29 October 2018
I had a
few ideas about this Monday's Weekly. The top contender was a critical piece
about Rachid Sardarov, the Russian billionaire land "owner" in
Namibia implicated in the Panama Papers, with the aim of asking what type of
investment we really want in our country. I will certainly re-visit this,
especially once I have dug a little deeper on this issue. But, for today, I
thought some inspiration and wisdom from Dana Meadows might be more of a week
kick-starter for us (at least, definitely, myself). I was inspired to share
with you one of her more famous pieces "Places to intervene in a system", so here goes, straight from Dana's pen:
Folks who do
systems analysis have a great belief in "leverage points." These are
places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a
city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in
community has a lot of lore about leverage points. Those of us who were trained
by the great Jay Forrester at MIT have absorbed one of his favorite stories.
"People know intuitively where leverage points are. Time after time I've
done an analysis of a company, and I've figured out a leverage point. Then I've
gone to the company and discovered that everyone is pushing it in the
wrong direction !"
example of that backward intuition was Forrester's first world model. Asked by
the Club of Rome to show how major global problems, poverty and hunger, environmental
destruction, resource depletion, urban deterioration, unemployment, are related and how they might be
solved, Forrester came out with a clear leverage point: Growth. Both population
and economic growth. Growth has costs, among which are poverty and hunger, environmental destruction, the whole list of problems we are
trying to solve with growth!
leaders are correctly fixated on economic growth as the answer to virtually all
problems, but they're pushing with all their might in the wrong direction.
That's Forrester's word to describe complex systems. The systems analysts I
know have come up with no quick or easy formulas for finding leverage points.
Our counterintuitions aren't that well developed. Give us a few months or years
and we'll model the system and figure it out. We know from bitter experience
that when we do discover the system's leverage points, hardly anybody will
frustrating. So one day I was sitting in a meeting about the new global trade
regime, NAFTA and GATT and the World Trade Organization. The more I listened,
the more I began to simmer inside. "This is a HUGE NEW SYSTEM people are
inventing!" I said to myself. "They haven't the slightest idea how it
will behave," myself said back to me. "It's cranking the system in
the wrong direction, growth,
growth at any price!! And the control measures these nice folks are talking
about, small parameter adjustments, weak
negative feedback loops, are
without quite knowing what was happening, I got up, marched to the flip chart,
tossed over a clean page, and wrote: " Places to Intervene in a
System ," followed by nine items:
(subsidies, taxes, standards).
stocks and flows.
Regulating negative feedback loops.
positive feedback loops.
4. The rules
of the system (incentives, punishment, constraints).
3. The power
2. The goals
of the system.
mindset or paradigm out of which the goals, rules, feedback structure arise.
the meeting blinked in surprise, including me. "That's brilliant!"
someone breathed. "Huh?" said someone else.
that I had a lot of explaining to do.
In a minute
I'll go through the list, translate the jargon, give examples and exceptions.
First I want to place the list in a context of humility. What bubbled up in me
that day was distilled from decades of rigorous analysis of many different
kinds of systems done by many smart people. But complex systems are, well,
complex. It's dangerous to generalize about them. What you are about to read is
not a recipe for finding leverage points. Rather it's an invitation to think
more broadly about system change.
leverage points are not intuitive.
("parameters" in systems jargon) determine how much of a discrepancy
turns which faucet how fast. Maybe the faucet turns hard, so it takes a while
to get the water flowing. Maybe the drain is blocked and can allow only a small
flow, no matter how open it is. Maybe the faucet can deliver with the force of
a fire hose. These considerations are a matter of numbers, some of which are
physically locked in, but most of which are popular intervention points.
national debt. It's a negative bathtub, a money hole. The rate at which it
sinks is the annual deficit. Tax income makes it rise, government expenditures
make it fall. Congress and the president argue endlessly about the many
parameters that open and close tax faucets and spending drains. Since those
faucets and drains are connected to the voters, these are politically charged
parameters. But, despite all the fireworks, and no matter which party is in
charge, the money hole goes on sinking, just at different rates.
