HN Books @HNBooksMonth

The best books of Hacker News.

Hacker News Comments on
Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Donella H. Meadows, Diana Wright · 23 HN comments
HN Books has aggregated all Hacker News stories and comments that mention "Thinking in Systems: A Primer" by Donella H. Meadows, Diana Wright.
View on Amazon [↗]
HN Books may receive an affiliate commission when you make purchases on sites after clicking through links on this page.
Amazon Summary
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. 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 Institute’s 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. 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.
HN Books Rankings
  • Ranked #30 all time · view

Hacker News Stories and Comments

All the comments and stories posted to Hacker News that reference this book.
I share with you a bit about what I have learned. I've struggled a lot. Everything is like broken. I'm still struggling right now. However, I'm still working on something to make our situation better. I do several research and experiments on Happiness, psychology, neuroscience and here are something I'm want to share.

+ Hedonic adaption: Hedonic adaption is special psychological effects that explains about how we perceive about happiness. Even after a big happy moment, our level of happiness do down quickly. We adapt our perception to our current situations. So it's like nothing will last forever. Hedonic adaption is both good and bad. It makes us adapt quickly with any situations. It keeps us safe. So we should appreciate it and learn how to make use of this effect rather than blaming it. Learns to attend with everything you do even it's bad, explore something news. It will help you deal with bad effects of hedonic adaptation.

+ Mindfulness: Do some mindfulness exercise. We feel stress because our mind think we're having problems. Our mind made up our feelings to keep us safe [7]. It's good for us. Mindfulness help us understand more about feeling and more enjoy the moment.

+ Mind body connection: Your health affects your mental, and your mental will affect your health. To me, it's not because some spiritual belief, but it's how systems work [3] [4]. Our body, our mind are systems. They are part of bigger system. They connect each others and interact with each other, sending some feedback. So try to improve both your health and your mental. Try to improve your health diet, do exercises and taking care of our thoughts and feelings.

+ We aren't rational. Our thinking system is optimal but it has limitations [3]. It has a lot of problems (cognitive biases). Learn to appreciate and find a way to make it better. For example, we can adapt. We update our belief overtime. Try to make new better habits[5]. Make small steps.

+ There isn't perfect things. Every systems aren't perfect. Our immune system, our cognitive system, organizations, data structures, design patterns,... Appreciate what works, what not and improve it.

Some interesting books, articles you might interest:

[1] https://www.plantinghappiness.co.uk/hedonic-adaptation/

[2] https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Fast-Slow-Daniel-Kahneman/dp...

[3] https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp...

[4] https://www.amazon.com/Mindbody-Prescription-Healing-Body-Pa...

[5] https://jamesclear.com/atomic-habits

[6] https://www.coursera.org/learn/the-science-of-well-being

[7] https://www.amazon.com/Wisdom-Insecurity-Message-Age-Anxiety...

This is a great point. I read Thinking in Systems a few years ago and it changed how I observe and try to influence (or not) existing systems. Highly recommend. https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp...
aelhage
I highly recommend this as well. Coming at this with a background in mechanical engineering, ie, familiar with formal definitions of control systems, feedback loops, delays, etc, this book did a fantastic job showing how all those same concepts apply to nontraditional systems without requiring any deep technical knowledge of control systems.
tudorpavel
I recently read "An Introduction to General Systems Thinking" by Gerald M. Weinberg [0], which may or may not be in the same vain. These concepts are hard to wrap my mind around but they are appealing. I'll try your recommendation too, thanks!

[0] https://www.amazon.com/Introduction-General-Systems-Thinking...

I have found "Thinking in Systems" [0] to be a good book for crystallizing "systems" concepts in abstract. For example, it includes discussions on feedback loops, bottlenecks, equilibrium, etc.

IIRC, it has been used as a textbook for systems theory classes in some universities, but it's concise and written for a general audience.

[0] https://www.amazon.com/dp/1603580557

A good book on the topic is "Thinking in Systems" by Donella Meadows [1]. It's a catalog of common system patterns and how they behave to give you some tools to answer the "then what?".

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp...

Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella H. Meadows https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/1603580557/

I read it once a year. It changed how i think about everything. My career is based on this book. My interaction with people and groups of people is based on this book.

mseo
I just read that one and found it interesting, but also a bit shallow. Do you have any recommendations on what to read to dive deeper into this topic?
franze
Yeah, it's a starting point, but still the best one with the most clearest thoughts. Every other System Thinking Book is more specialiced to one domain and seem to drive additional agendas.

I can recommend everything else she has written. I go back to "Thinking in Systems" once a year and analyze my life, my projects again with her framework. There is always something new to discover.

franze
My book https://www.amazon.com/Understanding-SEO-Systematic-Approach... is based on her framework, well her and some Jerry Weinberg and Marshall McLuhan sprinkled in.
The author of Thinking in Systems is incorrect. The author is Donella H. Meadows: https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp...
I was recently given this list of books by some very skilled engineers who I trust

1. [The Pragmatic Programmer](https://pragprog.com) 2. Martin Fowler's [Refactoring Book](https://martinfowler.com/books/refactoring.html) 3. Kent Beck's [Test Driven Development: By Example](https://www.amazon.com/Test-Driven-Development-Kent-Beck/dp/...) 4. [Thinking in Systems: A Primer](https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp...) 5. [Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice](https://www.amazon.com/Zen-Mind-Beginners-Informal-Meditatio...) 6. [Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware](https://www.amazon.com/Pragmatic-Thinking-Learning-Refactor....)

