Thinking in Systems: A Primer
Hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, economic instability, unemployment, chronic disease, drug addiction, and war, for example, persist in spite of the analytical ability and technical brilliance that have been directed toward eradicating them. No one deliberately creates those problems, no one wants them to persist, but they persist nonetheless. That is because they are intrinsically systems problems—undesirable behaviours characteristic of the system structures that produce them. They will yield only as we reclaim our intuition, stop casting blame, see the system as the source of its own problems, and find the courage and wisdom to restructure it. Obvious. Yet subversive. An old way of seeing. Yet somehow new. Comforting, in that the solutions are in our hands. Disturbing, because we must do things, or at least see things and think about things, in a different way.
No one intends to produce a society with rampant drug addiction and crime, but consider the combined purposes and consequent actions of the actors involved:
- desperate people who want quick relief from psychological pain
- farmers, dealers, and bankers who want to earn money
- pushers who are less bound by civil law than are the police who oppose them
- governments that make harmful substances illegal and use police power to interdict them
- wealthy people living in close proximity to poor people
- nonaddicts who are more interested in protecting themselves than in encouraging recovery of addicts
Altogether, these make up a system from which it is extremely difficult to eradicate drug addiction and crime.
Maybe the worst mistake of this kind has been the adoption of the GNP as the measure of national economic success. The GNP is the gross national product, the money value of the final goods and services produced by the economy. As a measure of human welfare, it has been criticized almost from the moment it was invented: The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.
We have a system of national accounting that bears no resemblance to the national economy whatsoever, for it is not the record of our life at home but the fever chart of our consumption. The GNP lumps together goods and bads. (If there are more car accidents and medical bills and repair bills, the GNP goes up.) It counts only marketed goods and services. (If all parents hired people to bring up their children, the GNP would go up.) It does not reflect distributional equity. (An expensive second home for a rich family makes the GNP go up more than an inexpensive basic home for a poor family.) It measures effort rather achievement, gross production and consumption rather than efficiency. New light bulbs that give the same light with one-eighth the electricity and that last ten times as long make the GNP go down.
If you define the goal of a society as GNP, that society will do its best to produce GNP. It will not produce welfare, equity, justice, or efficiency unless you define a goal and regularly measure and report the state of welfare, equity, justice, or efficiency. The world would be a different place if instead of competing to have the highest per capita GNP, nations competed to have the highest per capita stocks of wealth with the lowest throughput, or the lowest infant mortality, or the greatest political freedom, or the cleanest environment, or the smallest gap between the rich and the poor.
Insistence on a single culture shuts down learning and cuts back resilience. Any system, biological, economic, or social, that gets so encrusted that it cannot self-evolve, a system that systematically scorns experimentation and wipes out the raw material of innovation, is doomed over the long term on this highly variable planet.
The idea of making a complex system do just what you want it to do can be achieved only temporarily, at best. We can never fully understand our world, not in the way our reductionist science has led us to expect. Our science itself, from quantum theory to the mathematics of chaos, leads us into irreducible uncertainty. For any objective other than the most trivial, we can’t optimize; we don’t even know what to optimize. We can’t keep track of everything. We can’t find a proper, sustainable relationship to nature, each other, or the institutions we create, if we try to do it from the role of omniscient conqueror.
For those who stake their identity on the role of omniscient conqueror, the uncertainty exposed by systems thinking is hard to take. If you can’t understand, predict, and control, what is there to do?
Systems thinking leads to another conclusion, however, waiting, shining, obvious, as soon as we stop being blinded by the illusion of control. It says that there is plenty to do, of a different sort of “doing.” The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being. Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned. We can’t surge forward with certainty into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them and even profit from them. We can’t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.
Living successfully in a world of systems requires more of us than our ability to calculate. It requires our full humanity—our rationality, our ability to sort out truth from falsehood, our intuition, our compassion, our vision, and our morality.
Our culture, obsessed with numbers, has given us the idea that what we can measure is more important than what we can’t measure. Think about that for a minute. It means that we make quantity more important than quality. If quantity forms the goals of our feedback loops, if quantity is the center of our attention and language and institutions, if we motivate ourselves, rate ourselves, and reward ourselves on our ability to produce quantity, then quantity will be the result. You can look around and make up your own mind about whether quantity or quality is the outstanding characteristic of the world in which you live.
If something is ugly, say so. If it is tacky, inappropriate, out of proportion, unsustainable, morally degrading, ecologically impoverishing, or humanly demeaning, don’t let it pass. Don’t be stopped by the “if you can’t define it and measure it, I don’t have to pay attention to it” ploy. No one can define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist.
One of the worst ideas humanity ever had was the interest rate, which led to the further ideas of payback periods and discount rates, all of which provide a rational, quantitative excuse for ignoring the long term. The official time horizon of industrial society doesn’t extend beyond what will happen after the next election or beyond the payback period of current investments. The time horizon of most families still extends farther than that—through the lifetimes of children or grandchildren. Many Native American cultures actively spoke of and considered in their decisions the effects on the seventh generation to come. The longer the operant time horizon, the better the chances for survival.
Living successfully in a world of complex systems means expanding not only time horizons and thought horizons; above all, it means expanding the horizons of caring. There are moral reasons for doing that, of course. And if moral arguments are not sufficient, then systems thinking provides the practical reasons to back up the moral ones. The real system is interconnected. No part of the human race is separate either from other human beings or from the global ecosystem. It will not be possible in this integrated world for your heart to succeed if your lungs fail, or for your company to succeed if your workers fail, or for the rich in Los Angeles to succeed if the poor in Los Angeles fail, or for Europe to succeed if Africa fails, or for the global economy to succeed if the global environment fails. As with everything else about systems, most people already know about the interconnections that make moral and practical rules turn out to be the same rules. They just have to bring themselves to believe that which they know.
Systems thinking by itself cannot bridge that gap, but it can lead us to the edge of what analysis can do and then point beyond—to what can and must be done by the human spirit.