Thinking In Systems book 3D formatIntroducing Thinking In Systems

This blog title, “One Book to Save the World,” is not meant as a pithy suggestion or a cute metaphor. Generally speaking, you and I lead our daily lives in much the way Rapa Nui inhabitants of Easter Island did: just trying to get by day after day, insufficiently attending to the long-term picture. This is where systems thinking comes in.

If you are not familiar with “systems thinking,” you are one of many, and this blog is a dive-in-the-deep-end introduction. If you put “systems thinking” versus “dr seuss” into Google Trends, for example, there is zero comparison; Dr. Seuss dwarfs systems thinking. (As it happens, “systems thinking” is more on a par with simply “the sneetches.”) This is precisely why Systems Thinking Marin exists today, and why I’m writing this blog to you, the person who takes Easter Island as a warning.

The island was decimated to the degree that it could no longer support the Rapa Nui society (internal conflicts, external plunderers, and imported species and diseases all played their part). An in-depth understanding of what Meadows communicates in Thinking In Systems: A Primer provides for us a set of tools for understanding what it takes to become a genuinely sustainable society; to avoid turning Earth into one big deserted or nearly-deserted island.

If you are less-than-clear that human society at large is unsustainable, perhaps this isn’t the blog entry for you. I would suggest skipping to the first part of the Donella Meadows’ talk embedded below in which she reviews a solid framework for defining “sustainable.”

(Note that with a PhD in mythological studies, I’m familiar with the problematics of the heroic “save the world” trope. Nevertheless, I think we can invoke this phrase intelligently, to bring an appropriate level of alarm and the need for cooperative action into wider acceptance.)

A Book And a Recorded Talk

Below you will find the first section of a talk at the University of Michigan that helped crystallize for me the crucial importance of Meadows’ book. Upon viewing this talk for the first time I thought to myself, “I could have skipped my Green MBA degree and all 20 of those Bioneers conferences and just watched this talk over and over.” Not strictly true, but it did cross my mind.

Alas, there is a bit of an academic barrier here; maybe more than a bit. Thinking In Systems: A Primer confounded me when I first tried to read it. “Part One: Systems Structure and Behavior” discusses system dynamics with a lot of “stocks and flows” diagrams that, in all honesty, put me to sleep. Thank goodness that I picked it up again a year or so later. The lecture below is more accessible. However, if you (as one friend of mine did) find it less than accessible for your brain, please speak up by commenting on this blog or on my contact form. We need to find a way to get these basics into widespread use, which is impossible if they remain in the ivory tower.

(Find the rest of this talk and more on our Donella Meadows page.)

There are too many critical nuggets in this book to summarize in one blog entry. (You may want to check out the cliff notes, for a price.) I hope to supply you with enough to be inspired to dig deeper.

If you’ve been through the Systems Thinking Mini-Course, you know that this is one of the top three books I recommend for anyone engaged in making the world a better place.

Donella H. “Dana” Meadows

Meadows was a renowned scholar, researcher, and academic, with a PhD in biophysics from Harvard. She passed away in 2001 at the age of 59. Thinking in Systems is just one of her twelve books. The Academy for Systems Change merged with the Donella Meadows Institute in 2016, which was built around her work. One of the major publications for which Meadows and colleagues are known is the 1972 book The Limits to Growth. You can get a sense of her dedication and character in this constructed “interview” by Molly Ryan on the Academy website.

Note that a significant amount of Meadow’s work–as is true of most great thinkers–is deeply informed by the thinking of her mentor, Jay Forrester, the team at MIT she worked with as a research fellow, and many others. For brevity’s sake I treat the material in this blog as if it is all her own, but in fact there are webs of genius she worked in synergy with over the course of her career.

The Reckoning

When considering writing this blog, I noted a funny little notion in my head that went something like this: “I don’t want to share the most important quotes from this book because I’ll spoil the reader’s own discovery process.”

I soon realized I’d have to set my romantic notions aside, because clearly this work is not as well known as it should be. Beyond my personal idiosyncrasies, there is a gargantuan, society-wide reckoning that needs to take place. It has to do with our collective control issues meeting our optimistic excitability meeting our propensity for deluding ourselves.