There are actually a lot of great materials available on Systems Thinking, here are a few of our favourites:

Articles:

- Introduction to Systems Thinking (https://thesystemsthinker.com/introduction-to-systems-thinki...)

- Tools of a Systems Thinker (https://medium.com/disruptive-design/tools-for-systems-think...)

- The Mythical Leverage Point (https://blog.kumu.io/the-mythical-leverage-point-d582ce4b8b4...)

Videos:

- Peter Senge Introduction to Systems Thinking (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXdzKBWDraM)

- I Used To Be A Systems Thinker (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Ymt_TbNNwE)

- The (Failed) Promised of Systems Thinking (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=614&v=aelqgvFXGi...)

- Systems Practice Mindsets (https://vimeo.com/212281432)

Courses:

- +Acumen Systems Practice Course (https://www.plusacumen.org/courses/systems-practice)

Books:

- Thinking In Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows (https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp...)

- Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (https://www.amazon.com/Fifth-Discipline-Fieldbook-Strategies...)

- Systems Thinking for Social Change (https://www.amazon.com/Systems-Thinking-Social-Change-Conseq...)

Articles on Leading Systems Change:

- Dawn of Systems Leadership (https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_dawn_of_system_leadershi...)

- Acting and Thinking Systemically (https://thesystemsthinker.com/acting-and-thinking-systemical...)

- Transforming the Systems Movement (https://thesystemsthinker.com/transforming-the-systems-movem...)

Relevant Tools and Websites:

- Kumu (https://kumu.io) - Web-based tool for building interactive system maps.

- The Systems Thinker (https://thesystemsthinker.com/) - Complete library of all "The Systems Thinker" publications over the past 30 years

- Loopy (http://ncase.me/loopy/) - An playground for building interactive systems maps.

(Disclosure: I'm a Developer at Kumu)

carapace
- "General Systemantics" by John Gall ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systemantics ) It's humorous but I'm being serious.

He has such chestnuts as: "A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that works."

rymohr
Love John Gall's approach to systems. There's actually a section in Kumu's manifesto that quotes Gall's law:

    A complex system designed from scratch never works
    and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have
    to start over with a working simple system.
https://kumu.io/manifesto#start-with-simple
Apr 14, 2018 · wyc on How to Be a Systems Thinker
A great book for this is Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows. She has many illustrative examples that really help get the points across. Coming from an electrical engineering background, I found her discussion around the interactions between positive and negative loops to be very interesting.

https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp...

germinalphrase
Agreed. This is a nice primer.
fjsolwmv
Hmm, someone claims that she invented Malthusianism. She must have a time travel system....

"Limits to Growth―the first book to show the consequences of unchecked growth on a finite planet"

neurocline
I tried reading this book several years ago and bounced right off. Given the multiple recommendations, I'll give it a second try.
mvkel
A possible alternative might be The Fifth Discipline.

I found it a bit easier to process.

hiq
You can always start with the summary given at the end of the book (IIRC), and maybe that'll be enough to trigger your interest and motivates your going through at least some of the chapters.
There's actually a lot of great material available, here are a few of my favorites:

Articles:

- Introduction to Systems Thinking (https://thesystemsthinker.com/introduction-to-systems-thinki...)

- Tools of a Systems Thinker (https://medium.com/disruptive-design/tools-for-systems-think...)

- The Mythical Leverage Point (https://blog.kumu.io/the-mythical-leverage-point-d582ce4b8b4...)

Videos:

- Peter Senge Introduction to Systems Thinking (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXdzKBWDraM)

- I Used To Be A Systems Thinker (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Ymt_TbNNwE)

- The (Failed) Promised of Systems Thinking (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=614&v=aelqgvFXGi...)

- Systems Practice Mindsets (https://vimeo.com/212281432)

Courses:

- +Acumen Systems Practice Course (https://www.plusacumen.org/courses/systems-practice)

Books:

- Thinking In Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows (https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp...)

- Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (https://www.amazon.com/Fifth-Discipline-Fieldbook-Strategies...)

- Systems Thinking for Social Change (https://www.amazon.com/Systems-Thinking-Social-Change-Conseq...)

Articles on Leading Systems Change:

- Dawn of Systems Leadership (https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_dawn_of_system_leadershi...)

- Acting and Thinking Systemically (https://thesystemsthinker.com/acting-and-thinking-systemical...)

- Transforming the Systems Movement (https://thesystemsthinker.com/transforming-the-systems-movem...)

Relevant Tools and Websites:

- Kumu (https://kumu.io) - Web-based tool for building interactive system maps.

