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Thinking in Systems: A Primer [Paperback]

by Donella H. Meadows
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (136 customer reviews)

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Book Description

December 3, 2008 1603580557 978-1603580557

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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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Just before her death, scientist, farmer and leading environmentalist Meadows (1941-2001) completed an updated, 30th anniversary edition of her influential 1972 environmental call to action, Limits to Growth, as well as a draft of this book, in which she explains the methodology-systems analysis-she used in her ground-breaking work, and how it can be implemented for large-scale and individual problem solving. With humorous and commonplace examples for difficult concepts such as a "reinforcing feedback loop," (the more one brother pushes, the more the other brother pushes back), negative feedback (as in thermostats), accounting for delayed response (like in maintaining store inventory), Meadows leads readers through the increasingly complex ways that feedback loops operate to create self-organizing systems, in nature ("from viruses to redwood trees") and human endeavor. Further, Meadows explicates methods for fixing systems that have gone haywire ("The world's leaders are correctly fixated on economic growth ...but they're pushing with all their might in the wrong direction"). An invaluable companion piece to Limits to Growth, this is also a useful standalone overview of systems-based problem solving, "a simple book about a complex world" graced by the wisdom of a profound thinker committed to "shaping a better future."
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

"When I read Thinking in Systems I am reminded of the enormity of the gap between systemic thinkers and policy makers. If this book helps narrow the gap, it will be Dana's greatest contribution."--Lester Brown, founder and President, Earth Policy Institute



"Dana Meadows' exposition in this book exhibits a degree of clarity and simplicity that can only be attained by one who profoundly and honestly understands the subject at hand--in this case systems modeling. Many thanks to Diana Wright for bringing this extra legacy from Dana to us."--Herman Daly, Professor, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland at College Park



"Reading Thinking in Systems evokes the wisdom and even the voice of Dana Meadows. We are reminded of how she was not only one of the great systems thinkers, but also one of our greatest teachers. This is modestly called a primer, and indeed it is, but unlike most books with that title, this one quickly takes one from the elementary into deep systems thinking about issues as critical today as they were when Dana wrote these words. The discussion of oil use and the interaction of its extraction pattern with economic decision making should be required reading for all energy policy makers and energy company executives (as well as all informed citizens in a democracy). The fisheries case reminds us of how little any government or private actor has done to grasp the importance of takeout flows in determining stocks when the input flows are not within our control. The commentary on economics and, yes the need to consider limits, is a clear systems statement that clarifies a great deal of discussion that goes back to The Limits to Growth.

It is remarkable that Dana is able to explain with such clarity such systems concepts of stocks, flows, feedback, time delays, resilience, bounded rationality, and system boundaries and to illustrate each one with multiple informative examples. Her statement that goals that optimize subsystems will sub optimize the functioning of the total system, is truly profound. As the book moves from the 'mechanics' of systems dynamics to Dana's more philosophical perspective, we are treated to her inherent belief in human values that consider the good of all, and how much more effective considering the needs of others is likely to be in solving larger, complex problems. The universe and our society may be very complex and operate in counterintuitive, non-liner fashion, but following the insights of this book and applying them will provide for far more effective solutions to the challenges of a 7 billion person planet than current incremental, linear responses by governments, corporations and individuals."--Bill Moomaw, Professor of International Environmental Policy at the Fletcher School, Tufts University



"In Dana Meadows's brilliantly integrative worldview, everything causes everything else; cause and effect loop back on themselves. She was the clearest thinker and writer co-creating the art and science of systems dynamics, and Thinking in Systems distills her lifetime of wisdom. This clear, fun-to-read synthesis will help diverse readers everywhere to grasp and harness how our complex world really works."--Amory B. Lovins, Chairman and Chief Scientist, Rocky Mountain Institute



"Dana Meadows taught a generation of students, friends, and colleagues the art and science of thinking beyond conventional boundaries. For her systems thinking included the expected things like recognizing patterns, connections, leverage points, feedback loops and also the human qualities of judgment, foresight, and kindness. She was a teacher with insight and heart. This long anticipated book, the distillation of her life's work, is a gem."--David Orr, Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics, Oberlin College



"The publication of Thinking in Systems is a landmark. To live sustainably on our planet, we must learn to understand human-environment interactions as complex systems marked by the impact of human actions, the prominence of nonlinear change, the importance of initial conditions, and the significance of emergent properties. Dana Meadows' final contribution is the best and most accessible introduction to this way of thinking we have. This book is destined to shape our understanding of socio-ecological systems in the years to come in much the same way that Silent Spring taught us to understand the nature of ecosystems in the 1960s and 1970s."--Oran R. Young, Professor, Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at University of California, Santa Barbara



