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Thinking in Systems: a Primer: International Bestseller Paperback – Illustrated, 14 September 2015
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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.
"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
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Pro: learned a few new English words.
I am not a student of systems or someone who ever spent much time thinking about systems at all, although, like practically everybody, my life and work are all about either creating, maintaining, supporting, or surviving various systems. I heard about this book from a Tweet referring to its twenty-fifth anniversary and linking to an article singing its praises, which it does better than I can. For me, it has been a truly revelatory experience, a platonic slave-in-the-cave moment, which I believe will divide my cognitive experience into pre and post its reading. As Meadows warns at its outset, studying systems leads one to see systems everywhere, which, of course, is because they were there all along. But being able to see and interpret them allows us to better participate and avoid traps that commonly lead to system failure. Sadly, it also allows us to understand why some decisions taken by executives, politicians, and others that manage systems in which we have little or no control are doomed to failure and to undermine their own goals. This awareness will help readers become better citizens/coworkers and critics of leadership. But it can also help us avoid issues that threaten our own, smaller systems, our relationships, families, homes, work, and health.
This book draws heavily on examples from the time in which it was written, which artificially sets the book in a particular historical moment. Meadows simply had so many examples to chose from, that she took quotes from contemporaneous newspaper articles. But the examples might as well be chosen from today’s stories or those from hundreds of years ago. They are just examples. This book is timeless. These quotes from the early nineties have the added benefit of proving her point, as in most cases history has borne out the predictions that stem from the flaws and features that Meadows points out.
Note that there were some oddities in the Kindle version. A few words seem to have disappeared in various places in the transposition. I bought a hard copy of the book and was able to fill the gaps (just a few words here and there, nothing that would keep me from recommending the Kindle edition). I hope the editors will correct this.
The end of the book contains a very useful appendix that I am tempted to tear out and put up on the wall, detailing fundamentals of systems thinking.
I could not recommend this highly enough.