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by Donella H. Meadows

WANT to describe documented so far. I will puters containing vast arrays of

here just one para- describe how the world system information about everything
digm or way of look- looks when it is seen from the there is to know. But the first
ing that reveals just comprehensive and sophisticated well-known computer simulation
some aspects of reality. I do not viewpoint of those models. on a global, long-term scale was
believe it is the right or best Then I will backtrack to the very in fact relatively simple. It was
way, since I cannot settle on beginning, to what any school- published only about ten years
any one way as right or best. child can see and know about ago by M.l.T.'s Jay Forrester.i
But it is a perspective that is complex systems and to the Since then seven other widely
unfamiliar and thus revealing kinds of examples I use to teach recognized "global" models
to most people. And it is, I systems thinking. Having com- have been completed, with at
believe, a useful way of looking pleted the introductory course, I least 20 more still under develop-
at some of humankind's most will progress immediately to ment. Sore major characteris-
persistent problems - hunger, more advanced but still com- tics of the completed models are
poverty, environmental degra- puter-free systems insights that summarized in Figure 1.
dation, and war - problems that any adult can carry in his or
do not seem to be solvable when her head to deal with the persist- As you can see, global models
looked at from older and more ent, system-dependent malfunc- have been made in many parts of
familiar viewpoints. tions of a complicated society. the world, using many different
techniques, to answer quite
This paradigm has many names. And finally I will come back to
an overview of the entire planet different questions. Even with
I will call it the "systems para- a computer a modeler is severely
digm," knowing that the word and speculate on how it would
be different if more of its limited in the amount of infor-
systems has disparate meanings mation that he or she can
but intending to clarify what I inhabitants saw it from a
systems point of view. include, and each of these
mean primarily through examples models contains only a fraction
throughout this paper. of what is known about the
I will begin with what might be The Globe as Seen through world. Most of them focus on
considered the state of the art - Computer Models
the seven complex computer
1. Jay W. Iorrcstcr, World Dynamics,
models of the global system that To most people the word MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachu-
have been constructed and systems implies massive com- setts, 1971.

To my surpriseit appears that systems and computer modeling lore is moving rapidly beyond
smart toward wise. A
coauthor of the famed The Limits to Growth (with Dennis Meadows and Jay Forrester),Dana
Meadows gave this
paper at an education and environment conference in Budapest. Hungary. in November 1980.
Site updated the
material for CQ and at our request expanded the systems-perversities section at the end. For
still further expansion
see her new book Gropingin the Dark (The First Decade of Global Modeling), coauthored with
John Richardson and
Gerhart Bruckmann; $29.50 postpaid from John Wiley and Sons, One Wiley Drive, Somerset,
NJ 08873. The
Meadows family works a small farm near Dartmouth College, New Hlampshire, where they also
teach. -Stewart Brand


* About one-fifth of the complete diagram of a computer-model of
the world. This one, from Forrester's World Dynamics, shows
negative loops which adjust population levels to the maximum
number of people who can survive their own pollution.

Figure 1
Model Institution Where Major Modeling Basic Problem Principal References
.- Constructed Technique Focus

World 2 Massachusetts System dynamics The pattern of Forrester, World

World 3 Institute of approach of the Dynamics, MIT Press,
Technology (USA) growing population 1971. Meadows et al..
and economy to the The Limits to Growth,
limited physical Universe Books, 1972.
carrying capacity of Meadows et al., The
the planet Dynamics of Growth in
a Finite World, MIT
Press, 1974.

WIM (World Case Western Multilevel hierarchical Global interdepen- Mesarovic & Pestel,
Integrated Model) University (USA) and systems theory, com- dence, population Mankind at the Turning
Technical University, ponents include and economic growth, Point, Dutton, 1974.
Hannover (Federal simulation, input- resource depletion
Republic of Germany) output, econometrics

Latin American Fundacion Bariloche Optimization Maximization of Herrera et al., Catas-

World Model (Argentina) basic human needs, trophe or New Society?,
improvement of International Develop-
quality of life of ment Research Centre,
the poor 1976.

MOIRA (Model Free University of Econometrics, World food trade Buringh et al., Compu-
of International Amsterdam and optimization patterns, policies to tation of the Absolute
Relations in Agricultural eliminate hunger Maximum Food Pro-
Agriculture) University of duction of the World,
Wageningen Wageningen, 1975.
(Netherlands) Linnemann et al.,
MOIRA - Model of
International Relations
in Agriculture, North-
Holland, 1979.

SARUM (Systems Department of the Simulation, system Consequences of and Roberts et al., SARUM
Analysis Research Environment (U.K.) dynamics, stresses on economic 76 - Global Modelling
Unit Model) econometrics development Project, UK Depart-
ments of Environment
and Transport, 1977.

