Systems Thinking Tools: worldview, clocks and trees


This week my new class, Agricultural Systems Thinking, got underway at UMass.  We began by talking about the difference between a mechanical and an ecological worldview.  This blog explores the difference between looking at the world as machine or as a living system.

There has been much written about the emergence of the mechanical worldview as represented by the thinking of Descartes.  More recently we have been introduced to living systems theory as a more mature way of understanding the universe.  The difference between these worldviews is demonstrated by the difference between the clock and the tree.

The World as a Machine

In ancient eras prior to the invention of the clock, there was no mechanical time. The ringing of a bell, the setting of the sun, or the changing of the seasons marked time. When the clock was created, it was a marvelous invention but soon became more than a tool, it became a model for the universe – a worldview. This mechanical model of the world supported the belief that living systems were easy to take apart, adjust, and fix. Humans, as part of the world could also be “fixed” when something was wrong. Humans and ecosystems were perceived as “nothing but” machines.  This worldview is expressed nicely in this clip from the movie Mindwalk.

The mechanistic model of the world was useful at the time since it allowed thinkers to break away from the tyranny of the church and initiate a scientific revolution.  However as the authority of the church declined a new authority emerged, a science and the resulting growth of technology that allowed humans to influence their environment. This new authority produced modern medicine, modern technology, and modern destruction of natural ecosystems. Today we need a new way to frame our understanding of the universe – new way to “see” the earth.

The World as a Living System

A reductionist scientist who breaks a tree into its component pieces, such as roots, leaves, and bark will never fully understand the key ecological relationships that support the tree.  A systems thinker would see the exchange of energy between the tree and the earth, between the soil and the atmosphere, and between people and the universe – as a living system. A systems thinker would see the life of the tree in relation to the life of the forest; a habitat for insects and birds and ask, “why does a tree produce millions of seeds and only produce few offspring?”  This question is answered in another clip from Mindwalk.

A systems thinker might look at the tree and notice both the subsystems that make up the tree (roots, stem, leaves) as well as notice the larger system in which the tree resides, the forest.  In a previous blog focused on hierarchy, I shared the idea that a systems thinker “looks up to the next larger system for purpose and down to the subsystems for function.”  A systems thinker would notice these relationships and might see both the forest and the tree.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.  Or for more systems thinking posts, try this link.

One thought on “Systems Thinking Tools: worldview, clocks and trees

  1. Thank you for the information on this page, and particularly for the link to the film Mindwalk – it looks well worth watching. I found the page while searching for information on a mechanised view of the world, and was delighted to see you also comment on systems thinking.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *