Systems thinking in environmental sciences – nothing is isolated in nature

Systems thinking is all about relationships, how the parts together affect the whole and trends, changes and problems. By analyzing these, we find solutions. People often want to simplify things, but in reality nature is very complex. Systems thinking is very important in environmental science. First of all, natural systems are very complex in their interactions. There are numerous ways of interaction, feedback and even surprising connections. In nature, everything is in motion, everything is in cycle. Stone material also circulates and changes over time. Nature forms different spheres on Earth that interact with each other: lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere. Matter and energy move between them.

In the ecosystem itself, abiotic i.e. non-living and biotic i.e. living nature interact with each other. In an ecosystem, species, populations, communities and biotopes form very complex networks. There are many kinds of interaction, cooperation, i.e. mutualism, dependence and coexistence, i.e. symbiosis, predation, grazing… Very special interactions have been observed, such as the fact that trees give sugar to weaker trees through symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi. Trees also communicate with each other by releasing molecules into the air that are detected by other trees. They, for example, warn each other about pests in this way. There are very special symbioses, e.g. the sloth of the South American rain forests and its algae living in its fur.The sloth gives them a growth medium, and the algae gives the sloth a protective color against predators. Specialization is miraculous in nature, e.g. fungi capable of bioluminescence in the rainforest, i.e. they produce light through chemical reactions, which attract nocturnal animals that spread their spores.

In an ecosystem, everything affects everything, or at least everything affects a little bit of everything, taking into account the long chains of cause and effect. A small change in one part of the system can cause surprising changes elsewhere. Because of that, the ecosystem is like a house of cards that can collapse into a pile by one influencing factor. For example, a small amount of poison can destroy an ecosystem or endanger a species, as DDT did to the sea eagle and CFCs did to the life-protecting ozone layer. In particular, the loss of key species can change the ecosystem in a strongly negative way. For example, the disappearance of the beaver leads to the dammed pond to disappear, along with the frogs, fish, water voles, muskrats and waterfowl that made it their home. Of course, ecosystems also have resistance, biodiversity, i.e. the diversity of nature, is a very important factor here. The greater the biodiversity, the more resistant nature is to external threats and environmental changes. Biodiversity enables nature to adapt to changes and diversity makes it stronger against various threats and disturbances. By protecting biodiversity, we also protect very important ecosystem services provided by nature.

Environmental systems thinking is not only limited to natural systems, but also includes social factors and the ubiquitous interaction between society and nature. In environmental science, it is essential to understand how society causes environmental changes and how it can be influenced. Society, like nature, is very holistic and small changes in some variables can cause large and surprising changes. In environmental science, it is absolutely important to understand complexity, that things are usually not simple. Various cause-and-effect relationships must be analyzed. From the point of view of psychology, what is essential is a person’s attitude and relationship with the rest of nature. Our relationship with nature largely determines how we treat it. A broken relationship with nature leads to the destruction of the environment.

Environmental science is indeed a very interdisciplinary and generalist science that combines a number of different scientific fields: there is environmental biology, environmental chemistry, environmental psychology, environmental history, environmental economics, environmental health science, environmental philosophy… In environmental science, you have to master a whole range of skills from different disciplines and master large bodies of knowledge and how different things and factors affect each other . Systems thinking is absolutely useful in other disciplines as well. Nothing in the world is separate from the rest, everything is related and interacts with many different things.


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