Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Donella H. Meadows

Book cover

I got interested in this a while ago after reading “The Limits to Growth,” of which Meadows was one of the authors. It took me a while to get around to it! It is an interesting book but starts off very slowly, so I encourage readers to stick with it at least until chapter 5 or so. (It’s not very long in total anyway!) The first couple of chapters deal with very elementary concepts relating to stocks and flows, inputs and outputs, and are accompanied by some rather dorky diagrams. I actually think that, in this modern age, it would be pretty cool to re-implement some of the early examples in this book in an R/Jupyter Notebook or Shiny app context, where users could explore interactively the impact of varying system parameters on the overall behavior (leading to periodicity, crashes, etc.).

The latter part of the book gets fairly philosophical, in a way that I liked. In chapter 6, Meadows talks about seeing systems under different paradigms, and ultimately transcending paradigms entirely, leading to this rather rapturous paragraph:

“It is in this space of mastery over paradigms that people throw off addictions, live in constant joy, bring down empires, get locked up or burned at the stake or crucified or shot, and have impacts that last for millennia.”

Pretty intense for a book that starts out talking about bathtubs! It may come across as weird or pretentious in isolation, but I thought it really worked in context. Meadows comes across like sort of a wise adviser.

I’ll also comment that the book is a grounding read in the era of Trump, particularly during the current fevered discussions about FBI investigations and potential impeachment. Meadows writes:

“The bounded rationality of each actor in a system…may or may not lead to decisions that further the welfare of the system as a whole. If they do not, putting new actors into the same system will not improve the system’s performance. What makes a difference is redesigning the system to improve the information, incentives, disincentives, goals, stresses, and constraints that have an effect on specific actors.”

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars