The Big Picture: Systems of Change

The Big Picture: Systems of Change

Basic Systems Concepts

A system is a set of components, or parts, that function together as a whole. A single organism, such as your body, is a system, as are a sewage-treatment plant, a city, and a river. On a much different scale, the entire Earth is a system. In a broader sense, a system is any part of the universe you can isolate in thought (in your brain or on your computer) or, indeed, physically, for the purpose of study. Key systems concepts that we will explain are

(1) how a system is connected to the rest of the environment;

(2) how matter and energy flow between parts of a system;

(3) whether a system is static or dynamic—whether it changes over time;

(4) average residence time—how long something stays within a system or part of a system;

(5) feedback—how the output from a system can affect its inputs; and

(6) linear and nonlinear flows.


In its relation to the rest of the environment, a system can be open or closed. In an open system, some energy or material (solid, liquid, or gas) moves into or out of the system. The ocean is an open system with regard to water because water moves into the ocean from the atmosphere and out of the ocean into the atmosphere. In a closed system, no such transfers take place. For our purposes, a materially closed system is one in which no matter moves in and out of the system, although energy and information can move across the system’s boundaries. Earth is a materially

closed system (for all practical purposes).


Systems respond to inputs and have outputs. For example, think of your body as a complex system and imagine you are hiking in Yellowstone National Park and see a grizzly bear. The sight of the bear is an input. Your body reacts to that input: The adrenaline level in your blood goes up, your heart rate increases, and the hair on your head and arms may rise. Your response—perhaps to move slowly away from the bear—is an output.


Static and Dynamic Systems

A static system has a fixed condition and tends to remain in that exact condition. A dynamic system changes, often continually, over time. A birthday balloon attached to a pole is a static system in terms of space—it stays in one place. A hot-air balloon is a simple dynamic system in terms of space—it moves in response to the winds, air density, and controls exerted by a pilot.


An important kind of static system is one with classical stability. Such a system has a constant condition, and if it is disturbed from that condition, it returns to it once the disturbing factor is removed. The pendulum of an old-fashioned grandfather clock is an example of classical stability. If you push it, the pendulum moves back and forth for a while, but then friction gradually dissipates the energy you just gave it and the pendulum comes to rest exactly where it began. This rest point is known as the equilibrium.


Open Systems

With few exceptions, all real systems that we deal with in the environment are open to the flow of matter, energy, and information. (For all practical purposes, as we noted earlier, Earth as a planet is a materially closed system.) An important distinction for open systems is whether they are steady-state or non-steady-state. In a steady-state system, the inputs (of anything of interest) are equal to the outputs, so the amount stored within the system is constant. An idealized example of a steady state system is a dam and lake into which water enters from a river and out of which water flows.


If the water input equals the water output and evaporation is not considered, the water level in the lake does not change, and so, in regard to water, the lake is in a steady state.


The Balance of Nature: Is a Steady State Natural?

An idea frequently used and defended in the study of our natural environment is that natural systems, left undisturbed by people, tend toward some sort of steady state. The technical term for this is dynamic equilibrium, but it is more familiarly referred to as the balance of nature. Certainly, negative feedback operates in many natural systems and may tend to hold a system at equilibrium. Nevertheless, we need to ask how often the equilibrium model really applies.


If we examine natural ecological systems or ecosystems (simply defined here as communities of organisms and their nonliving environment in which nutrients and other chemicals cycle and energy flows) in detail and over a variety of time frames, it is evident that a steady state is seldom attained or maintained for very long. Rather, systems are characterized not only by human-induced disturbances but also by natural disturbances (sometimes large-scale ones called natural disasters, such as floods and wildfires). Thus, changes over time can be expected. In fact, studies of such diverse systems as forests, rivers, and coral reefs suggest that disturbances due to natural events, such as storms, floods, and fires, are necessary for the maintenance of those systems. The environmental lesson is that systems change naturally. If we are going to manage systems for the betterment of the environment, we need to gain a better understanding of how they change.


Residence Time

By using rates of change or input-output analysis of systems, we can derive an average residence time—how long, on average, a unit of something of interest to us will remain in a reservoir. This is obviously important, as in the case of how much water can be stored for how long in one of the reservoirs on the Missouri River. To compute the average residence time (assuming input is equal to output), we divide the total volume of stored water in the series of dams by the average rate of transfer through the system. For example, suppose a university has 10,000 students, and each year 2,500 freshmen start and 2,500 seniors graduate. The average residence time for students is 10,000 divided by 2,500, or four years. Average residence time has important implications for environmental systems. A system such as a small lake with an inlet and an outlet and a high transfer rate of water has a short residence time for water. On the one hand, from our point of view, that makes the lake especially vulnerable to change because change can happen quickly.