- The Systems Thinker (https://thesystemsthinker.com/) - Complete library of all "The Systems Thinker" publications over the past 30 years

(Disclosure: I'm a cofounder of Kumu)

I enjoyed reading and feel like I got a lot out of Thinking in Systems: A Primer https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp...
I remember the first time reading this book, or rather the 30 year update -- https://www.amazon.com/Limits-Growth-Donella-H-Meadows/dp/19... -- thinking, "this is the approach to take to understand how the economy, ecology, pollution, and so on interact."

Everything else was just looking at elements. Technology is important, for example, but exists within a system. They looked at the system. They had to simplify and assume a lot, which the media didn't understand (probably benign ignorance) and critics blew out of proportion (probably maliciously), but I found their approach the most meaningful.

Sadly, I know many people who care about the environment but don't understand the (relatively simple) math in their approach, and many people who understand the math but don't care about the environment, but almost no one who cares and understands. So in about a decade since reading it, I haven't found anyone I can talk to about it meaningfully.

A great companion by one of the authors is Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows -- https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp....

Both changed my views more than almost any other books.

tunesmith
I found it fascinating, too... it send me on a hunt to try and better understand their World3 model. I bought Wolfram SystemModeler since one of their extensions has the model, and I also found some online resources that have modeled it through javascript too. One thing that was a little disheartening is that I found that one of the inputs to the model appeared to be highly determinant, and the initial values chosen seemed controversial. If I changed the initial value to something else that still seemed within a reasonable range, the model projections didn't seem so bad.

I wish I could remember details, I've been searching my hard drive for my notes.

tunesmith
I found it... if you go to bit-player.org/limits and increase the "output consumed" variable by a couple of percentage points, the outlook is massively improved. This implies that as business reinvest less, the outlook improves. So apparently if we want to avoid overshoot and collapse, we should be convincing profitable companies to increase their dividend payouts!
DennisP
I agree, and for climate economics especially it makes a lot more sense than equilibrium models.

Something I found especially interesting in the LtG model is that the costs of dealing with environmental damage and extracting more scarce resources build up gradually over time, but the way it works out is that economic output keeps growing rapidly, until these costs become overwhelming and it all suddenly crashes down. Everything looks great until you're on the verge of catastrophe.

But to this day, people look at our growing economy and think it refutes LtG, because they assume LtG predicts a gradual decline.

Certhas
Research into this is still ongoing: https://www.pik-potsdam.de/research/projects/activities/copa...
None
None
wjnc
With all respect to the authors, the thinking at that point in time and the impact it made on the world and you: Much of their predictions haven't stood the test of time.

-No exhaustible has been depleted yet and the price mechanism combined with technological progress seems pretty able to set incentives straight. Look at what the oil price bubble of the '00s did for electric cars and batteries in the now. -The world has seen massively more population growth than they modelled, but not the accompanying food shortages they predicted. I'd argue the shortages of the '80s and '90s are over, although local situations obviously have tragic effects (Syria, Venezuela). -Material goods production (plastics) is at an all time high. -Many more humans alive at lower poverty levels than ever before and ever imagined by the Club of Rome

They got the depletion of fish stocks right though. Although arguably, that was the simplest prediction since the 'tragedy of the commons' is so profound in international fishery.

The gloom of the club of Rome just didn't work out. I guess outside of way we are treating our environment, humanity has a lot to be proud of. (I feel the environment is going bonkers and we are a plastic-addicted throw away society.)

danmaz74
With this kind of long term predictions, it's practically impossible to get the numbers right - ie the number of years it will take for resource X to end, how many billion people Earth can sustain, etc. But this doesn't mean that there are no limits to growth (on Earth): in the last 40 years we invented lots of great technologies that improved the efficiency in how we use lots of resources and reduced the pollution created by production, but there is no silver bullet in sight that could make those disappear.

Just like Moore's law, it worked much longer than anybody expected, but in the end we still hit many limits, and we can say for sure it's not going to last forever even if we don't know when it's going to really end.

jk2323
Hey Dude, keep Bullshitting!

"There is No Steady State Economy (except at a very basic level)" http://ourfiniteworld.com/2011/02/21/there-is-no-steady-stat...

Limits to Growth–At our doorstep, but not recognized http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-02-12/limits-to-growt...

Wealth And Energy Consumption Are Inseparable http://www.declineoftheempire.com/2012/01/wealth-and-energy-...

Galactic-Scale Energy http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/07/galactic-scale-e...

vixen99
Thanks! And are the arguments put forward in these links considered at executive level? Seems to me - not at all because preset agendas dominate, drowning out the logic.
Symmetry
I read the first link you posted and it seemed, if anything, to support the OP's point. Perhaps you could express your objections in your own words?
jk2323
Read the second link.

Own words? Most of the blog posts are done by people much smarter than me. I could do a 1 or 2 hour PPT Presentation trying to get to the point. I think only a few people would be able to follow me. Not, because I am so tremendously smarter than them (I have a PhD), but because the topic is so tremendously complex and interlinked.

jnordwick
r/iamverysmart material
chappi42
> although local situations obviously have tragic effects (Syria, Venezuela)

Considering people who came to Europe in the last time you can at least add Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palaestina, some African countries to this list. And I'd say (apart from often atrocious politics) it's b/c there are too many young men and no work.

