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“Thinking in Systems” by Donella H. Meadows

I recently finished “Thinking in Systems” by Donella H. Meadows.  A primer on systems theory, this book is a very accessible introduction to these structures that influence so much of our ecology, economy and lives.

The book is only seven chapters and around 200 pages long, but covers a lot of ground.  First, she covers the basics of systems, including stocks (the thing that changes over time, like water in a bathtub or money in a bank account), flows (the movement of stocks, like a drain in a bathtub or wages deposited into a bank account) and various kinds of feedback loops (the things that act on a stock, like a thermostat monitoring bathtub temperature–a balancing loop, or interest in a bank account–a reinforcing loop).  Then she spends some time examining the some members of the systems ‘zoo’, by varying the type and number of stocks and feedback loops, and observing behaviors that arise.

She then dives a bit deeper into this behavior, and examines why systems are stable, and at the same time what kind of surprises arise from them.  She also looks at some of the archetypes of problematic systems, like the tragedy of the commons, escalation and addiction, and proposes some ways to avoid these archetypes or how to withdraw from them.  She starts off each archetype with an example drawn from the newspaper headlines when she was writing (in the 1990s).

The next chapter enumerates change points–where can you or I intervene to most effectively use our time to modify systesm we find abhorrent or unfair or wrong.  The author discusses twelve different areas to apply energy, ranging in effectiveness from changing numbers or parameters in the system, like the tax rates and the level of the minimum wage (minimal effectiveness), to transcending paradigms (maximal effectiveness).  She calls the list order “slithery” and acknowledges that this is a first draft and that points of leverage can increase or decrease in effectiveness depending on many factors.  But even having such a list is extremely useful as a starting point to think about change.

The last chapter is all about lessons from systems, of which my favorite is “Stay Humble–Stay a Learner” where she quotes a psychologist taking about the difficulty of becoming an error-embracer; we don’t just have to accept that we make mistakes, we have to admit them.

After a slow start, I really enjoyed this book.  The examples were accessible and grounded in the real world.  And she explained complicated ideas in ways that made me wonder why I hadn’t thought of it like that before–always the hallmark of a challenging and worthwhile book.  The author wrote “Limits To Growth” in the 1970s, so there are definitely progressive undertones throughout the book, but nothing over the top.

This book is a great way to get a gentle introduction into systems thinking, which is a fundamental way of understanding the world.  It’s not going to give you any easy answers, but will give you one more tool in your mental toolbox to understand the problems of the world.  I wish she had had a small section of exercises at the end, because they would have offered a deeper understanding of systems with some hands on work, but other than that, I have no quibbles.