Critical Systems Thinking

Donella Meadows, who was one of the great systems thinkers of the past few decades, left us a brilliant essay titled “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.” There are places within every complex system where “a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” Meadows suggested that these leverage points have a hierarchy of effectiveness.

She said that the most powerful interventions in a system address its goals, rules, and mindsets, rather than parameters and numbers—things like subsidies and taxes.

But thought that’s expressed in language has great potential.

Using language (including mathematics), we can assess the validity of statements about the world, then build upon proven statements until we ultimately achieve comprehensive scientific understandings and the capacity to manipulate reality in new ways (to build a bridge, for example, or land a probe on a distant asteroid, or update an app).

Systems thinking would suggest very different approaches—such as reducing fossil fuel consumption while capturing and storing atmospheric carbon in replanted forests and regenerated topsoil.

These approaches recognize the role of inputs (such as fossil fuels), outputs (like carbon dioxide), and feedbacks (including the balancing feedback provided by soil carbon flows).In some cases, a systemic approach to addressing climate change could have dramatic side benefits: regenerative agriculture would not just sequester carbon in the soil, it would also make our food system more sustainable while preserving biodiversity.Interventions based in systems thinking often tend to solve many problems at once.In my admittedly partial judgment, some of the smartest people I’ve met happen also to be among the more pessimistic.(One apparently smart expert I haven’t had opportunity to meet yet is 86-year-old social scientist Mayer Hillman, the subject of this recent article in .) In discussing climate change and all our other eco-social predicaments, how does one distinguish accurate information from statements intended to elicit either false hope or needless capitulation to immediate and utter doom?Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the field in which systems thinking is most highly developed is ecology—the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments.Since it is a study of relationships rather than things in isolation, ecology is inherently systems-oriented.This has powerful implications for addressing climate change, because it suggests that subsidizing renewable energy or taxing carbon is a fairly weak way of inducing systemic change.If we really want to address a deeply rooted, systemic problem like climate change, we may need to look at our society’s most fundamental paradigms—like, for example, the assumption that we must have continual economic growth.We intuitively know that systems are more than the sum of their parts.But digging deeper into the insights of systems theory—going beyond the basics—can pay great dividends both in our understanding of the world, and in our strategic effectiveness at making positive change happen.


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