> Material goods production (plastics) is at an all time high

with worldwide measurable effects on the sea. (Immission probably due to only 6 large rivers, but still)

(many more signs)

I fear the Club of Rome will work out very well in time

wjnc
Don't conflate being critical of the CoR of not being afraid for our environment. Mostly I am saying that the global market has shown to be more robust to changes in population and that supply and demand has been able to accomodate more changes than the CoR held for possible. That's positive point for our global system. It seems robust within the parameters of the last 150 years.
chappi42
Yes that's true. Personally I don't care too much about the precise prognoses but about the general idea. 40 years ago, the model was simple and also today I don't think the complexity could be modeled accurately.

There are examples in smaller areas, e.g. Easter Island, Trinidade South were 'over-usage' lead to consequences. I could image this to happen to the earth as a whole in time when we do not regulate.

The global system seems robust, yes. But there is plenty of oil still and most nations are stable. But who knows? This will/could change. For the former there is technology. But for the latter it seems difficult, a former-china-like-one-child-policy would be in order for certain regions, but I don't see this coming.

ratacat
I think agricultural collapse is a great place to start researching. The book 1493 all about the ecological exchange of contact with the new world has some phenomenal perspective about it all. Our high input monocropping is pretty tenuous. Look at the lifespan history of commercial pesticides and fungicides, they used to be 30+ years around the turn of the century. Today, a newly discovered pesticide has a lifespan of about three years before it becomes not effective. The extreme lack of genetic diversity in our crops is a time bomb waiting to happen. If you think the Irish Potato famine was bad, it's going to be a mere footnote to the kind of agricultural disasters we will see come out of the next century. Rubber trees are a particularly vulnerable piece, 99% of all rubber produced in the world comes from southeast Asia from a handful of clones brought over from the Amazon. They can't monocrop rubber in South America because of leaf blight. Yet when that blight makes it over to se Asia on somebody's boot, things are going to get weird fast. No rubber means no industrial hoses, gaskets, and tires. We don't have any economic means to reproduce natural rubber. All the computers in the world won't make a difference.
pygy_
You are disregarding the dissipation side of energy consumption: i.e., concretely pollution and wildlife destruction.

While the supply-side of the equation will at some point prevent growth, the dissipation side is not concerning, but alarming.

While in theory economic growth may stem purely from gains in efficiency, historically efficiency gains have spurred so much activity that the total entropy creation has increased nevertheless.

PoachedSausage
Coincidentally, the last 150 years corresponds quite closely with the Industrial Revolution and the age of fossil fuels. With the damage they are doing to the oceans (plastic, acidification) and the atmosphere (global warming, respiratory illnesses etc), it no longer seems quite so robust.
pygy_
The thing is, even renewable energy sources are not that green. The energy that is diverted for human use used to take part in atmospheric, geologic and biological/ecological processes. It is also disruptive (if less than carbon dioxide emissions).
Symmetry
They may have been off and potentially very off on the timing. But the amount of physical resources theoretically available to us is certainly limited by the speed of light so even making the most generous possible assumptions exponential material growth can't continue forever.
tom_mellior
> No exhaustible has been depleted yet

What did they predict would be depleted by December 2017, and where did they predict it? Be specific please.

> The world has seen massively more population growth than they modelled

Has it? What does their model predict for December 2017? Be specific.

(http://sustainable.unimelb.edu.au/sites/default/files/docs/M... shows an almost perfect fit of population growth predictions and historical data until 2014)

> Material goods production (plastics) is at an all time high.

Yes, that's lovely. Where did they predict otherwise, for December 2017?

> I guess outside of way we are treating our environment, humanity has a lot to be proud of. (I feel the environment is going bonkers and we are a plastic-addicted throw away society.)

Agreed.

ratacat
I think agricultural collapse is a much more likely scenario then us running out of oil. The book 1493 all about the ecological exchange of contact with the new world has some phenomenal perspective about it all. Our high input monocropping is pretty tenuous. Look at the lifespan history of commercial pesticides and fungicides, they used to be 30+ years around the turn of the century. Today, a newly discovered pesticide has a lifespan of about three years before it becomes not effective. The extreme lack of genetic diversity in our crops is a time bomb waiting to happen. If you think the Irish Potato famine was bad, it's going to be a mere footnote to the kind of agricultural disasters we will see come out of the next century. Rubber trees are a particularly vulnerable piece, 99% of all rubber produced in the world comes from southeast Asia from a handful of clones brought over from the Amazon. They can't monocrop rubber in South America because of leaf blight. Yet when that blight makes it over to se Asia on somebody's boot, things are going to get weird fast. No rubber means no industrial hoses, gaskets, and tires. We don't have any economic means to reproduce natural rubber. All the computers in the world won't make a difference
wjnc
Are you not asking of me a much higher degree of rigour than the Club of Rome demonstrated?

