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29/01/2017

Reality is made of systems

Book review

Thinking in Systems

A Primer

Donella H. Meadows (2008)

This is one of several reviews I published at Goodreads – though “review” is too charitable; rather they’re brief notes on what caught my attention reading the book, or things I ought to remember in the future about it. Enjoy, maybe?

“If A causes B, is it possible that B also causes A?”

Meadows (2008), p. 34

If linear cause and effect can even be argued to exist, it simply is not useful to thinking about the complex reality we live in. Very often, when trying to make sense of the world around us, we focus on events: a President is elect. A terrorist attacks. Crops get ruined over a drought. We rejoice and despair over things that happened. But things happen all the time, forming trends: president’s voting polls go up or down, terror attacks increase or decrease, crops flourish or not.

But even these trends can be viewed as a whole, for the reality we live in is (as far as we can tell) just one system, where stuff causes and is caused by other stuff.

Systems theory is a way of trying to make sense of our reality. By viewing “things that change over time” (anything) as¬†stocks¬†and their change as¬†flows, and paying attention to the¬†loops¬†that tie everything together, we can understand reality more productively and empathically. The actions of nature, those of different social groups, those of ‘powerful’ individuals – in other words, the economy, culture, politics, the environment, but also human psychology and biology – are each other’s causes and effects: a government outlaws psychotropic substances. That doesn’t eliminate society’s demand for it, so offers arise – in spite of whatever the law says -, illegally. Police acts to fight against those who sell it. The latter then seek armed protection – violence becomes associated with drugs. The government acts by increasing repression. Violence increases in return. More people go to jail. The price goes up, down — quickly you see how¬†words aren’t necessarily the best tool for talking about systems.

Just as quickly you realize how futile and counter-productive it is to seek who’s to ‘blame’ for a particular complex problem: agents (people!) have bounded rationality, and cognitions that are shaped and limited by their previous experiences and expectations in ways that completely dispel any hope of achieving, single-handedly, superior reason to discover the truth over what is good for everyone. But that’s my cognitive science love speaking there – of course, it is directly connected to systems thinking.

To fix problems, we have to overcome our own paradigms, embracing reality in all its complexity and rethinking what policies, beliefs or circumstances led us to where we are now. Ideas also have their usefulness Рand bottom-line, I think all this is actually useful to try and make the world a better place.

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