"Thinking in Systems is required reading for anyone hoping to run a successful company, community, or country. Learning how to think in systems is now part of change-agent literacy. And this is the best book of its kind."--Hunter Lovins, founder and President of Natural Capital Solutions and coauthor of Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution



"Dana Meadows was one of the smartest people I ever knew, able to figure out the sensible answer to almost any problem. This book explains how she thought, and hence is of immense value to those of us who often wonder what she'd make of some new problem. A classic."--Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy



"An inspiring sequel to Dana Meadows' lifetime of seminal contributions to systems thinking, this highly accessible book should be read by everyone concerned with the world's future and how we can make it as good as it possibly can be."--Peter H. Raven, President, Missouri Botanical Garden



"Few matched Dana Meadows remarkable blend of eloquence and clarity in making systems thinking understandable. When Dana began her career, the field was esoteric and academic. Today it is the sine quo non for intelligent action in business and society. The publication of Meadows' previously unfinished manuscript is a gift for leaders of all sorts and at all levels."--Peter M. Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline and The Necessary Revolution



Publishers Weekly, Starred Review-
Just before her death, scientist, farmer and leading environmentalist Meadows (1941-2001) completed an updated, 30th anniversary edition of her influential 1972 environmental call to action, Limits to Growth, as well as a draft of this book, in which she explains the methodology-systems analysis-she used in her ground-breaking work, and how it can be implemented for large-scale and individual problem solving. With humorous and commonplace examples for difficult concepts such as a "reinforcing feedback loop," (the more one brother pushes, the more the other brother pushes back), negative feedback (as in thermostats), accounting for delayed response (like in maintaining store inventory), Meadows leads readers through the increasingly complex ways that feedback loops operate to create self-organizing systems, in nature ("from viruses to redwood trees") and human endeavor. Further, Meadows explicates methods for fixing systems that have gone haywire ("The world's leaders are correctly fixated on economic growth ...but they're pushing with all their might in the wrong direction"). An invaluable companion piece to Limits to Growth, this is also a useful standalone overview of systems-based problem solving, "a simple book about a complex world" graced by the wisdom of a profound thinker committed to "shaping a better future.


Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing (December 3, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1603580557
  • ISBN-13: 978-1603580557
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 5.9 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (136 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,128 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Donella H. Meadows was a pioneering environmental scientist, author, teacher, and farmer widely considered ahead of her time. She was one of the world's foremost systems analysts and lead author of the influential Limits to Growth. She was Adjunct Professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College, the founder of the Sustainability Institute and co-founder of the International Network of Resource Information Centers.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
177 of 187 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Perspective on Systems March 18, 2009
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
While earning my degree in Mechanical Engineering, I was constantly bombarded by all kinds of systems. Thinking in systems is a critical part of many areas of engineering. Whether you are looking at an electrical circuit, an ecosystem, HVAC, pot roast or a nuclear reactor, there are many similarities in behavior and structure. Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows does a great job demonstrating the purpose and approach of mapping everything and anything to a logical system.

The first half of the book introduces the reader gently to the basics of what a system is and how they are defined. You'll learn about feedback loops, flows and stocks. I found this section repetitive, basic and boring. However, if you haven't had this stuff drilled into your head for four years, it may have more to offer you.

The second half of the book I found incredibly informative and interesting. The author departs from an engineering perspective here and you'll see less and less charts and diagrams at this point. Chapters five and six discuss common reasons why systems fail and how to help them succeed. There are some quirky assumptions we seem to erroneously make over and over. The author is kind enough to lay them out plainly so you don't fall victim to the same mistakes (though you surely will).

The real joy of this book is the reason I wanted to become an engineer: it helps you understand more about the world around you. Thinking in Systems can apply to just about anything. It's a pretty powerful concept that could help you more logically organize your problem solving at work or home. This book only offers a basic introduction, but even with a degree in a related science, I still learned a lot (mostly in chapters 5 and 6). If you do pick it up and enjoy it, I'd recommend checking out some (slightly) more technical offering that delve into a wider range of systems modeling with higher math.
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71 of 80 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars THE handbook for living January 12, 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
In a nutshell, this book is about systems. So much more than this, it is a journey into the meta-rules of how the universe and everything in it comes and "plays" together. There is one thing to be understood that applies to physiology, businesses, economies, plants and puppies alike. Everything is a system. And all systems have behaviors and rules. As Donella Meadows writes: "The trick...is to recognize what structures contain which latent behaviors, and what conditions release those behaviors -- and where possible to arrange the structures and conditions to reduce the probability of destructive behaviors and to encourage the possibility of beneficial ones."

