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[SANET-MG] sustainable systems as organisms
Volume 82, Issue 1 , October 2005, Pages 39-51
Sustainable systems as organisms?
Mae-Wan Hoa, , and Robert Ulanowiczb,
Schrödinger [Schrödinger, E., 1944. What is Life? Cambridge University
Press, Cambridge] marvelled at how the organism is able to use metabolic
energy to maintain and even increase its organisation, which could not
be understood in terms of classical statistical thermodynamics. Ho [Ho,
M.W., 1993. The Rainbow and the Worm, The Physics of Organisms, World
Scientific, Singapore; Ho, M.W., 1998a. The Rainbow and the Worm, The
Physics of Organisms, 2nd (enlarged) ed., reprinted 1999, 2001, 2003
(available online from ISIS website www.i- sis.org.uk)] outlined a novel
“thermodynamics of organised complexity” based on a nested dynamical
structure that enables the organism to maintain its organisation and
simultaneously achieve non-equilibrium and equilibrium energy transfer
at maximum efficiency. This thermodynamic model of the organism is
reminiscent of the dynamical structure of steady state ecosystems
identified by Ulanowicz [Ulanowicz, R.E., 1983. Identifying the
structure of cycling in ecosystems. Math. Biosci. 65, 210–237;
Ulanowicz, R.E., 2003. Some steps towards a central theory of ecosystem
dynamics. Comput. Biol. Chem. 27, 523–530].
The healthy organism excels in maintaining its organisation and keeping
away from thermodynamic equilibrium – death by another name – and in
reproducing and providing for future generations. In those respects, it
is the ideal sustainable system. We propose therefore to explore the
common features between organisms and ecosystems, to see how far we can
analyse sustainable systems in agriculture, ecology and economics as
organisms, and to extract indicators of the system's health or
We find that looking at sustainable systems as organisms provides fresh
insights on sustainability, and offers diagnostic criteria for
sustainability that reflect the system's health.
In the case of ecosystems, those diagnostic criteria of health translate
into properties such as biodiversity and productivity, the richness of
cycles, the efficiency of energy use and minimum dissipation. In the
case of economic systems, they translate into space-time differentiation
or organised heterogeneity, local autonomy and sufficiency at
appropriate levels, reciprocity and equality of exchange, and most of
all, balancing the exploitation of natural resources – real input into
the system – against the ability of the ecosystem to regenerate itself.
Keywords: Thermodynamics; Organised complexity; Cycles; Coherent energy
storage; Indicators of sustainability; Minimum dissipation
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