By Donella H. Meadows
Donella H. (Dana) Meadows, co-author of The Limits to Growth, now writes a self-syndicated newspaper column called “The Global Citizen” that appears in 20 papers and occasionally gets national syndication through the Los Angeles Times. With this, her fifth consecutive contribution to IN CONTEXT, she takes on a title – Contributing Editor – that describes what she’s been doing for our magazine for quite some time. If you’ve wondered why her writing is so good – clear, to the point, full of fresh insight – this article (reprinted from the Journal of System Dynamics) will explain her methods and, we hope, encourage other writers to follow her example.
Through my work as a systems scientist, I have met the press in continuous and often dramatic confrontation for twenty years. My experiences have sometimes been frustrating, sometimes fruitful, and sometimes funny. Playboy, of all publications, was the first to do an article about our world modeling work (The Limits to Growth, Meadows et al., 1972). There it was – a systems analysis of the collapse of the industrial world, in Playboy. A year or so later we were given three whole precious minutes on the Today show to get across the growth, overshoot, and collapse of the world economy, right after a mouthwash commercial and just before a demonstration by the British dart-throwing champion.
We who study System Dynamics seek out the press, because we think our field gives us valuable, sometimes crucial, insights about the world. We want those insights to be spread widely – we know they must be spread widely. Our discipline makes clear the overarching power of mindsets, paradigms, the deep-level socially-shared assumptions about the nature of the world that set up the structures of decision-makers, institutions, policies – i.e., systems – in the first place.
If we want to bring about the thoroughgoing restructuring of systems that we know is necessary to solve the world’s gravest problems and a host of smaller ones, we know that the first step is Thinking Differently. Everybody thinking differently. The whole society thinking differently. There is only one force in the modern world that can cause the entire public to think differently. That force is the mass media.
That’s the conclusion I came to, anyway, when I set out four years ago to become a newspaper columnist. I was finding the state of the world and the feeble responses of policymakers intolerable. I didn’t think that more writing for academics or preaching to the converted would help. I wanted to see a regular, system-based, globally-oriented, long-term viewpoint on the editorial pages of the newspapers. I kept waiting around for someone else to do it, but no one did.
So I did, and I’ve learned a lot in the process – about public perceptions and paradigms, what System Dynamics can contribute, about the media themselves and how they work. This article is about what I’ve learned.
THE PRESENT PARADIGM
A paradigm is a set of deep concepts about the nature of reality that shapes language, thought, perceptions – and system structures. It is not only an assumption about how things are; it is a commitment. In social interactions, slogans, and common sayings, the reigning paradigm of the society is repeated and reinforced over and over, many times a day. There is an emotional investment in a paradigm, because it defines one’s world and oneself.
The paradigm of System Dynamics itself assumes that things are interconnected in complex patterns; that the world is made up of stocks, flows, and feedback loops; that information flows are intrinsically different from physical flows; that nonlinear processes and delays are important elements in systems; and that behavior arises out of system structure. Public discourse contains none of those assumptions. System Dynamicists were raised in their culture, of course, so they are not uncomfortable in the normal prattle of everyday life. But their systems training makes them very aware of the many unsystematic assumptions that permeate societal talk, political thinking, and the daily reports of the media.
Here are just a few of the common assumptions of the current societal paradigm that to me seem clearly unsystematic and problematic – and that disturbed me enough to want to write a newspaper column:
- All growth is good – and possible. There are no effective limits to growth.
- One cause produces one effect. There must be a single cause of acid rain or cancer or the greenhouse effect, and we just need to discover and remove it.
- Technology can solve any problem that comes up – there is no cost to technology, no delay in attaining it, no confusion about what kind of technology is needed. Improvements will come through better technology, but not through better humanity.
- Nations are disconnected from each other, man is disconnected from nature, economic sectors can be maximized independently from each other, some parts of a system can thrive while other parts suffer.
- Possession of things is the source of happiness.
- Individuals cannot make any difference.
- The rational powers of human beings are superior to their intuitive powers or their moral powers.
- We know what we are doing.
I submit that all the above statements are partially or wholly false, that they are implicit or explicit in virtually all public discourse, that they give rise to much of the persistent counterproductive behavior of individuals and institutions, and that the harm done by them is incalculable. The only way I know to throw them into question is to question them, over and over, with as much documentation, clarity, and persuasiveness as possible, in the most visible public forums.
