Guiding Questions for Kay & Schneider Reading

510 Reading Guidelines—Complexity
“Embracing Complexity: The Challenge of the Ecosystem Approach,” Kay and Schneider

These are just some notes that my fellow discussion-mates and I put together in order to answer these questions. They are not by any means complete thoughts but should give you a fairly good overview of what the article was about. ~Nayiri Haroutunian~

1. “We don’t manage ecosystems, we manage our interaction with them” (p.1). Be sure this point is clear from the subsequent discussion in the article.

Ecosystems are not only very complex but in a constant flux. We are unable to “manage” them, though that is what people in general currently try to do. According to K&S, we should instead change our interactions with them. Essentially, we should have a more proactive instead of a reactive relationship with our ecosystems.

2. Distinquish the “macro” world revolution in science of recent years from the “micro” revolution of a century ago.

The “micro” revolution describes a manner of thinking, in which we can understand a bigger picture or topic by breaking it down into smaller parts. In other words, the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. (Micro revolution has NOTHING to do with microbiology or microscopes, FYI). However, this isn’t always plausible when assessing our ecosystems. The “macro” revolution of the past three decades focuses on bigger picture systems thinking. As the article states, “the revolution emerges from the synergism of new insights in several fields.” Our group thought that this might be saying that the whole picture is far more than just the summation of its smaller pieces and that the complexity of environmental issues multiplies with the addition of more pieces.

3. Why are “catastrophes” normal?

A catastophe is a sudden, discontinuous change in a system over time (think dynamic, non-linear system). It is very important to note that even though catastophes are impossible to predict, they are not necessarily a bad thing,. Catastrophes allow for change that is necessary in a system that would otherwise be impossible. I like to think about disturbances and the subsequent successions of biota as discussed in NRE509.

4. How does limited predictability follow logically from catastrophe theory, chaos theory, and the notion of self organization?

Catastophes and chaos are obviously unpredictable. They occur randomly and non-linearly. The human-environment relationship can also be considered as such. There are many paths that we as humans can take to better the environment but we don’t know for sure which one will be most beneficial. This is the story of environmental studies.

5. An open, complex systems view, one might argue, means the world is one big, random, chaotic mess. So forget management. Just go with the flow and have a good time.
Why is a systems analyst likely to disagree?

Although it is certain that the world is complex and very difficult to understand and predict, it does not mean that there is no “method to the madness” or “rhyme and reason” to it. Just because we as humans cannot see it immediately does not mean that there are no patterns to complex systems. We know “that living systems go through a constant cycle of birth, growth, death and renewal…” and therefore, it is worth our time and effort to reign in on similar cyclical relationships found in nature. With some fear of sounding too metaphorical, we suggest that you don’t just “go with the flow” but learn to “ride the wave.”