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BOOK REVIEW

Making systems work for you

By Rich Barlow
February 16, 2009
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THINKING IN SYSTEMS: A Primer
By Donella H. Meadows
Edited by Diana Wright

Chelsea Green Publishing,
218 pp., $19.95

The late environmental scientist Donella Meadows cared as much about good teaching as good science. This is clear from "Thinking in Systems," her final, posthumously published book, in which Meadows translates samples of techno-babble into human. For example:

"According to the competitive exclusion principle, if a reinforcing feedback loop rewards the winner of a competition with the means to win further competitions, the result will be the elimination of all but a few competitors." That mouthful, she writes, boils down to "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."

Meadows, who taught at Dartmouth College before her death in 2001, helped to pioneer systems theory, the study of how objects interact in systems -- organizations, ecosystems, cities, economies. It is the subject of her book, and as the offspring of mathematics and engineering, it can seem indecipherable to those of us who are humanities types. But Meadows says the field offers vital lessons about problems ranging from hunger to pollution to financial busts.

These problems are inherent in complex systems, whether they are economic, political, or environmental, she argues. You can't beat the system; rather, you must somehow redesign it -- which may mean altering your own behavior -- if you hope to address an issue. Indeed, Meadows made her name as the lead author of "The Limits to Growth," the Nixon-era bestseller that warned how our planet would impose limits on population and industrial growth by running out of resources and becoming a polluted mess, unless we limited that growth ourselves.

Her last book confirms Meadows's formidable explanatory powers, as she makes her topic comprehensible. Whether she makes it compelling is another matter.

Systems theory is littered with jargon: "bounded rationality," "suboptimization," and a couple of different kinds of "feedback loops." Meadows demystifies the concepts by illustrating them with simple, real-life examples. The amount of interest you earn on your savings account, for example, is determined by the amount that's already in the account, because your bank has a rule that interest is paid as a percentage of the deposited funds. That rule is a feedback loop.

Her environmentalism and (quite valid) reservations about laissez-faire markets put Meadows on the political left. But the lessons she draws from systems theory include some rather conservative virtues, such as respecting experience and the past before meddling: "If it's a social system, watch it work. Learn its history. Ask people who've been around a long time to tell you what has happened. If possible, find or make a time graph of actual data from the system -- people's memories are not always reliable when it comes to timing."

She also says that well-designed systems impose responsibility on decision-makers, and suggests as an example denying public or insurance reimbursement to people who require medical care because they smoke or don't buckle their seatbelts. It's not clear she advocates this, as elsewhere she mischievously quotes an ecologist who believes that opponents of abortion have a responsibility to bring up the children who would be produced. She doesn't linger on the point, almost certainly because she doesn't believe it.

For all the clarity Meadows brings to her subject, and for all the wisdom she draws from it, nonscientists are likely to find their eyes glaze over at times. Some of us are into feedback loops, but some aren't. The former will enjoy this tale. Speaking for the latter, I was reminded of Mr. Philpet, a gifted math teacher at my high school. He made numbers and equations understandable to my un-mathematical mind. He just never succeeded in making them interesting.

You can each Rich Barlow at barlow81@gmail.com.

THINKING IN SYSTEMS: A Primer By Donella H. Meadows

Edited by Diana Wright

Chelsea Green Publishing, 218 pp., $19.95

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