EVEN THE SIMPLEST CONCEPTS HELP
The level of public discussion is so simple-minded that it doesn’t take much to raise the quality of political debate. The most fundamental tenets of System Dynamics – ideas as simple as the difference between a stock and a flow – can already clear up significant muddles in public thinking. I once wrote a whole column on the difference between a debt and a deficit, explaining why slowing the rate of deficit (a flow) will not reduce the level of debt (a stock) but will only slow its increase. I’m still not sure most of our politicians understand that point.
The effect of nonlinear relationships is also not generally understood. The public debate on the seriousness of soil erosion, for example, has yet to recognize that the relationship between soil depth and crop yield can be sharply nonlinear – that a little erosion may not have much effect, but a little more erosion may reduce agricultural output dramatically.
Some other systems ideas that have immediate public relevance are:
- simple interconnectedness. Energy conservation would not only save consumers money directly; it would also cut urban air pollution, acid rain, greenhouse gases, the production of radioactive wastes, the trade deficit and defense costs in the Persian Gulf – those are only a few of the effects that would radiate through economic and environmental systems.
- the time it takes for huge stocks to change. After three years of perestroika the Soviet Union’s economic situation has changed little. People are already calling it a failure, not understanding how long it takes for a nation’s capital plant, exhausted soils, and disaffected workforce to be revitalized.
- how rational microbehavior can lead to disastrous macroresults. The “tragedy of the commons” – where each individual acting in rational self-interest creates a catastrophe for the community as a whole – is an example of this phenomenon. This is one of the most powerful concepts we have to offer, because it turns public discussion from the problem of blame to the problem of restructuring.
Just one of these ideas – and there are many others – is enough to get across at a time, especially in a newspaper column of 800 words. Sometimes I get tempted to cram in two, and only once have I tried to combine many of them. It was in this column on the disappearance of the family farm, and it was based on a System Dynamics study by Philip Budzik (Budzik, 1975). The driving force of the model I presented was a positive feedback loop:
Farmers are caught in a vicious cycle. At any given price, for milk or grain or whatever, the most obvious way a farmer can earn more money is to produce more. So some of them do. But, since most of us are already drinking all the milk and eating all the grain we can, a larger supply means a lower price. Now, since the price is lower, every farmer has to produce more just to keep the same income. So every farmer tries to do that and some succeed, increasing production still more, dropping prices still further, forcing every farmer to produce still more.
The farmers are on a treadmill. Each one feels forced to expand whether or not he wants to, whether or not he can actually do a good job with more land or more cows. “Get bigger or get out” is the message. If the farmer succeeds in getting bigger, he turns the treadmill further, increasing output, reducing prices, forcing himself and others to expand even more in the future. Every time one farmer manages to stay on the treadmill by expanding, he knocks another farmer off.
The next important idea was that of bounded rationality:
Who’s doing it to the farmers? The farmers are doing it to each other. They are stuck in a system where everyone’s individual rational behavior produces a result that no one wants. If you don’t believe that, ask the nearest farmer. They know what’s happening.
Then came the ideas of counterintuitive behavior and policy resistance:
When, with the best of intentions, we help the farmers out of their troubles – with subsidies, low-interest loans, easier taxes, higher prices, better technologies – they can expand still more, produce more, and turn the treadmill even faster. Anything that gives a farmer the ability to expand puts another farmer out of business, sooner or later. When we help a large farm expand, it is usually several middlesize or small farms that bite the dust.
The final message is the unexpected leverage point and the policy recommendation:
There is one astonishingly simple (and at the moment politically unthinkable) way of doing that. Just plain limit the size of farms. Define some upper limit beyond which a farm cannot grow, high enough to capture economies of scale and a decent farm income, low enough to encourage healthy land, communities, and economy.
The limit should vary by crop and land type and change as technologies change. It would be most effective to set it not by acre, but by the amount of each commodity that each farm would be permitted to market. A limit in real commodity units would give the government a way of dealing with the perennial problem of overproduction. It would stabilize farm prices. It would give farmers the freedom to experiment with different management schemes to produce the limit at lower cost. It would encourage them to diversify their crops, making them less vulnerable. And since the total amount of each crop produced is fixed, any decrease in costs would mean an increase in farm income, not in farm size.
