My Journey of Systems Thinking – VII

When is systems thinking not useful?

I have been asking myself this question very often, off late, because I think that thinking in systems has not always helped me take actions. But this is not a short coming of the subject but rather a personality trait associated with me. However, I think that one has to be aware of this trap of “inaction” in name of believing that the “system” is the problem. I will try to elaborate a bit.

For most time of the past ten years I have been thinking of real world systemic solutions and the top three things that come to my mind are: Local Economics (having local currencies), Self Sustaining Energy and Ecosystems Based Adaptation. If someone asks me what is the solution to all the environmental and economic problems we are facing today, I would simply go back to these three solutions (using different vocabulary). However, if they probe me further on how they could take small actions in their daily life to contribute to environment or sustainability, I am often at loss of words or ideas. Quickly I fall back to the regular options – use LEDs, shift to 5 star rated appliances, use efficient flush (in bathroom), segregate waste etc. But deep down these are not the things that I would consider as real solutions part of my daily life, if other meta things remained constant as they are today i.e. the problem of money and economics, un-sustainability of alternate energy systems, poor governance of fresh water etc.

So I conveniently let go all my efforts to practice some basic things in my daily life, like listed above. This does not mean that I don’t think they contribute to change but then I think that the system is the problem and unless we start developing or redefining systems, all our small efforts are not going to produce the big change that we wish to see in this world. This is a kind of “systems” trap. Where our desire to see big changes drives inaction towards small steps that one could take. As systems thinkers we have to be careful and mindful that we have to work at all levels simultaneously i.e. we have to sometimes apply the quick fix (change lights), work with people to help them see the patterns (how air pollution has become a recurring problem), evaluate the policy/governance structures that are causing the recurrence of these patterns even while personal awareness is going up (long distance travel is a must considering the cities becoming metro towns, farmer’s inability to recycle the agriculture waste back into the soil because the market turnaround time for agriculture produce is shorter these days etc.), also then reflect on the mental models/beliefs of people, that give rise to such structures (market, economy etc.) i.e. why people think the way they think, what are their untested assumptions, and then finally become aware that it is the shared vision of the society in which we are born and most of our mental models emerges from this societal vision (eg. growth is prosperity).

As systems thinkers we should not be choosy on what are the things that we would want to work upon. Say only public policy or teaching or awareness generation etc. We cannot get into the trap of exclusion while wanting to create a change at a system level.

I am facing this difficulty of trying to focus while also being alive to all the changes happening around me and how I could be a part of it. If I am not then I am being very non systemic in my approach.

2 thoughts on “My Journey of Systems Thinking – VII

  1. kurtzs March 20, 2019 / 3:57 pm

    Strong posting, Mihir! I’ve wrestled with similar thoughts for four decades. You need to address the meta driver: human numbers. We’ve doubled in your lifetime, tripled in my 74 years, and quadrupled in my mothers’ 94. Scale can defeat all strategies. Each human, no matter how simply and intelligently she lives, displaces habitat for other life forms excepting human parasites and things thriving on our waste and infrastructure.

    Secondly, please consider the work of Lotka, Odum, and others regarding MPP:
    Free will is ‘vastly over rated.’ 😉 If zero humans, zero human caused problems. If a billion like 200 years ago, perhaps real sustainability could ensue, with biodiversity and resources remaining somewhat stable. The single most powerful action in my opinion is women’s empowerment, with disempowering of patriarchal religions a close second.


    • Mihir April 4, 2019 / 6:45 am

      Thanks for commenting here Steve. You make relevant points. Have you read book Drawdown? It rates Women Empowerment and Birth Control as one of the top solutions for climate change. I dont know how patriarchy could be done away with and what would replace it. Sustainable human population must be less than what we have today. May be half, may be less. The worry is how will we discover the science – social and economic – to sustain optimum throughputs of ecosystem services. Think prosperity not growth. Big challenges of our times. But I think the solutions are simple, evident but impossible to implement while we are in a rush. A non systemic way to goind systemic work. Pheww!


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