• John Ikerd

Systems within Systems

Updated: Oct 18


Distinctions among levels are based on distinctive characteristics of the particular levels. Economies obviously reflect some of the characteristics of the societies that create them, but there are important characteristics of societies that are non-economic. Some characteristics of human societies may be shared by other species, but human societies have some characteristics that are unique to humans. The realm of nature in the graphic includes those parts of nature that are not human and thus not economic.

The worldview of sustainability is systemic—meaning a world composed of systems within systems. Each hierarchical level in the graphic represents a system that is made up of lower-level systems and is a subsystem of higher-level systems. Economies are subsystems of society and societies are subsystems of nature–meaning the earth’s ecosystem. The earth, in turn, is a subsystem of its galaxy.


The hierarchy continues on to higher levels, to the universe, and whatever is beyond. The hierarchy continues downward to the cells, chemical elements, atoms, and the even smaller entities that make up atoms. With this worldview, the whole of reality, whatever that may be, is a system composed of systems. That said, the Economy, Society, and Nature provide sufficient levels of reality to illustrate the hierarchy of sustainability.


The graphic also shows subsystems within the earth’s natural ecosystem, social systems, and economic systems. These subsystems are not hierarchical, since one is not a subset of another. However, they progress from more personal to less personal as they expand outward. Economic relationships expand from the personal relationships in household economies to informal economies and finally to impersonal transactional economies. Social relationships expand from personal-to-person friendships to the less personal relationships in civil society and finally in government. The relationships in nature expand from personal experiences within nature, to the less personal place-based experiences within watersheds and bioregions, to metaphysical or spiritual realizations that humanity is an integral part of nature with unique privileges and responsibilities. All of these systems exist and function within larger economies, societies, and natural ecosystems.


In so-called developed societies, the term economy is commonly restricted to use in reference to the transaction economy, where people meet their economic needs through impersonal transactions—earning, investing, buying, and selling. However even in developed economies, many people meet many of their needs by doing things for themselves or through bartering or informally “swapping work” with friends or neighbors. In less developed economies, many people meet most of their economic needs through household and informal economies. All of these relationships are part of the economy in the worldview of sustainability.


We typically think of society as communities, towns, and cities, or perhaps as states, nations, or global society. However, societies also include relationships within families and among friends, colleagues, or acquaintances where there is a person-to-person sense of connectedness. Society also includes relationships in community groups, nonprofit organizations, labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, professional organizations, and professional associations. In civil society there is a sense of personal connection with a specific group of people—but not necessarily with specific individuals within the group. Many people feel little if any sense of personal connectedness with their governments. However, government is a critical part of human societies because the effectiveness of governments depends on the governed, the people, having a sense of personal connectedness to their city, county, state, or nation. Citizenship and patriotism are reflections of a sense of social connectedness.


We all have personal experiences with nature because we live in nature’s environment. The air, rainfall, temperature, humidity, the sky above, and earth below are all parts of nature. The popularity of parks and other places where people experience nature reflects a felt need to reconnect personally with nature. Everyone lives in a watershed and bioregion which are nature’s way of defining ecological subsystems within the ecosystem of the earth. With the realization that we live within nature's subsystems, we gain a sense of connectedness with those things of nature beyond our direct experience. And finally, comes the insightful, intuitive, or spiritual realization that we humans are integrally connected with the whole of the earth.


In previous posts I have referred to economic “value” as being impersonal and social “value” as being personal. This means that relationships within household economies have social as well as economic value. The economic value refers only to the benefits of relationships within households that could be realized by hiring someone to provide the benefit. Economic benefits are never linked to specific people but can be acquired through impersonal transactions. The purely personal benefits of relationships within households have social value but no economic value.


The same basic logic applies to all three realms of reality in the graphic. There may be economic or ethical values associated with person-to-person, civil society, and governmental relationships within Society. However, only the impersonal aspects of those relationships have economic value, and only the purely altruistic aspects have ethical value. A person may benefit economically or socially as a result of personal experiences in nature, protection of watersheds, or an understanding of their interconnectedness with nature. However, the purely ethical or spiritual value of our relationships with nature are non-instrumental or altruistic and are universal rather than personal.


All of these relationships are relevant to our day-to-day decisions. In today’s complex societies, we don’t have a choice of relying solely on personal relationships to meet our individual, social, and ethical or spiritual needs. We must come to realize that economies and governments are simply less-personal means of doing the things that we cannot do for ourselves in complex societies. We must find ways, collectively, to make our economy and government function in ways that reflect our uniquely human responsibilities as both members and caretakers of the earth’s natural ecosystems.


John Ikerd


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