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Systems ecology


Systems ecology

Ecological analysis of CO2 in an ecosystem

Systems ecology is an interdisciplinary field of ecology, taking a holistic approach to the study of ecological systems, especially ecosystems. Systems ecology can be seen as an application of general systems theory to ecology. Central to the systems ecology approach is the idea that an ecosystem is a complex system exhibiting emergent properties. Systems ecology focuses on interactions and transactions within and between biological and ecological systems, and is especially concerned with the way the functioning of ecosystems can be influenced by human interventions. It uses and extends concepts from thermodynamics and develops other macroscopic descriptions of complex systems.


  • Overview 1
  • Summary of relationships in systems ecology 2
  • Closely related fields 3
    • Deep ecology 3.1
    • Earth systems engineering and management 3.2
    • Ecological economics 3.3
    • Ecological energetics 3.4
    • Ecological humanities 3.5
    • Ecosystem ecology 3.6
    • Industrial ecology 3.7
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Literature 6
  • External links 7


Systems ecology seeks a holistic view of the interactions and transactions within and between biological and ecological systems. Systems ecologists realise that the function of any ecosystem can be influenced by human economics in fundamental ways. They have therefore taken an additional transdisciplinary step by including economics in the consideration of ecological-economic systems. In the words of R.L. Kitching:[1]

  • Systems ecology can be defined as the approach to the study of ecology of organisms using the techniques and philosophy of systems analysis: that is, the methods and tools developed, largely in engineering, for studying, characteriszing and making predictions about complex entities, that is, systems..
  • In any study of an ecological system, an essential early procedure is to draw a diagram of the system of interest ... diagrams indicate the system's boundaries by a solid line. Within these boundaries, series of components are isolated which have been chosen to represent that portion of the world in which the systems analyst is interested ... If there are no connections across the systems' boundaries with the surrounding systems environments, the systems are described as closed. Ecological work, however, deals almost exclusively with open systems.[2]

As a mode of scientific enquiry, a central feature of Systems Ecology is the general application of the principles of energetics to all systems at any scale. Perhaps the most notable proponent of this view was Howard T. Odum - sometimes considered the father of ecosystems ecology. In this approach the principles of energetics constitute ecosystem principles. Reasoning by formal analogy from one system to another enables the Systems Ecologist to see principles functioning in an analogous manner across system-scale boundaries. H.T. Odum commonly used the Energy Systems Language as a tool for making systems diagrams and flow charts.

The fourth of these principles, the principle of maximum power efficiency, takes central place in the analysis and synthesis of ecological systems. The fourth principle suggests that the most evolutionarily advantageous system function occurs when the environmental load matches the internal resistance of the system. The further the environmental load is from matching the internal resistance, the further the system is away from its sustainable steady state. Therefore the systems ecologist engages in a task of resistance and impedance matching in ecological engineering, just as the electronic engineer would do.

Summary of relationships in systems ecology

summary of relationships

The image to the right is a summary of relationships between the storage quantity Q, the forces X, N, and the outflows J, resistance R, conductivity L, time constants T, and transfer coefficients k of ecosystem metabolism. The transfer coefficient "k", is also known as the metabolic constant.

"All these relationships are automatically implied by the energy circuit symbol ".[3]

Closely related fields

Deep ecology

Deep ecology is an ecological theory defined by Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher, Gandhian scholar, and environmental activist. He argues that the prevailing approach to environmental management is anthropocentric, and that the natural environment is not only "more complex than we imagine, it is more complex than we can imagine."[4] Naess formulated deep ecology in 1973 at an environmental conference in Budapest.

Joanna Macy, John Seed, and others developed Naess' thesis into a branch they called experiential deep ecology. Their efforts were motivated by a need they perceived for the development of an "ecological self", which views the human ego as an integrated part of a living system that encompasses the individual. They sought to transcend altruism with a deeper self-interest based on biospherical equality beyond human chauvinism.

