Applied Ecology/New Societies and Cultures
The economic history of the world is the entire history of the world, but seen from a certain vantage point; that of the economy. The ecological history of the world is the history of the world seen from an environmental viewpoint. Increasingly, this environmental viewpoint takes in the place of Homo sapiens in the entire cosmos. To choose one or other vantage point, and no other, is of course to favour from the start a one-sided form of explanation. However, economists and historians have stopped thinking of economics as a self-contained discipline and of economic history as a neatly defined body of knowledge, which one could study in isolation from other subjects. Economists cannot properly grasp economic phenomena unless they go beyond the economy. With regard to political economy, which in the 19th century appeared to concern only material goods, it has turned out to embrace the social system as a whole, being related to everything in society. The same can be said of biologists with respect to ecology, with its history of evolution, which is no longer regarded as primarily science, but as a philosophy of inter-relatedness.
Political culture is an important variable in the analysis of the relationships between culture and ecology as it suggests underlying beliefs, values and opinions, which a group of people holds dear (such as shared ethnic and religious affinities). For example, Catholicism treats the individual as social and transcendent.
Economics and ecology come together at their common linguistic root, ‘oikos’, which in both cases signifies a space where a complex of activities is undertaken concerned with the consumption of natural resources and their transformation for production and distribution.
Solidarity in human societies resides in the organisations established to manage the utilisation of natural resources. Management, as a specific pattern of human activities, emerges in the archaic use of the word economy to define the ordering of household affairs; (via Latin from Greek oikonomia; domestic management, from oikos house + -nomia, from nemein to manage). Managerial behaviour, involves the setting of targets and the marshalling of inputs necessary to overcome limiting environmental factors. It is central to activities that turn environmental resources into food, goods and services. Ecology comes from the same etymological root. As a human scientific endeavour it has prompted new institutions and organisations in society by which ecological thinking can be directed to manage ecosystems as human goods. In this respect, applied ecology is a powerful feedback from science to force cultural changes in the use of habitats and species.
Tension within society comes, on the one hand, from the managerial applications of science for the commodification and industrialisation of nature, and on the other, to the applications of ecology for the preservation of intrinsic value in the living world. These two rival views of the relationship between humans and nature define the area of cultural ecology.
From all of these viewpoints, applied ecology is influencing the formation of new social organisations and their cultural expressions through managerialism as global and local strategies and site operations. Some of these changes in society and culture come about because of direct applications of science. However, other movements, such as 'deep ecology', with their promotion of intrinsic value in ecological order, do not come directly out of the science of ecology, but are suggested, inspired and fortified, by ecological ideas. In native cultures their ideological aspects comprised beliefs, rituals, magical practices, art, ethics, religion and myths. These defined the permissible and acceptable relationships with nature, and they were part of local systems for conserving resources. In industrialised societies this role has been taken over by the cultural package of 'nature conservation', which includes the philosophies and legal systems of society directed at supporting order in habitats and their species. This is the web of perception and action that locks individuals together in geographical space as societies. It is focused on balancing the exploitation of environmental resources for production with the conservation of resources to ensure survival of the community. This balancing act involves technological, sociological and ideological management systems.
The technological aspect of management is concerned with tools, materials and machines. The sociological aspect involves the relationships into which people enter especially in work and in the family. These two aspects encompass topics that deal respectively with the exploitation of resources through production and demand. Changes in technology and social organisation will bring forth changes in the ideas and beliefs that connect people with local and planetary resources, and also define humans in the wider cosmos, but such ideas will always feed back on the social organisation, which moves forward.
The ideological aspects of the conservation of resources are expressed
- through ideas about 'nature' and 'place', as these have developed historically to provide philosophical, artistic and spiritual values for present day environmentalism;
- through science, as applied ecology;
- and through ‘living in nature’ and applying traditional ecological knowledge to realise global and local strategies of resource management.
All these aspects define the two major routes of Western reasoning about nature. On the one hand, since the 18th century, there has been a ready acceptance of the scientific drive for the domination of nature. On the other hand, the environmental outcomes of this mode of activity has precipitated the ecological search for intrinsic value and its preservation. These two rival views of the relationship between humans and nature define a fluid mind-map to steer a global society toward sustainability. The rivalry comes from fragmentation of civil society in the pursuit of profit and status. Only as conscious agents of a cultural revolution, which promotes a balanced synthesis of the exploitative and conserving segments of society, can we harness our species' ecological potential for a sustainable future.