FUGI (Future Tokyo'University, Input/output, Co-development of Kaya et al., Future of

of Global Soka University econometrics industrial and Global Interdependence
Interdependence) (Japan) industrializing IIASA, 197k

United Nations New York University Input/output Effect of develop- Leontief et al., The
World Model Brandeis University ment policies on Future of the World
(USA) equity and the Economy, Oxford, 1977.

All-Union Institute for Effect of social and (still in progress)

System Studies (USSR) political factors on
global development

GLOBUS Wissenschaftszentrum International relations, (still in progress)

Berlin (Federal trade, and conflict
Republic of Germany)


398 "99
economic factors, population,
and agricultural production.
Only two of the seven contain The modelers themselves, who generally
any mention of resources or the
environment. None say anything
started out hostile and critical of one
about war, politics, new ideas, or
natural disasters. Most assume
another, have been surprised at the extent
either that technology does not
change or that it changes auto-
to which their conclusions overlapped.
matically, exponentially, and
without cost, to allow more and
more to be produced from less
and less. Some of the models
represent the world as a single then the logical consequences being met now because of
unit, others divide it into 10 to will be..." social and political struc-
15 regions or as many as 106 tures, values, norms, and
separate nations. Some run into To me these models are instruc-
tive not singly but as a set. Al- world views, not because of
the future as far as the year physical scarcities.
2100, others only to 1985. though they were made by
Several, especially the first ones, people of different continents 2 Population and physical
have been highly controversial, and ideologies, the nature of (material) capital cannot
and some of the later models the exercise forced those people grow forever on a finite
were made expressly to refute or to a similar and not-very-ordi- planet.
improve upon earlier ones. nary viewing point. All were
looking at the globe as a whole 3 There is, quite simply, no
I am introducing you to these and at the relatively long-term reliable and complete infor-
models to make several basic implications of the interconnect- mation about the degree to
points that are often misun- ing web of population, capital, which the earth's physical
derstood by a public that is and economic production that environment can absorb and
either too easily awed or too links all nations. All were im- meet the needs of further
easily cynical about computer mersed in the global statistics growth in population,
technologies. and had to construct a model capital, and the things that
I The models are highly diverse. that captured the global situa- this population will generate.
They were made by people tion with fullness and consist- There is a great deal of
with different political and ency - every seller must have a partial information, which
cultural persuasions and all buyer, every birth must eventu- optimists read optimistically
are extremely biased, but in ally be matched by a death, once and pessimists read
very different ways. There is productive capital is in place it pessimistically.
no such thing as an "objec- cannot shift its purpose from a 4 Continuing "business-as-
tive" socioeconomic model. tractor factory to a hospital. usual" policies through the
2 Simultaneously, the models Despite many differences in next few decades will not
are tremendously compli- emphasis and detail, viewing the lead to a desirable future -
cated in what they represent closed system somehow pro- or even to meeting basic
(detailed population age
duced some basic findings that human needs. It will result
structures, multiple econom-
are common to every one of the in an increasing gap between
ic sectors, complex trade
models. The modelers them- the rich and the poor,
patterns, various income selves, who generally started out problems with resource
classes) and surprisingly hostile and critical of one availability and environ-
simplistic in what they omit another, have been surprised at mental destruction, and
(armaments, capital age
the extent to which their conclu- worsening economic
sions overlapped. The following conditions.
structures, nearly all values, statements would be agreed
motivations, social norms,
political structures, the
upon, I believe, by everyone 5 Because of these difficulties,
involved in global modeling continuing current trends is
sources and sinks of most so far: 2 not a likely future course.
material flows).
1 There is no known physical Over the next three decades
3 No model is (or is claimed to the world socioeconomic
be) a predictive tool. At best
or technical reason why
basic needs cannot be sup- system will be in a period of
each one is a very explicit transition to some state that
mathematical rendering of
plied for all the world's
people into the foreseeable will be not only quantita-
someone's view of the world, tively but also qualitatively
future. These needs are not
tied down as much as possible different from the present.
with statistical data, logically 2. The list is taken from Groping in
consistent, and able to the Dark: The First Decade of Global 6 The exact nature of this
produce statements of this Modeling, Donella Meadows et al., future state, and whether it
sort: "If all these assumptions Editors (1982; $26.95 postpaid from will be better or worse than
are correct, complete, and John Wiley and Sons, 1 Wiley Drive, the present, is not predeter-
extended into the future, Somerset, NJ 08873). mined, but is a function of


