Thinking in Systems

Donella Meadows, Diana Wright (ed.) | 2008

In the years following her role as the lead author of the International bestseller, Limits to Growth – the first book to show the consequences of unchecked growth on a finite planet – Donella Meadows remained a pioneer of environmental and social analysis until her untimely death in 2001.

“So, what is a system? A system is a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. The system may be buffeted, constricted, triggered, or driven by outside forces. But the system’s response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world.”

– Donella Meadows (2008)

Thinking in Systems, is a concise and crucial book offering insight for problem solving on scales ranging from the personal to the global. Edited by the Sustainability Institutes Diana Wright, this essential primer brings systems thinking out of the realm of computers and equations and into the tangible world, showing readers how to develop the systems-thinking skills that thought leaders across the globe consider critical for 21st-century life.

Some of the biggest problems facing the world-war, hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation-are essentially system failures. they cannot be solved by fixing one piece in isolation from the others, because even seemingly minor details have enormous power to undermine the best efforts of too-narrow thinking. While readers will learn the conceptual tools and methods of systems thinking, the heart of the book is grander than methodology.

“Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. . . . Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.”

– Russel L. Ackoff (1979)

Donella Meadows was known as much for nurturing positive outcomes as she was for delving into the science behind global dilemmas. She reminds readers to pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable, to stay humble, and to stay a learner. In a world growing ever more complicated, crowded, and interdependent, Thinking in Systems helps readers avoid confusion and helplessness, the first step toward finding proactive and effective solutions.


Ackoff, R. (1979) ‘The Future of Operational Research Is Past’. Journal of the Operational Research Society 30, no. 2: 93–104.

Meadows, D. (Wright, D. ed) (2008) Thinking in Systems. Vermont, US: Chelsea Green Publishing Co.

Picture: © Jack Kruf (2021) System fibers. Breda: Private collection.