Systems Theory and Sustainability

“The use of systems thinking isn’t just restricted to climate change policy. Systems thinking is used even when we think about everything around us as having a life cycle of its own. Anything that is produced needs to be either reused or sustainably destroyed.”

Mushroom cloud from the Elugelab, Enewetak Atoll hydrogen bomb test. Sourced via Shutterstock. Image ID: 339962993.

The 2018 Doomsday Clock is again at 2 minutes to midnight. The Statement made by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists pointed towards the failure of world leaders to address the imminent threats of nuclear war and climate change in 2017 (Mecklin, 2018).

Last time we were this close to global annihilation, the United States had decided to pursue the making of a Hydrogen Bomb. At the height of the Cold War arms race, it tested its first thermonuclear device, which in the process, obliterated the Pacific Ocean islet of Elugelab in Enewetak Atoll (Smith-Norris, 2011). Nine months later, the Soviet Union tested a Hydrogen Bomb of their own (Rabinowich, 1953). The world was polarised into camps and humanity was facing its greatest threat, the threat of self-annihilation.

In response to the development of such destructive technologies, an urgency hung in the air to restore peace and foster the well-being of humanity. It was in this context that the Ford Foundation established the Centre for Advanced Study in Behavioural Science (CASBS). The primary concern for the establishment of the Centre was how to maintain a democratic society in an increasingly complex and dangerous world (Hammond, 2003).

It is 2018 and the relevance of that concern is not lost on me. It is for this resemblance of circumstances between then and now which begs us to ask the question what happened back in 1953 which prevented us from an apocalypse? Learning from history might offer us some insight.

In her book, Debora Hammond (2003) explains that while the Centre focussed on studying values, learning processes, communication, group organisation, co-operative efforts and individual satisfaction, it also sowed the seeds for the formal study of Systems Thinking. The microcosm of the Centre brought together scholars from every discipline into the study of behavioural science; a discipline that arose out of a dissatisfaction with the fragmentation in disciplines relating to the study of human society and culture. Among them were Ralph Gerard, Anatol Rapoport, Ludwig Von Bertalanffy and Kenneth Boulding, who in the fall of 1954, founded The Society for General Systems Research after discussing their mutual interest in theoretical frameworks relevant to the study of different kinds of systems, including physical, technological, biological, social, and symbolic systems (Hammond, 2003).

Their mutual interest was influenced by the intellectual environment at the time, as it was recognised that the same intensive scientific research that led to the atomic bomb could also be used to benefit humanity. There was an increased effort to pursue interdisciplinary research to address the problems of human behaviour and develop an integrated theory of it. This effort to unite systems across the board with a universal framework of laws became the heart of systems thinking (Kauffman, 1980 and Bertalanffy, 1968).

Ideas such as this had existed long before western science even attempted in formalising them. In fact, traces of systems philosophy can be found in several eastern philosophies such as ‘I Ching’ or ‘the Book of changes’ with its emphasis on the constant dynamism of changing relationships (Hammond, 2003). But as far as the formal efforts were concerned, Ludwig Von Bertalanffy presented the general theory of systems at a conference in 1937 at University of Chicago and it wasn’t until 1968 that he published his book titled ‘General Systems Theory: Foundation, Development and Application’ (Hammond, 2003).

Over the years, his book has become the ‘how-to-guide’ for systems thinkers across disciplines. By the 90s, the manifestation of systems thought entered all fields including mathematics, physics, computer science, and thermodynamics. With mathematicians formally establishing the field of Nonlinear Dynamics (or what many of us may recognise as Chaos Theory), systems thought officially entered the world of equations, enabling it with the power to quantify. In fact, the study of climate change and its irreversibility beyond a ‘tipping point’ is at the core of Nonlinear Dynamics (Lenton, 2008).

The birth of Chaos Theory gave humanity a powerful mathematical tool to study the behaviour of almost any process or system under the sun, the most powerful tool is General Systems Theory. While mathematics is powerful, perception is even more powerful, and the human mind does wonders when it can change its perception. The uncanny resemblance between the circumstances and motivations that surrounded the birth of Systems Theory back in 1954 and today is precisely the reason why we must delve into its philosophy. And it is precisely this philosophy of systems science which challenges – ‘how we perceive our problems’. Dr Leyla Acargolu, a systems thinker, sociologist and a designer illustrates this in her TED Talk.

Making the case for the need of efficient designing of the water kettle, she explains that 65% of the users in the UK overfill their kettle when they need only one cup of water. All the extra energy spent in heating the excess water over one entire day is enough to power the streetlights of London for one entire night! Such enormous wastage could have been easily avoided if only water kettles could be designed efficiently. Using the examples of water kettles and refrigerators, and through recognising the role of context and looking at the big picture holistically, Acargolu demonstrates the power of a systems perspective in changing the way we identify problems.

Systems thinking views everything around us not as independent entities but as interdependent entities constantly interacting within a context or a background and yet maintaining global stability. It focuses on solving problems by identifying the large-scale system the problem sits in and instead of treating it in isolation, it treats the entire system by studying the relationships between its parts and the whole system (Kauffman, 1980). Imagine the policy implications of viewing the world like that!

The use of Systems thinking isn’t just restricted to climate change policy. Systems thinking is used even when we think about everything around us as having a life cycle of its own. Anything that is produced needs to be either reused or sustainably destroyed. The idea of completing the loop of production, consumption and recycling is ingrained in systems philosophy of how the world is viewed i.e. as being interdependent entities connected by feedback loops (Kauffman, 1980 and Bertalanffy, 1968). Such a view of the world drives us to think of the Anthropocene as a connected whole and thriving organism with feedback loops between all of its constituent entities.

This is the first blog in three-part blog series on Systems Theory and climate change. The next blog will focus on the tools for systems thinking and how they could be used to think about sustainability issues.


Hammond, Debora. Science of Synthesis: Exploring the Social Implications of General Systems Theory, University Press of Colorado, 2003. Access here.
Kauffman, D. L., Jr. (1980). Systems One: An Introduction to Systems Thinking. Future Systems, Inc.
Mecklin, John. (2018). It is now two minutes to midnight: 2018 Doomsday Clock Statement Science and Security Board, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (January 25, 2018). Access here.
Smith-Norris, Martha. (2011). American Cold War Policies and the Enewetakese: Community Displacement, Environmental Degradation, and Indigenous Resistance in the Marshall Islands, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, 22(2):195–236.
Rabinowitch, Eugene (1953). The Narrowing Way: 1953 Doomsday Clock Statement Science and Security Board, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Access here
Lenton, T. M., Held, H., Kriegler, E., Hall, J. W., Lucht, W., Rahmstorf, S., & Schellnhuber, H. J. (2008). Tipping Elements in the Earth’s climate system. PNAS, 105(6), 1786-1793.
Bertalanffy, Ludwig von. (1968).General Systems Theory: Foundations, Development and Applications. Boulder: The University of Colorado Press.

Kiranmayi Vadlamudi is a Masters student at the Centre for Complex Systems, University of Sydney. She works best at the confluence of several domains and is interested in applying the science of complex systems to societal and environmental issues. She is currently researching on the factors that drive gentrification in Sydney under the School Architecture, Design and Planning at University of Sydney.

Twitter: @kiranvad