Pub. Date:
Chelsea Green Publishing
Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Thinking in Systems: A Primer

by Donella Meadows, Diana Wright
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In the years following her role as the lead author of the international bestseller, Limits to Growth—the first book to show the consequences of unchecked growth on a finite planet— Donella Meadows remained a pioneer of environmental and social analysis until her untimely death in 2001.

Thinking in Systems, is a concise and crucial book offering insight for problem solving on scales ranging from the personal to the global. Edited by the Sustainability Institute’s Diana Wright, this essential primer brings systems thinking out of the realm of computers and equations and into the tangible world, showing readers how to develop the systems-thinking skills that thought leaders across the globe consider critical for 21st-century life.

Some of the biggest problems facing the world—war, hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation—are essentially system failures. They cannot be solved by fixing one piece in isolation from the others, because even seemingly minor details have enormous power to undermine the best efforts of too-narrow thinking.

While readers will learn the conceptual tools and methods of systems thinking, the heart of the book is grander than methodology. Donella Meadows was known as much for nurturing positive outcomes as she was for delving into the science behind global dilemmas. She reminds readers to pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable, to stay humble, and to stay a learner.

In a world growing ever more complicated, crowded, and interdependent, Thinking in Systems helps readers avoid confusion and helplessness, the first step toward finding proactive and effective solutions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781603580557
Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing
Publication date: 12/03/2008
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 43,402
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

A woman whose pioneering work in the 1970s still makes front-page news, Donella Meadows was a scientist, author, teacher, and farmer widely considered ahead of her time. She was one of the world's foremost systems analysts and lead author of the influential Limits to Growth--the 1972 book on global trends in population, economics, and the environment that was translated into 28 languages and became an international bestseller. That book launched a worldwide debate on the earth's capacity to withstand constant human development and expansion. Twenty years later, she and co-authors Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers reported on their follow-up study in Beyond the Limits and a final revision of their research, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, was published in 2004.

Table of Contents

A Note from the Author ix

A Note from the Editor xi

Introduction: The Systems Lens 1

Part 1 System Structures and Behavior

1 The Basics 11

2 A Brief Visit to the Systems Zoo 35

Part 2 Systems and Us

3 Why Systems Work So Well 75

4 Why Systems Surprise Us 86

5 System Traps ... and Opportunities 111

Part 3 Creating Change-in Systems and in Our Philosophy

6 Leverage Points-Places to Intervene in a System 145

7 Living in a World of Systems 166


System Definitions: A Glossary 187

Summary of Systems Principles 188

Springing the System Traps 191

Places to Intervene in a System 194

Guidelines for Living in a World of Systems 194

Model Equations 195

Notes 204

Bibliography of Systems Resources 208

Editor's Acknowledgments 211

About the Author 213

Index 215

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Thinking in Systems 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
olfmanl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a nicely written and provocative introduction to systems.
futureman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
¿We can¿t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.¿ says Donella Meadows in her posthumously published Thinking in Systems, ¿We can¿t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!¿Donella Meadows, the lead author of The Limits to Growth and champion of systems analysis for social problems, died in 2001 before this primer on systems thinking was completed. We are lucky that Diane Wright of the Sustainability Institute saw fit to edit Meadows notes and put together this excellent introduction to systems thinking.The book begins with the basics of systems modeling. While there are plenty of stocks and flow diagrams, her explanations of the basic concepts are very readable and non-technical. The ease of understanding the concepts carries through the entire book as the complexity of the ideas and behavior build.Meadows extracts rules of systems behavior painlessly for us from familiar examples in the chapters Why Systems Work So Well and Why Systems Surprise Us. It is clear that we are gaining from years of hard-earned wisdom.The chapter called System Traps¿ and Opportunities describes and gives examples of the common system archetypes. Here there are no system diagrams. Concrete examples of behaviors and consequences of actions paint a picture of the common system patterns. You will start to see how universal these archetypes are as their behavior jumps out at you every day from the headlines.The third section of the book teaches how to use your knowledge of systems to create change. It includes how to find leverage points and how to deal with the complexities of feedback that are beyond our direct comprehension. This has some really wise insights into working with systems but also carries the warning that there is much more than simply systems modeling to effect change, ¿¿it¿s one thing to understand how to fix a system and quite another to wade in and fix it.¿At the risk of sounding too enthusiastic, I think that everyone who uses systems analysis, or wants to, should read and own this book. The introduction to the basics is very simple, clear and concise and the chapters on living in a world of systems offers tips that even the most experienced practitioner will find valuable. Above all, Thinking in Systems is an excellent example of how to take what can be a complicated way of seeing and translate it into easily understandable and practical knowledge.
Mandarinate on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A concise introduction to systems thinking. It starts with diagrams (supported by a technical appendix) to illustrate key relationships, like feedback dynamics. Then the author tries to extract some basic insights from systems analysis that might be useful to businesses, policy-makers, and even personal lives. These are expressed in simple English with catchy sounding rules of thumb. Finally, the book turns to a spiritual guide ("Dance with the system.") The book was intended for a wide audience and has attractive features to that end. However, it is rather heavy on the mysticism and spirituality and rather thin on the connection between cases of systems analysis and the rules of thumb for decision-making issues. Also, it is always surprising to see how systems analysts ignore their own devices when studying the economy. They assume away incentives and prices and model behavior as mechanical rules, such as always invest x percent of profits. Naturally, when mechanical rules of behavior are combined with presumed delays in perception or adjustment, there will arise nonlinear responses to shocks. Systems analysts ought to be the first to recognize that behavioral responses will adjust rather than mechanically march on. This failure stems from the engineering and computer science backgrounds of systems analysts, such as Dr. Meadows herself, where human behavior is coded as constants of proportionality, rather than (semi) rational behavior. All in all, however, I did enjoy this short book, and, at the very least, it conveys some fundamental and important insights resulting from decades of systems analysis.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Do not buy the nook version. Almost cant read diagrams
Anonymous More than 1 year ago