If the farm-size limit were set at a reasonable level, it would eliminate the need for farm subsidies, because farms would be profitable without outside help.
This example demonstrates that a sophisticated systems model can be communicated in words, without diagrams, in just a few paragraphs. The policy that came out of the model is still unthinkable to politicians, who regard it as interference with the free market – which, of course, it is.
The free market is widely misunderstood, and it is a central feature of the modern industrial paradigm. I hammer at it regularly in my columns. In one of them, I criticized the free market’s inherent instability – the cycles and oscillations and feedback delays that affect everything from interest rates to opinions about the president. That column, written shortly after the 1987 stock market crash, was one of the most unpopular I ever produced. Many papers simply did not print it. I learned a lesson from that – you can’t challenge the prevailing paradigm too directly.
But you can challenge it indirectly, bit by bit, again and again, presenting more and more evidence. Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the seminal book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, says that what ultimately causes a paradigm to change is the accumulation of anomalies – observations that do not fit into and cannot be explained by the prevailing paradigm. The anomalies have to be presented over and over, because there is a social determination not to see them.
Challenging a paradigm is not part-time work. It is not sufficient to make your point once and then blame the world for not getting it. The world has a vested interest in not getting it; the point has to be made patiently and repeatedly, day after day after day. Fortunately, there are communications systems like newspapers and television that do make points repeatedly, and that have space to be filled day after day after day. If we’re going to use these media well – if we’re even going to compete successfully for that space – we have to take the time to understand how they work.
MEET THE PRESS
Over the past three years I have come to know at least 50 newspaper editors. They are tremendously well informed, disciplined people who follow a set of strong professional ethics about evidence, balance, truthfulness, and the public’s right to know. Above all, they care about society and democracy and the information streams that hold a community or a nation together.
Like everyone else, however, they are embedded in a system that shapes their behavior, not always for the good. The enterprises they work for put out a daily product on a rigid schedule that is not conducive to long, careful reflection. They are commercial establishments that have to attract advertisers and appeal to the public taste. There is only so much space available every day, and the competition for that space is intense.
Everything I’ve said about newspapers is even more true of the broadcast media. The result is a set of behavioral characteristics we are all familiar with – the standard, and generally accurate, set of criticisms about the media:
- They are event-oriented; they report only the surface of things, not the underlying structures.
- Their attention span is short, they create fads and drop them, they don’t see slow, long-term phenomena (they ignored the greenhouse effect until there was drought in the Midwest).
- They follow a herd instinct; they will send 1,500 reporters to one political convention, but no reporters will be on hand when crucial environmental policy is being made.
- They are attracted to personalities and authorities; they are uninterested in people they’ve never heard of.
- To meet time and space constraints they simplify issues; they have little tolerance for uncertainty, ambiguity, tradeoffs, or complexity.
- They operate from skepticism; they have been lied to and manipulated so much that they don’t believe anyone; they carry such a load of cynicism that they often unnerve interviewees who are in fact sincere and telling the truth.
- They have a tendency to force the world to conform to their story, rather than to see the world as it is (I have several times had the frustrating experience of being interviewed by a reporter who didn’t want to hear facts that contradicted “the story”).
- They love controversy and think harmony is boring; they see the world as a set of win/lose, right/wrong situations; they are attracted to conflict and to things that aren’t working; they do not pay attention to things that are working.
- They are strongly conservative, unconsciously reinforcing the status quo and resisting ideas of change.
- They also unconsciously report through filters of helplessness, hopelessness, cynicism, passivity, and acceptance. They report problems, not solutions; obstacles, not opportunities. They systematically disempower themselves and their audience.
Why should we try to communicate messages of complexity, of structure, of long-term thinking, of inclusiveness, of empowerment through a system like this? Because if we want a better world, we have no choice. And because it can be done, in spite of that negative list I just made. I’ve learned that communicating through the media is harder than I thought, but more possible than I thought, and also more rewarding and more result-producing than I thought.
My greatest help has been a handful of editors and TV producers who have recognized what I’m up to, taken me in hand, coached me and criticized me to make my work more effective. Slowly they have taught me to stop resisting the strictures and necessities of the media and to work within them, without, I hope, losing my own purpose or message.