of land we set aside for conservation. The minimum wage. How much we spend on
AIDS research or Stealth bombers. The service charge the bank extracts from
your account. All these are numbers, adjustments to faucets. So, by the way, is
firing people and getting new ones. Putting different hands on the faucets may
change the rate at which they turn, but if they're the same old faucets,
plumbed into the same system, turned according to the same information and
rules and goals, the system isn't going to change much. Bill Clinton is
different from George Bush, but not all that different.
last on my list of leverage points. Diddling with details, arranging the deck
chairs on the Titanic
. Probably ninety-five percent of our
attention goes to numbers, but there's not a lot of power in them.
parameters aren't important, they can be, especially in the short term and to the
individual who's standing directly in the flow. But they RARELY CHANGE
BEHAVIOR. If the system is chronically stagnant, parameter changes rarely
kick-start it. If it's wildly variable, they don't usually stabilize it. If
it's growing out of control, they don't brake it.
we put on campaign contributions, it doesn't clean up politics. The Feds
fiddling with the interest rate haven't made business cycles go away. (We
always forget that during upturns, and are shocked, shocked by the downturns.)
Spending more on police doesn't make crime go away.
there are critical exceptions. Numbers become leverage points when they go into
ranges that kick off one of the items higher on this list. Interest rates or
birth rates control the gains around positive feedback loops. System goals are
parameters that can make big differences. Sometimes a system gets onto a
chaotic edge, where the tiniest change in a number can drive it from order to what
appears to be wild disorder.
most common kind of critical number is the length of delay in a feedback loop.
Remember that bathtub on the fourth floor I mentioned, with the water heater in
the basement? I actually experienced one of those once, in an old hotel in
London. It wasn't even a bathtub with buffering capacity; it was a shower. The
water temperature took at least a minute to respond to my faucet twists. Guess
what my shower was like. Right, oscillations from hot to cold and back to hot,
punctuated with expletives. Delays in negative feedback loops cause
oscillations. If you're trying to adjust a system state to your goal, but you
only receive delayed information about what the system state is, you will
overshoot and undershoot.
Same if your
information is timely, but your response isn't. For example, it takes several
years to build an electric power plant, and then that plant lasts, say, thirty
years. Those delays make it impossible to build exactly the right number of
plants to supply a rapidly changing demand. Even with immense effort at
forecasting, almost every electricity industry in the world experiences long
oscillations between overcapacity and undercapacity. A system just can't
respond to short-term changes when it has long-term delays. That's why a
massive central-planning system, such as the Soviet Union or General Motors,
necessarily functions poorly.
A delay in a
feedback process is critical RELATIVE TO RATES OF CHANGE (growth, fluctuation,
decay) IN THE SYSTEM STATE THAT THE FEEDBACK LOOP IS TRYING TO CONTROL. Delays
that are too short cause overreaction, oscillations amplified by the jumpiness
of the response. Delays that are too long cause damped, sustained, or exploding
oscillations, depending on how much too long. At the extreme they cause chaos.
Delays in a system with a threshold, a danger point, a range past which
irreversible damage can occur, cause overshoot and collapse.
would be a high leverage point, except for the fact that delays are not often
easily changeable. Things take as long as they take. You can't do a lot about
the construction time of a major piece of capital, or the maturation time of a
child, or the growth rate of a forest. It's usually easier to slow down the
change rate (positive feedback loops, higher on this list), so feedback delays
won't cause so much trouble. Critical numbers are not nearly as common as
people seem to think they are. Most systems have evolved or are designed to
stay out of sensitive parameter ranges. Mostly, the numbers are not worth the
sweat put into them.
stocks and flows.
structure, the stocks and flows and their physical arrangement, can have an
enormous effect on how a system operates.