The epic quote below from Thinking in Systems is our starting point, followed by some unpacking of its dense content:

Self-organizing, nonlinear, feedback systems are inherently unpredictable. They are not controllable. They are understandable only in the most general way. The goal of foreseeing the future exactly and preparing for it perfectly is unrealizable. The idea of making a complex system do just what you want it to do can be achieved only temporarily, at best. We can never fully understand our world, not in the way our reductionist science has led us to expect. Our science itself, from quantum theory to the mathematics of chaos, leads us into irreducible uncertainty. For any objective other than the most trivial, we can’t optimize; we don’t even know what to optimize. We can’t keep track of everything. We can’t find proper, sustainable relationship to nature, each other, or the institutions we create, if we try to do it from the role of omniscient conqueror.

For those who stake their identity on the role of omniscient conqueror, the uncertainty exposed by systems thinking is hard to take. If you can’t understand, predict, and control, what is there to do? (page 167-8)

Meadows then goes into what it is we can do, but let’s dwell for a bit on our collective illusion of control.

Control Issues

For our purposes, “self-organizing, nonlinear, feedback systems” is a jargony way of describing any group of humans working together. If you’ve ever tried to lead a group in even the most simple of tasks, you know that we’re inherently unpredictable, always coming up with tangential ideas, and completing a given task within the allotted time is a minor miracle.

Our desire for control is not always driven by selfish reasons. Often we’re trying to look out for others whom we care for. But let’s also acknowledge that the state of mind we get into when trying to gain or regain control is not a very friendly one, and can even dramatically undermine our most important relationships. In the end, the need for control goes well with ego, while on the other hand, humility, humanity, and opening to unforeseen possibilities also go well together.

Unpredictability is Sacred

“Self-organizing, nonlinear, feedback systems are inherently unpredictable. They are not controllable.”

When I read the quote above, I invariably want to ad, “and we wouldn’t want them to be predictable.” If self-organizing, nonlinear feedback systems were predictable, well, they wouldn’t be self-organizing nor nonlinear. Our modern minds are fairly limited in our ability to cognize the nonlinear, though systems thinkers are quick to point out that children are born with this ability. Unfortunately, rather than being fostered and expanded upon, this ability is greatly reduced in the course of a conventional education.

The capacity for self-organization and unpredictability is at the heart of what makes life on Earth possible in the first place. A human mind cannot consciously manage the multivalent requirements of a single human breath, much less a whole body, much less a whole society or globe.

In short, there would be no world if it were up to our conscious minds to create, predict and control it.

I am claiming that unpredictability is sacred because of its at-the-heart-of-life quality. “Self-organizing, nonlinear feedback systems” is another way to describe all lifeforms. I’m not going to attempt to get into theoretical physics and the uncertainty principle, but the whole non-linearity thing moves quickly into that realm, and goes well beyond (which is what caused such a shattering in the minds of the physicists who struggle with it, beginning in the 1920’s).

Meadows uses the metaphor of “dance” to encourage the letting go of control needed to be a systems thinker: “In the end, it seems that mastery has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly, letting go and dancing with the system” (page 165). This is, to be sure, systems thinking as personal growth. But it is also collective growth, or collective, conscious evolution. Don’t let the metaphor of dance or the label of personal growth diminish the profound importance of developing the level of mastery required to let go. Moving into an uncertain future with grace and focus is more possible with the fluidity of dance and in a state of opening, rather than in the ridged posture of command and control. We can be moralistic about this, yes, but also, command and control is simply not resilient. You can’t keep it up. It’s not strategic, and it’s not sustainable.

We Cannot Foresee the Future

“The goal of foreseeing the future exactly and preparing for it perfectly is unrealizable.”

Note she is not saying that we can’t prepare for the future, period. Meadows is saying we can’t “perfectly” prepare for it. There is a big gap there. Where precisely Meadows is drawing the line is not known to me, but based on my experience, it’s the hubris of thinking we can prepare nearly perfectly that is the problem.