The bottom line message of the
Some problems consistently resist solution global models is quite simple:
The world is a complex, inter-
in many cultures and over long periods of connected, finite, ecological-
time. These are the problems for which a system. We treat it as if it were
not, as if it were divisible,
new way of looking is required. separable, simple, and infinite.
Our persistent, intractable,
global problems arise directly
from this mismatch. No one
wants or works to generate
hunger, poverty, pollution, or
decisions and changes being 12 Many plans, programs, and the elimination of species.
made now. agreements, particularly Very few people favor arms
7 Owing to the momentum complex international ones, races or terrorism or alcohol-
inherent in the world's are based on assumptions ism or inflation. Yet those
physical and social processes, about the world that are results are consistently produced
policy changes made soon either mutually inconsistent by the system-as-a-whole,
are likely to have more or inconsistent with physical despite many policies and
impact with less effort than reality. Much time and much effort directed against
the same set of changes effort is spent designing and them. Many social policies work;
made later. By the time a debating policies that are, they solve problems permanently.
problem is obvious to every- in fact, simply impossible. But some problems consistently
one, it is often too late to resist solution in many cultures
To nearly anyone with the and over long periods of time.
solve it. education and time to think Those are the problems for
8 Although technical changes about the world as a whole, which a new way of looking
are expected and needed, these statements are not surpris- is required.
no set of purely technical ing. We all have an intuitive feel
changes tested in any of the for how the complex systems
models was sufficient in in which we are embedded work,
itself to bring about a and the statements above are A Child's Guide to the
desirable future. Restruc- about the working of a complex Systems Viewpoint
turing social, economic, and system. Many of them follow
political systems was much directly from general systems So what is this "systems view-
more effective. theory. They were bound to point" - what can you see from
emerge from any systematic it that you can't see from any-
9 The interdependencies
look at the global economy. where else?
among peoples and nations
across time and space are What is surprising is the lack of 1 The Concept of a System.
greater than commonly congruence between these A system is any set of intercon-
imagined. Actions taken at descriptions of the world and nected elements. In our usual
one time and on one part of the view of the world reflected reductionist-scientific view of
the globe have far-reaching in policy - nearly every policy things the emphasis is on the
consequences that are of every nation, enterprise, and elements. To understand things,
impossible to predict individual. Those policies are we take them apart and study
intuitively, and probably virtually all based on such
the pieces. In the systems view
impossible to predict implicit assumptions as:
the interrelationshipsare impor-
(totally, precisely, maybe at There is not enough of any- tant. A corporation is a corpora-
all) with computer models. thing to go around. tion even when every person and
10 Because of these interde- We know that any physical machine in it changes, as long as
pendencies, single, simple or environmental limits are the hierarchies, purposes, and
measures intended to reach far away and can be ignored. punishments remain the same.
narrowly defined goals are You can't understand the
Competition works better than essence of a symphony orch-
likely to be counterproduc-
cooperation; if everyone estra just by looking at the
tive. Decisions should be
looks out for her or himself, instruments and players - it is
made within the broadest
the result will be satisfactory. also the set of relationships that
possible context, across
space, time, and areas Any change in policy should be causes it to produce beautiful
of knowledge. postponed as long as possible. music. The human body, the
The future will be very much nation of Hungary, the eco-
11 Cooperative approaches to system of a coral reef are all
achieving individual or like the past, only bigger
more than the sum of their
national goals often turn and better.
parts. As an ancient Sufi sage
out to be more beneficial The poor will catch up with said, "You think because you
in the long run to all parties the rich someday if we pursue understand one you must under-
than competitive approaches. business as usual. stand two because one and one


look for all the
When you see whole systems, you start ways that B in
turn affects A. A B
noticing where things come from and where When you turn a faucet to con-
they go. You begin to see that there is no trol the level of water in a glass

"away" to throw things to. WATIF.

