Talking About Systems: looking for systems in the news (and not)

Where do we draw the line?

Cleaning out my emails at year end, I realized that over the last six months no less than ten excited emails had come in, urging me to see “How Wolves Change Rivers.” This four-minute piece video tells the story of the reintroduction  of the wolves to Yellowstone National Park, after it had been wolf-free for nearly 70 years.

It’s beautifully done and an inspirational story.  You can’t help but walk away with a felt sense of just how tightly coupled and interconnected our world really is.  With 1.6 million likes on Facebook, the video is an internet hit.

And it raises a question for me:  when our job is to work with “systems”, where do we draw the line?  What’s in? And what’s not?

My caution here comes from an experience I had writing an article for Highlights Magazine for Children, a magazine with a distribution to over a million subscribers, including a enormous number of dentist offices.

For the article — Bringing Back the Wolves: Yellowstone National Park is Thriving, Thanks to a Long-feared Carnivore (June 2011, Vol 66, p 30), I interviewed wildlife biologists, scientists and researchers. What I didn’t do was interview those who were also impacted by the wolves return.  I quickly found out who I’d left out of the “system” when I began to receive some heart-pounding hate mail from ranchers, farmers and other folks living in neighboring communities. As I learned, sheep were killed by the wolves on ranches, small dogs had gone missing and worse, some families felt their children were in danger as wolves were spotted roaming in their yards.

The Highlights publishing team stood firmly behind me because I had the facts correct.  But I had to pause, and wonder, could I have drawn the circle wider in my story, and acknowledged the wider impact of the wolf’s return?

That’s a question I carry with me in my work today. And thanks to the poet Edwin Markham, I have a helpful reminder on my bulletin board.

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Systems Thinking and Sustainability Nirvana

Recently, my friend and Balaton colleague Gillian Martin-Mehers organized a Balaton Group Book List.  The list contains 124+ books by Balaton Group members.

Founded by Dana Meadows and Dennis Meadows more than 30 years ago, the Balaton Group brings together scientists, teachers, consultants, writers, and practitioner to debate and learn in an atmosphere, with the highest academic standards, free of political and economic pressures.

While the focus of this book list is quite diverse — from general books focused on “thinking about systems” to more specific books focused on water, energy, culture, money, climate, new business and community models, use of educational games, folktales and more — they all share a common focus on systems thinking, systems dynamics and sustainable development.

My all-time favorite — Dana Meadow’s Global Citizen –is here of course.  In her warm yet direct style, Dana invites us all to see the world as an interconnected system, of which we are all part and for which we are all responsible.


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Pretty and useful, and pretty useful

I’ve been remiss.

There’s a very pretty and useful systems thinking resource now available and I haven’t made any noise about it.

The new resource is a teacher’s guide designed to accompany my Connected Wisdom book.  Co-written with Carolyn Finely at SEED/Schlumberger, the 12 chapters are packed with activities designed for ages 10-18.   It’s useful though to anyone interested in learning more about living systems principles.


The book’s drop-dead beautiful aesthetics are thanks to book’s art director, Milton Glaser and Guy Billout, the illustrator.

There’s also a Connected Wisdom on-line training module (also free) designed for educators and facilitators.

Enjoy and spread the word please.


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