Ecological conversations and systems thinking

Reynolds, Martin (2010). Ecological conversations and systems thinking. In: RGS-IBG Annual International Conference: Confronting the Challenges of the Post-Crisis Global Economy and Environment, 1-3 Sep 2010, London, UK.


Ideas like ‘ecosystems approach’ or ‘complex adaptive systems’ are often invoked as a panacea for addressing the complex interrelationships and interdependencies associated with issues of climate change. But thinking about nature through ‘systems’ invokes different perspectives, and therefore limitations on our understanding of nature. Systems are maps – conceptual devices for making sense of complex realities and communicating with others about improving those realities. Worthwhile enthusiasm for the study of living systems by complexity scientists and chaos theorists can sometimes distract attention away from this basic premise behind systems thinking. The semiotic idea of confusing the map for the territory is significant particularly when systems are used not only as (inevitably partial) representations of reality, but also as mediating devices for effective ecological conversation with the purpose of generating meaning and value. Fritjof Capra’s ideas on ecoliteracy provides an example of a well-intentioned systems-informed approach towards better informed conversations on environmental issues, but how politically sensitive is this framing device? Building on other systems philosophers - West Churchman, Werner Ulrich and Humberto Maturana - a critical systems approach towards supporting ecological conversations is explored identifying three distinct systems framing – frameworks for understanding (fwU), frameworks for practice (fwP), and frameworks for responsibility(fwR). Whereas fwU can help appreciate the holistic realities of the natural world, fwP can support constructive engagement with multiple perspectives, and fwR reminds us of the limitations of any fwU and fwP whilst keeping attention to improving our framing devices to suite demands of environmental responsibility. Although the gift of framing is one shared by all humans, some frameworks of reference are inevitably given primacy over others, particularly in formulating policy and guiding action. This raises questions about who constructs the framing devices and what legitimacy they have.

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