make two. But you must also why they don't grow. In each PooON ING1A4
understand and." case attention may be on every
To see not only things but also major factor but the crucial notice how the level of water
relationships opens your vision one - the limiting one. determines how you turn the
immensely. You never confuse Real insight comes not only faucet, so that the level comes
hastily constructed government from recognizing that the im- to just where you wanted it.
apartment blocks with real portant factor is the limiting
communities. You never make one, but from seeing that
an urban policy separate from a growth itself depletes and P0IRP AMOUNT
rural policy. You begin to lose enhances factors. The interplay OF WATFR INGLAO6
the distinction between human- between a growing plant and the
ity and nature or between eco- soil or a growing economy and
nomic benefits and environ- its resource base is dynamic,
mental ones. You also begin to everchanging. Whenever one
see new solutions - the traffic factor ceases to be limiting,
problem may be affected by the
growth occurs and changes the
housing sector, economic growth relative scarcity of factors until
'may be enhanced through another becomes limiting. To
increasing capital lifetimes, shift attention from the abun- A closed chain of causal relation-
cancer may be prevented by dant factors to the next poten- ships that feeds back on itself
protecting the integrity of the tial limiting one is to gain real is called a feedback loop. The
cell membrane and the whole understanding of and control water-glass system is a negative
tissue, not the individual over the growth process. feedback loop that draws the
nucleus. It is often easier 3 Boundaries. When you see system to a goal (desired amount
and more effective to act on whole systems, you start notic- of water). Negative loops act to
system relationships rather
ing where things come from and adjust systems toward equi-
than on system elements. where they go. You begin to librium points or goals, just as a
2 The Limiting Factor. see that there is no "away" to thermostat loop adjusts room
Growth in a complex system throw things to. You can no temperature to a desired setting.
may require hundreds of inputs, longer ignore the connectedness When your country acquires
but at any given time only one between an automobile's exhaust more armaments to catch up
input is important - the one and your nose. You see that the with the competition
that is most limiting. Bread will products of a coal-burning
not rise without yeast, and adding electric plant are electricity,
more flour will not help. Corn fly ash, particulates, SO 2 , CO 2 as
C Ai'l
will not grow without phosphate NOx, and heavy-metal aerosols
no matter how much nitrogen is and that there is no real boundary 0ORbY0-
present. This concept is childish- between the economic product ARMS IN A"6 IN
ly simple and widely ignored. and the "byproducts." You I ColwArbrRy
American economists have
claimed that energy cannot be
wonder why some effects of a A
policy are called "side effects"
an important factor of produc- when they are as real and direct
tion because it accounts for less as the "main effects." You it effectively generates more
than 10 percent of the GNP notice how beautifully designed armaments for the competition.
(yeast accounts for much less natural systems are so that the
than 10 percent of the bread - outputs and wastes of one
that doesn't make it unimpor- process are always inputs to A' AgW9
tant). Agronomists assume they another process, and you begin CoAV9tl B '
know what to put in fertilizer to think of new designs for
because they have identified the industrial systems. ARM9 IN A IN
20 major chemicals in good soil 4 Feedback. Whenever you CouNlw y CO0IMy
(how many chemicals have they postulate that A causes or A B
not identified?). Rich countries affects B
transfer food or capital or tech-
nology to poor ones and wonder A- COuTRI A
This is a positive feedback loop, within the system that suffers hundreds of actors, each with his
a vicious circle that builds upon the problem is never politically or her (or its in the case of an
itself more and more. Positive popular. It is much more institution) own goals. Each
loops cause growth, evolution, appealing to find a "cause" for actor monitors the state of the
and also collapse in systems. your problems somewhere "out system with regard to any im-
Of course most systems, especi- there" than to contemplate portant variable, income or
ally socioeconomic ones, are changing the relationships prices or housing or whatever,
made of hundreds of intercon- .between the elements "in here." and compares that state with
nected positive and negative It is comforting to view some- his, her, or its goal. If there is a
feedbacks and their behavior thing outside the system as the discrepancy, if the system is not
becomes very complicated. problem, but it isn't very effec- meeting the goal, each actor
tive. There is real opportunity does something concrete to
The concept of feedback is a for action in learning to view correct the situation. Usually
powerful one because it allows every system as the cause of its the greater the discrepancy
one to link causal structure to behavior. First of all, if the between the goal and the actual
dynamic behavior. If a system entire concept of blame is situation for any actor, the more
persistently oscillates or equili- removed, you can stop arguing emphatic will be the action
brates or fails to grow, one about who is at fault and get on taken on the system. The
can identify the structural with solving the problem. And combination of all actors trying
reasons for that behavior and second, if a system is the source to adjust the system to achieve
learn how to intervene in the of a problem, it is also the all the different goals produces a
feedback loops to alter it. That mechanism for a solution. To system state that is often not
is what I do for a living, and my demonstrate that, I would like what anybody wants. And yet
colleagues and I have applied to proceed to the advanced-level everyone is putting great effort
these concepts to problems as systems course and talk about into keeping it there, because if
varied as fluctuating inventory, multiple-feedback systems. any single actor lets up the
unstable grain prices, diabetes effort, the others will drag the
and cancer, rising oil prices, Advanced Understanding - system closer to their goals and
and economic development. farther from his/hers.
Making Complex Systems Work
But the most powerful aspect Examples of such system con-
of the feedback concept, a truly figurations come to mind far
I Policy Resistance. Why do
profound and different insight, too readily. Farmeis, consumers,
some problems persist in spite of
is the way you begin to see that and farm suppliers pursue various
continuous efforts to solve them?
the system causes its own income goals and produce eco-
behavior. Country A perceives A systems analyst would explain nomic conditions unfavorable for
the arms race as "caused" by it this way (see Figure 2). Any production and also unfavorable
country B and vice versa, but social system is made up of for protection of the soils and
one could equally well claim
that country A causes its own
arms buildup by stimulating the
buildup of country B. Or, more Figure 2 Policy Resistance
accurately, there is no single
cause, no credit or blame. The
relationships in the system make QbL d
an arms race inevitable, and A
and B are helpless puppets
(until they decide to redesign
the system). Similarly oil-price
rises that are blamed on OPEC
could equally be blamed on the
heavy consumption of the non-
OPEC countries, but more At-v ^ LzAN
accurately, the price rises are
an inevitable result of a growing
economic system dependent on 1 ~i~o3~C
a depleting nonrenewable
5 ~ 7WeS A/ }
resource base. Similarly, from a
systems point of view, businesses
make up a system that is struc- kflONDEMON
tured to generate recessions and
depressions, the decisions of 6Wjy~EC~E~i/^
farmers make fluctuating com- AcnloN DLaWFcANCX(
modity prices inevita' le, and the
flu doesn't invade you - you
invite it.
Seeing the source of a problem

