Clocks and Trees

In ancient eras, there was no mechanical time since there were no human-made clocks. The ringing of a bell, the setting of the sun, or the changing of the seasons marked time. When the clock was created, it was a marvelous invention but soon became more than a tool, it became a model for the entire universe. This mechanical model of the world supported the belief that living systems were easy to take apart, adjust, and fix. Humans, as part of the world could also be “fixed” when something was wrong. Humans were perceived as “nothing but” machines.

The mechanistic model of the world was useful since it allowed thinkers to break away from the tyranny of the church in the 17th century. A world that could be measured might not be subject to the authority of the church. However a new authority emerged, a science of reductionism, which allowed humans to control their environment. This new authority produced modern medicine, modern technology, and modern destruction of natural systems. Today we need a new model, a new way to frame our understanding of the universe – new way to “see” the earth.

Systems thinking is a new way of looking at things that will help us overcome the crisis of perception left us by Descartes. The systems framework for thinking can encourage personal empowerment and a better understanding of the world. Systems thinkers begin with understanding processes and structures. Instead of starting to look at complex systems such as organisms, ecosystems and organizations by focusing on the components of the system, systems thinkers look at the whole and then examine key relationships within the whole.

A biologist who breaks a tree into its component pieces, such as roots, leaves, and bark will never understand the tree entirely. A systems thinker might see the seasonal exchange between the tree and the earth, between the earth and the sky, and between people as observers of the tree and the universe. A systems thinker might see the life of the tree in relation to the life of the whole forest; the habitat for insects and birds and ask, “why does a tree produce millions of seeds and only produce few offspring.” While a biologist might assume the world is a difficult place to survive and hence millions of seeds are needed, a systems thinker might speculate that because the tree is part of the web of life, the millions of seeds might be important for the entire ecosystem not just an individual tree or even tree species. The tree might have co-evolved with the system of which it is a component part, thus making the ecosystem as much as the ecosystem makes the tree.





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