A Systems View of Environmentalism

David Galbraith
Anthemis Insights
Published in
7 min readOct 12, 2020


The above diagram outlines how the various systems on Earth interact to harness energy to create complex systems and deliberate output (living things, civilization, culture and knowledge) and waste.

It is designed to highlight that the Earth is a self regulating open system far from equilibrium, to show where our actions are destabilizing it, what needs to change at the most fundamental level and how existing views of it as a closed system with finite resources are misleading our attempts to fix it.

How Our System Works

An increase in the amount of life, civilization and knowledge necessarily results in an increase the overall production of waste, in accordance with the laws of physics (the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics). This is because entropy always increases and living things and civilization themselves decrease entropy whereas their waste byproducts increase it.

This is the opposite mindset of much current environmental thinking (which assumes that if we simply produce less waste we can stop the damage we are doing to the environment). We need to understand what we mean by waste and describe in simple terms how the earth works at a systems level, so we can intuitively understand it and reduce the critical damage we are doing.

If there was no life on earth, the earth’s system would reach equilibrium where the sun would rain down high energy photons to warm the earth which would then re-radiate a larger number of infrared photons (higher entropy waste). This ‘waste’ doesn’t damage the earth as it is vented out into space. But because living things are ‘ordered’ relative to the rocks that constitute the barren earth, their mere existence means that slightly more high entropy waste has to be produced.

In addition, because living things form part of complex ecosystems where their waste outputs are not vented directly into space and where some waste outputs benefit other parts of the ecosystem (e.g. manure fertilizer) and some don’t (e.g. manure polluting the water table), what matters is the healthy operation of the ecosystem as a whole. Damage from waste is less like damaging a thing (e.g. breaking a precious vase) than destabilizing a system (stalling an engine).

Much of the language of environmentalism tends to create a mental image of a finite system with limited resources, where what matters is reducing consumption rather than the reality of an open system with almost unlimited energy resources where what matters is preserving the balance of a well functioning ecosystem and dealing with inevitable waste rather than trying to eliminate it.

In metaphorical terms, living things have to defecate more than they eat, we just need to make sure the inevitable crap doesn’t harm us.

Our Options

Until recently there were two options for humanity, backwards towards less consumption and less damage to the environment or forwards through an increase in technological progress that would allow us to grow and consume more wisely.

The first option — going back to nature, to how we were when our impact on natural ecosystems wasn’t significant enough that we had to understand and control them— had risks that it would also lead to a less developed civilization, one with less life expectancy or ability to feed large populations. The second — progress through controlling nature without damaging fragile ecosystems — would require us to properly understand natural ecosystems and since we don’t understand how three gravitational bodies move around each other, how could we understand a natural ecosystem with millions of moving parts. Therefore, until recently the second option seemed worse for many people.

But now we know that cutting back isn’t enough. Not only have we damaged our environment but we have damaged it so irreparably that if we were to cease to exist and consumer nothing, global warming would continue. This means that the back to nature option is not a viable one and that we are going to have to progress from controlling our local environment through farming our food and building shelter, to controlling the global one, starting with fixing our atmosphere by sucking a volume of CO2 gas out of it, roughly equivalent to the volume of the Black Sea. This is something that where planting trees won’t be enough and will require human ingenuity.

We are going to need to control the environment and that means understanding natural systems. Until now, science has abstracted from nature and the modern world and human made artifacts, from buildings to machines, have been recognizable from being divorced from nature. Our continued existence means that we are no longer separate from nature but that also doesn’t mean that we are merely part of it. Unlike other animals we are going to have to understand the natural world.

What this will look like is a progressive future but one which is in harmony with nature. In terms of the type of technology we are going to have to develop we are not going to be building oil burning tankers or the picturesque nostalgia of wooden fishing boats, but high-tech sailing yachts with carbon fiber masts and graphene sails, that harness nature through science.

This understanding of nature starts with understanding systems and the principal one is the earth as a whole.