Feedback occurs when the output of a system (or a compartment in a system) affects its input. Changes in the output “feedback” on the input. There are two kinds of feedback: negative and positive. A good example of feedback is human temperature regulation. If you go out in the sun and get hot, the increase in temperature affects your sensory perceptions (input). If you stay in the sun, your body responds physiologically: Your pores open, and you are cooled by evaporating water (you sweat). The cooling is output, and it is also input to your sensory perceptions. You may respond behaviorally as well: Because you feel hot (input), you walk into the shade (output) and your temperature returns to normal. In this example, an increase in temperature is followed by a response that leads to a decrease in temperature. This is an example of negative feedback, in which an increase in output now leads to a later decrease in output.


Negative feedback is self-regulating, or stabilizing. It is the way that steady-state systems can remain in a constant condition.


Positive feedback occurs when an increase in output leads to a further increase in output. A fire starting in a forest provides an example of positive feedback. The wood may be slightly damp at the beginning and so may not burn readily. Once a fire starts, wood near the flame dries out and begins to burn, which in turn dries out a greater quantity of wood and leads to a larger fire. The larger the fire, the faster more wood becomes dry and the more rapidly the fire grows. Positive feedback, sometimes called a “vicious cycle,” is destabilizing.


Environmental damage can be especially serious when people’s use of the environment leads to positive feedback. For example, off-road vehicles—including bicycles—may cause positive feedback to soil erosion.


The vehicles’ churning tires are designed to grip the earth, but they also erode the soil and uproot plants. Without vegetation, the soil erodes faster, exposing even more soil (positive feedback). As more soil is exposed, rainwater more easily carves out ruts and gullies (more positive feedback). Drivers of off-road vehicles then avoid the ruts and gullies by driving on adjacent sections that are not as eroded, thus widening paths and further increasing erosion (more positive feedback). The gullies themselves increase erosion because they concentrate runoff and have steep side slopes. Once formed, gullies tend to get longer, wider, and deeper, causing additional erosion (even more positive feedback). Eventually, an area of intensive off-road vehicle use may become a wasteland of eroded paths and gullies. Positive feedback has made the situation increasingly worse.


Some systems have both positive and negative feedbacks, as can occur, for example, for the human population in large cities. Positive feedback on the population size may occur when people perceive greater opportunities in cities and move there hoping for a higher standard of living. As more people move to cities, opportunities may increase, leading to even more migration to cities. Negative feedback can then occur when crowding increases air and water pollution, disease, crime, and discomfort.


These negatives encourage some people to migrate from the cities to rural areas, reducing the city’s population. Practicing your critical-thinking skills, you may ask, “Is negative feedback generally desirable, and is positive feedback generally undesirable?” Reflecting on this question, we can see that although negative feedback is self-regulating, it may in some instances not be desirable. The period over which the positive or negative feedback occurs is the important factor. For example, suppose we are interested in restoring wolves to Yellowstone National Park. We will expect positive feedback in the wolf population for a time as the number of wolves grows. The more wolves, the greater their population growth, through exponential growth.


Positive feedback, for a time, is desirable because it produces a change we want.

We can see that whether we view positive or negative feedback as desirable depends on the system and potential changes. Nevertheless, some of the major environmental problems we face today result from positive feedback mechanisms. These include resource use and growth of the human population.


System Responses: Some Important Kinds of Flows

Within systems, there are certain kinds of flows that we come across over and over in environmental science. (Note that flow is an amount transferred; we also refer to the flux, which is the rate of transfer per unit time.) Because these are so common, we will explain a few of them here.


Linear and Nonlinear Flows

An important distinction among environmental and ecological systems is whether they are characterized by linear or nonlinear processes. Put most simply, in a linear process, if you add the same amount of anything to a compartment in a system, the change will always be the same, no matter how much you have added before and no matter what else has changed about the system and its environment. If you harvest one apple and weigh it, then you can estimate how much 10 or 100 or 1,000 or more of the apples will weigh—adding another apple to a scale does not change the amount by which the scale shows an increase. One apple’s effect on a scale is the same, no matter how many apples were on the scale before. This is a linear effect.


Many important processes are nonlinear, which means that the effect of adding a specific amount of something changes depending on how much has been added before. If you are very thirsty, one glass of water makes you feel good and is good for your health. Two glasses may also be helpful. But what about 100 glasses? Drinking more and more glasses of water leads quickly to diminishing returns and eventually to water’s becoming a poison.


