Patten was motivated to develop environ analysis to answer the question, ''What is environment?''. In order to study environment as a formal object, a system boundary is a necessary condition to avoid the issue of infinite indirectness, because in principle one could trace the environment of each object out in space and back in time to the big-bang origins. The inclusion of a boundary is, in fact, one of the three foundational principles in his seminal paper introducing the environ theory concept. The necessary boundary demarcates two environments, the unbound external environment, which indeed includes all space-time objects in the universe, and the second internal, contained environment of interest. This quantifiable, internal environment for each system object is termed 'environ', and is the focus of environ analysis. An object's environ stops at the system boundary, but as ecosystems are open systems, they require exchanges across the boundary into and out of the system environs. Therefore, input and output boundary flows are necessary to maintain the system's far-from-equilibrium organization. Objects and connections that reside wholly in the external environment are not germane to the analysis.
Another foundational principle of environ analysis theory is that each object in the system itself has two
'environs' one receiving and one generating interactions in the system. In other words, an object's input environ includes those flows from within the system boundary leading to the object, and an output environ, those flows emanating from the object back to the other system objects before exiting the system boundary. This alters the perception of a system component from internal-external to receiving-generating. Thus, the object, while distinct in time and space, is more clearly embedded in and responsive to the couplings with other objects within the network. This shifts the focus from the objects themselves to the relations they maintain; or from parts to processes (or what Ilya Prigogine called from 'being' to 'becoming').
The third foundational principle is that individual environs (and the flow carried within each one) are unique such that the system comprises the set union of all environs, which in turn partitions the system level of organization. This partitioning allows one to classify environ flow into what have been called different modes: (1) boundary input; (2) first passage flow received by an object from other objects in the system (i.e., not boundary flow), which has not cycled; (3) cycled flow, which returns to a compartment before leaving the system; (4) dissipative flow that it has left the focal object not to return, but does not directly cross a system boundary (i.e., it flows to another within system object); and (5) boundary outflow. The modes have been used to understand better the general role of cycling and the flow contributions from each object to the other, which has had application in showing a complementarity of several of the holistic, thermodynamic-based ecological indicators.
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