Tag Archives: Donella Meadows

Thinking in Systems by Donnella Meadows

Book Cover of Thinking in SystemsI highly recommend Donnella Meadow‘s little book, Thinking in Systems: A Primer (Chelsea Green 2008). It’s short, fun, and to the point. No math or physics required. Recommended for everyone, literally.

In clear, humorous, commonplace situations, Meadows explains the use of systems analysis and how it can be applied in both large-scale and individual problem solving. She moves from simple to more complex examples ultimately explaining the complex ways that feedback loops are used to create self-organizing systems in nature and society. She also explains methods for fixing systems that have gone astray.

About Donella “Dana” Meadows

Photo of Donella Meadows
Donnella Meadows

Dana Meadows (1941-2001) was a biophysicist and  environmental scientist who taught at Dartmouth for 26 years following her research fellowship at MIT where she worked with Jay Forrester the creator of the study of system dynamics. She is author of one of the most influential essays on systems dynamics, “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” available for PDF download and reprinted in Thinking in Systems, pp. 145-165. She received numerous awards for her work including a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 1994. Her work is considered to have a formative influence in many fields and on many scholars. Unfortunately she died of a bacterial infection at the age of 59 and before completing Thinking in Systems. The manuscript had been circulating amongst students and faculty who added comments. The final manuscript was edited by Diana Wright of the Sustainability Institute.

In 1996, Meadows founded the Sustainability Institute or the study of global systems and practical demonstrations of sustainable living, including cohousing and ecovillages. The Institute was founded next to Cobb Hill Cohousing in Hartland, VT and has been renamed the Donella Meadows Institute and moved to Norwich, VT. Her papers were donated by the Institute to the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College in 2011.

One of the wrong-headed ideas discussed in Thinking Systems, pushing in the wrong direction on fixing economic growth, the subject of the landmark book, The Limits to Growth; A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind, for which she was lead author. Using a computer model, it projects the effects of continued growth. An extensive review appeared in The Nation in 2012: The Limits to Growth: A Book that Launched a Movement by Christian Parenti. Limits was first published in 1972 and updated. The original version sold 12 million copies and was translated into 37 languages. It was 205 pages. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (2004) is 338 pages.

To purchase at Amazon: Thinking in Systems: A Primer, softcover 2008.

Is a Family a Hierarchy?

How does equality and freedom work in a family when a child’s ability to make decisions without harming themselves or others is inherently unequal? How can a family apply sociocratic principles if children cannot consent to the decisions that affect them? Can a family be a hierarchy and still be nurturing or does it have to be a hierarchy in order to be nurturing?

Most people agree that children are not born with the ability to make the decisions necessary for them to live safely and well. For children to be successful as adults, they need parental guidance, or the guidance of other adults in their lives. Is this a hierarchical relationship? If so, how does the child grow out of it? When do the children become free and equal? And how?

Systems Definition of Hierarchy

A definition of hierarchy that I find very useful is from  Thinking in Systems by Donella H. Meadows. It is a small book, very accessible, and an excellent introduction to systems thinking.

  • Hierarchical systems evolve from the bottom up. The purpose of the upper layers is to serve the purposes of the lower.
  • Systems are often self organizing, meaning they have the ability to structure themselves and to create new structures. To learn, diversify, and complexify.
  • Systems need to be managed for resilience, not just for productivity or stability.
  • There are always limits to resilience.

By analogy, applying Donella Meadows’ characteristics of a hierarchy to the family, the responsibility of the parents would be:

  • Serving the purposes of the children, which is to become independent, self-supporting adults, leading satisfying lives.
  • Teaching them to self-organize meaning to learn, diversify, and become more complex.
  • Teaching them to be resilient, not just productive and stable, and
  • Teaching them to understand that they are human, there are limits to resilience.

As a guide for parenting I think that works very well. It also establishes the purpose of a hierarchy in a family system. It points the hierarchy toward the development of self-organizing systems, toward enabling children to create new family structures, new hierarchies. The understanding of sociocratic principles would be helpful in managing the process of parenting self-organizing children. (Who clean their rooms, sometimes.)