The business-as-usual mindset drags people along in its momentum into a false expectation that we can foresee the future and prepare for it perfectly, and moreover, if you have failed to do so, well that’s your fault. Anyone who has taken a glance at pro forma financials may have one of two responses. Either you are carried away by the optimistic enthusiasm of it all, or alternatively, you understand what Meadows is claiming here and can thoughtfully reflect about whether or not the hoped-for revenue streams are products of this ungrounded optimism, and ask in-depth questions to expose the presence or absence of realistic planning.

It may seem as though I’ve moved into a contradiction. Isn’t “realistic planning” contrary to Meadows’ statement above? Actually, no. Really understanding her claim puts us in a much better position to actually-really plan realistically, and our preparations will never be perfect; not remotely. Yet having done our homework sincerely and with humility puts us in a much better position to be responsive to the inevitable surprises, and therefore, more resilient.

Glossing Over

Life happens, whether we are prepared or not. Perhaps this contributes to the business-as-usual implicit agreement that urges people to get with the program, to go with the flow, and “don’t block progress.” I’m calling the get-with-the-program approach a “glossing over” when the agreement is implicit rather than explicit. This may seem a fine point, a splitting of hairs, but short-term subtlety can be the mask of long-term, dramatic difference.

Here is an example of glossing over:

I was a part-time, short-term intern at an enthusiastic, web-based save-the-world startup in 2008 in Los Angeles; Santa Monica to be specific. One day I took a stroll with the boss, and attempted to ask incisive questions about the viability of this whole idea: what is the marketing plan? Who–specifically–is the target audience? What is the realistic picture of possible financial sustainability? I asked because I really liked the idea, and wanted to see it fly, not only in L.A., but in other places as well.

Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to want to think out loud about these details. This was a pattern, whether in our conversation that day, or other conversations I overheard in the “office” (a live-work space he shared with his partner). Instead of a culture of thoughtful planning and specificity, there seemed to be a superlative amount of enthusiasm for the idea going around. I got the impression the on-site boss was trying to impress the funders with his “I got this” ‘ness, and something vital was being lost in the translation. That is, I suspect he was glossing over the reality when talking to the funders, and then turning around and glossing over reality when talking to staff.

I didn’t last much longer there, and to the best of my knowledge, the project folded within a year.

Megaprojects, Mega Misjudgments

Unfortunately, the glossing-over modus operandi scales quite well, and not just in virtual realms. From neighborhood parks to San Francisco Bay Bridges, actual physical infrastructure lends itself nicely to collective delusion. Here is a quote from Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor and researcher of so-called “megaprojects” (projects that cost a billion dollars or more):

Performance data for megaprojects speak their own language. Nine out of ten such projects have cost overruns. Overruns of up to 50 percent in real terms are common, over 50 percent not uncommon…Overrun is a problem in private as well as public sector projects, and things are not improving; overruns have stayed high and constant for the 70-year period for which comparable data exist. Geography also does not seem to matter; all countries and continents for which data are available suffer from overrun. (Ref, pg 9) (Emphasis added.)

So 90% of projects costing a billion dollars or more are poorly planned, and this behavior is typical, globally. Data like this really makes me angry. I imagine that many of the same people who run off with government contracts (i.e., tax payer dollars) later waggle their finger at poor people for failing to plan appropriately for the future, and for taking government money in the form of social programs.

The “Hiding Hand” Principle

Flyvbjerg also discusses what is called the “Hiding Hand” principle. Remarkably, this principle is an embodiment of precisely the opposite of what I am advocating here (and arguing against the Hiding Hand is the heart of Flyvbjerg’s paper). Advocates of the Hiding Hand claim that it’s perfectly acceptable and reasonable to presume a given budget for a megaproject is actually a “down payment,” and to conceal this information. They justify this obfuscation, saying that, well, we have to start somewhere, and stakeholders (often, tax payers) would never agree to move the project forward if they knew the real costs, and so large, important infrastructure would never be put in place. I recommend the study cited above for more details, but suffice it to say that I was startled and mildly bemused to discover that this Hiding Hand thing actually exists, out loud, as it were. It makes the implicit explicit, but only among a select few at the top, intentionally deceiving the masses further down the chain of communication.

