Book review: Thinking in Systems

Thinking in Systems: A Primer, by Donella H. Meadows, seemed to me to be something of a missing manual for human thinking. Even though we live in a world of complex interconnected systems, our common assumptions and habits of thought don’t necessarily serve us well when it comes to understanding their nonlinear, self-organizing behavior.

The book begins by describing how systems work, using several examples that are quite relevant (e.g., economies based on non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels or on a renewable resource such as a fishery).

The middle section builds on these examples to describe how humans get along with systems: what makes them work well, why they surprise us, and how to deal with common traps that systems can get stuck in. This section revealed so many useful but easy-to-disregard truths that it rose, in my opinion, toward the level of providing a secular moral philosophy. For example, the three features that make systems function well are resilience, self-organization, and hierarchy, but resilience and self-organization are often sacrificed to gain (temporary) productivity and stability. I wish more of us (including me) had a firmer grasp on this fact.

The traps considered include escalation, addiction, competitive exclusion (“success to the successful,” a serious problem in the U.S.), and seeking the wrong goal. That last one may seem easy to avoid, but Meadows points out some ways that our goals don’t reflect what we would really like to have, for example, our focus on the gross national product, a metric that is disconnected from (or perversely anticorrelated with) much that we actually value.

The final section lists, in order of increasing effectiveness, ways in which we can change systems and describes some insights gained from thinking in systems. The last chapter in particular is an excellent outline of some features of a secular morality or maybe a mental hygiene—good habits of thought to cultivate, such as using language with care, honoring, respecting, and distributing information, staying humble and continuing to learn, revealing and comparing mental models, and expanding time horizons. I was particularly impressed by these two passages:

Living successfully in a world of systems requires more of us than our ability to calculate. It requires our full humanity—our rationality, our ability to sort out truth from falsehood, our intuition, our compassion, our vision, and our morality.

Getting models out into the light of day, making them as rigorous as possible, testing them against the evidence, and being willing to scuttle them if they are no longer supported is no more than practicing the scientific method—something that is done too seldom even in science and is done hardly at all in social science or management or government or everyday life.

These passages, in a nutshell, describe much of what I think it takes to be a good human. However, you don’t need to settle for the nutshell. I’d highly recommend reading the whole book.