Hungarian road system was laid out so all traffic from one side of the nation
to the other had to pass through central Budapest, that determined a lot about
air pollution and commuting delays that are not easily fixed by pollution
control devices, traffic lights, or speed limits. The only way to fix a system
that is laid out wrong is to rebuild it, if you can.
can't, because physical building is a slow and expensive kind of change. Some
stock-and-flow structures are just plain unchangeable.
baby-boom swell in the US population first caused pressure on the elementary
school system, then high schools and colleges, then jobs and housing, and now
we're looking forward to supporting its retirement. Not much to do about it,
because five-year-olds become six-year-olds, and sixty-four-year-olds become
sixty-five-year-olds predictably and unstoppably. The same can be said for the
lifetime of destructive CFC molecules in the ozone layer, for the rate at which
contaminants get washed out of aquifers, for the fact that an inefficient car
fleet takes ten to twenty years to turn over.
exceptional leverage point here is in the size of stocks, or buffers. Consider
a huge bathtub with slow in and outflows. Now think about a small one with fast
flows. That's the difference between a lake and a river. You hear about
catastrophic river floods much more often than catastrophic lake floods,
because stocks that are big, relative to their flows, are more stable than
small ones. A big, stabilizing stock is a buffer.
stabilizing power of buffers is why you keep money in the bank rather than
living from the flow of change through your pocket. It's why stores hold
inventory instead of calling for new stock just as customers carry the old
stock out the door. It's why we need to maintain more than the minimum breeding
population of an endangered species. Soils in the eastern US are more sensitive
to acid rain than soils in the west, because they haven't got big buffers of
calcium to neutralize acid. You can often stabilize a system by increasing the
capacity of a buffer. But if a buffer is too big, the system gets inflexible.
It reacts too slowly. Businesses invented just-in-time inventories, because
occasional vulnerability to fluctuations or screw-ups is cheaper than certain,
constant inventory costs, and
because small-to-vanishing inventories allow more flexible response to shifting
leverage, sometimes magical, in changing the size of buffers. But buffers are
usually physical entities, not easy to change.
absorption capacity of eastern soils is not a leverage point for alleviating
acid rain damage. The storage capacity of a dam is literally cast in concrete.
Physical structure is crucial in a system, but the leverage point is in proper
design in the first place. After the structure is built, the leverage is in
understanding its limitations and bottlenecks and refraining from fluctutions
or expansions that strain its capacity.
Regulating negative feedback loops.
beginning to move from the physical part of the system to the information and
control parts, where more leverage can be found. Nature evolves negative
feedback loops and humans invent them to keep system states within safe bounds.
loop is the classic example. Its purpose is to keep the system state called
"room temperature" fairly constant at a desired level. Any negative
feedback loop needs a goal (the thermostat setting), a monitoring and signaling
device to detect excursions from the goal (the thermostat), and a response
mechanism (the furnace and/or air conditioner, fans, heat pipes, fuel, etc.).
system usually has numerous negative feedback loops it can bring into play, so
it can self-correct under different conditions and impacts. Some of those loops
may be inactive much of the time, like the emergency cooling system in a nuclear power plant,
or your ability to sweat or shiver to maintain your body temperature. One of
the big mistakes we make is to strip away these emergency response mechanisms
because they aren't often used and they appear to be costly. In the short term
we see no effect from doing this. In the long term, we narrow the range of
conditions over which the system can survive.
One of the
most heartbreaking ways we do this is in encroaching on the habitats of
endangered species. Another is in encroaching on our own time for rest,
recreation, socialization, and meditation.
"strength" of a negative loop, its ability to keep its appointed stock at or near its goal, depends on the combination of all its
parameters and links, the
accuracy and rapidity of monitoring, the quickness and power of response, the
directness and size of corrective flows.
There can be
leverage points here. Take markets, for example, the negative feedback systems
that are all but worshiped by economists, and they can indeed be marvels of self-correction, as prices
vary to keep supply and demand in balance. The more the price, the central signal to both producers
and consumers, is kept clear, unambiguous, timely,
and truthful, the more smoothly markets will operate. Prices that reflect full
costs will tell consumers how much they can actually afford and will reward
efficient producers. Companies and governments are fatally attracted to the
price leverage point, of course, all of them pushing in the wrong direction
with subsidies, fixes, externalities, taxes, and other forms of confusion. The
REAL leverage here is to keep them from doing it. Hence anti-trust laws,
truth-in-advertising laws, attempts to internalize costs (such as pollution
taxes), the removal of perverse subsidies, and other ways of leveling market
of a negative feedback loop is important RELATIVE TO THE IMPACT IT IS DESIGNED
TO CORRECT. If the impact increases in strength, the feedbacks have to be
system may work fine on a cold winter day, but open all the windows and its corrective power will fail.