Earth systems engineering and management

Earth systems engineering and management (ESEM) is a discipline used to analyze, design, engineer and manage complex environmental systems. It entails a wide range of subject areas including anthropology, engineering, environmental science, ethics and philosophy. At its core, ESEM looks to "rationally design and manage coupled human-natural systems in a highly integrated and ethical fashion"

Ecological economics

Ecological economics is a transdisciplinary field of academic research that addresses the dynamic and spatial interdependence between human economies and natural ecosystems. Ecological economics brings together and connects different disciplines, within the natural and social sciences but especially between these broad areas. As the name suggests, the field is made up of researchers with a background in economics and ecology. An important motivation for the emergence of ecological economics has been criticism on the assumptions and approaches of traditional (mainstream) environmental and resource economics.

Ecological energetics

Ecological energetics is the quantitative study of the flow of energy through ecological systems. It aims to uncover the principles which describe the propensity of such energy flows through the trophic, or 'energy availing' levels of ecological networks. In systems ecology the principles of ecosystem energy flows or "ecosystem laws" (i.e. principles of ecological energetics) are considered formally analogous to the principles of energetics.

Ecological humanities

Ecological humanities aims to bridge the divides between the sciences and the humanities, and between Western, Eastern and Indigenous ways of knowing nature. Like ecocentric political theory, the ecological humanities are characterised by a connectivity ontology and a commitment to two fundamental axioms relating to the need to submit to ecological laws and to see humanity as part of a larger living system.

Ecosystem ecology

Ecosystem ecology is the integrated study of biotic and abiotic components of ecosystems and their interactions within an ecosystem framework. This science examines how ecosystems work and relates this to their components such as chemicals, bedrock, soil, plants, and animals. Ecosystem ecology examines physical and biological structure and examines how these ecosystem characteristics interact.

The relationship between systems ecology and ecosystem ecology is complex. Much of systems ecology can be considered a subset of ecosystem ecology. Ecosystem ecology also utilizes methods that have little to do with the holistic approach of systems ecology. However, systems ecology more actively considers external influences such as economics that usually fall outside the bounds of ecosystem ecology. Whereas ecosystem ecology can be defined as the scientific study of ecosystems, systems ecology is more of a particular approach to the study of ecological systems and phenomena that interact with these systems.

Industrial ecology

Industrial ecology is the study of industrial processes as linear (open loop) systems, in which resource and capital investments move through the system to become waste, to a closed loop system where wastes become inputs for new processes.

See also


  1. ^ R.L. Kitching 1983, p.9.
  2. ^ (Kitching 1983, p.11)
  3. ^ H.T.Odum 1994, p. 26.
  4. ^ A statement attributed to British biologist J.B.S. Haldane


  • Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 2000.
  • Kenneth Edmund Ferguson, Systems Analysis in Ecology, WATT, 1966, 276 pp.
  • Efraim Halfon, Theoretical Systems Ecology: Advances and Case Studies, 1979.
  • J. W. Haefner, Modeling Biological Systems: Principles and Applications, London., UK, Chapman and Hall 1996, 473 pp.
  • Richard F Johnston, Peter W Frank, Charles Duncan Michener, Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 1976, 307 pp.
  • R.L. Kitching, Systems ecology, University of Queensland Press, 1983.
  • Howard T. Odum, Systems Ecology: An Introduction, Wiley-Interscience, 1983.
  • Howard T. Odum, Ecological and General Systems: An Introduction to Systems Ecology. University Press of Colorado, Niwot, CO, 1994.
  • Friedrich Recknagel, Applied Systems Ecology: Approach and Case Studies in Aquatic Ecology, 1989.
  • James. Sanderson & Larry D. Harris, Landscape Ecology: A Top-down Approach, 2000, 246 pp.
  • Sheldon Smith, Human Systems Ecology: Studies in the Integration of Political Economy, 1989.

External links


  • Systems Ecology Department at the Stockholm University.
  • Systems Ecology Department at the University of Amsterdam.
  • Systems ecology Lab at SUNY-ESF.
  • Systems Ecology program at the University of Florida
  • Systems Ecology program at the University of Montana
  • Terrestrial Systems Ecology of ETH Zurich.
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