Thinking in Systems

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Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows

A stock is the foundation of any system. Stocks are the elements in the system that you can see, feel, count, or measure at any given time. A system stock is just what it sounds like: a store, a quantity, an accumulation of material or information that has built up over time. It may be the water in a bathtub, a population, the books in a bookstore, the wood in a tree, the money in the bank, your own self-confidence. A stock does not have to be physical. Your reserve of goodwill for others or your supply of hope that the world can be better are both stocks.

Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows.

Very much of a piece with Charles Perrow’s Normal Accidents Donella Meadows’ introduction to systems theory is a good place to start in breaking down the tyranny of determinist, reductive views of the world. It is short, clear and to the point.

Systems theory eschews the reductionist, deterministic, “scientific” disposition and views the world in terms of inter-operating systems. It treats the ordinary interactions of life as complex and not merely complicated problems to solve; as interactions of and between systems. System interactions are necessarily complex in that they are not finite, they are non-linear, and the rules of engagement nor information about the system are neither complete, coherent nor static.

This may seem a trivial but its metaphorical power is immense: the same stocks, flows and feedback loops that might characterise a chemical process also apply, with greater force, to sociological environments we encounter every day, and regarding human processes in this way gives us powerful tools.

For example, it illustrates why, when a population has a significant indulgence in recreational narcotics, simply criminalising those narcotics, or even choking out supply is unlikely to have the desired policy outcomes (the problem is “policy-resistant”), as the actors in the system simply adjust their own dependencies to match their personal agendas none of which will match the policy objectives of enforcement in the first place: if they did, there would be no need for policy intervention. As likely as is not when supply is shut down, the price goes up, addicts commit more crime to finance their purchases, drug cartels have more funds to invest in ways of restoring supplies. This is the law of unintended consequences writ large.

For a short book this one is packed with insight, covering a number of “old chestnut” system problems: the tragedy of the commons, success to the successful, rule arbitrage and others and prescribing as it does basically liberal approach — small “l” liberal, that is — people are going to do what they do, and banning them isn’t going to work: better to it is pushing at an open door for this reviewer.

See also