Thinking in Systems: A Primer
Biological Agriculture and Horticulture
Thinking in Systems was almost completed at the time of Donella H. Meadows' unexpected death in 2001. The volume, released in 2008, was edited by Diana Wright of the Sustainability Institute to distill Meadows' 30-plus years of experience in teaching systems and modeling.
Meadows, known for her lead-authorship of The Limits to Growth, went on to author nine more books on global modeling and sustainable development. In Thinking in Systems, Meadows presents basic ideas about systems - their structure and function, and the role of change in characterizing systems. Certainly systems, with their intrinsic information-feedback controls, is a lens that Meadows feels strongly should be used by intellectuals and politicians alike. She makes an exceptionally cogent case for modeling, acknowledging that everything we know about the world is a model, yet models fall far short of accurately representing reality. Systems constantly surprise us (in part, due to the too little attention we pay to the history of the events they generate). However, understanding how individuals in those systems are guided by bounded rationality explains the production of surpluses of, say, cereal grains and milk, in a world agricultural political economy.
The most relevant sections of the book for those interested in biological agriculture have to do with her essays on resilience, and the ideas regarding how producers "often sacrifice resilience for stability, or for productivity, or for some other more immediately recognizable system property" (p. 77). Her examples include genetically engineered bovine growth hormone where the cost of increased production is lowered resilience as well as in intensive management of European forests that emphasizes single-species rather than "ecosystem-based management," thus reducing the resilience of the system overall.
Many of the examples are drawn from her first draft of this book in 1993, and so seem a bit dated. But others are fairly standard and evergreen, for example, regarding temperature control in a closed space.
Meadows argues that the way forward in ecological thinking is to make feedback policies for feedback systems, structured for learning and embracing complexity - and this certainly applies to farm and food systems as well. As such, this book is highly recommended for undergraduate classes in agroecology and sustainable development.
Book Review: Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows
Thursday, April 2, 2009 at 10:12PM in Category Systems Thinking
I highly recommend Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows as an introduction to understanding the world as a collection of complex systems.
The book is clearly and logically laid out. Part One introduces you to the tools you need to discuss and think about systems. Part Two and Three build up layers of interactions and suggests ways to create change.
Systems thinking as a discipline ranges from from soft people-based approaches to the computer simulations of system dynamics. Thinking in Systems stays fully on the conceptual side. There's no math in this book, just some graphs to help illustrate key points in combination with other visualizations.
Many of the concepts are explained through the use of stories. The entire read is lightened up and made approachable by touches of Meadows' personal experiences and a bit of humor. And if you want a quick review later you can always turn to the summary at the back.
A Little Struggle, A Lot of Value
I did find the initial chapters a bit hard to get through. Sometimes I would feel bogged down in learning the mechanics of how to describe the systems, despite the stories and visuals. Yet, I really did need this information to understand the more interesting parts later on. You can skim and push past it, if needed, and return to it after you've gone through the book once and have a purpose for it firmly in mind.
Meadows does capture that purpose in the Introduction. She honors other ways of thinking things through and presents systems thinking as one option among many, one we need because
The systems thinking lens allows us to reclaim our intuition about whole systems and
- hone our abilities to understand parts,
- see interconnections,
- ask "what-if" questions about possible future behaviors, and
- be creative and courageous about system redesign.
Then we can use our insights to make a difference in ourselves and our world.
The Anatomy of a Natural Gas Price Spike - Past and Future
Posted by Gail the Actuary on March 6, 2009 - 11:18am
This is a guest post by Jon Freise, a software engineer living in Minneapolis, Minnesota USA, and member of the Twin Cities Energy Transition Working Group dedicated to shifting away from fossil fuels.
Figure 1. Natural gas average wellhead price and estimated production cost including a 10% rate of return. (On all graphs, click for larger image.)
I wanted to explore the recent history of natural gas prices and try to see what patterns existed and if those patterns could help us predict future prices. In this article I lay out an argument that the price spike of 2001 led to the price spike of 2003. And that our recent spike of 2008 will lead to another spike in 2010 (possibly made worse by the credit collapse).
Read the whole article.
Making systems work for you
By Rich Barlow
February 16, 2009
The late environmental scientist Donella Meadows cared as much about good teaching as good science. This is clear from "Thinking in Systems," her final, posthumously published book, in which Meadows translates samples of techno-babble into human. For example:
"According to the competitive exclusion principle, if a reinforcing feedback loop rewards the winner of a competition with the means to win further competitions, the result will be the elimination of all but a few competitors." That mouthful, she writes, boils down to "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."
Meadows, who taught at Dartmouth College before her death in 2001, helped to pioneer systems theory, the study of how objects interact in systems -- organizations, ecosystems, cities, economies. It is the subject of her book, and as the offspring of mathematics and engineering, it can seem indecipherable to those of us who are humanities types. But Meadows says the field offers vital lessons about problems ranging from hunger to pollution to financial busts.
