food prod chartSystems thinking is an interesting and disciplined way to look at how things work, and how to bring about change. Peter Senge may be the guru of systems thinking, but Dana Meadows was its master. The late Ms. Meadows, author of The Limits to Growth, founder of the Sustainability Institute and writer of The Global Citizen column until her death two years ago, wrote a remarkable paper for Whole Earth magazine in 1997 that described how to change anything by using one of ten system leverage points, which she listed in increasing order of power (and also increasing order of difficulty). Here is a summary of these points in layman’s terms, with some examples of how they could be used to bring about remarkable change.

  • Change the Measurements & Formulas: What gets measured gets done, and formulas powerfully affect human behaviour. Examples: Ecological taxation, which would measure and tax resource consumption and waste, replacing taxes on employment and clean production, would radically alter our economy. Higher prices for energy would produce cleaner cars and less commuter-dependent communities. Metrics like a Well-being Index instead of GDP would change how we assess government performance and hence what governments do.
  • Change the Inventories and Flow Rates of Resources: When you increase inventories, you create surpluses and buffers against future loss; when you decrease them, you increase agility and openness to innovation. When you speed up the flow, the impact, for better or worse, increases accordingly. Examples: Greater inventory of perpetually-protected lands would halt biodiversity decline. Faster flow of weapons exports would increase capacity for terrorism.
  • Regulate Negative Impacts and Vicious Cycles: You can slow down, or even reverse, a vicious cycle by regulating what feeds it. Slowdown in approval for GM foods would, in the system chart above, slow the vicious cycle of food production, population, and land use degradation. In Story of B, Daniel Quinn makes a compelling argument that curtailing human food production would quickly and humanely solve the problems of human overpopulation, poverty and famine. And regulating maximum work hours would reduce unemployment, family alienation and stress-related work problems.
  • Sustain Virtous Cycles: A virtuous cycle, like a vicious cycle, is two or more forces that reinforce and perpetuate each other, except that the results of a virtuous cycle are desirable. For example, a falling birth rate will produce fewer women of child-bearing age and hence lead to a further reduction in birth rate, in a self-perpetuating manner. Providing further incentives to have smaller families, instead of larger families as many governments now do, could sustain this virtuous cycle instead of undermining it.
  • Provide New Information: Many problems are due to lack of awareness of problems or their causes rather than lack of will to change them. Despite the loony Lomborgians and the Bush head-in-the-sand denyers, the scientific information showing how human activity has caused global warming, and showing the future impact of its continuance, has been essential to achieving consensus like the Kyoto Accord, the first small step to solving the problem. If every community was required to send a list of its top polluters to every resident, and publish it in the local paper, much more action would be taken against them.
  • Change the Rules, or Who Makes and Enforces Them: Laws and regulation, incentives, and moral codes powerfully affect behaviour. If so-called ‘free trade’ rules were set in open-door sessions by representative citizen groups instead of closeted business pressure groups and the governments they fund, and if these rules specified that ‘free trade’ was only allowed in products and services that cannot reasonably be produced locally, then WTO and NAFTA would be forces for the public good instead of creators of massive inequity, insane economic policy, environmental destruction, unemployment, misery and social unrest.
  • Create a New System That Makes the Old One Obsolete: What Ms. Meadows called self-organization entails walking away, opting out of an old dysfunctional system and building something completely new. This is the essence of human ingenuity and innovation, and is consistent with the model I have suggested for New Collaborative Enterprises. When the entertainment industry attempted to price-gouge consumers and sell them less, lower quality product, many consumers, especially the young who were most able to see the dysfunction, simply opted out and traded among themselves, employing new technology and vastly increasing the quantity of content available to them by including independent artists and even home made product in their self-organized production and distribution system.
  • Change the Goals: If the objective of the system is changed, and provided the new objective is clearly articulated, understood, accepted and achievable, massive buy-in can be achieved quickly and everything mobilized in new ways. Hitler’s restatement of the objective of the German state is an example. Walmart’s restatement of the objective of a retailer from selling products to leasing shelf-space is a more positive one. The Reagan-Bush I restatement of the role of government from providing service to doing only what is absolutely necessary is arguably the cultural underpinning that hads allowed the Bush II damage that now threatens irreparable damage to America’s institutions and its very social fabric. If corporate charters were changed to make their objective the well-being of their employees and communities, instead of the maximization of profits for their shareholders, our whole economy would be transformed.
  • Change the Mindset: All of the other elements of systems listed above are driven by what is perceived by the system’s stakeholders as ‘fair’, ‘good’, ‘reasonable’, or ‘right’. If you can change that mindset, everything else changes as a result. If people equated taxes with services (something that provides a ‘good’) rather than something inherently bad, or if people were to begin to see ‘growth’ as dangerous, unsustainable, instead of good and necessary, if people changed their mindset and saw land as a shared resource for all life on the planet, instead of something that belongs to humans, if people began to recognize that animals are living, feeling, sentient creatures and not ‘property’ to be enslaved by man, then that would change the goals, the rules, the whole system by which we live. It would change everything.