The simplest: No exhaustible has been depleted yet. See table 4. Add the years in columns 3 or 4 or 5 to 1972. Gold, mercury, silver were predicted to be exhausted by 2017. None are.

tom_mellior
> Are you not asking of me a much higher degree of rigour than the Club of Rome demonstrated?

I was mostly asking about details of what exact points you said they were wrong about.

> The simplest: No exhaustible has been depleted yet. See table 4. [...] Gold, mercury, silver were predicted to be exhausted by 2017. None are.

Indeed. Thanks! Though I should add that these tables are not based on their system simulation, but simply on known reserves and know rates of consumption at the time.

jk2323
"The simplest: No exhaustible has been depleted yet"

You are correct. In fact, they never will be depleted. Same with the oil. Most of the oil that is still in the ground will stay there.

"These forecasts are made possible by assuming the limit on the amount of oil extracted is the amount of oil in the ground. In fact, the limit is likely to be a financial (debt) limit that comes much sooner." https://ourfiniteworld.com/2014/01/13/why-eia-iea-and-rander...

Please also see: Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet https://www.amazon.com/Extracted-Mineral-Wealth-Plundering-P...

It is well possible we are beyond the peak already. This brings us to the "Seneca effect" http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com/2011/08/seneca-effect-or...

Otherwise: Business as usual.

ableal
> This brings us to the "Seneca effect" http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com/2011/08/seneca-effect-or...

Thanks for the reference, seems a nicely concise overview. The resources and industrial output graph almost jumps out ...

wjnc
I find it hard to have an open discussion if you're mainly dropping links without much added substance in the content (quotes like "business as usual", "keep bullshitting" don't help). The links are really long, actually seem to contain some relevant points, but also raise my BS-filter-flag (especially the links to 'prehistoric' economics papers).
jk2323
As I posted below:

Own words? Most of the blog posts are done by people much smarter than me. I could do a 1 or 2 hour PPT Presentation trying to get to the point. I think only a few people would be able to follow me. Not, because I am so tremendously smarter than them (I have a PhD), but because the topic is so tremendously complex and interlinked.

This being said. It does not hurt to read this blog posts and think about them. The conclusion would be: We are f...ed. I may have a very negative outlook into the future and I hope that I am wrong. But I am afraid we are running into mathematical limits. Quote from the last blog post (Galactic energy scale) "But let’s not overlook the key point: continued growth in energy use becomes physically impossible within conceivable timeframes." Then again, if you understand how energy, debt, growth and our society are interlined, this is NOT good news. Stay on the level we have now? Impossible. Read the first blog post. We are running in circles.

wjnc
Ok, read the Galactic energy scale-post. Does an analysis like that scare you? Not me. Holding energy growth constant is a fun exercise, but not realistic.

My take-aways: all energies except nuclear are finite in about 200 years barring unrealistic technical advances (like 100% efficiency). Don't forget the catch-up consumption for the other 6.7B world citizens. That would shorten the process. Supply and demand for energy could easily create incentives to better allocate our 7000TW budget. In the long run (and we are talking really long run) S&D should allocate research (nuclear fusion for one, but consumption lowering as well) incentive compatible with our energy budget. The end of the demographic divide suggests falling population rates in 100 yrs. One of the largest drivers of that growth percentage is population growth. But that seems ending. I agree with the CoR there. Another big energy saver.

Energy usage is not my worry. Man induced climate change without the political will the make pollution endogenous to markets, that is. Market forces cannot work on CO2 without world wide agreement. I'm a market optimist and a political pessimist.

dredmorbius
The fundamental argument of Limits to Growth is a simple one, simpler than you're allowing: it's that there are, in fact, limits to growth.

The counterproposition is that there are no limits to growth. This tends to render itself absurd in fairly short order. (Though that fact has done little to dent the propositions's popularity.)

You can find proponents of such views easily.

Julian Simon is among the better-known, having by a mix of chance and a general failure to understand economics of extractive resource economics, won a rather famous wager.

There's M.A. Adelman, an obscure, but influential, M.I.T. economist specialising in petroleum:

Minerals are essentially inexhuastible. Oil, gas, coal, and copper, for example, will never be depleted. Investment in exploration and development creates an in-ground inventory of proved reserves, constantly used and replaced.

This is an M.I.T. economist.

(Simon's arguments are even sketchier.)

An oil company CEO -- I can't recall which -- wrote an editorial in one of the major weekly magazines (I think it was The Atlantic though I haven't been able to turn it up), arguing to the effect that there were no limits to oil. This in the 1950s.

At the time, the US was some 20 years past its largest-ever on-shore oil discovery, the East Texas Oil Field, and 20 years from its own conventional production peak, in 1972. The world's largest-ever oil field, at Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, had already been discovered.

By the 1880s, the general locations of most U.S. oil finds was already well-established: they were betrayed by natural seeps and existing finds, in upstate New York and Pennsylvania, in Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, and in California. Guides that rapidly appeared on how to get rich (or broke) quick in the Pennsylvania oil fields, such as Dr. Gesners (below) list out a litany of familiar locations and bearing materials, including, yes, tars, sands, and shales, as well as coal.

