SYSTEMIC CHANGE IS BASED ON SELF-ORGANIZED CRITICALITY
When dealing with scale (a small, mountain lake as opposed to the drainage basin of a large river, such as the Mississippi in the United States or the Ganges in India), scientists have traditionally analyzed large, interactive systems in the same way that they have studied small, orderly systems, mainly because their methods of study have proven so successful. The prevailing wisdom has been that the behavior of a large, complicated system could be predicted by studying its elements separately and by analyzing its microscopic mechanisms individually—the reductionist-mechanical thinking predominant in Western society that tends to view the world and all it contains through a lens of intellectual isolation. During the last few decades, however, it has become increasingly clear that many complicated systems, like forests, oceans, and even cities do not yield to such traditional analysis.
Instead, large, complicated, interactive systems seem to evolve naturally to a critical state in which even a minor event starts a chain reaction that can affect any number of elements in the system and can lead to a dramatic alteration in the system. Although such systems produce more minor events than catastrophic ones, chain reactions of all sizes are an integral part of system dynamics. According to the theory called “self-organized criticality,” the mechanism that leads to minor events (analogous to the drop of a pin) is the same mechanism that leads to major events (analogous to an earthquake).1 Not understanding this, analysts have typically blamed some rare set of circumstances (some exception to the rule) or some powerful combination of mechanisms when catastrophe strikes.
Nevertheless, ecosystems move inevitably toward a critical state, one that alters the ecosystem in some dramatic way. This dynamic makes ecosystems dissipative structures in that energy is built up through time only to be released in a disturbance of some kind, such as a fire, flood, or landslide, in some scale, ranging from a freshet in a stream to the eruption of a volcano, after which energy begins building again toward the next release of pent-up energy somewhere in time.
Such disturbances, as ecologists think of these events, can be long term and chronic, such as large movements of soil that take place over hundreds of years (termed an earth flow), or acute, such as the crescendo of a volcanic eruption that sends a pyroclastic flow sweeping down its side at amazing speed. (A pyroclastic flow is a turbulent mixture of hot gas and fragments of rock, such as pumice, that is violently ejected from a fissure and moves with great speed down the side of a volcano. Pyroclastic is Greek for “fire-broken.”)
Here, you might interject that neither a movement of soil nor a volcano is a living system in the classical sense. Although that is true, all disturbance regimes are part and parcel of the living systems they affect. Thus, interactive systems, from the habitat of a gnat to a tropical rainforest, perpetually organize themselves to a critical state wherein a minor event can start a chain reaction that leads to a catastrophic event—as far as living things are concerned, after which the system begins organizing itself toward the next critical state. Furthermore, such systems never reach a state of equilibrium, but rather evolve from one semi-stable state to another. This dynamic is precisely why sustainability is a moving target—not a fixed end point or a steady state.
Text © by Chris Maser 2010. All rights reserved.
This series of blogs is excerpted from my 2009 book, Social-Environmental Planning: The Design Interface Between Everyforest and Everycity, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. 321 pp.