sOX 428 SAUSAUTO CA 94966

v/02. 103
waters. Government, laborers, legal until 1967, when they has b"en followed in Hungary,
and producers act together to became unavailable. The birth with much better results than
produce inflation that damages rate rapidly tripled, but then those of Romania's policy of
everyone. Rich and poor came slowly back down nearly abortion restrictions.
nations trade basic commodities, to its previous level. The indi-
each nation pursuing overriding The most effective way of
vidual families, pursuing their
domestic political and economic own family-size goals, found dealing with policy resistance is
goals, with a resultant instability some other way to achieve them, to find an alignment of the goals
on the world market that perhaps through dangerous in the system, so that all actors
systematically penalizes the poor. are working harmoniously and
illegal abortions.
Or, closer to home, individual naturally toward the same out-
members of a family or of a This systems view of policy come. If this can be done, the
working group, each concentrat- resistance suggests some interest- results can be amazing. The
ing on personal goals, can ing new approaches to previously most familiar examples of this
produce an uncoordinated or intractable problems. At the are mobilization of economies
disconnected entity that furthers very least, it suggests letting up during wartime or recovery after
the goals of no one. on an ineffective policy, so that war or natural disaster. Another
all the resources and energy example was Sweden's popula-
Suppose a government inter- spent on enforcing and resisting tion policy during the 1930s,
venes in such a system with a the policy could be released for when the Swedish birth rate
strong policy that actually some more constructive purpose. dropped below replacement. The
moves the state of the system One might also look more government assessed its goals and
toward the'government's goal, closely at the goals and actions those of its population carefully
That will open up greater dis- within the system, to understand and decided that the real basis of
crepancies for other actors with them and to look for a way they goal-agreement was not the size
different goals, which will cause could be used instead of being of the population but its
them to redouble their efforts. combatted or subjugated. The quality. 3 Every child should be
If they are successful, the system principle is similar to that of wanted and cared for, preferably
is likely to equilibrate very near karate: use the force and energy in a strong, stable family, with
its previous state, but with of your opponent instead of access to excellent education
everyone working harder to keep resisting it. For example, a and health care. The govern-
it there. Think, for example, nation wishing to increase its ment and the Swedish people
of efforts to improve traffic birth rate might study the could align on that goal. The
flow (by widening streets or reasons for families to want few resulting policies included free
adding control lights or building children, discover that cramped contraceptives and abortions,
mass transit systems) that housing conditions may be a sex and family education, easier
eventually result in the same prime motivating factor, and divorce laws, free obstetrical
traffic densities as before. Or devise a housing policy that care, support for families with
look at the results of one allows young couples to achieve children not in cash but in kind
country's attempt to raise its their goals for peace and privacy (toys, clothing, etc.), and
birth rate by prohibiting abor- while also achieving the national increased investment in educa-
tions (Figure 3). Abortions were goal of more births. This policy tion and medical facilities.
Some of these policies looked
strange in a time when birth
rates were thought to be too
low, but they were implemented
anyway, and since then birth
rates have risen, fallen, and
risen again.
2 Drift to Low Performance.
Some systems not only resist
policy and stay in their normal
state, they actually worsen '
gradually over time, despite
efforts at improvement. Ex-
amples could be falling pro-
ductivity or market share of a
business enterprise, reduced
quality of service at a repair
shop or hospital, continuously
dirtier rivers or air, or increased
fat on a person in spite of
c- periodic diets.

3See Alva Myrdal, Nation and
Family, MIT Press, 1968 (reprint).