Again: the message is a simple one. Unending constant percentage growth is impossible. At some point it has to cease. The limits are so significant that even very crude estimates (such as those employed by the LTG models) are fairly accurate -- most of those showed a peak sometime in the 2020 - 2040 period, a result which seems borne out.

Where history has shown otherwise, it's largely been on either of two bases:

1. The growth trends slowed. This occurred in population after a phenomenal boom in the 1950s and 1960s. This had proved exceptionally concerning at numerous levels.

2. Capabilities have improved, slightly. Most especially in food production. But the improvements have themselves come at a cost of more intensive activity, greater resource utilisation (including of petrochemical fertilisers and pesticides), of topsoil erosion, and of environmental impacts.

Those two developments staved off one of the worst predictions, of global starvation by the year 2000. But the avoidance itself came through mechanisms consistent with the general concept. That is: one trend slowed, another increased, but through increased impacts. The net is a slight time shift, but a minuscule one given the history of Earth, or even of Humanity.

Ghawar:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghawar_Field

Oil, as seen from the 1860s:

https://archive.org/stream/apracticaltreat01unkngoog#page/n1...

Some of the cornucopians, and what they've had to say:

https://www.reddit.com/r/dredmorbius/comments/1xch1j/bradley...

clord
> - No exhaustible has been depleted yet

I don't think they predicted depletion for our current era in any of the models. The only model that even came close to that was the "Business As Usual" model, which predicts a peak of production around our present time. Looking at current production levels we do see a levelling off of oil production mostly due to declining output from major fields. [0] That said, certainly depletion is a very strong claim that no one has made.

> - the price mechanism combined with technological progress seems pretty able to set incentives straight. Look at what the oil price bubble of the '00s did for electric cars and batteries in the now.

First of all, switching to electric cars will amount to a shift in what the automobile fleet burns for fuel. Instead of gasoline and diesel, they burn whatever the power plant burns, and that's still predominantly petroleum-sourced. Additionally, current lithium supplies can not support massive expansion of the fleet. If Tesla builds all the gigafactories necessary to convert the fleet (let's assume 100 million EVs per year, which is approx current auto production; requiring 800,000 metric tons of lithium) and runs them for 17 years, they will deplete the known reserves of lithium (13.5 million tons of reserves[1] divided by 800,000 = 16.9 years). Speculative Estimates from[2]

Next, A lot of the material required for an EV still has to be sourced from petroleum resources. The metals need to be refined with high-heat processes. The wheels are rubber and sourced from natural gas or oil. Lots of plastics are involved. Mining and transporting the raw resources is still done with diesel machinery.

Finally, even if EV rollout is possible, we can't do it for all the people expected to be buying cars in the future. Even replacing the developed world's fleet is a major challenge, but doing it for the world looks insurmountable at this point. Given these real constraints, I'm willing to grant that price mechanism will not overcome these problems, except insofar that it can exclude most of the world from owning cars and other resource-consuming stuff.

> - The world has seen massively more population growth than they modelled, but not the accompanying food shortages they predicted.

The business-as-usual model did not properly account for how extensively we started turning petroleum into food. These days, there is a tremendous amount of embodied energy in most of the industrial food system.

> I'd argue the shortages of the '80s and '90s are over, although local situations obviously have tragic effects (Syria, Venezuela).

South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Syria, Venezuela. Also likely near-term famines in North Korea and Egypt. There are more active famines in 2017 than any recent time. Whether the number of affected people is similarly high is unknown at present.

> -Material goods production (plastics) is at an all time high.

I'm not sure why this is listed as a positive. Is that what you meant?

> -Many more humans alive at lower poverty levels than ever before and ever imagined by the Club of Rome

Some models they presented in the book had far more wealth, far lower poverty, and far higher populations than our present. In these models, pollution was also far higher than our present situation. The point was that resources inevitably get converted to pollution somehow. The models show that if we find a solution to our resource problems, we'll end up with more pollution.

[0]: http://peakoilbarrel.com/opec-october-production-data/ [1]: http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/lithium/mcs... [2]: https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/is-there-enough...

greglindahl
You're aware that the recoverable reserves of lithium are determined by the price, yes? So if the price of lithium rises, it becomes economic to mine lithium which is known but is currently not worth extracting.

Quote from Appendix C of the government report pointed at by [2]: https://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/mcs/2015/mcsapp2015....

> Reserves may be considered a working inventory of mining companies’ supply of an economically extractable mineral commodity. As such, the magnitude of that inventory is necessarily limited by many considerations, including cost of drilling, taxes, price of the mineral commodity being mined, and the demand for it. Reserves will be developed to the point of business needs and geologic limitations of economic ore grade and tonnage. For example, in 1970, identified and undiscovered world copper resources were estimated to contain 1.6 billion metric tons of copper, with reserves of about 280 million metric tons of copper. Since then, almost 480 million metric tons of copper have been produced worldwide, but world copper reserves in 2014 were estimated to be 700 million metric tons of copper, more than double those in 1970, despite the depletion by mining of more than the original estimated reserves.

rainingmonkey
>although local situations obviously have tragic effects (Syria, Venezuela).

