On Donella Meadows and Systems Thinking

This weekend I started reading Donella Meadows' Thinking in Systems: A Primer and I cannot overstate how profoundly glad I am to have come across Systems Thinking as a whole field of study. It pulls together so many things that have interested me over the years, and makes sense of a whole load of things I’ve observed about the world around me.

I used to tell people that my abiding interest over time was the study of systems, but stopped because most people assumed that meant computer systems. I meant complex systems in the broadest sense, and I found it terribly frustrating that people thought I would focus only on the stereotypical white male nerd interest of “computers”.

Obviously, if you know me at all, then assuming the unsaid “computer” in systems is pretty reasonable, as it’s where I spend most of my time. Computers were the first systems I found that I could have a significant level of control over. They gave me a marketable skillset and I fitted into the stereotype so my interest in them was encouraged.

But I’ve always been just as interested in computers and software for the part they play in wider systems, especially those involving people. Maybe that’s partly why I’ve never been tempted to go for higher paid work in the software industry where I would be expected to have that narrow focus and only care about my team’s sub-sub-subsystem. I guess as an undiagnosed autistic kid, developing a special interest in the interactions and relationships between people was something that enabled me to go through the motions and fit in, which undoubtedly kept me safe, though probably at the expense of my mental health.

In any case, I am where I am now and thankfully have enough time and energy to explore this. Meadows’ work resonates with me especially because of the role she played in bringing a systems perspective to environmental and societal issues. She was the main author of the 1972 report, The Limits to Growth, which predicted that a business-as-usual approach to economic and population growth on a finite planet would inevitably lead to a collapse. Largely ignored by mainstream policymakers at the time, those predictions are looking increasingly prescient.

N.B. This post is an extended version of this Mastodon thread.


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