The twentieth century opened with a revolution in humankind’s attitude to the environment. It sprang spontaneously from all branches of culture and from all countries across a Europe. The discoveries of Einstein in outer space corresponded with those of Jung into the inner space of the subconscious. Biology began to shape the modern perspective of our place in nature. The arts themselves exploded into a new environmental dimension. No longer was the inquiring mind satisfied with appearance. Scientists and artists began to define the relationship between people and environment that was more comprehensive than the search for natural resources. Thus artists, such as Paul Klee and Jean Miro, set out to combine the invisible with the visible, the abstract with the figurative. They let themselves be invaded by the living world and then processed it in a very subjective manner.
The cosmic adventureEdit
There are profound connections between stars, atoms and life that place human culture in the grand outline of the development of the universe. This perspective has been called the 'cosmic adventure'.
The adventure began in a hot and undifferentiated broth of radiation. Eventually, on our tiny planet in a remote corner of a small galaxy, there developed the incredible complexity of life, consciousness and culture. We now appreciate that the universe has moved toward increasingly more intense forms of ordered novelty. In this respect, we can say that it does have a direction, particularly here on Earth, where there is significantly more ordered variety than there was three minutes after the big bang. We have arrived throughout the fifteen billion years of cosmic development as part of a process that has kept a balance between pairs of primeval qualities. These qualities are:
- harmony and contrast;
- order and unpredictability;
- unity and complexity;
- pattern and nuance;
- homogeneity and diversity;
- stability and novelty.
The existence of the universe and everything in it depends on the internal ordering, or tuning of its components. As far as we can see, it was six numbers imprinted in the 'big bang' that have maintained the trajectory of cosmic ecology as a balance of qualities. Two of the numbers relate to the basic forces; two fix the size and the overall texture of the universe and determine whether it will continue forever, and two more fix the properties of space itself. If any one of these numbers was slightly different at the start there would be no stars and no life. Our universe is a rarity with the right combination of the key numbers to ensure that it survives and has developed as an intricately structured whole. Terrestrial evolution is the story of one such molecular outcome, as are the political and technological endeavours of nations of the earth are the social outcomes.
Physics and chemistry existed before human evolution and in this sense they define the non-human purpose of the cosmos as a physico-chemical process. Therefore, in thinking about cosmic purpose we must separate ourselves from the modern bias that nature is a value- neutral canvas. It does not remain blank until we have painted it with our cultural and political inventions. The core of human distinctiveness is that we are capable of thinking about the internal ordering of the universe and our planetary systems so as to understand how these qualities are expressed. We are also able to add value to them.
This attitude has an important bearing on the way we view our social and biological heritage in their cosmic, ecological and social dimensions. There are currently two views about the direction of cosmic development and our place in it. After the universe was energised from the void, the ordering of novelty followed the sequence of energy, particles, stars, planets, materials and life forms. Process theology takes the view that a programme of development according to divine will governed the direction. Process humanism takes the view that our universe is just one of an infinity of universes bubbling up at random from the void. Most would be untuned.
Process theology says that the self-creativity of all constituents of the cosmos willed by God deserve our care because they are especially intense actualisations of divinely inspired creativity and cosmic beauty. When nature suffers, God suffers.
Process humanism says that to gain an appropriate sense of our human worth we need to become aware of our creative potential to work towards global order. Therefore, intervention to maintain a balance of qualities that define our biological and social heritage, by ordering novelty and unifying complexity, is actually a small part of the grand cosmic purpose.
Both points of view provide us with a knowledge framework for applying ecological thinking to culture that is deeply rooted in cosmology. Also, they recapture the ancient spiritual sense that we live in a meaningful and intrinsically valuable world and do so in a manner entirely consonant with contemporary science. Humanity's origins and practical capabilities require it to participate in sustaining the cosmic process as a balance of qualities that define our place in nature as much as our attitudes to the use of nature expressed in technology, art, architecture and literature. In particular, this vision involves recognising that conservation of biodiversity is not just for humans or valueless apart from them.