Lag Time

Many responses to environmental inputs (including human population change; pollution of land, water, and air; and use of resources) are nonlinear and may involve delays, which we need to recognize if we are to understand and solve environmental problems. For example, when you add fertilizer to help a tree grow, it takes time for it to enter the soil and be used by the tree.


Lag time is the delay between a cause and the appearance of its effect. (This is also referred to as the time between a stimulus and the appearance of a response.) If the lag time is long, especially compared to human lifetimes (or attention spans or our ability to continue measuring and monitoring), we can fail to recognize the change and know what is the cause and what is the effect. We can also come to believe that a possible cause is not having a detrimental effect, when in reality the effect is only delayed. For example, logging on steep slopes can increase the likelihood and rate of erosion, but in comparatively dry environments this may not become apparent until there is heavy rain, which might not occur until a number of years afterward. If the lag time is short, cause and effect are easier to identify. For example, highly toxic gas released from a chemical plant will likely have rapid effects on the health of people living nearby. With an understanding of input and output, positive and negative feedback, stable and unstable systems, and systems at steady state, we have a framework for interpreting some of the changes that may affect systems.


Selected Examples of System Responses

Although environmental science deals with very complex phenomena, there are recurring relationships that we can represent with a small number of graphs that show how one part of a system responds to inputs from another part. These graphs include responses of individual organisms, responses of populations and species, responses of entire ecosystems and then large units of the biosphere, the planetary system that includes and sustains life, such as how the atmosphere responds to the burning of fossil fuels. Each of these graphs has a mathematical equation that can explain the curve, but it is the shape of the graph and what that shape represents that are key to understanding environmental systems. These curves represent, in one manifestation or another, the fundamental dynamics found in these systems.


Exponential growth is a particularly important kind of feedback. Change is exponential when it increases or decreases at a constant rate per time period, rather than by a constant amount. For instance, suppose you have $1,000 in the bank and it grows at 10% per year. The first year, $100 in interest is added to your account. The second year, you earn more, $110, because you earn 10% on a higher total amount of $1,100. The greater the amount, the greater the interest earned, so the money increases by larger and larger amounts. When we plot data in which exponential growth is occurring, the curve we obtain is said to be J-shaped. It looks like a skateboard ramp, starting out nearly flat and then rising steeply.

Two important qualities of exponential growth are (1) the rate of growth measured as a percentage and (2) the doubling time in years. The doubling time is the time necessary for the quantity being measured to double. A useful rule is that the doubling time is approximately equal to 70 divided by the annual percentage growth rate.


Overshoot and Collapse

The carrying capacity starts out being much higher than the human population, but if a population grows exponentially, it eventually exceeds—overshoots—the carrying capacity.


This ultimately results in the collapse of a population to some lower level, and the carrying capacity may be reduced as well. In this case, the lag time is the period of exponential growth of a population before it exceeds the carrying capacity. A similar scenario may be posited for harvesting species of fish or trees.


Irreversible Consequences

Adverse consequences of environmental change do not necessarily lead to irreversible consequences. Some do, however, and these lead to particular problems. When we talk about irreversible consequences, we mean consequences that may not be easily rectified on a human scale of decades or a few hundred years.


Good examples of this are soil erosion and the harvesting of old-growth forest. With soil erosion, there may be a long lag time until the soil erodes to the point where crops no longer have their roots in active soil that has the nutrients necessary to produce a successful crop. But once the soil is eroded, it may take hundreds or thousands of years for new soil to form, and so the consequences are irreversible in terms of human planning. Similarly, when old-growth forests are harvested, it may take hundreds of years for them to be restored. Lag times may be even longer if the soils have been damaged or eroded by timber harvesting.


Environmental Unity

Our discussion of positive and negative feedback sets the stage for another fundamental concept in environmental science: environmental unity—the idea that it is impossible to change only one thing; everything affects everything else. Of course, this is something of an overstatement; the extinction of a species of snails in North America, for instance, is hardly likely to change the flow characteristics of the Amazon River. However, many aspects of the natural environment are in fact closely linked, and thus changes in one part of a system often have secondary and tertiary effects within the system, and on adjacent systems as well.

Earth and its ecosystems are complex entities in which any action may have many effects. We will find many examples of environmental unity throughout this book. Urbanization illustrates it. When cities, such as Chicago and Indianapolis, were developed in the eastern and midwestern United States, the clearing of forests and prairies and the construction of buildings and paved streets increased surface-water runoff and soil erosion, which in turn affected the shape of river channels— some eroded soil was deposited on the bottom of the channel, reducing channel depth and increasing flood hazard. Increased fine sediment made the water muddy, and chemicals from street and yard runoff polluted the stream.