Democracy worked better before the advent of the brainwashing power of
centralized mass communications. Traditional controls on fishing were
sufficient until radar spotting and drift nets and other technologies made it
possible for a few actors to wipe out the fish. The power of big industry calls
for the power of big government to hold it in check; a global economy makes
necessary a global government.
some other examples of strengthening negative feedback controls to improve a
system's self-correcting abilities: preventive medicine, exercise, and good
nutrition to bolster the body's ability to fight disease, integrated pest
management to encourage natural predators of crop pests, the Freedom of
Information Act to reduce government secrecy, protection for whistle blowers,
impact fees, pollution taxes, and performance bonds to recapture the
externalized public costs of private benefits.
positive feedback loops.
feedback loop is self-reinforcing. The more it works, the more it gains power
to work some more.
people catch the flu, the more they infect other people. The more babies are
born, the more people grow up to have babies. The more money you have in the
bank, the more interest you earn, the more money you have in the bank. The more
the soil erodes, the less vegetation it can support, the fewer roots and leaves
to soften rain and runoff, the more soil erodes. The more high-energy neutrons
in the critical mass, the more they knock into nuclei and generate more.
feedback loops drive growth, explosion, erosion, and collapse in systems. A
system with an unchecked positive loop ultimately will destroy itself. That's
why there are so few of them.
negative loop kicks in sooner or later. The epidemic runs out of infectable
people, or people take increasingly strong
steps to avoid being infected. The death rate rises to equal the birth rate, or people see the consequences of
unchecked population growth and have fewer babies. The soil erodes away to
bedrock, and after a million years the bedrock crumbles into new soil, or people put up check dams and plant
In those examples,
the first outcome is what happens if the positive loop runs its course, the
second is what happens if there's an intervention to reduce its power.
gain around a positive loop, slowing the growth, is usually a more powerful leverage point in systems than
strengthening negative loops, and much preferable to letting the positive loop
and economic growth rates in the world model are leverage points, because
slowing them gives the many negative loops, through technology and markets and
other forms of adaptation, time to function. It's the same as slowing the car
when you're driving too fast, rather than calling for more responsive brakes or
technical advances in steering.
interesting behavior that rapidly turning positive loops can trigger is chaos.
This wild, unpredictable, unreplicable, and yet bounded behavior happens when a
system starts changing much, much faster than its negative loops can react to
if you keep raising the capital growth rate in the world model, eventually you
get to a point where one tiny increase more will shift the economy from
exponential growth to oscillation. Another nudge upward gives the oscillation a
double beat. And just the tiniest further nudge sends it into chaos.
expect the world economy to turn chaotic any time soon (not for that reason,
anyway). That behavior occurs only in unrealistic parameter ranges, equivalent
to doubling the size of the economy within a year. Real-world systems do turn
chaotic, however, if something in them can grow or decline very fast.
Fast-replicating bacteria or insect populations, very infectious epidemics,
wild speculative bubbles in money systems, neutron fluxes in the guts of
nuclear power plants. These systems are hard to control, and control must
involve slowing down the positive feedbacks.
ordinary systems, look for leverage points around birth rates, interest rates,
erosion rates, "success to the successful" loops, any place where the
more you have of something, the more you have the possibility of having more.
this subdivision of identical houses, the story goes, except that the electric
meter in some of the houses was installed in the basement and in others it was
installed in the front hall, where the residents could see it constantly, going
round faster or slower as they used more or less electricity. Electricity
consumption was 30 percent lower in the houses where the meter was in the front
love that story because it's an example of a high leverage point in the
information structure of the system. It's not a parameter adjustment, not a
strengthening or weakening of an existing loop. It's a NEW LOOP, delivering
feedback to a place where it wasn't going before.