Social applications of ecologyEdit
Ecology deals with the interactions between species and the necessary conditions of existence in the environment to which they are adapted. These adaptations comprise webs of perception and action evolved to ensure resources are available to maintain growth and reproduction. Behavioural interactions are at the heart of the interactions where they function to unite individuals into more or less stable social structures. In particular, behaviour determines and regulates the relations of individuals to one another. It provides such external adaptations to the physical environment, and such internal adaptations between the component individuals or groups to make possible an ordered social life. Each species has a behaviour structure that is an evolved harmonious whole in order to maintain the sum of its parts in biochemical equilibrium with its environment. This structure survives and flourishes because it successfully maintains external social solidarity among its members, and chemical integrity amongst its internal organs and cells.
'Ecology' is used to define a particular type or branch of the relationship between living organisms and their environment e.g. aquatic ecology; avian ecology. Where the species is a community of Homo sapiens, sharing a common heritage of ideas, beliefs values and knowledge, the interrelationship is called cultural ecology. It includes an environmental complex of human activities undertaken for profit. The activities are concerned with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services and the management of natural resources (land, forest, water), finances, income, and expenditure of a community, business enterprise, etc. This highlights the fact that the subject matter of both ecology and economics, which are themselves interrelated, cannot be isolated from all the other social, ideological and political problems. Evidence for this are the categories of ‘political ecology’ and ‘social ecology’, which have emerged from the social sciences, to highlight the relationships between political and social organisations and environmental issues.
Applied ecology, being an instrumental mode of systems thinking, has a role to play, as behavioural structures in stabilising the humankind-nature relationship. It is central to an educational system for sustainability, which presents exploitative management and conservation management as two sides of the coin of economic development. Applied ecology provides the operational tools for environmental organisations and institutions interacting within a society, and constituting it. It thereby contributes to group solidarity for planetary survival by providing practical solutions to the challenges of the industrialised environment. A full understanding requires placing applied ecology in the context of systems thinking about the organisation of natural resources and people for production. It is about providing tools for modifying human production by people who are organising for nature conservation. Ecology drives national, and global strategies by which these groups respond to ethical values in nature.
Culture first emerges within the ecosystems of primates where it is expressed in the learned group behaviours of food- gathering and display, which are local to a species in a certain place. In humans, culture appeared as the integrated system of learned behaviour patterns characteristic of members of a society. The system of behaviour constitutes a way of life of any given social group. It is also a social heritage, transmitted from generation to generation by individuals and organisations. This heritage is instilled into the minds of the young, not only by initiation and education, but also by the long, unconscious conditioning whereby each individual becomes the person he/she ultimately is. It thus becomes a form of social heredity. As an evolved harmonious whole it ensures that all the institutions interacting within a society, and constituting it, contribute to group solidarity.
New relationships are being forged between culture and ecology in response to social concerns that arise because of the present state of the earth household. One of these responses is the concept of ‘sustainability’, which is not a scientific term, but more a focus of social problems arising from the large-scale use of natural resources. These issues can only be solved by new social organisations, local and global, established to manage industrial production within the limitations of Earth’s ecological infrastructure. There also has to be a new holistic cross-disciplinary social model, where knowledge about human social evolution is categorised to connect the social sciences with disciplines such as law, history, geography, education, and biology. A start in this direction was made by Ramchandra Guha (1994) who argues in favour of creating an ‘environmentally orientated sociology’ for a world in environmental crisis by placing ecological infrastructure at the base of the traditional pyramidal model of society.
In such a pyramid, consisting of ‘nature’, ‘society’ and ‘culture, the two functional pillars of social organisation are the organisation of people for production (political economy) and the organisation of natural resources for production (natural economy). Both of these economies draw upon what may be called the planetary economy. This model of cultural ecology is provisionally set out in Fig 11.1. Geographers and anthropologists mean different (but complementary) things by "cultural ecology." In general, "cultural ecology" studies the relationship between a given society and its natural environment. But geographers generally mean the study of how socially organized human activities affect the natural environment; anthropologists generally mean the study of how the natural environment affects socially organized behaviours (although, at its extreme, environmental determinism has fallen out of favour among most anthropologists).
Fig 11.1 Provisional model of cultural ecology
Wherever we find a community, however primitive, however complex, we find more than an association of individuals, each pursuing a personal own life and possessing personal ideas; we find a social pattern, a coherent body of customs and ideas, an integrated unity or system in which each element has a definite function in relation to the whole environment, physical, biological and social.