the actual state to determine
A system that takes its goal from its own what action to take. But here
the action chosen has the effect
performance is very likely to drift downhill. of making the system appear
better to the actor, while actu-
ally over the long term it is
making it worse. As the effect
of this action wears off, the
problem reappears, probably
The structure that produces such more insistently, so the actor
Fig. 4 Drift to Low Performance applies even more of the "solu-
a behavior is shown in Figure 4.
The actor in this system (enter- tion," thereby worsening the
problem and making it necessary
prise, repair station, environ-
to use more "solution" in
mental agency, fat person) has a
the future.
performance goal (desired state)
that is compared to the actual Consumption of alcohol, nico-
state. If there is a discrepancy, OJ9171iv tine, heroin, caffeine, and sugar
action is taken to restore the are obvious examples of addic-
system state to the goal. So far tive actions. A less obvious
that is a simple negative feed- example is the use of pesticides
back loop that should keep
thfiWD 4'1T 4 (removing the immediate pest,
performance at a constant,
TW OBYWlM + but also eliminating natural
high level. control mechanisms, so that the
pest is likely to surge back in
The problem comes in the con- scious of the trash - and after the future). Another is the
nection between the actor's a few days there I am too. pricing of a depleting resource
perception of the system state An obvious antidote to the such as oil at average rather
and his or her desired state. If drift to low performance is to than replacement costs (thereby
for some reason performance keep standards absolute - keeping price artificially low
falters, and if the lower per- never let past performance and postponing the pain but also
formance becomes the standard, become a guide to present goals. encouraging further use and
then less corrective action is Another is to make goals sensi- more rapid depletion and dis-
taken for any given discrepancy tive to overperformance as well couraging the shift to other
and the system state is perma- as underperformance. The same resources that will eventually
nently lowered. Another short- set of feedback loops could be necessary).
fall can produce another drop in actually pull the system state to
standards, and so on until Policy choices with addictive
better and better levels, if good
performance is nearly totally effects are insidious because
performance were taken as
degraded. A system that takes they look good in the short
reason to reset standards but
its goals from its own perform- term, but once chosen they
bad performance were considered
ance is very likely to drift are very difficult to reverse.
only bad luck, not to be taken
downhill. Obviously, the best procedure is
Some examples: In the U.S. 4 to be alert for options that
3 Addiction. The structure of improve the symptoms but
percent inflation used to be
a system that produces addiction worsen the problem and to
considered unacceptable and
is shown in Figure 5. Again the avoid them, whatever their
would generate strong corrective
actor has a goal and compares political appeal. Once caught in
action. That standard has
the goal with a perception of the addictive cycle, one must
slowly changed so that now
inflation below 10 percent
looks good, 12 percent is almost Figure 5 Addiction
normal, and it takes rates of 20
percent or more to raise great + 6TAT OF i
public concern (and we're
beginning to get used to those).
Also, in the U.S. air quality
standards are set at different
levels for different areas; places
with dirty air have far less
stringent standards. Another
example: I live in a beautiful
rural area where the streets of
the small village are kept quite
clean and unlittered. I find -/ + ACP O
myself bothered when I go to
big cities and see all the trash
littering the streets. My friends \, pe^WP
who live there are almost uncon-

BOX 421 SAUSAUTO CA 9496" - - 105'

almost inevitably prepare to neglect and atrophy, the original Shifting a burden to an inter-
suffer short-term difficulties in corrective forces within the vener is not necessarily a bad
order to get out, whether that system are weakened. The thing. It is usually done will-
means the physical pain of system slips away from the ingly, and the result is often an
heroin withdrawal, a sudden desired state. So the intervener increased tendency for the
sharp price rise to reduce oil increases his, her, or its efforts. system to achieve desired states.
consumption, or an invasion of The natural system weakens or But this system characteristic
pests while natural predator atrophies still more.. The inter- can be problematic, for two
populations are being restored. vener picks up the slack. And so reasons. First, the intervener
Sometimes the reversal can be forth. Finally, most or all of may not realize that the initial
done gradually, or an alternative the -original job carried out by urge to help out a bit can start
nonaddictive policy can be put the natural system has, gladly a whole chain of events that
in place first to restore the or reluctantly, been accepted by leads to ever-heavier loads on
system state with a minimum of the intervening system. The the intervening system. The
turbulence (psychiatric help to ability of the original system American social security system
restore the self-image of the to do the job has been severely is now experiencing the strains
addict, home insulation to and perhaps irreversibly of that chain of events. Second,
reduce oil expense, crop rotation weakened. the community that is being
and multiculture to reduce helped may not think through
vulnerability to pests). But it is Finding examples of burden- the long-term loss of control and
always less expensive to avoid shifting systems is easy and fun the increased vulnerability that
the addiction in the first place and sometimes horrifying. Here may go along with the opportu-
than to get out of it once it has is a beginning of a list, to which nity to shift a burden to a more
started - as anyone with a long- everyone will be able to add. able and powerful intervener.
term systems viewpoint can see.
4 Official Addiction - Shifting burden original system intervening system
the Burden to the Intervener. care of the aged families, communities, social security
As I grew older and spent most accumulation of
of my time reading, I slowly personal wealth
became more and more near-
sighted. Finally I couldn't read bread-making households, local multinational
writing on a blackboard or millers, small bake-ies corporations
slides on a screen anymore. So smallpox prevention natural resistance, vaccination
I got contact lenses. Within a accidental cowpox
year my uncorrected vision infection
deteriorated far more than it
had in the previous 30 years. long-distance railroads interstate highways,
transportation trucks
Now the lenses are necessary not
only for reading distant fine arithmetic mental training personal calculators
print but for everyday navigation. grain storage households, farmers, grain trading
Apparently the muscles around local merchants companies, inter-
my eyes had been doing a fair national reserve
job of compensating for an agreements
increasingly misshaped natural
lens. But when they no longer
had to do that job, they lost
their tone, their ability to do it. Figure 6 Shifting the Burden to the Intervener
Soon I needed a newer, stronger
That is a classic case of shifting
the burden to the intervener- F;T
a benevolent form of addiction
(Figure 6). In this sort of
system a natural corrective force
is doing only a so-so job of main-
taining the system state. A well-
meaning, benevolent, and very i 9T
efficient intervener decides to
help out by taking on some of
the load. A new mechanism is
established to bring the system
to the state everybody wants it
to be in. This new mechanism
works beautifully.
But in the process, whether by
active destruction or simple