All systems have inputs, outputs and an internal mechanism. The inputs harness energy and the outputs are always the desired, ordered ones and waste, where the disordered waste has to be greater than the order that is created.

Our aim should not necessarily be to reduce consumption or waste but to dramatically reduce their effects on natural systems, where these do not always correlate.

Earth’s inputs.

For Earth, the principal energy inputs are sunlight and motion around the sun and the output is heat (infrared), where, as an open system, it is far from equilibrium (temperature of the earth vs space).

Living things also use the stored energy of other plants, each other (they eat) and the atmosphere (which contains reactive gas, oxygen, which is in turn far from equilibrium).

Humans also harness the stored energy from other stars, in the rock (Uranium) and from ancient life (fossil fuels), where the enormous energy density of the latter has led to a destabilization of the earth’s ecosystem at a rate which has up to now been greater than out knowledge of its workings..

Earth’s mechanisms

Not all earth’s mechanisms are living things, from rivers and glaciers flowing to tides rising and the complex dynamics of wind and rain, the weather and the atmosphere are part of earth’s complex mechanism that is far from equilibrium and is in a locally changing but relatively steady state, globally. It has been like this for the duration of the holocene which has not been dominated by the violent action of earthquakes and volcanoes but the global ‘metabolism’ of the weather.

Living things on earth are different from the weather as they reproduce and store information. They act as low entropy machines that produce low entropy deliberate outputs (more of themselves through reproduction and extensions to themselves — their habitats, nests, coral reefs, shells etc.) and waste. Some of their waste may still be relatively low entropy vs the infrared heat waste from the sun and can be useful for other parts of the natural world (bacteria feeding on dung or plants growing in nitrate rich manure), but eventually entropy increases and there is more waste. As long as there are energy inputs, more living things can sit in the energy flow between the hot sun and cold of space, and as long as they interact with each other in a symbiotic, non-runaway fashion, life continues.

Humans have created ways to amplify their own bodies as mechanisms, through the use of tools, industrial machines and information processing machines.

Earth’s outputs

As mentioned above, the bodies of dead living things and their habitats are low entropy outputs and their waste is relatively higher entropy. These outputs are significant and accumulate as sedimentary rock and fossil fuel.

Human machines and the products of these machines (infrastructure etc.) constitute low entropy organized structures which further accelerate the production of high entropy waste. This is not a problem if it doesn’t transform rare material into forms that we cannot yet harness enough energy to recreate on earth (e.g. some rare metals) or destabilize existing mechanisms, such as is happening to the atmosphere, with COs emissions.

The Overall Earth System

The diagram at the top attempts to explain these components and their interaction.

It color codes between energy inputs, human made outputs, living things and the atmosphere and is based on a systems language I explain here: https://medium.com/design-matters-4/a-language-and-process-for-designing-businesses-f3b5fddb5b4e

The aim of the diagram is to eventually show that much of our waste needs to vent into space and that as we do so we will need to be able to adjust the atmosphere directly to make sure it regulates the earth’s temperature.

It also shows that in order to understand the earth’s mechanisms to do this we need to increase human knowledge while simultaneously reducing our physical impact on the environment. To create this knowledge will mean a combination of efficiency and consumption, where sustainability is not about using up finite resources (we live in an open system) but making sure that the earth’s system is in balance and where that balance is not equilibrium but keeping an engine running that is far from it.

Humans need to increase knowledge to be able to understand and control natural systems and reduce the size of our industrial presence which is damaging it. The earth is our garden.

Ultimately, in our diagram, the destabilizing of the earth’s systems boil down to an imbalance in the two gray circles of the Anthroposphere.

The Infosphere is too small and unsophisticated enough for us to be able to understand natural systems and the Technosphere is too physically large and destabilizing for the natural environment.

The sum total of human knowledge & technology is sophisticated enough to affect the environment without being sophisticated enough to understand how not to.