Ecosystemological Principles Summarized


By S. Loren Cole, Ph.D., Ecosystemology, UC Berkeley ‘76 

There are many different methods for describing and understanding ecosystems. As in any system, each system is composed of many elements (things), operating and functional conditions, inflows and outflows and the relationships between them all. However, from an ecosystemological perspective, we are primarily focused on the energy flows, interactions and relationships rather than just the things or places.

It needs to be understood that, inherently there is truly only one ecosystem – the universe. Since everything is interconnected with everything else, then any action in any part of the system must have some effect on something elsewhere within the system. However, in order to make decisions and to responsibly function on this planet; humans need to think in terms of smaller, manageable ecosystem-based constructs. Towards that end, we humans have to establish/create/adopt useable but largely invisible ecosystem boundaries to determine what is inside the system and what is not and thereby have some reasonable means to manage our environment in a responsible manner that does not adversely affect our continued viability. These constructed/adopted boundaries must reflect the reality of addressing and resolving our basic needs as well as the desired purposes of our inquiry and the achievable objectives that will result therefrom. You might think of these manageable ecosystem constructs as ‘man-made’ or ‘artificially delineated’ but wholly relevant to our particular inquiry. While these designed ecosystem concepts can improve our insights and perspectives of what specific relationships, energy flows and operating conditions are present and must be considered in choosing any course of action related to our needs, purposes and objects; we also must appreciate how difficult it is to accurately determine why a specific condition or relationship is occurring. We never know enough and we always need to know more. That is why we have to apply a “safe minimum standard” and invoke a reiterative feedback mechanism in all of our activities so that we can detect errors, reverse and/or modify our decisions and improve the likelihood that we do not do irreversible damage to the ecosystems with which we are engaged or that might be affected by our actions.

In fact, it is highly unlikely that humankind will ever completely understand the complex interactions and functional relationships contained within the ecosystem (the universe), nor within or among our artificially delineated ecosystems. Complex systems and their relationships are counterintuitive. This situation gives rise to inaccurate assumptions and erroneous conclusions about what is occurring in any ecosystem and; prevents us from identifying or knowing all the possible consequences that may occur as a result of single one of our actions. Our limited ecosystem-related knowledge often leads to decisions and outcomes that are highly unpredictable and, most often, not in our own interest. This is our essential ethical dilemma.

While acknowledging that it is beyond the capabilities of scientific investigation to fully understand the human impacts and implications on the ecosystems within which we are embedded and involved, we must use our intuition and analysis (both are equally important) in order to try to do our best. Towards this end, we can only begin to comprehend and appreciate the critical aspects of any complex relationship, by utilizing an “inquiring systems approach” to problem-solving. An “inquiring systems approach” to problem-solving means that we never come with a preconceived methodology nor should we think “outside the box”; but rather, we should never initially construct a box. We must never presume. However, we must think systemically, we must ask lots of questions and we are required to eliminate preconceived assumptions. In fact, we must approach the inquiry process in a manner that will leave us open to hearing things that we may not agree with, to ideas and perceptions that we do not understand and we must always retain and affirm an appreciation for it all.

Since we cannot process an infinite array of information, we are selective in what we process. We begin this selection process by choosing an appropriate level of resolution to our inquiry. What does this mean? This means we need to first determine what we are trying to accomplish. What are our purposes goals and objectives? That is, we can only justify the boundaries that we invoke to define the ecosystem in question and under assessment as well as the information selected by identifying “the level of resolution” within the ecosystem with which we are making our inquiry. This “level” is defined by properly, carefully and specifically determining the true purposes, goals and objectives of our exploration and interest. By focusing our inquiring methods through the lens of measurable and achievable objectives, we thereby increase the likelihood that we will reveal some of the key threads, energy flows and relationships within our area of interest that are relevant for consideration in designing, adopting or adapting the appropriate and effective strategies for acting within that system.

Sustainability = Recoverability as an ecosystemological principle:

What does Sustainability mean in ecosystemological terms? It means not disrupting the ecosystem beyond its ability to recover to a healthy state. Sustainability can only be defined as the means through which we maintain the ability of any ecosystem to restore itself to a healthy state. “Health”, ecosystemologically defined, in any ecosystem, is not the absence of disease, disturbance or problems; but rather, the ability to restore and recover ecosystem viability and functionality. The truth is that all ecosystems are constantly changing, being disrupted and, if they are healthy, then they are always responding to whatever impacts are occurring (and they always are) and are therefore in the process of recovery. In nature, all ecosystems are in a continuous state of homeodynamics – never homeostasis. Ecosystems are constantly in the process of trying to restore themselves to viability.

If recoverability is the essence of sustainability, then it must also follow that for any ecosystem to recover, it must remain resilient. Resilience implies that for any ecosystem to recover then; simply stated, it must possess the capability to access and apply sufficient resources to respond to any of the infinite array of possible impacts that might occur. There must be available a full complement of diverse resources from which to draw upon and engage so that the ecosystem can effectively respond to the disruption and/or impact when it occurs. This resiliency allows the ecosystem to recover from that impact and thereby restored to a “healthy” state. The availability of diverse resources is necessary for an effective response to each specific and possible disruption or perturbation in that ecosystem. Since the impacts are uncertain and unpredictable, only if there is practical access to a comprehensive range of resources will the ecosystem have a high likelihood of resolving the issues at hand and obtain full recovery. This requirement of having a comprehensive and a very diverse set of resources is embodied in nature’s inherent biodiversity. Biodiversity demands that even unknown, unidentified and unappreciated components of any system, in all respects, be maintained and available for use when needed. This is true even in human organizations and is essential for responding and recovery of any endeavor or business. Failure to ensure biodiversity seriously compromises resiliency and, as a result compromises the recovery and restoration of the health of that ecosystem.

Some Key Principles:

The following key ecosystemological principles are essential to improving the likelihood of our survival as a species. These principles are not all inclusive but, in a general way, describe how human beings must live. We must be ethical, responsible and ecosystemologically oriented here on earth. These values and perspectives have been, in part, derived from and inspired by many indigenous people who were directly connected with and embedded with natural system and, in particular, by the life and values of “Ishi”; the last of the Yahi Indians:

Additional key ecosystemological principles for humans include, but are not limited to:

·      Be attentive to the difference between needs and desires…do you really need it?

·      Take care of what you already have, use it wisely and well – to reduce the need to disrupt some ecosystem in order to obtain more.

·      If you really do need more of it, then take care in the extraction process because extraction, by definition, is inherently disruptive and will, thereby, potentially cause harm to the complex relationships within the ecosystem from whence it came. The full recovery of the ecosystem therein affected may thereby be compromised.

·      Cherish what you have – as many living things were sacrificed and ecosystems put at risk in the process of obtaining the stuff that you already possess.

·      Respect the life force of all things natural, as they each have value and play a critical role within each ecosystem. As such, their wellbeing has critical implications for sustaining your own health, all human survival and the wellbeing of the planet.

Loren Cole

In addition to founding and leading ISI since 1978, Dr. Cole is an award winning keynote speaker, and author of numerous articles and papers. Among his many accomplishments his favorite includes the creation and development of the first systemic & interdisciplinary Environmental Undergraduate and Doctoral Program in the Conservation & Resource Studies Department at U.C. Berkeley. He also helped co-found the first urban recycling center in the US and the Berkeley Ecology Center.

Loren has also designed and built an active and passive solar home, raised hundreds of millions of dollars for his clients, and educated over 26,000 industry leaders in the area of Ethically Sustainable Ecosystem Management.

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