My greatest problem at the beginning was keeping my columns under 800 words. One of my editors thundered at me, “George Will can write less than 800 words. Mary McGrory can write less than 800 words. Why can’t you write less than 800 words?” Another reminded me that I didn’t have to say everything all at once. With a weekly column, I’d always have another chance. The moral of the story is, be concise.
Be clear, they told me. There is not a single concept in System Dynamics that can’t be explained to a 12-year-old in ordinary language. Be specific, not abstract. Give examples, and be sure your words make pictures in peoples’ heads. Tell stories, give statistics, show the impact of the problem or the solution on the real world. People can form their own conclusions, if you give them the evidence.
Use a hook to the news. If you’re writing about the ozone hole, point out that the Senate just ratified an international treaty to combat it. People have to know why what they’re about to read is important. They think the daily news is important, so use that hook, even if you’re not going to talk about the daily news.
Write an interesting lead. Another friendly editor once blasted me with: “That was the most terrific column you ever wrote, but it had a boring, killer lead.” A killer lead is an opening sentence that makes the reader yawn and turn to the sports page. (The lead the editor complained about was this: “I have just had the privilege of escorting six Hungarian visitors on a cross-country tour of the United States. All six are agricultural experts. They came to see our farms.” It would have been better to start with something right out of the middle of the story, perhaps this: “The Hungarians thought Burger King was great. ‘So clean,’ they said. When they saw people carrying their own trays, they said, ‘So socialist.'”)
Never write in an apologetic tone, they told me, or a defensive one. Never, ever, ever, condescend to the reader. Never present a problem without providing at least a hint of what to do about it. Don’t get people all riled up and then drop them into helplessness.
Whatever your subject, tell it through people. Human beings are much more interested in other human beings than they are in ideas. If you care about something, let your care show as well as your objective evidence. If you’re writing about someone else – hero or villain – make that person as real and whole on paper as you possibly can.
Be humble. You don’t know everything. In fact no human being knows much of anything, compared with the immense wonders and uncertainties of the universe, so keep a sense of perspective. Say just what you can say and no more, say it with the appropriate degree of certainty and no more. That is the hardest lesson for me to follow. It’s a torture every day and a duty, a wonderful discipline and a Zen koan, the bane of my existence and the best challenge of my life.
As my columns are appearing in more papers and reaching more people, I am hearing from some of those people, and that is the gratifying part of this exercise. I get letters and phone calls, sometimes angry, sometimes plainly crazy, but mostly thoughtful, appreciative, supportive, interesting, and educational.
People send me additional material, or tell me about concrete steps they are taking to correct a problem. They point out my mistakes, usually very patiently. They ask questions and suggest column ideas. They let me know when they think one of my columns is below standard, and they’re always right. They tell me they’ve cut out one of my pieces and sent it to their Senator or their brother-in-law, or they’ve read it to their ninth-grade class, or they’ve stuck it up on their bulletin board at work.
It’s an enormous privilege to be in communication with these people, a privilege I take increasingly seriously. Thoreau said in Walden: “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.” Sometimes it’s glorious, sometimes the responsibility is frightening. John Maynard Keynes, in one of his most often-quoted passages, articulated what must be both the greatest hope and the greatest fear of all idea-communicators:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. (Keynes, 1936)
We shouldn’t duck from that power of ideas. There’s a great audience of engaged, active people out there, yearning to make sense of their world, grateful for the smallest insight you can share. They put ideas to work. They are the living receptacles of, perpetuators of, and changers of the paradigms of society.
Budzik, P. M., “The Future of Vermont Dairy Farming”, Master’s Thesis, Thayer School of Engineering, Dartmouth College, 1975.
Keynes, J.M., The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, New York, Harcourt, 1964 (reprint of the 1936 original).
Kuhn, T.S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Meadows, D.H., D.L. Meadows, J. Randers and W.W. Behrens, The Limits to Growth, New York, Universe Books, 1972.
Systems Dynamics Meets The Press, by Donella Meadows, reprinted by permission from In Context #23: The Ecology of Media, Fall 1989, copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute, http://www.context.org/ICLIB/IC23/Meadows.htm