For Thinking in Systems book group: do the assigned readings before you come to class on the date listed; enter your reading homework for these three questions here (remember to enter useful comments on your topic page, as well).Thinking in Systems

2/28 3/14 3/28 4/11 4/25
Intro, Ch 1 (p. 34) Ch 2 & 3 (p. 85) Ch 4 & 5 (p. 141)and post responses for Ch1-5 Ch 6 (p. 165) Ch 7 & Appendix (p. 203) and post responses for Ch 6-7
  1. Explain how one idea in the reading relates to other topics already covered in class or something you learned elsewhere (another class or life experience).
  2. List what you think are the three to five most important points made in the reading.
  3. Write a question to provoke discussion among others who read the same passage.

44 Responses to “Thinking in Systems

  1. aubreylane Says:

    1.) For some reason the parallels between ch.4 and the discipline of psychology kept sticking out in my head. In particular the phrase “…longterm behavior provides clues to underlying system stucture.” A person cannot simply be reduced to event-level analysis in regard to mental-illness. Though episodes(events) may occur with seemingly definite reasons, one cannot even begin to understand the whole picture at that level. But a pattern of behavior, established by examining a series of events and their
    correlating nature can, I believe, give much greater insight as to what the problem might be. In addition, this long-term event+behavior analysis may provide deeper, more long-lasting benefits to whomever being treated.

    – “the purpose of subunits may add up to an overall behavior that no one wants” explaining that despite the goal of the whole unit, purposes of subunits may come into conflict & produce undesirable effects.

    – ecologist Garrett Hardin’s quote on side-effects… That our way of thinking about effects unforeseen is in large part detrimental to systems level understanding, & that it serving only to protect us from doing seeing things at that level.

    – “to be a highly functional system, hierarchy must balance the welfare, freedoms, and responsibilities of the subsystems and total system— there must be enough central control to achieve coordination toward the large system goal, and autonomy to keep all subsystems flourishing, functioning & self-organizing” tells us the elements necessary to create a functional system and why balance is so vital—
    especially between control and autonomy.

    – “our mental models fail to take into account the complications of the real world” — hits right on the head the idea that despite fancy models and trends the world is full of surprises and that our knowledge is still very limited, and limiting.

    – “…behavior of a system is its performance over time”

    3. Do you think that the complexity that arises from systems can be overwhelmingly detrimental or does it usually serve to build up resiliency?

    1. Well, resiliency IS a defining feature of a complex and adaptable system, so the assumption the system is inherently resilient, despite it’s limits. As far as a system being “overwhelmingly detrimental”, that depends on the context of the question with which we are focused. It also depends on the definition of “detrimental”, which is subjective. If detrimental is termed self-destructive or defeating, then the answer is yes due to the finite nature of systems, which the author has extensively discussed. However if one deems “detrimental” within the human dimension of values and judgment, the question gets further complciated. For example (and this is a very broad and extreme example), let’s say we’re referring to the concept and implementation of European colonialism in the 17th and 18th centuries, which has all the defining features of a system: elements, interconnectedness and a purpose. To the colonizer, exterminating a region’s native population, extracting it’s resources and imposing it’s laws and boundaries, in which case the “system”, or means to an end, is perceieved beneficial and effective to the colonizers’ interests. But to the host country it obviously detrimental and effacing. The same system can be perceived either beneficial or detrimental, thus illustrating the subjective nature of systems, but more so perhaps, the subjective nature of the human context. I’m not sure if that’s what you meant by your question, but I hope that helped in some way.

  2. yochivoy Says:

    From the first Chapter of Meadows book I got that one can not fully understand a systems behavior by looking at is parts (elements) solely, in order to understand the system behavior better we need to also and more carefully look at the relationships between its elements. This was a real revelation for me that has helped me make more sense of my environment and my self. This sufi teaching story really got to me and I like to attempt its application to my personal experience in life.

    -You think that because you understand “one” that you must therefore understand “two” because one and one make two. But you forget that you must also understand “and”.- (p.12)

    Something that I found really interesting was that “the least obvious part of the system, its function or purpose is often the most crucial determinant of the system’s behavior.” (p. 16)
    I found this to be so interesting because when I applied it to my closest system (myself) i found it to be true! Most of my behavior is determined by my chosen and searched purpose in life. (I have tried to make this book personal, so I can digested, enjoy it and retained better.)