These and many other crises in the world today can arguably be traced to the very kinds of resource challenges the Club of Rome discussed.

The 'Arab Spring' in particular has it's roots in (among other things) a decade of poor harvests caused by drought, aquifer depletion and topsoil erosion, which made people move from rural areas to the cities in huge numbers. Once there, persistent unemployment was the fuel, political repression was the accelerant and the spark came from a spike in global food prices caused by bad harvests combined with speculative grain hoarding[1].

We should be especially wary of triumphantly declaring that everything's allright in the world from the position of one of the world's richest societies. When negative changes come they hit the most vulnerable first, whilst those with the most power and wealth use it (perhaps unknowingly) to ensure that their bubble remains as optimistic as ever. We see this demonstrated as the very poorest are hit first (eg. young, black males in the USA), then the working class, then when it hits the middle classes the 'crisis' becomes part of media discourse; throughout the elite remain largely oblivious (eg. Silicon Valley salaries).

These are simple narratives and we should perhaps be as sceptical of them as the idea that "Facebook caused the Arab Spring", but they illustrate how we should consider how resource constraints interface with all the other systems of human civilisation.

[1]https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/climate-change-an...

tiatia
Hey Dude, keep bullshitting!

"There is No Steady State Economy (except at a very basic level)" http://ourfiniteworld.com/2011/02/21/there-is-no-steady-stat...

Limits to Growth–At our doorstep, but not recognized http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-02-12/limits-to-growt...

Wealth And Energy Consumption Are Inseparable http://www.declineoftheempire.com/2012/01/wealth-and-energy-...

Galactic-Scale Energy http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/07/galactic-scale-e...

spodek
You've mischaracterized their work.

They didn't predict what you said they did. They showed a range of possible outcomes based on assumptions, among many. You seem to have picked one outcome as their only one and called it their prediction.

They created a model based on a systems approach whose output depended on assumptions on physical properties of the planet and future human choices. Given the large uncertainties, they ran the model under many sets of assumptions and presented the outcomes.

The point of the book is to illustrate and promote a systems perspective, not just a linear, event-based approach, which you seem to prefer.

api
Would it be fair to say that not all their possible outcomes were doom and gloom but that the media seized on that because it gets the most attention?

That being said... we do know that infinite exponential growth of an economy in a finite bounded space is not possible. Eventually it must either plateau or crash. We hope it plateaus. There are some positive signs in this area including most notably the decline of birth rates with development but there is no guarantee those trends will not reverse.

"Infinite" exponential growth at the scale of the universe might be possible, but the distances between even planets (e.g. Earth and Mars) make separate economies at that scale more or less separate systems. We could colonize Mars and continue growth there until that either crashes or plateaus, but that would not impact the growth model of Earth very much.

majewsky
> "Infinite" exponential growth at the scale of the universe might be possible

Only if the speed of light turns out not to be the hard boundary that it appears to be as of now.

If humanity is bound by any maximum speed (e.g. c, the speed of light), the maximum accessible volume of space is a sphere with radius c * t, where t is the time spent exploring the universe. The volume of this sphere is O(t^3), which is very much not exponential.

omgwtfbyobbq
The systems part is fine, but if I'm remembering this correctly, they assumed we could arbitrarily convert resources into other resources, which led to some wacky outcomes.
wjnc
Say I agree (at least I get your point ;) - I'm curious how does one test (in the empirical science sense) a systems perspective with regards to predictions / scenario's? Because at least in popular opinion the Club of Rome is known for a pretty grim worldview and political advocacy.

Perhaps I'm too much schooled in traditional economics but Robert Nobel wasn't too kind [1] and even in my environmental economics classes we spent quite some time deconstructing the Club of Rome.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Club_of_Rome#Critics

Certhas
It's important to understand that the aim of systems isn't to predict things but to understand potential mechanisms.

The fact that certain scenarios that the Club of Rome anticipated seemed to not come true also unveiled new mechanisms to us.

Predictions can't be the benchmark, we are simply not advanced enough in the science for that.

Certainly the social sciences, like economics, should understand that best. Economics has hardly been able to predict anything.

smallnamespace
At some point, there are limits to our ability to empirically test large-scale predictions because we have no ability to run history more than once.

This certainly applies to macroeconomics -- how does one empirically 'test' any prediction from a macroeconomic model based on real-life inputs, other than to see what happens? But this shouldn't preclude us from asking the really difficult questions that we care about, rather than restricting ourselves to the realm of physics, where we can get 5 sigmas in classical statistical tests.

With regards to Robert Nobel's criticism, the whole point of the Club of Rome's approach is to model a simplified, 'low resolution' view of the world economy in order to embed it in a larger network of information, goods, and energy flows constrained by the environment -- because the boundary conditions matter a lot to how the macroeconomy functions.

Sometimes you can get away with a much simpler modeling approach if you actually get all the inputs right. The biggest criticism the Club of Rome has on most macroeconomic models is that it doesn't model the environmental inputs in sufficient detail, and these things really matter a lot in the long run.