In 1986 the
US government required that every factory releasing hazardous air pollutants
report those emissions publicly. Suddenly everyone could find out precisely
what was coming out of the smokestacks in town. There was no law against those
emissions, no fines, no determination of "safe" levels, just
information. But by 1990 emissions dropped 40 percent. One chemical company
that found itself on the Top Ten Polluters list reduced its emissions by 90
percent, just to "get off that list."
feedback is a common cause of system malfunction. Adding or rerouting
information can be a powerful intervention, usually easier and cheaper than
rebuilding physical structure.
of the commons that is exhausting the world's commercial fisheries occurs
because there is no feedback from the state of the fish population to the
decision to invest in fishing vessels. (Contrary to economic opinion, the price
of fish doesn't provide that feedback. As the fish get more scarce and hence
more expensive, it becomes all the more profitable to go out and catch them.
That's a perverse feedback, a positive loop that leads to collapse.)
important that the missing feedback be restored to the right place and in
compelling form. It's not enough to inform all the users of an aquifer that the
groundwater level is dropping. That could trigger a race to the bottom. It
would be more effective to set a water price that rises steeply as the pumping
rate exceeds the recharge rate.
taxpayers got to specify on their return forms what government services their
tax payments must be spent on. (Radical democracy!) Suppose any town or company
that puts a water intake pipe in a river had to put it immediately DOWNSTREAM
from its own outflow pipe. Suppose any public or private official who made the
decision to invest in a nuclear power plant got the waste from that plant
stored on his/her lawn.
There is a
systematic tendency on the part of human beings to avoid accountability for
their own decisions. That's why there are so many missing feedback loops, and why this kind of leverage point
is so often popular with the masses, unpopular with the powers that be, and
effective, if you can get the powers that be to permit it to happen or go
around them and make it happen anyway.
4. The rules
of the system (incentives, punishments, constraints).
The rules of
the system define its scope, boundaries, degrees of freedom. Thou shalt not
kill. Everyone has the right of free speech. Contracts are to be honored. The
president serves four-year terms and cannot serve more than two of them. Nine
people on a team, you have to touch every base, three strikes and you're out.
If you get caught robbing a bank, you go to jail.
Gorbachev came to power in the USSR and opened information flows (glasnost) and
changed the economic rules (perestroika), and look what happened.
are strong social rules. Physical laws such as the second law of thermodynamics
are absolute rules, if we understand them correctly. Laws, punishments, incentives,
and informal social agreements are progressively weaker rules.
demonstrate the power of rules, I ask my students to imagine different ones for
a college. Suppose the students graded the teachers. Suppose you come to
college when you want to learn something, and you leave when you've learned it.
Suppose professors were hired according to their ability to solve real-world
problems, rather than to publish academic papers. Suppose a class got graded as
a group, instead of as individuals.
behavior. Power over rules is real power.
lobbyists congregate when Congress writes laws, and why the Supreme Court,
which interprets and delineates the Constitution, the rules for writing the rules, has even more power than Congress.
If you want
to understand the deepest malfunctions of systems, pay attention to the rules,
and to who has power over them.
my systems intuition was sending off alarm bells as the new world trade system
was explained to me. It is a system with rules designed by corporations, run by
corporations, for the benefit of corporations. Its rules exclude almost any
feedback from other sectors of society. Most of its meetings are closed to the
press (no information, no feedback). It forces nations into positive loops,
competing with each other to weaken environmental and social safeguards in
order to attract corporate investment. It's a recipe for unleashing
"success to the succesful" loops.
3. The power
stunning thing living systems can do is to change themselves utterly by
creating whole new structures and behaviors. In biological systems that power
is called evolution. In human economies it's called technical advance or social
revolution. In systems lingo it's called self-organization.
means changing any aspect of a system lower on this list, adding or deleting new physical
structure, adding or deleting negative or positive loops or information flows
or rules. The ability to self-organize is the strongest form of system
resilience, the ability to survive change by changing.
immune system can develop responses to (some kinds of) insults it has never
before encountered. The human brain can take in new information and pop out
completely new thoughts.
seems so wondrous that we tend to regard it as mysterious, miraculous.
Economists often model technology as literal manna from heaven, coming from nowhere, costing nothing,
increasing the productivity of an economy by some steady percent each year. For
centuries people have regarded the spectacular variety of nature with the same
awe. Only a divine creator could bring forth such a creation.