    As I have learned about systems I have learned that changes take time and even though sometimes we might perceive a sudden change in the system if we look carefully enough we can find one or a group of balancing and/or feedback loops responsible for the change. I was sadden when I realized that a very similar amount of of time that took us to pollute our environment will take us to clean it. And it worried me to realize that “Because of decades-long delays as the earth’s oceans respond to warmer temperatures, human fossil-fuel emissions have already induced changes in climate that will not be fully revealed for a generation or two.” (p.105)
    I was amazed to learn that the goal of a system is to keep perpetuation, to survive. almost like living things want to stay alive and pass their genes. And then I was more amazed when i read that when nothing kills or stops the growth of the system the own system will cause its destruction by depleting its feedback loops. In a way just like we have been growing and “taking over” the world and no predator could stop us, well maybe the only thing that will is ourselves when we pollute and deplete our life essential resources…
    I think that we have been really good at decreasing resilience in general. We have done it to our food (let that be animals and plants) by modifying it genetically and taking it away from it natural environment. But we have also done it to ourselves I believe. We have made ourselves so dependent on fossil fuel and purchasable services that some of us don’t know how to grow our own food or even cook it for example. Being more resilient is something that I am happy we are paying a little more attention to.

    An ecologist named C.S. Holling once said “Placing a system in a straitjacket of constancy can cause fragility to evolve.”(p.76) no wonder the only constant in the universe is change.

    I really enjoyed reading about self organization and hierarchy in chapter three, specially the simple start and growth of a snowflake to a marvelous and complex geometries. Thinking about how from relatively simple organizing rules complex forms of self organization may arise helped me comprehend the evolution of live a little better.
    This quote can be applied so good to our government “Hierarchical systems evolve from the bottom up. The purpose of the upper layers of the hierarchy is to serve the purposes of the lower layers.” (p. 85)
    Chapter four was humbling and relieving for me specially this passage “Everything we think we know about the world is a model. None of these models is or ever will be the real world.” (p.86)
    I think that so far the one story that has portrayed the concept of systems the best is the story about the Spruce Budworms, firs, and pesticides. I was blown away by the intrinsic relationships and balancing and feedback loops, the ubiquitous delays and limiting factors. And I want to conclude wit this very humorous and legitimate payer “God grant us the serenity to exercise our bounded rationality freely in the systems that are structured appropriately, the courage to restructure systems that aren’t and the wisdom to know the difference.” (p.110)

  3. deniellea Says:

    I am reading a book called Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture by Rosemary Morrow for my topic team and there are many examples of systems thinking and different types of feedback loop structures. The following is an excerpt about how energy flows through ecosystems:

    All life forms must have energy to drive their activities. The primary source of energy for life is the light energy from the sun. Plants capture light energy through photosynthesis and turn it into chemical energy, such as carbohydrates, sugars, waxes and oils which are eaten by organisms and, in turn, supply them with energy.
    Energy moves through all living systems from the sun (the great power station in the sky) to the plants (primary producers), then to the herbivores (consumers), which eat seeds, grass, leaves, or fruit and a variety of other organisms. Eventually, everything decays and ends up in the gut of the earthworm (decomposer) where the remaining energy is finally released by a bacterium as carbon dioxide and water.
    By growing plants, whether a vegetable garden, or a forest, you are initiating the capture of energy from the sun. It then flows through all the organisms by a variety of routes, which form a web or network.
    Energy can be lost from your system (when you take leaves and grass cuttings to the tip, for example), or you can save it and reuse it (by turning those cuttings into compost). When you are conscious of the flow through of energy you use it many times. When chickens eat your diseased fruit to make manure, which is fertilizer for your garden, you are using energy well. (Morrow, 21-22).

