Thinking in Systems: A Primer

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Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008 - Science - 218 pages
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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.

Meadows' newly released manuscript, 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.

 

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Contents

one The Basics
11
Two A Brief Visit to the Systems Zoo
35
Three Why Systems Work So Well
75
five System Traps and Opportunities
111
Six Leverage PointsPlaces to Intervene in a System
145
Seven Living in a World of Systems
166
Appendix
187
Notes
204
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About the author (2008)

Trained as a biophysicist, American scientist Donella H. Meadows earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Early in her career, Meadows was a member of a joint Harvard-MIT research group that developed a computer simulation model clarifying relationships between growth and finite resources on the earth. Using this model, the Club of Rome sponsored extensive research that resulted in the best-selling book, "The Limits to Growth" (1972), co-authored by Meadows and others. Attention was focused on a doomsday prognosis if growth continued unchecked. Meadows and her associates, however, presented options for achieving a sustainable society if there were a movement away from dependence on growth, equity in wealth, and if technologies were used to enhance efficiency of natural-resource use. "Toward Global Equilibrium" (1973) and "Dynamics of Growth in a Finite World" (1974) are companion technical volumes to "The Limits to Growth." They present reports on the simulation models, examinations of economic, political, and ethical implications of the findings, and a detailed description of the computer model, World3. In addition to her research sponsored by the Club of Rome, Meadows, as one of the editors of "Groping in the Dark" (1982), fully articulates that basic human needs can be met in the future if social and political structures, as well as values, do not hinder efforts for sustainability and equity. Meadows states that equity, rather than individual and national-wealth aggrandizement, is increasingly recognized as a major factor in planetary survival. Twenty years after "The Limits to Growth," Meadows and others in "Beyond the Limits" (1992) find that some options for a sustainable future have narrowed. However, they claim that new technologies can, if employed wisely, contribute to sustainability. The book emphasizes social-policy options rather than models. After working for two years on the Club of Rome research project, Meadows became a member of the faculty at Dartmouth College where she was systems analyst and adjunct professor in the Environmental Studies Program. Meadows has a lifestyle that reflects her views about sustaining finite resources and valuing equity rather than personal economic gain. She has lived in a commune, studied Zen Buddhism, and believed that people today are ultimately responsible for a future that holds "unspeakable horrors or undreamed-of wonders." She died in 2001 from a bacterial infection. Her titles include Limits to Growth-The 30 year Update, The Electronic Oracle: Computer Models and Social Decisions and Thinking in Systems - A Primer.

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