationship
  • context
  • feedback loops
  • non-linear interconnectedness
  • self-organization

And here are some key characteristics of a living system:

  • Networks are the basic patterns of life—they are not a structure, but a pattern of relationships that organize the system.
  • The system is self-generating—think of cells in a physical body, which undergo continual death and replacement. As this occurs, the system changes within itself while at the same time preserving its basic pattern of organization.
  • Networks exist in both biological systems (where they operate in the realm of matter) and in social systems such as families, teams, and groups (where they operate in the realm of communication and meaning, i.e. the non-material cultural aspect).
  • Growth is not unlimited in living systems.

Limits to growth…

In biology, we can easily see there are limits to growth. A physical body gets bigger until it reaches its mature size, after which a cycle of replacement occurs as old cells die and new ones replace them. Fun fact: human stomach cells die and are replaced every 5 days; skin cells within 2-4 weeks; and bones every 10 years. When the growth of cells runs amok and they don’t stop when they should, the result is the condition we call cancer.

In the environment we humans live in, there are also limits to growth but they are less easily acknowledged because the Earth’s living cyclical Ecological System is entangled with the linear Cartesian Economic System.

To date, the economic system’s quest for unending growth has been the prevalent cultural story. However, necessity requires a different approach now. It seems to me that today’s economic theorists are arriving at a fork in the road, as did systems theorists in the 1980s. A new perspective is called for,

Economics done differently…

Change in a cultural story always starts with a few people who think differently and do something about it. The numbers are accumulating. Here are just three examples of doing economics differently.

Steady-State Economy – Herman Daly

The following is quoted from his obituary in late 2022.

Herman Daly, one of the founders of ecological economics, has died at the age of 84. His work questioning the pursuit of economic growth, and articulating the alternative of a steady-state economy, has been foundational to sustainability science.

… As a student at Rice University in the 1950s, he was interested in both the sciences and the humanities. He decided to study economics, thinking it would give him a foot in both. He soon discovered that this was not the case and that mainstream economics instead had “both feet in the air”. His life’s mission became to change this — to give economics a grounding in both the sciences and the humanities, in particular physics, ecology, and ethics.

… [This led him] to develop what is arguably his greatest contribution to sustainability science — the concept of a “steady-state economy”… an economy where the goal is qualitative development, not quantitative growth. He defined a steady-state economy as one where material and energy use are stabilized and kept within ecological limits. Fairness is an explicit goal for such an economy…

Doughnut Economics – Kate Raworth

Kate Raworth describes herself as “a renegade economist focused on making economics fit for 21st century realities.” She is the creator of the Doughnut model of social and planetary boundaries, and co-founder of the Doughnut Economics Action Lab.

Her Doughnut model is based on social justice elements that Herman Daly emphasized. She tells a new economic story in which it is possible to design an economy that allows humans and the environment to thrive. And the Action Lab is a social enterprise that works with local governments and communities across 70 cities, from Nanaimo on the west coast of Canada to Ipoh in Malaysia, to put the principles of doughnut economics into practice.

LOVE TO be Bright Green – Sarah McCrum & Tim Bennett

LOVE TO Be Bright Green, an Australian Mutual Company, is also telling a new story and putting the principles into action. LOVE TO co-founders Sarah McCrum and Tim Bennett have reimagined how to value nature and are pioneering a way to finance social and ecological improvement.

Bright Green partners with farmers and land managers to make ecological improvement valuable and saleable. Regenerating and protecting nature is the No.1 priority on the planet right now. Our future depends on it. LOVE TO Be Bright Green makes it possible – in ways that work for nature, for buyers, and for the people working on the land.

So…cycling back…

As I wrote about limits to growth, I was aware how easy it would be to go off on a tangent about the dysfunctional linear Cartesian economic system. But that would be beside the point.

So let’s cycle back to the starting point—recognizing that Life proceeds in cycles. And there are good reasons for this—not the least of which is that this is how Life regenerates itself and keeps on going.

We would do well to pay attention.

And if you’d like an alternative view of limits and their value, you might want to read the last article in the bibliography—an interview of economist Tim Jackson about his latest book, Post Growth: Life after Capitalism.

It’s an intriguing perspective, to see limits as the doorway to a different world.


Living Systems Thinking

Limits to Growth