Rebuilding a decayed system of
self-reliance and private enter-
prise that long ago stopped Policy choices with addictive effects are
handling its own burdens is a
long, difficult process, some-
insidious because they look good in the
thing no Republican administra-
tion seems to understand. Sud-
short term, but once chosen they are very
den removal of an intervening
system does not necessarily
.difficult to reverse.
shift the burden back; it may
drop the burden because there can illustrate with a simple feed- would shift the burden to an
is little left to shift it back to. back diagram. It seems to occur intervener!). Since the profit
Intervening in such a way as to in just about any system that per unit of milk has gone down,
strengthen the ability of the contains enough interlocking each farmer must produce more
system to shoulder its own feedback loops to boggle one's even to keep the same income.
burdens is very possible and capacity for mental analysis Some do. Others don't, and
often cheap and easy, something (for me that means more than eventually their incomes drop so
no Democratic administration four feedback loops). low that they quit farming.
seems to realize. The secret is
Here are a few examples of The leverage point in this system
to begin not by taking over,
systems with high-leverage points is the farmers' ability to increase
but by asking why the natural
pushed the wrong direction. their production. Given the
correction mechanisms are
failing to handle the problem, A large engine company had a treadmill of the system, they
and how the obstacles to handl- problem with falling market will have to use any break that
ing it could be removed. share. Every four years or so, gives them more cash to expand
it would lose sales to the com- their output. And that drives
5 High Leverage, Wrong Direc- prices, profits, and farm
petition, and the lost customers
tion. Jay Forrester, my systems numbers down still faster. The
rarely returned. The problem
guru, likes to tell of working best way to stabilize farm num-
was finally traced to the firm's
with corporations to establish bers would be to restrict total
inventory policy. The com-
a systems view of management. production in some way. If that
pany was reluctant to build
He has often discovered, in could be done, all farmers would
large, expensive engines on
modeling the feedback loop have higher and more stable
speculation to accumulate an
structure of a corporation's incomes (as many industrial
inventory. It preferred to build
decision processes, that: sectors have discovered).
only on definite orders. This
* Whatever the problem is (fall- policy saved a lot of money, One of the leverage points in
ing market share, unstable in- but on the upturn of each any growing economy is the life-
ventory, inadequate quality business cycle, the company was time of the capital plant. The
control), it is nearly always swamped by new orders, which easiest way to stimulate econom-
traceable to the way the corpor- it could deliver only after a long ic growth is to increase the
ation does things - not to the delay. Customers turned to the useful lifetime of capital (by
customers, the competitors, the competition who could supply better design, or better main-
regulators, or any other con- engines quickly "off the shelf." tenance). Yet the policy of
venient scapegoats. The firm habitually responded planned obsolescence is pro-
* Often one small cl ange, in one to the loss in sales by cost-cut- moted and defended for the
or a few simple policies, will ting measures, including sake of economic growth.
solve the problem easily and decreases in its inventory.
completely. The way to revitalize the eco-
Most people in Vermont are
* The high-leverage policy point nomy of a city and create more
concerned about the "disappear-
is usually far removed in time upward mobility for the poor is
ance of the family farm." They
and place from where the propose policies such as cuts in not to build subsidized housing
problem appears. It is seldom property tax, low-interest loans in the inner city. It is to
the subject of much attention for farm equipment, and subsi- demolish substandard and
or discussion, and even when it dies on milk prices. It turns out abandoned housing, creating
is identified, no one will believe that if you really like the idea of open space for the establishment
it is related to the problem. of more businesses, so the job/
lots of small farms, you should
* If it happens that someone oppose all those measures. The population balance can be
has indeed identified and ques- major cause of farm loss is farm restored.
tioned the high-leverage policy, expansion. Farmers try to in- I wish I could provide here some
that person has almost always crease their incomes by produc-
decided to push the lever in the simple rules for finding high-
ing more, logically enough. leverage points and for knowing
wrong direction, thereby inten- When all the farmers do that, the what direction to push them.
sifying the problem. market is flooded with milk, and Some of my professional col-
The peculiarity of high-leverage the price goes down (the price leagues would argue that this is
points lurking in unexpected is not currently subsidized the point where I should stop
places and inviting counterpro- enough to hold constant regard- relying on innate systems under-
ductive policies is not one I less of supply - if it were, it standing and start hiring them.