Surrendering to Unpredictable Reality AND Preparing Optimally

This is my theory: when we develop the ability to think in systems, we become much better linear planners. This ability to toggle between different worldviews brings in a mental (and likely, emotional) flexibility that enables a much higher level of creative thinking and visualization of potentially unforeseen obstacles and opportunities.

It may seem contradictory that Meadows’ quote about being unable to predict the future perfectly goes nicely with this realistic look at cost and time overruns in huge infrastructure projects. Wouldn’t her words seem to point in the direction of just accepting our imperfect ability to make realistic time and cost predictions?

Actually, no, because she is specifically speaking to the problems inherent in the “role of omniscient conqueror.” Let’s call him (usually a him) the “O.Q.” The O.Q. believes he should know what he’s doing; probably better than anyone else around him. He works hard to appear all-knowing, and consciously or unconsciously feels the tremendous pressures that come with that. He is not going to survey a wide swath of people in stations below him in the hierarchy for their wisdom and insights; if they are so wise and insightful, why aren’t they in charge? For fear of appearing unfit for the job, he is likewise unlikely to survey the blokes above him for input.

And yet, this is precisely what a systems thinker does: she looks at a system, recognizes its diversity or lack thereof, and works to learn from what the system has to teach her. She provides forums through which the system can be better linked together and more diverse. And she has a great skill for listening really, really well, and reflecting the system back to itself. The O.Q. is preoccupied with looking like the big-shot. The systems thinker works to make sure the big-shots don’t skew the conversation and taint the data.

Someone really needs to tell these generations of O.Q.s to STOP, you’re doing it wrong. (Homage to Mr. Mom.) We need to tell them, “We don’t want you to be a know-it-all. We want you to facilitate a healthy, prosperous society of people who work well together,” even and especially when things go wrong, which of course they do at least 90% of the time.

Continuing with the Meadows quote above, “If you can’t understand, predict, and control, what is there to do?”

Expanding Horizons of Caring

Living successfully in a world of complex systems means expanding not only time horizons and thought horizons; above all, it means expanding horizons of caring. (page 184)

One of the reasons I love the systems worldview is because many of the giant thinkers incorporate care for others into their teachings. Note that systems thinking does not equal virtuous; just read Dark Money by Jane Mayer for examples of making the world a worse place that uses systems-type tools. But these remain the exception; systems thinkers tend to have a bias toward care for others and Earth.

“Expanding horizons of caring” means just that; widening one’s own scope of empathy and concern. And not as an afterthought, but rather, as Meadows says, “above all.” On the face of it, there is a clear reason for this: as you cognize interconnections among seemingly disparate individuals and groups, the tendency to isolate an individual diminishes. What comes to the fore is both the role of the individual and the part played by context.

For example, in the Systems Thinking Mini-Course, I employ the example of monarch butterflies. It’s hard to sincerely care about the well-being of monarchs without also caring about organic gardening, and it takes very little digging to make that link.

Similarly, I often invoke restorative justice as an example of a systems approach. A limited horizon of caring expects the current justice system to apply basically reasonable punishment to individuals who commit crimes, anticipating that incarceration will serve as a deterrent to future criminals, and that penitentiaries may be unpleasant places, but not regularly in gross violation of a person’s human rights. An expanded horizon of caring means caring for the person who committed the crime as well as the person or people who were victimized. It means looking–carefully–at the facts. And it means taking the long view; asking what practices are demonstrated to genuinely reduce recidivism. Even a cursory glance at data quickly demonstrates that today’s justice system is a human rights disaster, informed by rampant misconceptions (ref).

Query Purpose

Perhaps the single most frequent idea from Meadows’ work that I invoke is asking, “What is the purpose of this system?” In defining what a “system” is, she says they consist of elements (like players on a team), interconnections (the relationships and rules governing relationships, including policies and procedures), and a function or purpose.