But what determines the pattern? The anthropological explanation is 'the necessary conditions of existence of the social organism'. To this the social institutions must correspond. In turn, the necessary conditions of existence, at any stage of social development, depend on the geographical situation and the level of technology. This is true from the Stone Age to the present age of industrialism. Basic to every form of social organization is the method of obtaining those items essential for human survival. In other words, how do the people of a particular society exploit natural resources to produce their food, clothing, tools, and other items that they need in order to live as human beings?
These 'necessary conditions of existence' shape the relationship of people to each other and their command of natural resources. Individuals utilize nature, directly or indirectly, to produce the necessities of life, not in isolation from each other, not as separate individuals, but in common groups and societies with shared, or conflicting, cultural norms.
Political ecology is an umbrella term for a variety of projects that involve politics and the natural environment. ese projects generally fall within one of three types:
- attempts to study politics using the language and methods of ecology (in other words, the claim that, like species of plants and animals, societies and states can only be understood in terms of their place in a larger system including other societies or states)
- the study of political struggles for control over natural resources, or of political struggles whose outcome is determined by differential access to natural resources
- research on biodiversity and natural resource exploitation that is intended to inform public policy.
When geographers and anthropologists refer to "political economy," they generally mean the study of how different polities (states or societies) in different parts of the world are actually parts of a global structure through which one polity exploits another polity. This approach to political economy comes out of the works of Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gundar Frank, who argues that European development was made possible by the underdevelopment or impoverishment of non-European societies.
Geographical and anthropological political ecologists argue that a cultural ecology informed by political economy will:
- look at cultures not only in their natural environment, but in their political environment as well
- look at how unequal relations among societies affect the natural environment
- look at how unequal relations (especially class relations) within a culture affect the environment
This section is the first five paragraphs from an open article entitled ‘A Social Ecology’ by John Clark in M. Zimmerman et al., Environmental Philosophy, second edition (Prentice Hall, 1997)
"Humanity is Nature achieving self-consciousness."—Elisée Reclus
In its deepest and most authentic sense, a social ecology is the awakening earth community reflecting on itself, uncovering its history, exploring its present predicament, and contemplating its future. One aspect of this awakening is a process of philosophical reflection. As a philosophical approach, a social ecology investigates the ontological, epistemological, ethical and political dimensions of the relationship between the social and the ecological, and seeks the practical wisdom that results from such reflection. It seeks to give us, as beings situated in the course of real human and natural history, guidance in facing specific challenges and opportunities. In doing so, it develops an analysis that is both holistic and dialectical, and a social practice that might best be described as an eco-communitarianism.
The Social and the EcologicalEdit
A social ecology is first of all, an ecology. There are strong communitarian implications in the very term ecology. Literally, it means the logos, the reflection on or study of, the oikos, or household. Ecology thus calls upon us to begin to think of the entire planet as a kind of community of which we are members. It tells us that all of our policies and problems are in a sense "domestic" ones. While a social ecology sometimes loses its bearings as it focuses on specific social concerns, when it is consistent it always situates those concerns within the context of the earth household, whatever else it may study within that community. The dialectical approach of a social ecology requires social ecologists to consider the ecological dimensions of all "social" phenomena. There are no "non-ecological" social phenomena to consider apart from the ecological ones.
In some ways, the term "social" in "social ecology" is the more problematical one. There is a seeming paradox in the use of the term "social" for what is actually a strongly communitarian tradition. Traditionally, the "social" realm has been counterposed to the "communal" one, as in Tönnies' famous distinction between society and community, Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft. Yet this apparent self-contradiction may be a path to a deeper truth. A social ecology is a project of reclaiming the communitarian dimensions of the social, and it is therefore appropriate that it seek to recover the communal linguistic heritage of the very term itself. "Social" is derived from "socius," or "companion." A "society" is thus a relationship between companions—in a sense, it is itself a household within the earth household.
