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Section III - Transformative Learning
Chapter 3 - Living Systems


The greatest revolution of our time is in the way we see the world. The mechanistic paradigm underlying the Industrial Growth Society gives way to the realization that we belong to a living, self-organizing cosmos. ... This realization changes everything. It changes our perceptions of who we are and what we need, and how we can trustfully act together for a decent, noble future.

Joanna Macy


What are the attributes of all living systems and the boundary conditions for sustaining them?

Our Antioch cohort of thirty-five met for the first time on 9/11/01, and we met one weekend a month for the next two school years. The cohort was introduced to Living Systems shortly after we started, and this became the framework for almost all my subsequent learning. Each year the cohort was split up into several Design Teams that were responsible for researching a subject, and along with a guest faculty, teaching that subject to our cohort. In the Spring of 2003 my Design Team subject was Living Systems, and we had the privilege of co-teaching with Dr. Fritjof Capra.

The challenge we faced was to take the cellular understanding of Living Systems as developed by two Chilean biologists, Drs. Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, and simplify it greatly without losing its essence. OO_VII-3_2009-03-01I had thought about this quite a bit when I had the privilege of discussing this work with a guest faculty, Dr. Pille Bunnell, a colleague and co-author with Drs. Maturana and Virela.  We met for lunch one day to talk about how we might develop K-12 Living System curricula. Pille remains a mentor and has contributed immensely to my learning as I’ve progressed with this work.

The Design Team observed living systems at a macro, rather than a cellular level, and found there were five (5) attributes that were relatively easy to understand through explanation, getting in touch with personal life experiences, and embodiment. I’ve subsequently added my understanding of the flow of all living systems by simplifying the ‘Panarchy’ work of Buzz Holling and his colleagues, and inclusion of my learning regarding the life processes that emerge from my understanding of the ancient Hebrew language.

In my brief foray into teaching 5th through 12th grade students, I found they understood the basics of Living systems in a single class period.  Here’s what I showed them, and I think some form of this work should be included at all levels of our education systems.
The word used to describe all living systems is ‘autopoietic’, and these are the autopoietic characteristics:

  • A recursive organization that creates continuously its own organization
  • Manifesting a continually changing structure
  • Maintaining its own boundary
  • Continually renewing, cleansing and healing


Autopoietic Attributes

Composting and Re-composing: In Nature, our ecological base, there is zero waste. Every living system is biodegradable and when it dies, it recomposes as sustenance for other living systems. So dissipation doesn’t lead to the demise of a system, but is an integral part of an ongoing process in which new forms are constantly re-emerging. And what emerges is part of an ongoing adaptation and improvement process. Thus, contrary to our thermodynamic understanding of entropy, life flourishes.

Emergence: Living systems that are suited to their environment do flourish. They interact in such a way that there is novelty. Chemically, hydrogen and oxygen, neither with apparent properties of water, combine to form water; animals like bees become part of the flora’s proliferation process, as well as create honey; natural forces like the wind interact with the trees to help them develop tensile strength. We are surrounded by a plethora of newness every day. Unlike mechanical systems where the whole is always less than the sum of its parts, it appears that in living systems, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. There are elements of surprise, novelty and mystery.

Structural Coupling: There is a web of life and we are more than just connected. We are highly interdependent.  Our species relies on the trees for oxygen just as the trees rely on us for carbon dioxide. We rely on the Earth’s systems to sustain our lives—clouds to filter us from the sun; cleansing for suitable water, air and soil; growing for food and materials; and healing that for our species comes from sensual beauty and naturopathic medicines; and for the Earth’s systems from an innate intelligence grounded in a blending of competition and cooperation where cooperation is the dominant paradigm. We are energetically connected with every other living system.

Reproduction: Each living system has the capacity to reproduce itself so that the integrity of its structure is maintained.  A pattern exists between parents and offspring and across species for all time. Yet each offspring is unique.

Organization and Structure: My assumptions about Nature’s organization stem to a large degree from Dee Hock’s work on the ‘chaord’ – a term he coined to describe systems that may be perceived as chaotic at one level, but are actually ordered when discerned from a different perspective. Hock described ‘chaordic’ as, “the behavior of an self-governing organism or system that harmoniously blends what were previously conceived to be opposites, such as chaos and order, or cooperaton and competition.”, (http://www.wie.org/j22hockintro.asp - ‘What is Enlightenment’ Interview). He uses Nature as a model of the chaord, and writes that chaordic systems have the following attributes:

  • An elegantly simple structure
  • Clear purpose
  • Grounded in guiding principles
  • Blend apparent opposites

In mechanical systems, structure is fixed and we believe we control change by controlling structures and re-organizations.  In living systems, the organization seems to be based on a fixed set of processes while the structure is in constant flux.

The question that begs an answer here is, “What are the fixed life-processes?”

In a book I co-authored with Dr. Ruth L. Miller, “Language of Life: Finding Answers to Modern Crises in an Ancient Way of Speaking”, based largely on Carlos Suares’, “Cipher of Genesis: The Original Code of Qabala as Applied to the Scriptures”, we opined that the understanding of life is imbedded in ancient languages derived from the energies of the Universe, some of which are still spoken today, but most of which have been lost as cultures shifted from oral to written forms of communication using alphabets.

The following nine (9) life-processes are integral to Suares’ articulation of ancient Hebrew:
The life-death-life cycle
Perfect Order
An energy source
Universal Life
Attraction in the form of sensuality and beauty

It is interesting to note how the 9 columns from Suares’ matrix not only define the life processes with which all life is endowed, but easily map into the 5 attributes of the Living Systems curriculum.
Re-Composing: Life-death-life cycle
Emergence: Energy & Possibilities
Structural Coupling: Universal Life & Attraction
Reproduction: Fertilization, Incubation & Birthing
Organization & Structure: Perfect Order

Are these the necessary and sufficient conditions to create and sustain all life?

