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Thinking In Systems: A Primer

Posted in Movements by Kate Archdeacon on November 19th, 2009


From “Straight Talk for the Planetary Era: A Trio of Book Reviews” by Edward Wolf

Thinking in Systems reflects Prof. Donella Meadows’ lifelong effort to understand systems at all scales – their resilience, their pathologies, their response to perturbations, their capacity to defy prediction.  “A system,” Meadows writes, “is a set of things – people, cells, molecules, or whatever – interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time.”  Systems thinking can reveal interconnections, explain behavior, and anticipate outcomes.  Changing outcomes – slowing climate disruption, spreading new crop varieties, containing an epidemic – requires action to change a system’s elements, the interconnections among them, or (more likely) both.   A reader seeking to understand the anomalies of our time and to prepare mentally for the likelihood of disruptive change needs this book.

The book’s final section, “Creating Change – in Systems and in our Philosophy,” sheds welcome light on topics covered in The End of the Long Summer and Whole Earth Discipline. Chapter 6, “Leverage Points – Places to Intervene in a System” (first published in essay form in Brand’s Whole Earth Review) outlines twelve points of influence over the behavior of complex systems. Chapter 7, “Living in a World of Systems,” takes a step toward an ethics for a new human story, offering a humble acknowledgment that the systems view entails new responsibilities exercised in unfamiliar ways.

“Systems thinking by itself cannot bridge that gap (between understanding and action), but it can lead us to the edge of what analysis can do and then point beyond – to what can and must be done by the human spirit.” Just past that edge is where the activism, politics, diplomacy – and innovation – of this century really begins.

Read the full article by Edward Wolf.

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