In fact the
divine creator does not have to produce miracles. He, she, or it just has to
write clever RULES FOR SELF-ORGANIZATION. These rules govern how, where, and
what the system can add onto or subtract from itself under what conditions.
computer models demonstrate that delightful, mind-boggling patterns can evolve
from simple evolutionary algorithms. (That need not mean that real-world
algorithms are simple, only that they can be.) The genetic code that is the
basis of all biological evolution contains just four letters, combined into
words of three letters each. That code, and the rules for replicating and
rearranging it, has spewed out an unimaginable variety of creatures.
is basically a matter of evolutionary raw material, a stock of information from which to
select possible patterns, and a
means for testing them. For biological evolution the raw material is DNA, one
source of variety is spontaneous mutation, and the testing mechanism is
something like punctuated Darwinian selection. For technology the raw material
is the body of understanding science has accumulated. The source of variety is
human creativity (whatever THAT is) and the selection mechanism is whatever the
market will reward or whatever governments and foundations will fund or
whatever tickles the fancy of crazy inventors.
understand the power of self-organization, you begin to understand why
biologists worship biodiversity even more than economists worship technology.
The wildly varied stock of DNA, evolved and accumulated over billions of years,
is the source of evolutionary potential, just as science libraries and labs and
scientists are the source of technological potential. Allowing species to go
extinct is a systems crime, just as randomly eliminating all copies of
particular science journals, or particular kinds of scientists, would be.
could be said of human cultures, which are the store of behavioral repertoires
accumulated over not billions, but hundreds of thousands of years. They are a
stock out of which social evolution can arise. Unfortunately, people appreciate
the evolutionary potential of cultures even less than they understand the
potential of every genetic variation in ground squirrels. I guess that's
because one aspect of almost every culture is a belief in the utter superiority
of that culture.
biological, economic, or social, that scorns experimentation and wipes out the
raw material of innovation is doomed over the long term on this highly variable
intervention point here is obvious but unpopular. Encouraging diversity means
losing control. Let a thousand flowers bloom and ANYTHING could happen!
2. The goals
of the system.
the push for control, is an example of why the goal of a system is even more of
a leverage point than the self-organizing ability of a system.
If the goal
is to bring more and more of the world under the control of one central
planning system (the empire of Genghis Khan, the world of Islam, the People's
Republic of China, Wal-Mart, Disney), then everything further down the list,
even self-organizing behavior, will be pressured or weakened to conform to that
That's why I
can't get into arguments about whether genetic engineering is a good or a bad
thing. Like all technologies, it depends upon who is wielding it, with what
goal. The only thing one can say is that if corporations wield it for the
purpose of generating marketable products, that is a very different goal, a
different direction for evolution than anything the planet has seen so far.
There is a
hierarchy of goals in systems. Most negative feedback loops have their own
goals, to keep the bath water at the right
level, to keep the room temperature comfortable, to keep inventories stocked at
sufficient levels. They are small leverage points. The big leverage points are
the goals of entire systems.
within systems don't often recognize what whole-system goal they are serving.
To make profits, most corporations would say, but that's just a rule, a
necessary condition to stay in the game. What is the point of the game? To
grow, to increase market share, to bring the world (customers, suppliers,
regulators) more under the control of the corporation, so that its operations
become ever more shielded from uncertainty. That's the goal of a cancer cell
too and of every living population. It's only a bad one when it isn't countered
by higher-level negative feedback loops with goals of keeping the system in
balance. The goal of keeping the market competitive has to trump the goal of
each corporation to eliminate its competitors. The goal of keeping populations
in balance and evolving has to trump the goal of each population to commandeer
all resources into its own metabolism.
I said a
while back that changing the players in a system is a low-level intervention,
as long as the players fit into the same old system. The exception to that rule
is at the top, if a single player can change the system's goal.
watched in wonder as, only very
occasionally, a new leader in an organization, from
Dartmouth College to Nazi Germany, comes in, enunciates a new goal, and
single-handedly changes the behavior of hundreds or thousands or millions of
perfectly rational people.
Ronald Reagan did. Not long before he came to office, a president could say,
"Ask not what government can do for you, ask what you can do for the
government," and no one even laughed. Reagan said the goal is not to get
the people to help the government and not to get government to help the people,
but to get the government off our backs. One can argue, and I would, that larger
system changes let him get away with that. But the thoroughness with which
behavior in the US and even the world has been changed since Reagan is
testimony to the high leverage of articulating, repeating, standing for,
insisting upon new system goals.