In the talk at Michigan State University referenced above, Meadows includes the term “goal” as a synonym for purpose or function of the system. One could also ask, “What is the point of this system?” Meadows is very clear from the start that a system will often tell you what its purpose is, but you won’t gain insight from believing or disbelieving what members of the system tell you: you have to stand around and watch for a while to observe what the system produces. Only the behavior of the system can truly tell you what its purpose is.

In the blog Wild West Housing — A Systems Thinking Perspective on the Housing Crisis, I use this “purpose” question as the platform for examining our current residential real estate system. I theorize that the purpose is profit, rather than the purpose being to provide families with reasonable housing.

We can also ask, “What is the purpose of the medical industry?” “What is the purpose of the transportation sector?” or “What is the purpose of XYZ nonprofit organization?” It’s tempting to start with the mission/vision/values statements when it comes to organizations, but if you stop there, you’ve missed the whole purpose of the exercise. Rather, look at the behavior–the outcomes–of the system. “Watching what really happens, instead of listening to people’s theories of what happens, can explode many careless casual hypothesis” (page 170).

When you find inconsistencies between what an organization or a larger system says its purpose is and what it actually produces, have compassion. THIS IS THE NORM. We’ve been brainwashed by decades of advertising to divorce claims from actual performance, and to not worry overly much about the discrepancy, because “everybody does it.” But don’t remain silent either.

When you speak up, consider this concept that a friend recently introduced me to. It’s described as “calling out versus calling in.” Here is a article that goes into more detail, and a handy PDF from a school system in Vermont about interrupting bias. Meadows says, “Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned” (page 168). Next we’ll look at how to recognize more specifically what is going wrong in a system when it is producing results that suck, but that resist attempts to change perverse behavior.

Systems Traps (& Opportunities)

Meadows outlines some typical “traps” we get caught in that can be avoided (or at least ameliorated) if only we knew how to recognize them.

…system traps can be escaped–by recognizing them in advance and not getting caught in them, or by altering the structure–by reformulating goals, by weakening, strengthening, or altering feedback loops, by adding new feedback loops. That is why I call these archetypes not just traps, but opportunities.

Below I will list all seven systems traps in the hopes this entices you to investigate further.

  1. Policy Resistance–Fixes that Fail
  2. Drift to Low Performance
  3. Escalation
  4. Success to the Successful–Competitive Exclusion
  5. Shifting the Burden to the Intervenor–Addiction
  6. Rule Beating
  7. Seeking the Wrong Goal

Meadows states at the beginning of the “System Traps” chapter, “These are so prevalent that I had no problem finding in just one week of the International Herald Tribune enough examples to illustrate each of the archetypes described in this chapter” (page 111-112). And indeed, she goes on to begin her explanation of each with a quote from an issue published between December 14th and 20th of the International Herald Tribune, 1992. She describes each trap, provides further examples, explores “the way out,” and includes a summary box for each.

Success to the Successful–Competitive Exclusion

Let’s take the system trap I included in the Systems Thinking Mini-Course, “success to the successful,” and look at it a bit more in-depth.

Meadows explains this system trap as “Using accumulated wealth, privilege, special access, or inside information to create more wealth, privilege, access or information” (page 127). She goes on to say,

This system trap is found whenever the winners of a competition receive, as part of the reward, the means to compete even more effectively in the future. That’s a reinforcing feedback loop, which rapidly divides a system into winners who go on winning, and losers who go on losing. (page 127)

Meadows warns, “…the losers, if they are unable to get out of the game of success to the successful, and if they have no hope of winning, could get frustrated enough to destroy the playing field” (page 130). At the time of this writing we are seeing clear indications of this “destroy the playing field” outcome in the global demonstrations (including riots) against policy brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police. (Sadly, just the most recent murder of black people by police, representing a tipping point of some kind yet to be determined.) One can view such a mass uprising as a kind of (mostly) peaceful warning to “the establishment” that their success to the successful system is intolerable, and therefore, unsustainable.