These problems are inherent in complex systems, whether they are economic, political, or environmental, she argues. You can't beat the system; rather, you must somehow redesign it -- which may mean altering your own behavior -- if you hope to address an issue. Indeed, Meadows made her name as the lead author of "The Limits to Growth," the Nixon-era bestseller that warned how our planet would impose limits on population and industrial growth by running out of resources and becoming a polluted mess, unless we limited that growth ourselves.
Her last book confirms Meadows's formidable explanatory powers, as she makes her topic comprehensible. Whether she makes it compelling is another matter.
Systems theory is littered with jargon: "bounded rationality," "suboptimization," and a couple of different kinds of "feedback loops." Meadows demystifies the concepts by illustrating them with simple, real-life examples. The amount of interest you earn on your savings account, for example, is determined by the amount that's already in the account, because your bank has a rule that interest is paid as a percentage of the deposited funds. That rule is a feedback loop.
Her environmentalism and (quite valid) reservations about laissez-faire markets put Meadows on the political left. But the lessons she draws from systems theory include some rather conservative virtues, such as respecting experience and the past before meddling: "If it's a social system, watch it work. Learn its history. Ask people who've been around a long time to tell you what has happened. If possible, find or make a time graph of actual data from the system -- people's memories are not always reliable when it comes to timing."
She also says that well-designed systems impose responsibility on decision-makers, and suggests as an example denying public or insurance reimbursement to people who require medical care because they smoke or don't buckle their seatbelts. It's not clear she advocates this, as elsewhere she mischievously quotes an ecologist who believes that opponents of abortion have a responsibility to bring up the children who would be produced. She doesn't linger on the point, almost certainly because she doesn't believe it.
For all the clarity Meadows brings to her subject, and for all the wisdom she draws from it, nonscientists are likely to find their eyes glaze over at times. Some of us are into feedback loops, but some aren't. The former will enjoy this tale. Speaking for the latter, I was reminded of Mr. Philpet, a gifted math teacher at my high school. He made numbers and equations understandable to my un-mathematical mind. He just never succeeded in making them interesting.
You can each Rich Barlow at email@example.com.
The Boston Globe at Boston.com
By Jan Gardner
January 25, 2009
In 1972, environmentalist Donella H. Meadows was the lead author of the international bestseller "The Limits to Growth," one of the first books to sound an alarm over the risks posed by global population growth. A professor at Dartmouth College, Meadows practiced what she preached. She was a founder and resident of Cobb Hill, a co-housing community in Vermont with an organic farm and a commitment to sustainability.
At the time of her death, in 2001, at the age of 59, Meadows had been at work on another book. Diana Wright, a colleague at the Sustainability Institute, edited it, and "Thinking in Systems: A Primer" (Chelsea Green) is being published this week.
Meadows had a talent for translating the complex workings of agricultural, energy, and other systems into everyday language. On the cover of the new book is an image of a Slinky, which Meadows liked to use in the classroom to demonstrate how systems work.
Between the Lines
Published: January 25, 2009
The final word
Followers of the late Donella Meadows have waited years for the release of the book she had nearly finished before she died unexpectedly in 2001.
Meadows was world-renowned as a leader in the sustainability movement, whose work was applauded by the likes of Thomas Friedman and earned her a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award. Her 1972 book "Limits to Growth" is credited with launching a worldwide discussion of the growing pressures on the Earth.
In Vermont, she was also a neighbor and a friend to other residents of the Cobb Hill co-housing community she founded in Hartland.
Now Chelsea Green is posthumously publishing her final manuscript, "Thinking in Systems: A Primer." It uses the simple imagery of Slinkys and bathtubs to explore complex questions of how systems — any interconnected set of things, from cells to people — produce their own pattern of behavior over time.
And the book promises to provide practical models for problem-solving, whether the issue is global warming or family dynamics.
Web Exclusive Reviews: Week of 12/22/2008
Just before her death, scientist, farmer and leading environmentalist Meadows (1941-2001) completed an updated, 30th anniversary edition of her influential 1972 environmental call to action, Limits to Growth, as well as a draft of this book, in which she explains the methodology—systems analysis—she used in her ground-breaking work, and how it can be implemented for large-scale and individual problem solving. With humorous and commonplace examples for difficult concepts such as a “reinforcing feedback loop,” (the more one brother pushes, the more the other brother pushes back), negative feedback (as in thermostats), accounting for delayed response (like in maintaining store inventory), Meadows leads readers through the increasingly complex ways that feedback loops operate to create self-organizing systems, in nature (“from viruses to redwood trees”) and human endeavor. Further, Meadows explicates methods for fixing systems that have gone haywire (“The world’s leaders are correctly fixated on economic growth …but they’re pushing with all their might in the wrong direction”). An invaluable companion piece to Limits to Growth, this is also a useful standalone overview of systems-based problem solving, “a simple book about a complex world” graced by the wisdom of a profound thinker committed to “shap[ing] a better future.” (Dec.)