Sunday 2014-02-09

Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows

Meadows worked on "The Limits to Growth", which took the systems modelling work of Jay Forrester and applied it to the world. Having worked with computer models all her life, this book is her advice.

There once were two watchmakers, named Hora and Tempus. Both of them made fine watches, and they both had many customers. People dropped into their stores, and their phones rang constantly with new orders. Over the years, however, Hora prospered, while Tempus became poorer and poorer. That’s because Hora discovered the principle of hierarchy. . . . The watches made by both Hora and Tempus consisted of about one thousand parts each. Tempus put his together in such a way that if he had one partly assembled and had to put it down—to answer the phone, say—it to pieces. When he came back to it, Tempus would have to start all over again. The more his customers phoned him, the harder it became for him to find enough uninterrupted time to finish a watch. Hora’s watches were no less complex than those of Tempus, but he put together stable subassemblies of about ten elements each. Then he put ten of these subassemblies together into a larger assembly; and ten of those assemblies constituted the whole watch. Whenever Hora had to put down a partly completed watch to answer the phone, he lost only a small part of his work. So he made his watches much faster and more efficiently than did Tempus
When a systems thinker encounters a problem, the first thing he or she does is look for data, time graphs, the history of the system. That’s because long-term behavior provides clues to the underlying system structure

My word processor has spell-check capability, which lets me add words that didn’t originally come in its comprehensive dictionary. It’s interesting to see what words I had to add when writing this book: feedback, throughput, overshoot, self-organization, sustainability
We are less likely to be surprised if we can see how events accumulate into dynamic patterns of behavior. The team is on a winning streak. The variance of the river is increasing, with higher floodwaters during rains and lower flows during droughts. The Dow has been trending up for two years. Discoveries of oil are becoming less frequent. The felling of forests is happening at an ever-increasing rate. The behavior of a system is its performance over time—its growth, stagnation, decline, oscillation, randomness, or evolution. If the news did a better job of putting events into historical context, we would have better behavior-level understanding, which is deeper than event-level under
Second, and more seriously, in trying to find statistical links that relate flows to each other, econometricians are searching for something that does not exist. There’s no reason to expect any flow to bear a stable relationship to any other flow. Flows go up and down, on and off, in all sorts of combinations, in response to stocks, not to other flows
One way to deal with policy resistance is to try to overpower it. If you wield enough power and can keep wielding it, the power approach can work, at the cost of monumental resentment and the possibility of explosive consequences if the power is ever let up. This is what happened with the formulator of the Romanian population policy, dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who tried long and hard to overpower the resistance to his policy. When his government was overturned, he was executed, along with his family. The first law the new government repealed was the ban on abortion and contraception
As we try to imagine restructured rules and what our behavior would be under them, we come to understand the power of rules. They are high leverage points. Power over the rules is real power. That’s why lobbyists congregate when Congress writes laws, and why the Supreme Court, which interprets and delineates the Constitution—the rules for writing the rules—has even more power than Congress. If you want to understand the deepest malfunctions of systems, pay attention to the rules and to who has power over them
When you understand the power of system self-organization, you begin to understand why biologists worship biodiversity even more than economists worship technology. The wildly varied stock of DNA, evolved and accumulated over billions of years, is the source of evolutionary potential, just as science libraries and labs and universities where scientists are trained are the source of technological potential. Allowing species to go extinct is a systems crime, just as randomly eliminating all copies of particular science journals or particular kinds of scientists would be
Self-organization means changing any aspect of a system lower on this list—adding completely new physical structures, such as brains or wings or computers—adding new balancing or reinforcing loops, or new rules. The ability to self-organize is the strongest form of system resilience. A system that can evolve can survive almost any change, by changing itself. The human immune system has the power to develop new responses to some kinds of insults it has never before encountered. The human brain can take in new information and pop out completely new thoughts
Even people within systems don’t often recognize what whole-system goal they are serving. “To make profits,” most corporations would say, but that’s just a rule, a necessary condition to stay in the game. What is the point of the game? To grow, to increase market share, to bring the world (customers, suppliers, regulators) more and more under the control of the corporation, so that its operations becomes ever more shielded from uncertainty. John Kenneth Galbraith recognized that corporate goal—to engulf everything—long ago. 6 It’s the goal of a cancer too. Actually it’s the goal of every living population—and only a bad one when it isn’t balanced by higher level balancing feedback loops that never let an upstart power-loop-driven entity control the world. The goal of keeping the market competitive has to trump the goal of each individual corporation to eliminate its competitors, just as in ecosystems, the goal of keeping populations in balance and evolving has to trump the goal of each population to reproduce without limit
Another of Jay Forrester’s famous systems sayings goes: It doesn’t matter how the tax law of a country is written. There is a shared idea in the minds of the society about what a “fair” distribution of the tax load is. Whatever the laws say, by fair means or foul, by complications, cheating, exemptions or deductions, by constant sniping at the rules, actual tax payments will push right up against the accepted idea of “fairness.
The shared idea in the minds of society, the great big unstated assumptions, constitute that society’s paradigm, or deepest set of beliefs about how the world works
People who cling to paradigms (which means just about all of us) take one look at the spacious possibility that everything they think is guaranteed to be nonsense and pedal rapidly in the opposite direction. Surely there is no power, no control, no understanding, not even a reason for being, much less acting, embodied in the notion that there is no certainty in any worldview. But, in fact, everyone who has managed to entertain that idea, for a moment or for a lifetime, has found it to be the basis for radical empowerment
It is in this space of mastery over paradigms that people throw off addictions, live in constant joy, bring down empires, get locked up or burned at the stake or crucified or shot, and have impacts that last for millennia
in 1986, new federal legislation, the Toxic Release Inventory, required U.S. companies to report all hazardous air pollutants emitted from each of their factories each year. Through the Freedom of Information Act (from a systems point of view, one of the most important laws in the nation), that information became a matter of public record. In July 1988, the first data on chemical emissions became available. The reported emissions were not illegal, but they didn’t look very good when they were published in local papers by enterprising reporters, who had a tendency to make lists of “the top ten local polluters.” That’s all that happened. There were no lawsuits, no required reductions, no fines, no penalties. But within two years chemical emissions nationwide (at least as reported, and presumably also in fact) had decreased by 40 percent. Some companies were launching policies to bring their emissions down by 90 percent, just because of the release of previously withheld information
He suggested, at a time when oil imports were soaring, that there be a tax on gasoline proportional to the fraction of U.S. oil consumption that had to be imported. If imports continued to rise, the tax would rise until it suppressed demand and brought forth substitutes and reduced imports. If imports fell to zero, the tax would fall to zero. The tax never got passed. Carter also was trying to deal with a flood of illegal immigrants from Mexico. He suggested that nothing could be done about that immigration as long as there was a great gap in opportunity and living standards between the United States and Mexico. Rather than spending money on border guards and barriers, he said, we should spend money helping to build the Mexican economy, and we should continue to do so until the immigration stopped.
A great deal of responsibility was lost when rulers who declared war were no longer expected to lead the troops into battle