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Home » Methods, Sustainability

Thinking Systems

Submitted by on December 16, 2011 - 11:34 pm
image_6As the fate of the Earth system becomes ever more intertwined with human systems, “thinking in systems” has become more essential than ever. I’ve read books on systems theory (e.g. Allen & Hoekstra 1993), but a refresher is always good, so when I came across Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows (Amazon recommends!), I thought- here’s a great chance to review the basics again. A long trip to Australia for a land systems workshop finally gave me a chance to read it.

Meadow’s best known work is The Limits to Growth, so I was expecting lengthy sermons on the limits of human systems and “human carrying capacity”. Still I remained hopeful that the teachings of an acclaimed “systems master” would teach me new things and deepen my understanding. I was not disappointed.

The book begins with the fundamentals, including system boundaries, feedbacks, delays, hierarchy and emergence. The reader is then toured through a “zoo” of common system structures and behaviors. Finally, Meadows applies systems thinking towards system-level management strategies that produce better results when dealing with complex dynamic systems, focusing on human/environment interactions. In this, she makes very clear the limits to managing complex systems and the risks of creating even worse results, for example by overcompensating for delayed effects and overreacting to negative system outcomes (“Drift to Low Performance”).

While Meadows repeatedly refers to human limits and carrying capacity, these are not a major theme of the book, and serve more as a touchstone for old-school environmentalist readers than as important systems concepts. However in failing to connect with recent systems work on resilience, the book is a bit dated, though the fundamental processes behind this approach are well covered, including system transitions, thresholds, adaptation and system traps.

Thinking in Systems aims to teach the core of systems thinking to anyone: an ambitious and important goal. In this Meadows succeeds. From beginning to end, the writing is clear and informative, flows along and is illuminated by entertaining anecdotes. It was a pleasure to read- I consumed the entire book in three enjoyable sittings. I’d recommend Thinking in Systems to anyone interested in human systems or earth systems, whether starting out with systems theory or in need of a “back to basics” refresher (like me!). I will certainly be passing the book on to interested students.

I especially enjoyed Meadow’s remarkably fresh insights about the importance of systems thinking in understanding and managing the increasingly powerful, and dynamic interactions of human and biophysical systems. There is much wisdom here, especially in appreciating the potential of human systems to guide the Anthropocene in new and positive directions. From the book:

  • “Being less surprised by complex systems is mainly a matter of learning to expect, appreciate, and use the world’s complexity”. (pg 111)
  • “Why are people so easily convinced of their powerlessness? How do they become so cynical about their ability to achieve their visions? Why are they more likely to listen to people who tell them they can’t make changes then they are to those who tell them that they can?” … “Systems thinking leads to another conclusion however, waiting, shining, obvious, as soon as we stop being blinded by the illusion of control.”… “The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being.” (p169)
  • “What’s appropriate when you’re learning is small steps, constant monitoring, and a willingness to change course as you find out more about where its leading.” (pg180)
  • “It takes a lot of courage to embrace your errors.” (quote from psychologist Don Michael) … “when addressing complex social issues, acting as if we knew what we were doing simply decreases our credibility”. …”Error-embracing is the condition for learning.” (pg181)

Sage advice, as we feel our way into our new role as the guiding force of Earth systems. To close, Meadows offers an excellent credo for humanity in the Anthropocene:

Don’t erode the goal of goodness.” … “Don’t weigh the bad news more heavily than the good.” (p183)

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