In pulling together my thoughts for a workshop last week on systems thinking, I’ve realised how much systems thinking has affected my approach to climate change, and how systems thinking is an essential tool for understanding the different responses people have to climate change. For systems thinking offers not just a way to think about and understand the interactions that occur in very complex systems, but also a way of understanding how people relate to systems, and how our conceptions of systems affect our interactions with them.

A simple introduction to systems thinking usually starts by pointing out how familiar we are with the idea of “a system” – for example we use the word as a suffix in many different ways: an ecosystem, the transport system, the education system, a weather system, the political system, a computer system, and so on. [Note: The use of the definite article, "the ... system", is a little unfortunate here, as we shall see].

Most people are used to the idea of identifying different aspects of a system they wish to describe: inputs and outputs, a control (or management) mechanism, a boundary that separates the system from its environment, a possible purpose or function of the system, different elements or subsystems, different states that the system can be in, and so on.

This then leads to insights about the dynamic behaviour of a system, especially in terms of stocks and flows, and positive and negative feedback loops. For example, John Sterman has a simple demonstration of stocks and flows in an atmospheric system, with his bathtub model of greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations.

But where systems thinking really gets interesting is when we include ourselves as part of the system we’re describing. For example, for the climate system, we should include ourselves as elements of the system, as the many of our actions affect the release of greenhouse gases. But we’re also the agents that give some aspects of the system their meaning or purpose – the fossil fuel extraction and production system exists to provide us with energy, and one could even argue that the climate system exists to provide us with suitable conditions to live in, and that ecosystems exist to provide us with food, resources, and even a sense of wonder and belonging. The interesting part of this is that different people will ascribe different meanings and/or purposes to these systems, and some would argue that to ascribe such purposes is inappropriate.

Which leads us to the next level of insight, which is that these descriptions of systems are really just ways of looking at the world, and different people will see and describe different systems, even when observing the same parts of the world. As Reynolds points out, systems thinking starts when we begin to see the world through other people’s eyes, and the idea of multiple perspectives is a central concept. In this sense, systems don’t really exist in the world at all, they only exist as convenient descriptions of the world. Moreover, when we choose to describe some part of the world as a system, we make explicit choices about where to draw boundaries, and which things to ignore, and these choices themselves are important, because they reveal our biases and interests, and certain choices may help or hinder our attempts to analyze a system.

Taking this even further, we can then conceive of the system that consists of a group of people and their descriptions of the systems they are interested in, and we can study the dynamics of this system: how people affect one another’s perceptions of the systems, and how those perceptions shape their interactions with those systems. For example, we could describe climate change primarily in terms of the physical processes: carbon emissions, the radiative balance of the atmosphere, average temperatures, and impacts on human life and ecosystems. The leads to a view the problem of climate change as primarily about reducing emissions (and many people who write about climate change take this view). Alternatively, we could describe climate change as one aspect of a system of human growth (in population, energy use, resource use, economic activity, etc) and the many ways in which that growth is constrained on a finite planet. Which then leads to a very different characterization of the problem in which carbon emissions are really just a by-product of a cheap energy consumerist society, and the problem isn’t to reduce emissions, it is to restructure our entire societies (and our conceptions of them) so that we no longer depend on growth in resource consumption as our definition of human progress.

A key term here is second-order cybernetics. Cybernetics (of the first order) studies the ways in which processes can be controlled, and the engineering of process control systems. Second order cybernetics studies how our perceptions of systems affects our ability to design ways of controlling them. In other words, there are interesting dynamics in the interplay between our understanding of systems, and our attempts to design controllers for them. Much of the problem in understanding and responding to climate change is due to a failure by most writers to appreciate the dynamics in second order cybernetic systems.

I’ll write more about the application of systems thinking to climate change in the next few weeks. In the meantime, here’s some recommended reading – two excellent introductory books, which I think might appeal to different audiences:

If you’re not sure, read both. It will be worth it.


  1. Much of Meadows’ work — a good place to begin reading — is free online at:

    “leverage points …. most people know where these points are instinctually, but tend to adjust them in the wrong direction.”

  2. Hank – thanks. I used Meadows’ Leverage points paper in class this week, and am planning to dedicate an upcoming blog post to it.

  3. Talk about serendipities:

    Your link labeled “Donald Gause, An Introduction to General Systems Theory” (AItGST) in fact points to the GM Weinberg book of the same name. Whether or not that’s a typo, it made me remember reading the Weinberg back in the 80s! Found a copy of the 1975 original in a local library and leafed through. I should reread that, just for a quick discrete-math refresher.

    More oddly still, the Weinberg was shelved next to another short, lucid book from my misspent youth, Waddington’s “Tools for Thought.” TfT covers much the same ground as AItGST, i.e. systems theory, though TfT has a first chapter on “Philosophies” that feels kinda bolted-on. Other than that, very well-written. Plus most of the illustrations are hand-drawn, apparently with calligraphy brush and occasional watercoloring, and apparently by the author (at least, no one is credited), except for some old-school B&W computer graphics of the Game of Life and Paterson’s Worms. (FWIW TfT pubdate==1977, but since Waddington death==1975, I assume it was written contemporaneously with AItGST.)

    Seeing the latter made me think about Mandelbrot and Gleick’s “Chaos”, which would reset the bar for middlebrow big-think science books (and “pretty science”) (and redirect buzz from systems/cybernetics to chaos/nonlinearity) a decade later. So I looked (caveat–merely perusing) but noted that neither AItGST nor TfT has much to say about emergence, non-linearity, etc, though Waddington has much about attractors and a bit about catastrophes. (Both cover state spaces.)

    Someone should redo Weinberg or Waddington with lotsa color computer graphics, etc … but perhaps there’s already a website out there, or perhaps “Thinking in Systems” does that? I’ll try to track down a copy of Meadows.

    Final note, ├ápropos Meadows: Waddington (==UK biologist) has several shoutouts to Club of Rome, but didn’t see any in Weinberg (==US informaticist).

  4. @Tom: Oops. I always mix up Gause and Weinberg, in part because they wrote several excellent books together on requirements (“Exploring Requirements” and “Are your lights on?”).
    I’ve fixed it in the post – it was of course Weinberg who wrote the classic on GST.

    Ta for the pointer to Waddington – I hadn’t seen that one before. I would love to see an update to all of these which brings in the chaos theory too. Meadows does cover some non-linearity.

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  6. The first step in thinking about systems problems is to chunk or scale up to the larger level to determine root causes:

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