BOX 428 SAUSALITO CA 9496 107

Indeed, all of the examples I
have given here came from
formal computerized analyses.
We keep expecting a solution to be near a
I do respect and use the com-
puter as a handy tool to help
symptom, a long-term gain to start off with
learn about complex systems,
but I also think one can go a
a short-term gain, or a winning strategy to
long way without it. produce instant gratification for all players.
One's rational, figuring-out
ability seems to be a bad guide
for finding leverage points. It
policies arising from systems
leads one to look at pieces of
Back to the Globe views and computer analysis
systems, and to make judge-
should be precise, absolute,
ments based on short-term and
certain, and a bit inhuman. In
incomplete information. It
It is impossible to lay out a my own experience, however,
would lead a company to cut
whole new way of viewing the after ten years of trying to
back on inventory when sales simulte social systems, I find
are down, the state of Vermont world in a short paper - it is like
trying to describe everything myself becoming more humble,
to reduce farmers' property less certain, more experimental,
taxes, or a nation to invest in that can be seen through a tele-
scope and comparing it system- and acutely aware of the unique
new machines instead of repair- and wonderful complications
ing old ones. All very reasonable atically to what can be seen
through a microscope. I could human beings add to complex
policies. And yet there is some- systems. I am finding that
thing in all of us that might go on about the role of delays
and nonlinearity in systems, policies consistent with the
lead us to notice the customers' systems view would be:
dissatisfaction with long delivery about the structural homologies
delays, or to wonder why across systems, about other 1 Respectful of the system -
farmers always complain about behavioral properties such as designed to aid and encourage
the pressure to expand, or to the tragedy of the commons or those forces within the system
feel that replacing a machine the worse-before-better syndrome. that help it to run itself, rather
that is still productive some- One could create whole under- than imposing on it from "out-
how doesn't make sense. graduate and graduate curricula side" or "above."
on the subject, and of course I 2 Responsible for the system's
I think we do have within us the and many other people have behavior, rather than trying
ability to see whole systems and done so. to blame or control outside
to sense leverage points. What influences.
we don't seem to have is the It should be clear that I am
ability to win arguments, even excited by what I can see from 3 Experimental - recognizing
within ourselves, with that the new viewpoint of systems. that nature is complex beyond
"reasonable" side of us. We I find my entire sense of what is our ability to understand; there-
keep expecting a solution to be happening, what is possible, fore careful experiment and
near a symptom, a long-term what I identify with, and what is constant monitoring are more
gain to start off with a short- important is shifting. I want appropriate than certain, un-
term gain, or a winning strategy to take others by the hand deviating directives.
to produce instant gratification and say "Look at that" - which
I do in my teaching. I believe 4 Attentive to the system as a
for all players. We know com- whole and to total system prop-
plex systems don't behave like that if more people could learn
to see the world as a system, erties such as growth, oscillation,
that. But something within us equilibrium, or resilience, rather
keeps insisting somehow that in addition to, not in place of,
the ways they already see the than trying to maximize the
they should. And so we pursue performance of parts.
world, some remarkable things
difficult policies that can't work,
would happen. At the very 5 Attentive to the long term,
and miss seeing rather simple
least, like the global modelers realizing that in fact there is no
policies that can. We try to
who started from very different long-term short-term distinction;
compete instead of cooperating,
positions, they would find a that actions taken now have
to push against environmental
common ground of understand- effects for decades to come
limits instead of noticing that
ing and would find that many and that we experience now
there is already enough, to hang
current proposals that are the the results of actions taken
on to a deteriorating status quo
source of argument and divisive- decades ago.
instead of welcoming changes ness simply cannot be effective.
that take us where we really 6 Comprehensive - above all,
They would find themselves
want to go. The results are the systems view, as demon-
losing interest in simple notions
hunger, weapons, pollution, strated by the global models,
of fault or blame. And then
depletion. And just within our makes clear that no part of the
they would start seeing whole
grasp, accessible through our human race is really separate
new kinds of policies.
innate systems understanding, either from other human beings
are sufficiency, peace, equity, What would these policies look or from the global ecosystem.
and sustainability. like? Some people expect that We all rise or fall together. a


AND IDEAS Whole Earth Review Dedicated to the Incoming Administration 20 January
1996 - Link Page
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