How do you change the mindset? In the words of Ms. Meadows, citing Thomas Kuhn for her inspiration:

You keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you come yourself, loudly, with assurance, from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.

The tenth and final leverage point requires a bit of a leap of faith (at least it did for me). It says: Be open, yourself, to new ideas and ways of thinking. Be able to change. Acquire an ability to let go of things that no longer work, no longer make sense. Perhaps she’s paraphrasing Ghandi when he said, simply, Be the Change.

(Thanks to Professor Jim McGee — who I cited earlier this week for his excellent article on KM — for bringing this to my attention)

This entry was posted in Preparing for Civilization's End, Working Smarter. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Doug Alder says:

    I haven’t read the Story of B. so I don’t know how fast he cuts back production. But to domit in a time frame that would make a significant impact on population levels would require it to be somewhat drastic. Curtailing food production to achieve someone’s vision of sustainability (a number that is greatly debated and by no means known) would result in death by starvation of millions. That’s humane? Sure from the perspective of by future generations that are no longer over crowded it may seem humane – but try asking those who are condemned to starve their opinion. You are going to have to explain this one in greater depth Dave.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Doug: You’re right, it warrants better explanation. Problem is, I’ve tried to do it in less than the 35 pages that Quinn takes to explain it in Story of B. and I can’t. The point he makes, eloquently, is that a significant reduction in food production would actually result in less starvation than occurs today. I’m not willing to violate copyright by copying 35 pages from a book into my blog, so all I can do is ask you to read the book and tell me if you’re not persuaded.

  3. Evan says:

    Thanks for linking to the Meadows piece; I’ve been meaning to blog something about it for some time as well, copying passages from my dog-eared copy of the magazine it was published in–I had no idea it was available online.

  4. Robin Good says:

    While I am not competent enough to offer muìy view on these technical issues, I found your post extremely valuable and inspiring especially in light of the ambitious task I have taken on with my humble Communication Agents Initiative. I thank you publicly for the great work you are doing for many of us. I certainly consider you an honorary CA. Keep it up Dave.Robin GoodStop surfing, Start Making WAVES !!

  5. Greetings Dave. Your posting from Dana Meadows’ work moved me to chime in. I knew Dana quite well. I served as board chair at her Sustainability Institute here in Vermont up until a few months after her death. It may interest you and others to know that Dana and I had begun to engage in a dialogue about the potential use of KM as a source of leverage in the environmental and sustainability movement. Unfortunately, her untimely death put an end to that, but I have continued ever since to develop the associated ideas, with assistance from Joe Firestone, in particular. The key idea that Dana and I considered was to view ‘learning loops’ in social systems as a leverage point in our efforts to reverse or change the course of behavior in commodity systems, organizations, societies, and humanity at large. In other words, we speculated that the presence of such profoundly unsustainable and self-destructive behaviors seen in industry and society today may be a sign of dysfunction at the level of how we learn, especially in collective systems. Thus, KM emerges as a tool for making related adjustments. Now, can we say that high-performance learning systems will necessarily result in sustainable behaviors? No. But we can say that sustainable behaviors will rarely result in the absence of them (healthy learning systems, that is). Moreover, we can also say that unsustainable behaviors will very likely result from the presence of dysfunctional or entirely missing learning systems, for how is a system (or the people within it) supposed to know that it is operating unsustainably if its learning system is broken or impaired?Once we isolate the learning system, or loop, as the wellspring of knowledge in a social system, it is a short hop from there to considering the possibility that bad knowledge in practice could very well be due to broken or missing learning systems. So, what do we mean by learning systems?The idea of the learning

  6. The following part of the article contains the key. We have been and still are drilled in critical thinking which is based on a misunderstanding of the human mind inherited from previous generations. That limits our thinking because it focuses on parts. We need to learn and apply integrative thinking that focuses on connections and is based on our current scientific understanding of the functioning of the human mind.”The tenth and final leverage point requires a bit of a leap of faith (at least it did for me). It says: Be open, yourself, to new ideas and ways of thinking. Be able to change. Acquire an ability to let go of things that no longer work, no longer make sense. Perhaps she’s paraphrasing Ghandi when he said, simply, Be the Change.”

Comments are closed.