Monday, September 28, 2009

Notable roles in living systems

Measuring and mapping networks can help us understand a system holistically.

With that in mind, I paused a week ago to read an obituary in the NY Times: "Lawrence B. Slobodkin, Pioneering Ecologist, Dies at 81." Curious to see what had made Slobodkin a pioneer in his own systems-oriented field, I read on and discovered his most famous paper. Published in 1960 as "Community Structure, Population Control and Competition," the paper's four pages contain a grand overview of how terrestrial ecosystems work, and is still widely discussed today.

Slobodkin and his co-authors present these distinct roles in the terrestrial ecosystem:
  • fossil fuels
  • sunlight
  • producers (e.g., plants)
  • decomposers
  • herbivores
  • carnivores
They then tackle the overarching question: for each role above, what is the critical factor that limits its growth? For example, in which roles are peers competing for scarce resources, and in which roles are populations controlled not by scarce resources but by predation?

Somehow, I am convinced that these roles map in a meaningful way more recent natural systems such as the world economy or American healthcare. Which parts of these systems correspond to which of the above roles in the terrestrial biosphere? Any ideas, anyone?

One thing that surprised me about Slobodkin's map of the biosphere was its early and explicit inclusion of fossil fuels. This inclusion makes a lot more sense to me now that I am reading (coincidentally) Michael Pollan's Ominivore's Dilemma, which also speaks to a holistic view of the terrestrial biosphere. One of the darker themes of the book is that human desire for productivity leads people to feed plants with fossil fuels instead of sunlight.

The same day Slobodkin's obituary was published, the NY Times also featured this headline: "Emphasis on growth is called misguided," reporting a paper commissioned by Nicolas Sarkozy and written by a pair of Nobel-laureate economists.

It's a lot to absorb. But strikes me as relevant to those of us interested in metrics that pertain to well-being.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License and is copyrighted (c) 2009 by Connective Associates LLC except where otherwise noted.


Santi said...

Thank you for sharing, Bruce. I do not know much about ecology, but I believe that everything in our earth ecosystem is connected to each other. It is a good article about terrestrial ecosystem you attached here :)


Anonymous said...

Just a quick thought on the roles in information services:

fossil fuels: archives
sunlight: information
producers: commodity service
decomposers: info lifecycle mgt
herbivores: value add service, mash up
carnivor: brand, E2E service