Lessons from Donella Meadows

How can we learn to design the most effective interventions for systemic change?

One of the most influential system thinkers of the 20th century is Donella (Dana) Meadows. She was far ahead of her time in the sustainability movement and the lead author of Limits to Growth (1972), a best-selling and widely translated book. Limits to Growth forecasted that continuous growth in human populations, food production, industrialization, consumption, and pollution would overshoot and severely damage the systems that support life on earth.

She also authored Thinking in Systems: A Primer, containing among the most accessible language and wisdom for systems thinkers.  We cannot recommend her book highly enough and consider it required reading for the Denizen community.

Marta Ceroni, co-director of the Academy for Systems Change, joined us to discuss Meadows' work, her life, and key ideas when it comes to thinking in systems.


Donella Meadows Essentials:

Note: Quotes are from Thinking in Systems: A Primer

“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 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 can ever be produced by our will alone.” - Donella Meadows

Her life

  • Grew up in Illinois, the child of a middle-class family
  • Obtained her B.A. in chemistry from Carleton College (1963) and PhD in biophysics from Harvard (1968)
  • Married Dennis Meadows as recent graduates, and they traveled abroad for a year in a Land Rover, visiting villages and connecting with peoples and cultures across the Middle East and Asia. She became more aware of the deep poverty and what was at play for people stuck in poverty cycles
  • Became a research fellow at MIT as a part of a department created by Jay Forrester, a pioneer in the study of systems dynamics. She was among their first female researchers
  • Lead author of the Limits to Growth study in 1972. Later on, she would write a monthly newsletter, "Dear Folks", about building a sustainable lifestyle within those limits
  • Later taught systems analysis, environmental ethics, and environmental journalism at Dartmouth College
  • Turned down tenure to focus on writing, international work, and to start an ecovillage
  • Wrote over 700 articles for the "The Global Citizen", a syndicated weekly column circulated in 20 newspapers (1986-2001)
  • Awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant in 1994
  • Died unexpectedly in 2001 at the age of 59

Her thoughts on values

“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.”

Meadows' speech about vision

In the interests of getting out of our heads and into our bodies, we encourage you to watch this 30 minute speech by Donella and the embodied practice she guides at the end.

She explains the importance of vision and why it is so often missing in our work to address the greatest challenges of our times.


Systems Thinking Essentials:

What is a system?

  • A system is a set of elements that are interconnected and produce their own pattern of behavior over time

Stocks and flows

  • Stocks are the elements of the system that can be observed, felt, counted, or measured -- they are the foundation of any system
  • Stocks change over time through the actions of a flow, like filling or draining a bathtub, depositing and withdrawing from a bank account, the growth and decay of an organism, the births and deaths of a population, etc

Feedback loops

  • A balancing (or negative) feedback loop stabilizes the stock level, like a body regulating its energy level, a thermostat regulating room temperature, or a person keeping their checking account stable
  • A reinforcing (or positive) feedback loop reinforces whatever direction of change is imposed on it. A healthy example of this is practicing a skill and improving continuously. Undesirable examples may include the escalation of violent behaviors, runaway inflation, and invasive species growth. This concept is also similar to the snowball effect
  • In capitalist systems, wealth accumulation and its resulting power is a reinforcing feedback loop
  • Natural systems usually have balancing feedback loops, but when certain tipping points are crossed, a reinforcing feedback loop can lead the system toward collapse. For example, when water systems get polluted across a threshold of harm to its living systems, or when a drying climate tips into a destructive fire and remains too arid to regenerate
  • Delays in feedback from a system can lead to oscillations, such as the cycles of growth and recession in an economy

Models and diagrams

To illustrate the concept of models, note the image below taken from space, which was taken shortly after a winter storm:

Satellite images show epic snowstorm that shut down part of Interstate 95 |  Space
Image credit: Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory

  • Often, we make sense of this landmass with the boundaries of the United States, the labels of cities, and the descriptions of regions such as the Chesapeake Bay and the Appalachian Mountains.
  • Yet from space, your attention and curiosities may be brought elsewhere from those models.

Leverage points

Meadows ranked 12 leverage points as places to intervene in a system. She ranked familiar parameters such numbers as tax rates, interest rates, and regulations as lowest. They are important, but Meadows argues that they're overemphasized as leverage points in changing the behavior of the overall system.

Midway in Meadow’s hierarchy of places of intervention are information flows. Missing information is one of the most common causes of system malfunction, for example information asymmetries are the source of market fluctuations or sometimes failures.

“You can drive a system crazy by muddying its information streams. You can make a system work better with surprising ease if you give it more timely, more accurate, more complete information.”
  • An example of an intervention that changes information flows are Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA) which give citizens rights and processes to access information from their governments. This increased transparency, in turn, increases accountability for elected officials to govern in accordance with their platforms
  • The Epistemic Crisis (see related topic below) elaborates on the effects of rampant misinformation and disinformation. These deteriorations of information flows, via the rise of social media over the last two decades, have had negative effects on social cohesion and democracy.

Goals and paradigms are atop Meadows' list of leverage points. Shifting the purpose or function of the system is a leverage point that then affects how stocks & flows, feedback loops, information flows, and self-organizing behaviors are aimed toward that goal.

Paradigms are the deepest set of beliefs about how the world works in the minds of societies. They're often unstated because they're presumed to be true (growth is good; one can own land). Goals and their downstream effects on the system emerge from these shared beliefs. As a leverage point, Meadows advises persistent efforts at pointing out the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm and acting loudly and visibly from the new paradigm with open-minded people

The ability to transcend paradigms holds in Meadows’ view truly transformational power.

There is yet one leverage point that is even higher than changing a paradigm. That is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize the no paradigm is “true,” that every one, including the one that sweetly shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension.  It is to "get" at a gut level the paradigm that there are paradigms, and to see that as itself a paradigm, and to regard that whole realization as devastatingly funny. It is to let go into not-knowing, into what the Buddhists call enlightenment."

Closing thoughts

Meadows recognized that as humans, we are limited in our capacity to understand complex systems. Thus, we are unable to predict and control them as we'd like to. She met this reality with humility and the belief that we need to bring our whole being (not just our intellect) to the task of systems change.

"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 truth from falsehood, our intuition, our compassion, our vision, and our morality.”
"There are no cheap tickets to mastery. You have to work hard at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off your own paradigms and throwing yourself into the humility of not knowing. In the end, it seems mastery has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly, letting go and dancing with the system.”
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