1. The mindset
or paradigm out of which the system arises.
Jay Forrester's systems sayings goes: It doesn't matter how the tax law of a
country is written. There is a shared idea in the minds of the society about
what a "fair" distribution of the tax load is. Whatever the rules
say, by fair means or foul, by complications, cheating, exemptions or
deductions, by constant sniping at the rules, the actual distribution of taxes
will push right up against the accepted idea of "fairness."
idea in the minds of society, the great unstated assumptions, unstated because unnecessary to
state; everyone knows them, constitute that society's deepest set of beliefs about how
the world works. There is a difference between nouns and verbs. People who are
paid less are worth less. Growth is good. Nature is a stock of resources to be
converted to human purposes. Evolution stopped with the emergence of Homo
. One can "own" land. Those are just a few of the
paradigmatic assumptions of our culture, all of which utterly dumbfound people
of other cultures.
are the sources of systems. From them come goals, information flows, feedbacks,
Egyptians built pyramids because they believed in an afterlife. We build
skyscrapers, because we believe that space in downtown cities is enormously
valuable. (Except for blighted spaces, often near the skyscrapers, which we
believe are worthless.) Whether it was Copernicus and Kepler showing that the
earth is not the center of the universe, or Einstein hypothesizing that matter
and energy are interchangeable, or Adam Smith postulating that the selfish
actions of individual players in markets wonderfully accumulate to the common
manage to intervene in systems at the level of paradigm hit a leverage point
that totally transforms systems.
say paradigms are harder to change than anything else about a system, and
therefore this item should be lowest on the list, not the highest. But there's
nothing physical or expensive or even slow about paradigm change. In a single
individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind,
a new way of seeing. Of course individuals and societies do resist challenges
to their paradigm harder than they resist any other kind of change.
So how do
you change paradigms? Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the seminal book about the great
paradigm shifts of science, has a lot to say about that. In a nutshell, you
keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you come
yourself, loudly, with assurance, from the new one, you insert people with the
new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don't waste time
with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast
middle ground of people who are open-minded.
folks would say one way to change a paradigm is to model a system, which takes
you outside the system and forces you to see it whole. We say that because our
own paradigms have been changed that way.
0. The power
to transcend paradigms.
to be truthful and complete, I have to add this kicker.
leverage of all is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to
realize that NO paradigm is "true," that even the one that sweetly
shapes one's comfortable worldview is a tremendously limited understanding of
an immense and amazing universe.
It is to
"get" at a gut level the paradigm that there are paradigms, and to
see that that itself is a paradigm, and to regard that whole realization as
devastatingly funny. It is to let go into Not Knowing.
cling to paradigms (just about all of us) take one look at the spacious
possibility that everything we think is guaranteed to be nonsense and pedal
rapidly in the opposite direction. Surely there is no power, no control, not
even a reason for being, much less acting, in the experience that there is no
certainty in any worldview. But everyone who has managed to entertain that
idea, for a moment or for a lifetime, has found it a basis for radical
empowerment. If no paradigm is right, you can choose one that will help achieve
your purpose. If you have no idea where to get a purpose, you can listen to the
universe (or put in the name of your favorite deity here) and do his, her, its
will, which is a lot better informed than your will.
It is in the
space of mastery over paradigms that people throw off addictions, live in
constant joy, bring down empires, get locked up or burned at the stake or
crucified or shot, and have impacts that last for millennia.
the sublime to the ridiculous, from enlightenment to caveats. There is so much
that has to be said to qualify this list. It is tentative and its order is
slithery. There are exceptions to every item on it. Having the list percolating
in my subconscious for years has not transformed me into a Superwoman. I seem
to spend my time running up and down the list, trying out leverage points
wherever I can find them. The higher the leverage point, the more the system
resists changing it-that's why societies rub out truly enlightened beings.
think there are cheap tickets to system change. You have to work at it, whether
that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off paradigms.
In the end, it seems that leverage has less to do with pushing levers than it
does with disciplined thinking combined with strategically, profoundly, madly