  4. deniellea Says:

    In the first chapter Meadows defines a system as “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something,” and such systems have 3 key ingredients: “elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose.”
    She emphizies that the main point in systems thinking is that to gain understanding of probable behaviors of a complex system you have to also look at and understand all of these many ingredients–behavior is inherent in the structural dynamics.
    In the ancient holistic healing system called Ayurveda the key to good health is digestion. After studying a little bit about the Ayurvedic principles, my whole understanding of what makes up a digestive system has expanded from just a collection of teeth, organs, and enzymes, to encompass my also my entire sensory intake and mental/emotional experiences. I have learned through Ayurveda that every food also has it’s own unique chemical make-up, physical and elemental properties that have influence upon my own inner system.
    According to ayurveda, it is important to choose foods according to what is most balancing for your individual constitution as well as what is most seasonally appropriate. For example, during the cold winter months they suggest to hold off on eating an excess of raw foods or salads because these foods are harder to digest and are considered “cooling” (gradually decreasing one’s digestive fire). During the summer months, however, the fire element is higher both in our bodies and in nature and it is better to eat cooling, hydrating, and light foods during this time, such as watermellon.
    Now when I make my food selections I not only look for good taste, but also try to assess how the food makes me feel after eating (ie do I feel energized or am I ready to take a nap?). These questions can lead to discoveries about what creates optiumun balance in health and can lead to the use of food more as what it has always been intended for–fuel, nourishment, and medicine.
    Question: Have you noticed how the function of your digestive system is dependent on many factors–not just the types of food you eat, but also how much you eat, how quickly you eat, what types of foods you combine, and whether you are eating something that is easy for your body to digest or not? If more people where educated about holistic nutrition principles and to understand the workings of their own body constitutions and how it naturally responds to what it consumes, how would this benefit society?

  5. 1. Reading this chapter made me think a lot about permaculture in general. Not only the specific practices of it but also the deeper ideas behind it. Creating a permanent culture and society that aren’t constantly drained by our actions as global citizens. Also a lot of thoughts about our government and how it is managed came up in my mind.

    2. a)The simple point that the function of a system is to ensure perpetuation. So simple yet so rare that current systems accomplish this.
    b)Systems change slowly. They are intricate and chaos would most likely ensue if a system was quickly destroyed.
    c)no physical system can grow forever in a finite system. Obvious yet hard for our society as a whole to grasp?
    d)The points she brings up about system purposes and purposes of subunits adding up to an overall behavior no one wants. I appreciated her examples and thought it was very relevant.

    3. I found the opening paragraph really moving and pertinent “If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government , but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact , then those patterns will repeat themselves… There’s so much talk about the system and so little understanding.” -Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
    Personally I feel that the current capitalist state needs to basically be destroyed if we ever want to fix our current environmental problems and become happier as human beings. This quote really resonated with me and my thoughts about this. I think it’s very true and also very scary. How do we as a large scale community change our ways of thinking? What do you think needs to happen to solve the colossal issues in our society?

    1. yochivoy Says:

      That is a question I ask my self often, what needs to happen? I don’t really know. This quote from the book got me thinking that if we don’t act, nature will. “No Physical entity can grow forever. If the human population does not chose and enforce their own limits to growth within their capacity of the supporting environment, then the environment will chose and enforce limits.(p.103)

    2. Since this was all from the first reading section I thought I would expand on some further areas that stuck out in the reading for me.

      In chapter three Meadows discusses Resilience, Self Organization and Hierarchies. I felt this was very important on many levels. I guess I keep looking at this book from a governmental slant. However that’s what I related this all to. Our lack of Resilience in the sense that we rely on a very stagnant system of bipartisan political system. I feel this system does not allow for dynamic movement and results in a weak government that does not adequately represent it’s people. Another parallel is our government as a hierarchy. “To be a highly functional system, hierarchy must balance the welfare, freedoms, and responsibilities of the subsystems and total system” (85). The problem here is our governments hierarchical makeup caters to corporations,banks and other financial institutions instead of working for the people. It also limits the peoples ability to self organize.

      This book has really made me realize how not well thought out so many of our worlds current systems are. It is so important that we begin to understand the great complexity of what goes into a system and how to think accordingly.

  6. deniellea Says:

    Here is an excerpt from an interview with important systems thinker, Fritjof Capra:

  7. johnrosshowe Says:

    1. The chapter about leverage points and especially the section on goals (pg.161) and how the purpose and/or function of a system largely determines its shape was interesting. If you think about politics or governmental structure one politicians system of actions regarding action due to a goal is going to be completely different, or the system is going to be completely different then a different politician with a different goal for instance; a president with a strong pro war campaign is likely going to be in a system oriented around military action, while a president with a anti-war campaign will likely develop a system with little to no military action. This may sound farely obvious but it pretty profound to think about structure based purely on the desire of a system. Systems really are based on goals, on purposes.