From the ‘Organization and Structure’ paragraph above, I’ve inferred that inherent in Nature’s organization is a set of life processes with which all living systems have been blessed, and that an understanding of these gifts is inherent in some, perhaps all, ancient languages.

I think it is very important to reflect on the possibility of cultures that through their language have an understanding of life, and know at the deepest level the sacredness of ecology. They understand their personal and collective responsibility to maintain balance and harmony, and recognize it as the basis for ecological sustainability, as well as social wellness and economic viability.

Living Systems Flow

A few years ago I had the privilege of hearing a lecture, in the Illahee series in Portland, titled, Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. by Buz Holling. He shared with us his work as a Naturalist and Scientist, and of his periodic meetings with like-minded scientists from around the World. Each of his scientific colleagues had a different area of interest - coral reefs, the savannah, glaciers, etc., and they would share what they were observing. As you can imagine there were striking differences. What may surprise you is that every one of these natural settings followed a remarkably similar sequence of change. The sequence is shown in the drawing below, a Mobius Strip - a representation of our omnipresent life-death-life continuum. The following graphic is a simplified version synthesized from the book, Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems, written by Buz Holling and several colleagues. The graphic shows that all Living Systems have a natural flow that not only helps us understand systems, but also provides great insight for interventions.


Generic Flow of Panarchy



In order to analyze the never-ending Panarchic cycle, begin with the “Activating Energy” that perturbs the system with energy that “awakens” and nurtures latent seeds. There is an immediate “Release” quickly followed by “Reorganization” activities, and then the slower processes of the system being fertile and sustaining other new life (“Exploitation”), before moving into a more dormant stage (“Conservation”). These cycles are geological, like eruptions and earthquakes, annual like our seasons, or may be as short as nanoseconds in the case of particles. The cycles are nested, so there may be an extremely large number of cycles within a larger cycle.

It was a relatively short time later in the same Illahee series that I heard a gentleman named Jerry Franklin, a professor of Forestry at the University of Washington, relate his story as the first person out of the helicopter on Mt. St. Helens after its 1980 eruption. He told us that everything he'd been taught to expect from his geology and life sciences classes needed to be discarded. He had expected nothing but death and destruction everywhere. He anticipated stepping onto a dead zone that might take decades to recover. Instead, he found himself surrounded by life. Plants were beginning to pop out of the ash, and there were little critters everywhere - release and reorganization had begun immediately after the eruption.

When I teach Living Systems to K-12 students, I find that it is readily understood—it is as if there is an awakening of an already inner knowledge—and provides a basis for learning about specific topics like permaculture, hydroponics, and natural resources as well as for observing all life phenomena. They experience a paradigm shift as they discern their world as organic rather than mechanical and recognize that all systems are living systems with imbedded mechanical systems. They more clearly see their connection to place, community, and I think glimpse the importance of language to furthering their understanding. From all this students become more in touch with their sense of purpose.

From a teaching perspective, I think it is critical that it be recognized that Living Systems is the theory that underlies sustainability, and internalizing what it means to be alive provides the incentive to live the ethics required for sustainability.

As Kurt Lewin so profoundly stated, “There is nothing so practical as good theory.”

After teaching one class of high school juniors and seniors, I received the following feedback.

Hi Milt,

Thanks again for generously sharing with us…  In response to the question, "What is something from Theory of Knowledge that gave you hope?", a student named Natural Systems thinking as the most powerful.  He described how after reading Ishmael, he felt discouraged like we are all damned if we do and damned if we don't.  Systems thinking provided him a strategy to respond to the challenges of our world.  Another student, when asked which class she'd like to live over, said she would choose your presentation to integrate it more fully.  We had a great discussion prompted by your talk, and I told them that if we had to boil the entire course down to one day, I would choose your presentation as most representative of the most important ideas.  I look forward to having you in earlier next year -- maybe October or November? -- , and if it works in your schedule, for 90 minutes instead of 50…

Kent ((Siebold), Cleveland HS, ‘Theory of Knowledge’ teacher)

Each member of my Antioch cohort also did an individual project, and mine was to help a small town in Oregon define their desired future in terms of balanced sustainability, and their public school system to respond with the learning, both in community and in school to be successful. This project included writing a Theory Paper that required understanding the underlying theory of ‘sustainability'. That theory is ‘Living Systems Theory', and once understood comes the additional understanding of who we need to be, our ethics, and what we need to do, our actions, to re-achieve sustainability.

In the next Section, “Archetypes for Sustainability”, are presented and I conclude that one of our three paradigm shifts is changing our primary science from Newtonian physics to Living Systems. As our understanding of living systems increases, so will the recognition that all systems are living systems, including our organizations, institutions, groups and even our conversations. We’ll disceern much more clearly how to intervene with organizational problems when we ask what brings, and takes, life from the system, and map our organizational behaviors onto the Panarchic cycle. Also, we’ll become more effective by designing for emergence—after all isn’t this what learning is all about.


We are all in touch with nature, although we may go for long periods of time when our bare feet don't actually touch the Earth. Most of our earliest learning came from sensing natural events. As we grew older most of us masked natural phenomena as our learning came from printed material about a world that is invented and constructed by humans. Think about a time when you knew you were experiencing the creativity of nature -- a time of birth, beauty, awakening, force or awe.  A moment when there was emergence.

What was the event? And how might you characterize it?
Was there a feeling of purpose or intelligence?
Was the whole possibly greater than the sum of its parts?
Could you feel yourself part of something bigger than the world you normally describe for yourself?
Was there a sense of mystery?


Rev. 2013-09-07


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