An Evolving TheoryEdit
Over the past quarter-century, a broad social and ecological philosophy has emerged under the name "social ecology." While this philosophy has recently been most closely associated with the thought of social theorist Murray Bookchin, it continues a long tradition of ecological communitarian thought going back well into the nineteenth century. The lineage of social ecology is often thought to originate in the mutualistic, communitarian ideas of the anarchist geographer Kropotkin (1842–1921). One can certainly not deny that despite Kropotkin's positivistic tendencies and his problematical conception of nature, he has an important relationship to social ecology. His ideas concerning mutual aid, political and economic decentralization, human-scaled production, communitarian values, and the history of democracy have all made important contributions to the tradition. However, it is rooted much more deeply in the thought of another great anarchist thinker, the French geographer Elisée Reclus (1830–1905). During the latter half of the last century, and into the beginning of the present one, Reclus developed a far-ranging "social geography" that laid the foundations of a social ecology, as it explored the history of the interaction between human society and the natural world, starting with the emergence of homo sapiens and extending to Reclus' own era of urbanization, technological development, political and economic globalization, and embryonic international cooperation.
Reclus envisioned humanity achieving a free, communitarian society in harmony with the natural world. His extensive historical studies trace the long record of experiments in cooperation, direct democracy and human freedom, from the ancient Greek polis, through Icelandic democracy, medieval free cities and independent Swiss cantons, to modern movements for social transformation and human emancipation. At the same time, he depicts the rise and development of the modern centralized state, concentrated capital and authoritarian ideologies. His sweeping historical account includes an extensive critique of both capitalism and authoritarian socialism from an egalitarian and anti-authoritarian perspective, and an analysis of the destructive ecological effects of modern technology and industry allied with the power of capital and the state. It is notable that a century ago Reclus' social theory attempted to reconcile a concern for justice in human society with compassionate treatment of other species and respect for the whole of life on earth; a philosophical problem that has only recently remerged in ecophilosophy and environmental ethics.
Historical models of communitarianismEdit
Every morning, people leave small country towns in cars to go their workplace and are passed by others whose work destination is the place they have just left. In this dynamic transport shuttle everyone is somehow connected with, and supporting, a transport system based on private cars. Science now indicates that this massive carbon economy has dislodged the biosphere from one of its stable states that has supported human evolution for the past two million years. Climatic change has started to unfold and the world is not a unified community with powers to produce a global technological fix. Many are beginning to believe that in this scenario, sustainable development, with its adherence to annual year on year increases in spending power, is pointing in the wrong direction. Rather, what is needed is a sustainable economic retreat. This will require global strategies to adjust the relationship between production systems and natural resources to generate rates of waste emission that the biosphere can assimilate.
In contrast, a market town in the 1850s was a small balanced community. It represented the oldest kind of human institution, found absolutely everywhere throughout the world in all kinds of societies. Since the late Palaeolithic more than 100 billion human beings have lived on earth and the majority have spent their entire life as members of very small groups, rarely of more than a few hundred persons. Their production systems were each composed of few people. This picture is the staring point for ideas that there is a basic human need for small communities, which is encoded in our genes. It is in our behavioural makeup that we still orientate towards a group; the small group of the village and the tribe. Rural communities in the British 2001 Population Census are still small, yet market towns with their surrounding villages now lack any sense of communal focus or scale of production. Their fragmented residential, commercial and cultural centres emphasise transportation by car so that the inhabitants also lack any sense of pedestrian scale. Village and town are no longer serving as magnets for both people and ideas. People now seem to like isolation. New housing infills are socially sterile. Everything is new clean and neat. Neighbours are usually only glimpsed as they walk to the car. Each house is a small fortress equipped with a barking dog or alarm system. The only visible activity is macho man cutting his lawns. There are obviously great differences between old and new. Leaving aside the crushing poverty, we can legitimately ask if a pre-industrial community was really a haven of creativity and neighbourly harmony, which could serve as a planning model for today’s social ills. Have we really lost a unique combination of unity with social, visual and ecological variety? Is there an historical small-town target that modern planners should use for social and ecological regeneration? Planners, since their profession emerged in the late 19th century, have thought so. Nineteenth century society was based on ideas of mutual aid, political and economic decentralisation, human-scaled production and communitarian ideas (Fig 11.2).
Fig 11.2 A small-town model of communitarianism.
These ideas of social ecology, as a recipe for human life, were first articulated at the end of the 19th century for an improved cooperative economy by the Russian geographer Peter Kropokin. The Scottish planner, Patrick Geddes and his pupil Lewis Mumford developed them in Britain. Americans have followed this path since the 1990s to restore the integrity of their basic institutions and turn back disturbing trends toward crime, social disorder, and family breakdown. The past decade has been an era of important social reforms: in the schools, in the criminal justice system, in family policy. In states and localities across the U.S.A, citizens have fought for greater emphasis on character, individual responsibility, and virtues and values in the public square. Partly as a result, on a host of "leading social indicators”, such as rates of violent crime, rates of youth crime, levels of teenage pregnancy, and even student test scores, the nation is showing incremental but significant improvements.