    2.Most Interesting Points:
    a) the leverage points were very interesting to consider from changes in the goals of a system to the mental paradigm wherein these systems originate.
    b) In order to understand a system, first study its beats its movements and interactions.
    c) the trap of “seeking the wrong goal” seemed somewhat importantly ironic just due to the prevalence of that system trap these days.

    3. Question for the Group: If the entirety of our universe revolves in systems is it in our capacities to understand them in their entirety, or is that being too egocentric? and are some things beyond our linear minds.

    1. mavedros Says:

      Good question, she says “systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned” [169] and to “listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone” [169, 170]. Also stated, “We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!” [170]. It’s a little more detailed on pages 167-170.
      This brings up my thoughts from another article: that we simply can better work with the environment and each other in a mutually inclusive way. There’s a deeper world of personal/whole develop that can pave untold paths between ourselves and the universe. Once we start dedicating our minds resources towards such purposes, and not (e.g. making deadlier weapons to kill one another); we’ll reach new insights we never previous imagined, and from that will arise more (with each new step there will be more).
      Hope that helps,

  8. Jesse Jensen Says:

    Transcending Paradigms. In the course of this short class, I think we’ve all learned something: that the info we need to change the world is very important, and everybody should have access to and include it when they make decisions, but also that this data and these new ideas are also so sorely missing from the average person’s life. It is imperative that we transcend the old ways of looking at things, the old ways of doing things, and that we need to strike out on our own, but together, to find the ways to live that let us all live much longer, stronger lives. Looking out for the needs of others is vital to preserving a viable ecosystem, but how strange that compassion looks to some!

    (a) Systems surprise us because of limited knowledge. It is fun to recall that every system we think we are studying is, in fact, a mental model of a natural-world process about which we don’t ever have all the data.

    (b) Ubiquitous delays are important to keep in your mind when thinking about systems because they are so pervasive and have such a big effect, that if you don’t remember about lag, nothing else will make sense. I like the inclusion of such delays as gestation or crop harvest cycles. I was thinking the other day about how long life is; what were they thinking when they said life is short?

    (c) Here’s a good one about policy resistance. Not only does each member or actor in a system do his or her own thing as far as their own behavior is concerned, but he or she also monitors the health of the overall process/system and takes their own initiative to correct imbalances as perceived by them.

    There are some who subscribe to the belief of reincarnation. Do you think the idea could be helpful to saving our planet? Does it matter if it is true or not, if believing it would produce healthier behavior overall? Or might it also produce different negative behavior?

  9. mavedros Says:

    1.) ‘Bounded Rationality’ seems to be the primary reoccurring theme of our political system, etc. Many thought ‘Obama’ would save humanity, but he has deviated quite a bit since taking office. His latest: expanding off-shore drilling
    There’s no doubt he’s established encouraging policies, but anyone placed in the same system; surrounded by the same information, running the status quo through the same stocks/flows, exposed to the same smells, fitted with the same lens will generally produce the same (previous) outcome. Individuals are not to blame; it’s the system structure that needs to change, not the individual there in.
    Those that went into an existing system to change that structure, ultimately get sucked in so to speak and contribute to the cycles (polices) of it. E.g. of a widely known quote comes to mind: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” – John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton. (Bounded Rationality is detailed on page 108)
    a. Everything’s connected, we create boundaries (linear models) in which our world operates, trying to bring all to order and under our control, so as to simply. ‘Models’ should be loosely based in such a way they can be modified as needed for any new obstacles that may manifest. They (models) are designed by us to deal with the current; if that state should change so too do our models. We need not feel trapped into doing things just one way. Self-organizing and nonlinear feed systems are inherently uncontrollable; design models around our environment (nature) so that we create and move forth using its usual (natural) properties harmoniously (Models are detailed on pages 92, 95, 97, 99, 167 and 172).
    b. Intervening can generate dependence and addiction if it’s a on going cycle (systemic). “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” – Chinese Proverb. Just giving and giving money, food, material objects won’t prevent that necessity, in fact it generates more of it (becomes systemic). Instead, provide knowledge, fare access to recourses, a voice and the like (creates resilience/independence). (Detailed on page 135).
    c. We ‘Drift to low performance’ when we‘re exposed to negatively (cynicism), if we are focused on, engulfed in it to the extent we identify ourselves from the lowest foundations of our society; we can become that which we frown upon (it’s reinforcing). We must weight every aspect of our culture (highlight the positives). Be absolute, comprising tends to let history repeat itself. We can become self-empowered, thus self-organized and surge forth upon the overall. (Additional details can be found on pages 184 and 185).
    d. Paradigms create the roots of our reality (that which we agree upon). There’s no absolute truth. Perhaps the only thing we can actually know is that we don’t know anything other than knowing we don’t know. (Further details on pages 163 and 164).
    e. Diversity is the key to any enduring system; various branches are required to restore the whole should a limb fail. Having a plan B, C, D… in essence. E.g. many food commodities have been reduced to an assorted few, because of shelf life, look, etc., but a single disease affecting only a particular variety could well destroy them all, throwing globe civilization into chaos. Seed Banks and other efforts to deploy (market) diverse types are mounting.
    3.) GNP: Gross National Product, measures our society by economic progress. This means the sicker the population, the more doctor visits (GNP goes up). Also, the sicker the populace, the further drugs required (GNP goes up). Some company’s take out life insurance on their employees, you die (GNP goes up) and so on. If such an objective is set, then said society will strive to attain the above. A ‘Care Based Society’ of sorts seems to be needed, one which measures a culture based on a knowledgeable public (highly educated), a healthy community (not one in need), free time to spend contributing to our community and connecting with friends, family and the larger world, etc. How can this society transcend the values (perceived, created or otherwise) of materialism, money, power and so on, to that of valuing knowledge, care, nonviolence, a good nights sleep, a full stomach (for all), etc.? Capitalism appears to have its basis in our culture of materialism and as such most employment is geared to satisfy whose ends (excess retail stores, food…). Can there be enough jobs for all in an Eco/Care Based system? Reducing the use of paper has cut the number of employees with the US postal service, less buying of clothes, electrics (in part) has already shut-down major stores (e.g. Mervyn’s, Circuit City…) and may continue the jobless rate. What will these Eco/Care Based jobs look like and how can we make the transition? (P.S. It seems as though we’re in it).

  10. adhammond Says:

    i) Diversity is intrinsic to stability at carrying capacity.

    ii) Aid and encourage the forces and structures that help the system run itself.
    Practice intrinsic responsibility.
    Embrace your errors.

    iii)What sort of system are you most familiar with; how would you diagram it using “stocks” and “flows”.

    iv) Economy is based on Ecology.

  11. adhammond Says:

    i) Diversity is intrinsic to stability at carrying capacity.

    ii) Aid and encourage the forces and structures that help the system run itself.
    Practice intrinsic responsibility.
    Embrace your errors.

    iii)What sort of system are you most familiar with; how would you diagram it using “stocks” and “flows”.

    iv) Economy is based on Ecology

  12. johnrosshowe Says:

    1. The concept of feedback loops were really what hit it home for me plainly due to the blatant reverence in everything around us. Even my morning shower works through a feedback loop, if i get up to early and the pipes are still cold the water doesn’t get hot, yet if i wake up at 9am instead of 7:30am the outside temperature has warmed the pipes to the point where hot water can remain hot until it gets to my shower.

    2. Most interesting points:
    a) no physical system can grow forever in the finite, eventually there has to be and will be something to keep it in check.
    b) viewing things in systems in general gives one a much more comprehensive understanding of things and phenomena
    c) I thought the quote at the beginning of the book from Robert Persig was fascinating. “If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves”. This is a facet of change that needs to be far more recognized. We often try to change things in our world at the branches of phenomena rather then at the roots, which never works, the catalyst for the human things of this world are seemingly always inside the heads of people. That is where the change need to occur.

    3. Question for the group: It seems essential that we develop a sustainable culture and I believe we all see it this way. Yet, how do we convince people who have differing beliefs and opinions regarding how they should live their lives to adopt a more sustainable approach to life despite the loss in comfort or glamor or etc?

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