Grasping "the whole universe" is certainly a momumental task. The book brilliantly presents concepts in very graspable units. She starts with picturing what a system is -- a stock with inflows and outflows that affect its stability and all of which are further affected by feedback loops and delays.

So armed with this model, individuals may be better guided in their decisions and actions as it becomes clear that actions can beget other actions and reactions (or unintended consequences.) But there is even more complexity. For instance, policies are a way to control the stocks and flows within a system. However, one of several behavior archetypes is policy resistance which comes from the bounded rationality of the actors within a system, each with his or her own goal. Meadows takes the reader on a deep and thought-provoking journey through all the behavior archetypes of systems. The result is an empowering "forewarned is forearmed" knowledge.

That is the ultimate goal of this book.
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63 of 72 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very useful introduction April 16, 2009
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I first learned and practiced systems analysis back in the 1970s, and it's a skill that seems neglected in the training of many young professionals I come in contact with.

"Thinking in Systems: A Primer" is a book I hoped would be informative and accessible for people who need to develop the skill or just refresh their own talents. It does present its subject systematically and without confusing jargon.

While I found the writing clear and well-organized in its development and presentation of the subject, I found many of the illustrations less than helpful. I would have liked a less holistic and more concrete development of the analysis of the examples in the book.

For use as a textbook, an appendix with a glossary of terms of art and sybols would be very helpful. Nonetheless, reading this will give the novice an appreciation of what systems analysis is, and why it is critical to problem solving. Its informal approach may be more suited for young people today than a more formal and rigidly structured treatment.
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89 of 108 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Freshman Initiation July 13, 2010
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
In her "Note from the Editor," Diana Wright advises the reader that the manuscript for "Thinking in Systems" went unpublished for eight years before Dana Meadows' unfortunate death. Perhaps there was a reason for that: perhaps Dana Meadows recognized that the manuscript was not ready for publication. For the text is uncertain whether it is an introduction to systems analysis as a scientific endeavor, a tableau of counter-intuitive results "explained" by "systems thinking", or a pseudo-analytic basis for the usual policy preferences of the political left. In its raw form, it is a mish-mash of these and other incomplete themes, so by the end you're not sure what the point was.

Were it an introductory text in systems analysis for freshman students of English literature, the first four chapters might be ok. Meadows introduces the notions of stocks, inputs, and outputs in a way that could persuade a non-technical reader that systems analysis was a quantitative science and that the relevant quantities might be computed so long as students from another department were available. She also introduces the notion of feedback and discusses the qualitatively different forms of output resulting from positive or negative feedback. She even discusses the effects on the output of varying feedback delay. This may be about as far as you can go without introducing any math, and as Meadows did not introduce any math, this also might have been a good place to stop.

But sadly, the editors chose to publish what came next. Next was chapter 5, "Systems Traps...and Opportunities." Here we find discussions of a variety of very complicated systems--Romanian and Swedish abortion policy, for example--whose analysis is beyond most humans, let alone freshman literature students.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Very insightful
Everyone in every discipline from every walk of life can benefit from an understanding of the concepts delineated in this volume. Read more
Published 1 day ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Easy to comprehend
Many systems books are a bit soft on clarity. This book is clear and to the point ith easily understood examples! I am happy with it!
Published 8 days ago by Jett
5.0 out of 5 stars great service
not the best book to explain how thinking in systems works but it was a requirement for my class. overall the service and the shipping was awesome and super fast
Published 16 days ago by Sweet Queen
5.0 out of 5 stars Seeing the world differently
There's a great paradox in this work. On the one hand we are systems within systems and while understanding that or viewing the world that way doesn't give us the predictability... Read more
Published 16 days ago by Edward Heidicker
3.0 out of 5 stars great book
author shared insights about system thinking and changing our thinking to systems. we live in systems and sometimes they interlap
Published 18 days ago by T. Osei
5.0 out of 5 stars excelent book!
This primer is a very complete view of Systems thinking with examples and theory that ilustrate the complexity and a way tio understand it
Published 1 month ago by Francisco Andres
5.0 out of 5 stars I love this book!
Words cannot fully express my gratitude for this book's appearance: it fits entirely its role as a "primer". It should be on everyone's bookshelf.
Published 1 month ago by danilo
5.0 out of 5 stars Systems - the basic building blocks
This primer is a great companion guide to anyone venturing into attempting to begin to understand the web of connections of the system around us. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing
Quite simply, one of the three or four finest non-fiction books I've ever read. If only all non-fiction books handled their subject matter in such a clear, concise way. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Philip Welsh
5.0 out of 5 stars Pretty cool book....
I had to buy this for a class - and most of the time the books can be rough to get through. This book has made me look at life differently. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Lisa G
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