It is not simply sufficient to take current 'wage levels' or 'capital stock' or even 'level of technology' as a direct input to your DSGE RBC model -- our macroeconomies perform a quasi-ecological function of converting flows of matter and energy, largely taken from Nature and the environment, and converting them further for human use. Understanding the Nature-human interface, then explicitly modeling the stock quantities of the inputs into the macroeconomy must on some level be important, because they are key to how our entire technological society functions.

I you're inclined to learn more about their modeling approach at a high level, I highly recommend Thinking in Systems [1]. Read it a week ago and it blew my mind, as its intuitions match up with a lot of patterns that we see over and over again in dealing with any complex network, but presented in a systematic and convincing manner.

[1] http://wtf.tw/ref/meadows.pdf

"Thinking In Systems: A Primer" was a wonderful introduction to the topic.

https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp...

pmarreck
My favorite kind of book is one that changes how you think about and see things, and this is one of those special books
LaundroMat
Yes, it's one of those very rare books that really made me think differently about things.
andrewflnr
How much info does it give about how to practically predict and modify the behavior of realistic, complex systems? If I already understand that feedback cycles are important and hard to predict, how much would I benefit from this book?
spodek
Some relevant videos:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXdzKBWDraM

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMmChiLZZHg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0QtQqZ6Q5-o

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uYNlhjOZ7DU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pc3SWj-hjTE

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kz9wjJjmkmc

(the later ones are about Limits to Growth, co-written by the author of Thinking in Systems)

A great book by one of his proteges, Donella Meadows: https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp...
widowlark
This book changed my life. After reading this, I had an insatiable need to learn more about systems and dynamic systems interactions - a passion that led me to getting my macroeconomics degree today.
My feeling is that the constraints ultimately tend to be political rather than technological and it's hard to find folk from either camp willing to take the other seriously.

ObBookRecommendation: https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp...

Also, don't underestimate the satisfaction to be gotten from teaching kids how to develop games & enterprise systems!

Yeah that's the gist of it. Helping people make sense of complicated relationships so they can make an impact.

If you're interested in this stuff Donella Meadow's book "Thinking in Systems" is a great introduction: http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp/...

I have taken a couple of permaculture courses and am also a developer. The biggest synergy between the two is system thinking. In both domains, you are thinking at multiple levels of abstraction, bouncing back and forth between the high level design and low level implementation.

Highly recommended: Thinking in Systems: http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp/...

And the permaculture podcast covers a variety of interesting topics: http://www.thepermaculturepodcast.com/

I agree!

Donella Meadows is one of the most articulate writers and thinkers on systems. She is the easiest to learn the basics from: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1603580557

Same person, shorter, free, and condensed format: http://www.donellameadows.org/systems-thinking-resources/

Same author again, the final chapter from the book above: http://www.donellameadows.org/archives/dancing-with-systems/

And if you only get one book on how to apply it to business, it's this one: http://www.amazon.com/Leaders-Handbook-Making-Things-Getting...

A more recent applied-systems-thinking manual for organizations that I've found hits home with more traditional managers (very useful): http://www.amazon.com/The-High-Velocity-Edge-Operational-Com...

Another good one that's a bit long-winded, but another set of applied examples: http://www.amazon.com/The-Fifth-Discipline-Practice-Organiza...

Senge, in the foreward of that book, gives almost all credit to W. Edwards Deming—who is the originator of many of the ideas of organizational systems thinking and how it integrates with Management. So, if you want to go deeper, Deming's book "Out of the Crisis" is a good tome.

1st "Thinking in Systems" http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp/...

2nd Article "Leverage Points" http://www.donellameadows.org/archives/leverage-points-place...

after these two you will have enough know-how on how to identify and manage systems (i.e.: your growing company)

then the only thing between you and success is reality, for how to influence the company reality you live in please read

3rd "Seeing Systems" http://www.amazon.com/Seeing-Systems-Unlocking-Mysteries-Org...

good luck and have fun (with the books, with your new responsibilities)

World3 is a famous simulation done in the 70s of our world/civilization that broadly predicts how our interaction with the environment will lead to a breakdown (decrease) of population.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World3

You can run this world simulation here:

http://insightmaker.com/insight/1954

(Click on the green run simulation on the upper left.)

The lady who is responsible for this is called Donella Meadows, she is a famous systems thinker, I read one of her books titled 'Thinking in Systems'. It's about how to think about such systems (without actually modelling them).

http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp/...

I recommend reading http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp/... for a clear explanation of why this actually makes peak oil worse.
ojbyrne
I actually have read fairly widely and taken courses in Systems Theory, but I'd appreciate a synopsis of your argument.
danielharan
All the technology used in exploiting a non-renewable resource faster only sets us up for a bigger, more abrupt crash. I don't remember if she used the example of oil or fisheries (or both?), the dynamics are the same.

In the fishing village I grew up in, they were building massive ships with cutting-edge sonar(?) technology until the stocks collapsed.

HN Books is an independent project and is not operated by Y Combinator or Amazon.com.
~ [email protected]
;laksdfhjdhksalkfj more things
yahnd.com ~ Privacy Policy ~
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.