Update in progress: May 03, 2015.
I am an independent, freelance educator in, Maine, USA, teaching the sciences and mathematics collectively called ‘the system sciences’ and how they contribute to our understanding of abrupt climate change.
The system sciences are different from those that you probably studied in high school or college that viewed nature as a machine and studied it by dissecting it and studying its parts. The new view of nature that system sciences offer is nearly as different from those of he previous 300 years as day from night. They are referred to as sciences – plural – because they have not coalesced into a single science, but remain separate, yet strongly linked disciplines.
System sciences are holistic, the product of hundreds of leading-edge scientists, including Nobel laureates. They include what are commonly called systems-, network- or complexity sciences, including ‘self-organization science’ (non-equilibrium thermodynamics or NET), emergence theory, symbiogenesis, fractal geometry, chaos theory (non-linear dynamics), and other related branches of study.
These sciences also include Earth System Science, geophysiology or “Gaia theory”. Note that “Gaia” is not new age mysticism or a religion, but the name – based in myth and metaphor – that Drs. James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis gave to Earth’s metabolism and homeostasis. Gaia is studied by the science called geophysiology or planetary physiology. (Physiologies – like human physiology, insect physiology or plant physiology – are sciences of how organisms maintain homeostasis in the face of constantly changing internal and external conditions. Geophysiology examines that for the entire Earth. The basic principles of the geophysiology are easy to understand, and involve natural selection and something called ‘physical and physiological constraints’, beyond the scope of this essay but addressed in my entry level courses. The full details of the processes involved include global scale nutrient cycles, ecosystem dynamics, atmospheric and oceanic chemistry, geology, and other factors, and are mind-bogglingly complex.
Yet, for many, the word Gaia carries philosophical baggage added by new age misunderstandings and retards understanding the more important point: Earth is a living entity. Not in the same sense as you and I – it doesn’t think and give birth to little Earth’s. Yet like us, it is a far from (thermodynamic) equilibrium system – like us – and self-regulates it’s temperature and the chemistry of its air and oceans, much like we do. But it has been doing so continuously for over 3,500 million years (3.5 billion).
Thus, I increasingly refer to this planetary-scale life form as Ermah, Erth’s metabolism and homeostasis, where Erth is an ancient German spelling. It’s a scientifically accurate and succinct acronym, but allows the important ‘naming’ of a living thing that reflects our respect for it better than the terms “nature” (too ambigiuous) or – a term that I disdain – ‘the environment’, the other, that out there. Calling Ermah “the environment” is like calling a child “that other thing”; it devalues the child, and Earth.
By self-regulating its temperature and chemistry, Ermah thus crudely regulates its climate. But geophysiology is crucial to understanding how and why Earth’s climate frequently – in geologic time – changes abruptly and chaotically, and why the unstoppable climate changes that are beginning now will change the course of human evolution. Geophysiology is studied and taught in parts of Europe; in the US, it is usually called Earth System Science. The latter is subtly different from geophysiology.
These sciences are changing our understanding of virtually everything – from quantum scales to the universe itself – with a set of principles that are relatively simple and intuitive for most students, regardless of background, including no science background at all.
They apply equally well to phenomena that were previously studied by disciplines disconnected during the compartmentalization and specialization of science during the modern era, each with its own principles and language, such as physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, ecology, geology, astronomy, climatology, sociology, economics, cognitive sciences, etc.
The system sciences are reconnecting those disciplines helping us clearly see the connections between quantum physics, human physiology and ecology; between vortices, hearts and economies; between our health and Ermah’s health; between rain forests, marine algae and climate change.
System sciences acknowledge that reductionism – studying the parts of networks and systems – is necessary but not sufficient to understand a whole because the emergent nature of systems requires more holistic perspectives.
They offer elegant yet simple and intuitive insights into how nature works that are congruent with many – though not all – ancient, primal views. They offer awe-inspiring new insights into what life is, how it operates, how it evolves, and even why it evolved. (Questions about why life exists have previously been the sole domain of philosophy and religion.) They offer compelling new views of health and healing, and the nature of consciousness.
They expand our understanding of life beyond the restricted notions imposed by the (now outdated) mechanistic, neo-Darwinist biology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to include Gaia while integrating the theory of natural selection.
System sciences are supported by new kinds of mathematics that are much easier to understand than more ‘traditional’ mathematics – euclidean geometry, algebra, trigonometry and calculus – that dominated science through the 20th century. Their names sound complex, even intimidating – non-linear dynamics, chaos theory, fractal geometry and computational systems (e.g., cellular automata) – but they are far more visual and easier to grasp by students of all ages, even those with little or no background in mathematics, leading to faster, nearly intuitive comprehension. They add much to our understanding everyday life.
I have developed my program of study to help people and communities understand these concepts so that they can prepare for the challenging times ahead. It motivates replacing our outdated and dangerous mechanistic world views – the ‘cultural maps’ that guided us to this precarious time – with new views grounded in the system sciences.
The system sciences are not available – yet – in high schools or colleges and universities at undergraduate levels in the integrated way that I offer. My program is unique. From 2001 to 2010, I developed and offered my curriculum of introductory and advanced courses in Eugene and Portland, Oregon. Since that time, I’ve been offering those courses in Maine.
I am an experienced and capable educator, passionate about teaching, specializing in making these sciences accessible and meaningful to anyone with any background, from educators, health care professionals, food growers, resource specialists and other professionals to the lay public. I seek individuals, groups and communities that wish to learn them.
Next, I suggest reading this brief introduction to Ermah, followed by an introduction to some of the key principles of system sciences and testimonials from my students about how these ideas have made a difference in their lives.
I have created an educational collective — Ermah Ge — to facilitate teaching these ideas. Here is Ermah Ge’s web site.
Please contact me with questions and/or comments.