Uniformitarianism is the idea that geological and biological processes that occur today are the same kinds of processes that occurred in the past, and vice versa. Thus, the present is the key to the past, and the past the key to the future. For example, we use measurements of the current rate of erosion of soils and bedrock by rivers and streams to calculate the rate at which this happened in the past and to estimate how long it took for certain kinds of deposits to develop. If a deposit of gravel and sand found at the top of a mountain is similar to stream gravels found today in an adjacent valley, we may infer by uniformitarianism that a stream once flowed in a valley where the mountaintop is now. The concept of uniformitarianism helps explain the geologic and evolutionary history of Earth.


Uniformitarianism was first suggested in 1785 by the Scottish scientist James Hutton, known as the father of geology. Charles Darwin was impressed by the concept, and it pervades his ideas on biological evolution. Today, uniformitarianism is considered one of the fundamental principles of the biological and Earth sciences. Uniformitarianism does not demand or even suggest that the magnitude and frequency of natural processes remain constant, only that the processes themselves continue. For the past several billion years, the continents, oceans, and atmosphere have been similar to those of today. We assume that the physical and biological processes that form and modify the Earth’s surface have not changed significantly over this period. To be useful from an environmental standpoint, the principle of uniformitarianism has to be more than a key to the past; we must turn it around and say that a study of past and present processes is the key to the future. That is, we can assume that in the future the same physical and biological processes will operate, although the rates will vary as the environment is influenced by natural change and human activity.


Geologically short-lived landforms, such as beaches and lakes, will continue to appear and disappear in response to storms, fires, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes. Extinctions of animals and plants will continue, in spite of, as well as because of, human activity.


Knowledge of uniformitarianism is one way that we can decide what is “natural” and ascertain the characteristics of nature undisturbed by people. One of the environmental questions we ask repeatedly, in many contexts, is whether human actions are consistent with the processes of the past. If not, we are often concerned that these actions will be harmful. We want to improve our ability to predict what the future may bring, and uniformitarianism can assist in this task.


Earth as a System

The discussion in this chapter sets the stage for a relatively new way of looking at life and the environment—a global perspective, thinking about our entire planet’s life-supporting and life-containing system. This is known as Earth systems science, and it has become especially important in recent years, with concerns about climate change.


Our discussion of Earth as a system—life in its environment, the biosphere, and ecosystems—leads us to the question of how much life on Earth has affected our planet. In recent years, the Gaia hypothesis—named for Gaia, the Greek goddess Mother Earth—has become a hotly debated subject. The hypothesis states that life manipulates the environment for the maintenance of life. For example, some scientists believe that algae floating near the surface of the ocean influence rainfall at sea and the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere, thereby significantly affecting the global climate. It follows, then, that the planet Earth is capable of physiological self-regulation. The idea of a living Earth can be traced back at least to Roman times in the writing of Lucretius.3 James Hutton, whose theory of uniformitarianism was discussed earlier, stated in 1785 that he believed Earth to be a superorganism, and he compared the cycling of nutrients from soils and rocks in streams and rivers to the circulation of blood in an animal.


In this metaphor, the rivers are the arteries and veins, the forests are the lungs, and the oceans are the heart of Earth. The Gaia hypothesis is really a series of hypotheses. The first is that life, since its inception, has greatly affected the planetary environment. Few scientists would disagree. The second hypothesis asserts that life has altered Earth’s environment in ways that have allowed life to persist. Certainly, there is some evidence that life has had such an effect on Earth’s climate. A popularized extension of the Gaia hypothesis is that life deliberately (consciously) controls the global environment. Few scientists accept this idea.


Types of Change

Change comes in several forms. Some changes brought on by human activities involve rather slow processes—at least from our point of view—with cumulative effects. For example, in the middle of the 19th century, people began to clear-cut patches of the Michigan forests. It was commonly believed that the forests were so large that it would be impossible to cut them all down before they grew back just as they were. But with many people logging in different, often isolated areas, it took less than 100 years for all but about 100 hectares to be clear-cut.


Another example: With the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, people in many regions began to burn fossil fuels, but only since the second half of the 20th century have the possible global effects become widely evident. Many fisheries appear capable of high harvests for many years. But then suddenly, at least from our perspective—sometimes within a year or a few years—an entire species of fish suffers a drastic decline. In such cases, long-term damage can be done. It has been difficult to recognize when harvesting fisheries is overharvesting and, once it has started, figuring out what can be done to enable a fishery to recover in time for fishermen to continue making a living. A famous example of this was the harvesting of anchovies off the coast of Peru. Once the largest fish catch in the world, within a few years the fish numbers declined so greatly that commercial harvest was threatened. The same thing has happened with the fisheries of Georges Banks and the Grand Banks in the Atlantic Ocean.



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