(Living Systems: Principles of Organization and Building Sustainable Human Communities)
By Mario deSantis, September 12, 1998

Living Systems: Principles of Organization and Building Sustainable Human Communities

Scientists are abandoning the mechanistic worldview of nature and are beginning to conceptualize nature as a complex of self organizing systems [1], that is the web of life, where all phenomena are interwoven and interdependent. This new conceptualization of nature as a complex system of living organisms, has developed slowly and independently among many scientists, philosophers and sociologists [2]; therefore, the theory of living systems is becoming the universal framework needed to address the transformational changes of a new emerging culture. The need for such social transformational changes becomes more pressing as we witness the catastrophic trends in demographic growth, degeneration of the environment, higher consumption and wastes, genocides, military confrontations, and wealth-disparities. We must change our moral behaviour so that we can " so as to allow other people to live as well..."[3] and in so doing we will be able to transform our social organizations and support the development of peaceful and sustainable human communities.

As mentioned in the previous article, Capra expresses the life of any living organism as made up of pattern, process and structure. "...If we apply these ideas to ourselves or our organizations, we can see that in the patterns we find our identity. In the processes we develop our relationships, our beliefs, our principles and behaviors, becoming more conscious. In the structures we become more fluid, more focused on the present moment; we become alive..."[4]. Life of all living systems is a cognitive process and therefore our social organizations must become Learning Organizations [5] where people have the opportunity to contemporarily increase their individual and collective intelligence. Regardless of our worldviews, or of our political and spiritual persuasions we must build sustainable human communities and develop social organizations which are compatible with the characteristics and principles of healthy living systems [6] [7] [8] [9]. A formulation and related description of a reasonable set of such characteristics and principles follows:

Self-organization, self-creation, self-maintenance.

Living systems as conceptualized by Capra and other leading scientists and sociologists are continually evolving and renewing themselves. This is the basic principle of Nature, that is the principle that living organisms have patterns of organization, physical structure and cognition.

Transformation and cyclical processes.

In the web of life living organisms continuously exchange matter and energy and what is waste for an organism is food for another one. Our social organizations are living systems and they must imitate the cyclical principle of nature so that waste of business production and consumption become raw material for further production and consumption.


The web of life is a network of networks of living systems. All living systems are interconnected and the success or health of any given organism is dependent on the health or success of the larger related whole. A human community is therefore composed of all the relationships of its members and therefore a sustainable healthy community must nourish all of these relationships among its members.


Partnership is an essential characteristics of democratic organizations. Members of societal organizations are aware of their interdependence and they cooperate with each other in order to coexist and synergistically share the wealth of their different competencies [10a]. Societal organizations must not follow the outmoded Darwinism's principle of the "...survival of the fittest..." [10b], "...Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking...."[11]


Our obsolete fragmentary perception that life is composed of separate parts to be exploited by different interest groups has alienated us from Nature [12]. In the web of life, every living organism is important for the welfare of the whole and they don't look down on each other. Societal organizations must recognize that the most important elements of creativity and wealth are our differences and diversity; instead, in our economic monoculture, we want to clone ourselves and we don't respect the various ethnic and cultural groups [13]

Service Government and flat structures.

Societal organizations require governments which are not in control but in service for the welfare of the whole. Service governments are not authoritarian; instead, they are democratic and they allow each member equal rights to resources and equal responsibilities of participation

Balance of Interests.

Each member of living systems balances its self-interest with the interest of the larger whole. Therefore, members of societal organizations must align their individual self-interest with the vision and goals of the organizations.

Conservation and Change.

Healthy living systems evolve and self-maintain themselves; therefore, societal organizations must conserve anything that works well and discard anything that doesn't.


The theory of living systems is not based on chance or accidents; instead, it is based on the intelligence of living systems to self-organize and evolve. Therefore, human communities should acknowledge the spiritual concepts of Creation associated with God and Intelligence.

Strong core values.

Each part of a living system is interconnected to any other part and participates to the successful living of the system. Therefore, societal organizations must not engage in fierce competition against each other; instead, they must differentiate their capabilities to create and they must cooperate with each other.

Abundance mentality.

Margulis and other scientists maintain that all life on Earth began from bacteria. As a consequence, the evolution of bacteria to all forms of life we find today is a reflection of the natural abundance and creative capacity of living organisms. Similarly to living organisms, societal organizations must maintain an abundance and creative mentality and increase their capacity to create.

Partnership with Nature.

Commerce and environmentalism need not be at odds. Paul Hawken [14] believes that the transformational changes we require can be implemented only through the participation of the business community, and he states "The promise of business is to increase the general well-being of humankind through service, a creative and ethical philosophy. Making money is, on its own terms, totally meaningless, an insufficient pursuit for the complex and decaying world we live in."

Living in ambiguity.

Nature presents itself in many opposite facets, such as mass/energy, subject/object, life/death, conscious/ unconscious, spirit/ matter, good/evil, right/wrong, likes/dislikes.... The boundaries among such opposites are artificial, and as a consequence we must learn to live in ambiguity and describe single things in terms of opposites.


Note: Most information has been extracted from the World Wide Web and the following web sites can be useful references
for furthering the understanding of systems theory in addressing social and economic concerns.; by the Context Institute; by THE PRIMER PROJECT and IISII INTERNATIONAL
ELECTRONIC SEMINAR ON WHOLENESS, by MANAGEMENT GENERAL, A Curriculum for Cybernetics and Systems Theory, by
Alan B. Scrivener FIRST DRAFT (c) 1 March 1990 by Alan Scrivener, last update:
17-Aug-1998, Global Business Network

[1] EARTHDANCE: Living Systems in Evolution & , copyright 1995 by Elisabet Sahtouris,

[2] Make general reference to the Context Institute

[3] Presidential Address, September 18, 1996 International Society
for the Systems Sciences 40th Anniversary Meeting Budapest, MORAL BEHAVIOR ON A SMALL PLANET,
Groundwork for a Biospheric Systems Ethics, by Ervin Laszlo]

by Richard N. Knowles

[5] Keynote address to the World Future Society on July 19, 1997, by Tachi Kiuchi, Chairman of the Future 500,
and past Chairman and CEO of Mitsubishi Electric America WHAT I LEARNED FROM THE RAINFOREST

[6] "The Evolution of Governance," In Context #36, Fall 1993, by Elisabet Sahtouris

[7] "A Brief Overview of the Natural Step"

[8] THE WEB OF LIFE, by Fritjof Capra, Anchor Books, 1996, Epilogue: Ecological Literacy

CHAOS , by Richard N. Knowles

[10a] Keynote address to the World Future Society on July 19, 1997, by Tachi Kiuchi, Chairman of the
Future 500, and past Chairman and CEO of Mitsubishi Electric America WHAT I LEARNED FROM

[10b] Interview with Humberto Maturana, by David Mendes, February 1997,

[11] "Microbial Microcosm", based on the work of Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Originally published
in IN CONTEXT #34, Winter 1993, Page 18, Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

[12] THE WEB OF LIFE, by Fritjof Capra, Anchor Books, 1996, page 296

[13] "A Conversation with Elisabet Sahtouris", Copyright 1995 by Scott London,

[14] "The Ecology of Commerce", by Paul Hawken, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 1993

(The two images used in this article are from CNN)