Some difficulties of ecological thinking, considered from a critical systems perspective: A plea for critical holism

Abstract

We probably have simplified matters too much. We tend to talk about systems thinking and practice as if we knew what they are. The fashionable call for “holistic” or “systems” thinking in ecological issues provides a major example. This much is certain: the quest for comprehensiveness, although it represents an epistemologically necessary idea, is not realizable. If we assume that it is realizable, the critical idea underlying the quest will be perverted into its opposite, i.e., into a false pretension to superior knowledge and understanding—a danger of which the environmental movement does not always appear to be sufficiently aware. My question, therefore, is this: How can we deal critically with the fact that our thinking, and hence our knowledge, designs, and actions, cannot possibly be comprehensive, in the sense that we never “comprehend” all that ought to be understood before we pass to judgment and action? What consequences does this fact imply for a critical systems approach to ecological concerns and, ultimately, for our concepts of rationality in general?

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Correspondence to Werner Ulrich.

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Revised version of an opening address presented to the “Aegean Seminar” at the University of the Aegean, a seminar held in Pythagorion on the Island of Samos, Greece, 30 September–4 October 1991, dedicated to the topic of “Sustainable Development Through Systems Thinking and Design.”

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Ulrich, W. Some difficulties of ecological thinking, considered from a critical systems perspective: A plea for critical holism. Systems Practice 6, 583–611 (1993). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01059480

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Key words

  • ecological thinking
  • holism
  • critical holism
  • critical systems thinking
  • critical systems heuristics
  • boundary judgments