Communitarian ideas and policy approaches have been playing a major role in this growing North American movement of cultural and institutional regeneration. Communitarian thinkers are in the forefront of the ‘Character Education Movement’, which is fostering a return to the teaching of good personal conduct and individual responsibility in thousands of schools around the country. Likewise, communitarians have been playing a role in the new community-based approaches to criminal justice, which are showing solid success in restoring neighbourhood order and achieving real reductions in violent crime. In the area of family policy, communitarians have worked for policies to strengthen families and discourage divorce. They have led in devising fresh, incentive-based policies designed to discourage a casual approach to marriage and to promote "children-first" thinking and family stability, while at the same time preserving the rights of women and men. The need for action has now reached the large politically influential community of the Evangelical Church, where a group of leaders, convinced of the science behind climate change, is trying to persuade its local membership to reduce their domestic carbon emissions. Communitarianism has become a part of one of the most innovative movements working to renew and revitalize American society.
Yesterday in every town is now a piece of the history of this movement, and everyone who lived through the past twenty-four hours holds some of the public evidence that could be put towards learning about the past to better understand the present and shape the future. The history of communities is in the making; it is not a dead thing to be pulled out and praised or deplored; it is the inhabitants who are custodians of the past, by the recording of the present. To make history part of the community’s social toolkit there has to be a reorientation of history towards ecology. Social ecology is nothing more than an environmentally orientated study of a community, which explores a timeline of the relations between ecological infrastructure, politics, community organisations, the economy and culture. The creation of small town models is therefore an important practical aim for the enrichment of cultural ecology as an educational resource.
A system is any group of interdependent or interacting parts. Parts are generally systems themselves and are composed of other parts, just as systems are generally parts or components of other systems. Systems thinkers consider that:
- a "system" is a dynamic and complex whole, interacting as a structured functional unit
- information flows between the different elements that compose the system
- a system is a community situated within an environment
- information flows from and to the surrounding environment via semi-permeable membranes or boundaries
- systems are often composed of entities seeking equilibrium, but can exhibit oscillating, chaotic, growth or decay behaviours.
Systems thinking techniques may be used to study any kind of system; natural, scientific, social, or conceptual. It was the biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s concepts of an open system and general systems theory that established systems thinking as a major scientific movement. He set out to replace the mechanistic foundations of science with the following holistic vision:
“General system theory is a general science of ‘wholeness’ which up till now was considered a vague, hazy, and semi-metaphysical concept. In elaborate form it would be a mathematical discipline in itself purely formal but applicable to the various empirical sciences. For sciences concerned with ‘organized wholes’, it would be of similar significance to that which probability theory has for sciences concerned with ‘chance events’ (Berlalanffy, 1968).
The advantages of systems thinking are:
- It helps explain why changing a system frequently leads to counterintuitive system responses. For example feedback loops may operate to either keep the organization in check or unbalance it.
- Traditional decision-making tends to involve linear cause and effect relationships. By taking a systems approach, we can see the whole complex of bidirectional interrelationships. Instead of analysing a problem in terms of an input and an output, for example, we look at the whole system of inputs, processes, outputs, feedback, and controls. This larger picture will typically provide more useful results than traditional methods.
- Systems thinking also helps integrate the temporal dimension of any decision. Instead of looking at discrete "snapshots" at points in time, a systems methodology will allow us to see change as a continuous process.
- Systems thinking aims to gain insights into the whole by understanding the linkages and interactions between the elements that comprise the whole "system".
- Systems thinking can help avoid the silo effect, where a lack of organisational communication can cause a change in one area of a system to adversely affect another area of the system.
These advantages are particularly valuable in studying the evolution and organisation of ecosystems. In this respect, some of the basic principles of ecology, such as interdependence, recycling, resilience and diversity are concerned with processes organised as open systems. In communities, information and ideas flow through networks of systems with feedback loops, which enable individuals and organisations to adapt to changing situations. In this respect, systems thinking, which is behind theories of biological complexity and Earth’s self-sustaining properties, also provides foundations for conservation policies and action plans.