There are legion examples of success to the successful at work in the world. Meadows illuminates three:

  • In most societies, the poorest children receive the worst education in the worst schools, if they are able to go to school at all. With few marketable skills, they qualify only for low-paying jobs, perpetuating their poverty.
  • People with low income and few assets are not able to borrow from most banks. Therefore, either they can’t invest in capital improvements, or they must go to local money-lenders who charge exorbitant interest rates. Even when interest rates are reasonable, the poor pay them, the rich collect them.
  • Land is held so unevenly in many parts of the world that most farmers are tenants on someone else’s land. They must pay part of their crops to the landowner for the privilege of working the land, and so never are able to buy land of their own. The landowner uses the income from tenants to buy more land. (page 128-9)

How to escape this system trap? One way is by diversifying, but that is often out of reach for a given group. Other ways include, “putting into place feedback loops that keep any competitor from taking over entirely,” such as antitrust laws, but as Meadows points out, “One of the resources very big companies can win by winning…is the power to weaken the administration of antitrust laws” (page 129). The most reliable way out, however, is intermittently “leveling the playing field.”

Monopoly games start over again with everyone equal, so those who lost last time have a chance to win. May sports provide handicaps for weaker players. Many traditional societies have some version of the Native American “potlatch,” a ritual in which those who have the most give away many of their possessions to those who have the least. (page 129-30)

The mere suggestion of periodically leveling the playing field in reality–as opposed to a Monopoly game–is probably downright un-American to some. Libertarian billionaires in particular are rabid anti-government types…except when they are lobbying for their subsidies and government contracts. But this brings us back to the the question of the “purpose” of a given system. If the purpose is profit, and there is tacit agreement all around that this is acceptable, then leveling the playing field isn’t going to fly, and attempts to do so will be systematically undermined by the current winners, as we’ve seen with antitrust laws and inheritance tax and various other attempts to even out wealth. This path leads to system collapse. There are many historical examples of this trap doing just that.

However, if were to collectively agree that the purpose of the system is something more along the lines of human well-being, then intermittent leveling of the playing field can be seen for what it is: a way to create a resilient, sustainable social and economic system. We aren’t just Easter Island, or Rome or some other geographically-bound system, but rather, our economic system is global. Some wealthy parents are taking control of the situation and choosing not to pass on their millions or billions to their children. Why? Consider this quote from an Atlantic article: “While only about 2 percent of inheritances from 1995 to 2016 were larger than $1 million, that 2 percent accounted for roughly 40 percent of the money inherited during that period of time.” This represents a dramatic imbalance in financial freedom in this country” (Ref).

Seeking the Wrong Goal

Donella expounds up on the problem of Gross National Product (GNP) as an example of seeking the wrong goal; it’s quantitative and therefore more easily measured, and our society made the erroneous assumption that it’s a reasonable gauge of how well society is doing.

For those unfamiliar with the argument against GNP as a proxy for well-being, below I take a few liberties in recapitulating Meadows explanation and examples.

  • The GNP lumps together goods and bads. Example: If there are more car accidents and medical bills and repair bills, the GNP goes up.
  • It counts only marketed goods and services. Example: If all parents hired people to bring up their children, the GNP would go up.
  • It does not reflect distributional equity. Example: An expensive second home for a rich family makes the GNP go up more than an inexpensive home for a poor family.
  • It measures effort rather than achievement, gross production and consumption rather than efficiency. Example: New light bulbs that give the same light with one-eighth the electricity and that last ten times as long make the GNP go down. (page 139, with minor modifications)

So GNP is a problematic measure. But it’s not the only example of seeking the wrong goal, and the pernicious part comes in with the way we tend to relate to such goals:

…governments around the world respond to a signal of faltering GNP by taking numerous actions to keep it growing. Many of those actions are simply wasteful, stimulating inefficient production of things no one particularly wants. (page 140)

I find it a bit touching–and a bit sad–how we as a species relate to such measures when they are put before us as a goal, such as in the quote below. But the problems really come in when an overly-simplistic goal is prioritized over and beyond more qualitative measures and goals:

If you define the goal of a society as GNP, that society will do its best to produce GNP. It will not produce welfare, equity, justice, or efficiency unless you define a goal and regularly measure and report the state of welfare, equity, justice, or efficiency. (page 140)

Meadows makes a statement later that would seem to contradict the statement above, so one has to think carefully not to make that erroneous assumption:

No one can define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist. (page 177)

So what to do? Here is our specific instruction:

Pretending that something doesn’t exist if it’s hard to quantify leads to faulty models…Human beings have been endowed not only with the ability to count, but also with the ability to assess quality. Be a quality detector. Be a walking, noisy Geiger counter that registers that presence or absence of quality. (page 177)

Importantly, with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of 2030, for the first time in history we have a global platform and mandate for measuring these harder-to-measure principles and values, and the SDGs have the weight of all 193 nations of the U.N. having contributed to their formulation. Their specific interpretation will have necessary nuances between different nations, and within different areas of the same nation.

To illustrate an example, it is the people on the ground in Marin County, California, who will need to serve as the walking, noisy Geiger counters registering the presence or absence of quality. This requires a society-wide agreement in place that #1 No Poverty, #2 Zero Hunger, #3 Good Health and Well-Being, etc., are indeed our shared goals. Moreover, an infrastructure with feedback loops to “regularly measure and report the state” of these factors is required. Otherwise our noisy Geiger noises won’t amount to much. (And in fact, this is one way of talking about the common complaint I hear among groups in Marin County saying they are tired of repeating the same workshops year after year without any clear, substantial change resulting.)

The Gap Between Understanding & Implementation

It seems my romantic hang-up about this blog was unfounded; there is no way in a single entry I can cover every single one of the most crucial, important quotes from this book. Perhaps I’ve referenced about 20% of them.

This book is not going to save the world if it just sits on the shelf. Meadows herself points out this perennial challenge on the last page: “the gap between understanding and implementation” (page 185). This gap can be extrapolated to perhaps all areas of our lives; places where one part of us knows there is a better way, but we are in some way asleep to what is actually-really required to put that better way into practice. Closing the gap requires a profound shift toward awakening. Expanding horizons of care, combined with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, is the perfect impetus to drive us collectively toward the hard work required to close the gap between understanding and implementation.

Meadows demonstrates the level of profound challenge inherent to implementing the systems view by supplying examples from her team at MIT and their more personal struggles.

We had many earnest discussions on the topic of “implementation” by which we meant “how to get managers and mayors and agency heads to follow our advice.”

The truth was, we didn’t even follow our advice. We gave learned lectures on the structure of addiction and could not give up coffee. We knew all about the dynamics of eroding goals and eroded our own jogging programs. We warned against the traps of escalation and shifting the burden and then created them in our own marriages. (page 167)

But one of her final points in this book is one which draws a direct link between the work of systems thinkers and the spiritual impulse at the heart of humanity:

What was unique about our search was not our answers, or even our questions, but the fact that the tool of systems thinking, born out of engineering and mathematics, implemented in computers, drawn from a mechanistic mind-set and a quest for prediction and control, leads its practitioners, inexorably I believe, to confront the most deeply human mysteries. (page 167)

This is a very significant statement coming from a great mind like Donella H. Meadows. Her work with her MIT group parallels the dive into uncertainty faced by physicists. For both, it’s not that certainty and predictability have been left behind totally, but rather, predictability is relativized; relegated to a rung or two below uncertainty and surprise in the hierarchy of truth.

Imagine the Possibilities

If you are a person who is concerned about social and environmental sustainability, I humbly request that you purchase and study this book. Make Meadows’ knowledge an intimate part of your knowledge. Imagine the possibilities if every person who was working to make the world a better place had ready access to full-blown systems thinking intelligence. We already have this intelligence in our bones, we just need a book like this to bring it out; to bring about a shared language, a shared systems “jargon” that will enable our systems to better “sense and see themselves” (referencing Theory U). This is indispensable for coherent, coordinated, powerful action toward meeting the Global Goals, and well beyond.

Visit the links below to purchase, read, and implement the wisdom found in these pages. rainbow slinky

Purchase at Better World Books

Purchase at Chelsea Green Publishing

Purchase at Powell’s

Read Sections on Google Books

Visit the Donella Meadows Project at Academy for Systems Change


For organizations and groups in Marin County, California, contact me for further discussion.