Thoughts on Donella Meadows’ Places to Intervene in a System
Having just encountered Meadows’ essay – my thanks go to Shaun Chamberlin for drawing it to my attention – I feel that it summarizes my own wanderings. Those of us sensitive to the mechanisms of complex systems – sensitive as much in the sense of susceptibility, as to an allergen, as much as in any perspicacity this might imply – begin with an instinct, honed in an early childhood when we had to watch out for ourselves without the cocoon of comforting security childhood is expected to provide. This instinct provides glimmers into subtexts and hidden dynamics, and alerts us to the fact that the world is more complex than we’d wish it to be, that its secrets are closely held and require constant attention to ferret them out.
From this beginning, we inhabit a landscape of risks that reveal themselves increasingly to our developing situational awareness. This path is replicated in Meadows’ list of places for potential intervention. Each new awareness widens our view and seems to lead to an increase in the potential for our efficacy. Efficacy, we recognize as the antidote to the helplessness we experienced early on. As we go down the list, like a countdown, but one which takes decades to tick through amidst the wanderings of a lifetime sent spinning off the customary rails by those early traumas, and periodically destabilized by self-induced after-shocks felt along the way. As we appear to be heading towards the Keys to Control, the “Killer App” that’s been missed by all the captured elites and clueless leaders we find it easier and easier to see through, we begin to collect impressions that show that an eagerness to control itself might be the greatest de-stabilizer of all.
A long, protracted, distracted, and haphazard conversation begins within us with this realization. We return to our deepest core instinct, the one that asks us to listen to the quietest voice, the weakest signals, because they are most likely to point out the greatest danger. That same voice of the little child who first had to navigate a dangerous world unaided. This voice tells us in its annoying, insistently feeble whisper to listen to this objection to the validity of capturing control, wresting it from the incompetents, and “making some progress for a change!” The loud voices, spurred on by the grand emotions – if not simply out of fear – beginning with the ones inside us, the ones tired of seeing us off-kilter and under expressed, insist that efficacy is still the standard. Control should go to the ones who have the insight. Our frustration grows, willing us to cut this knot and get on with it!
How much of our reaction is due to jealousy towards the recipients of what Meadows alludes to as “Success to the Successful?” This dynamic that keeps re-populating the tiny fraction rising bubble-like to fill positions of power and prestige with an ever-more-obvious inability to see how destructive their schemes turn out to be even as their incompetence looms ever-harder-to-ignore.
As with any of these insights, the first instance is exciting and opens all sorts of hidden doors to greater potential efficacy. “If only” scenarios multiply in the mind’s eye. As instances repeatedly appear and amplify across scales of time and space, at first again this seems to bolster our sense of accuracy, to raise hopes of finding a yet deeper key. Then the doubts begin to filter through. Is this not really proof that control itself is the ultimate problem? Not the narrowly defined control we want to parse out as “bad,” that we decry as chimerical and counter-productive, but that deeply buried simple wish of the insecure child that someday he would not be adrift, that she would have a hand on the tiller, command his surroundings, not to impose her will; but in self-defense? Just asking the question most often sets off an implosion that destroys the evidence, drowns out the weak voice that dared to ask it, and sends us back to rephrase and try to tackle the question from some other direction some other time.
Over time we do find glimmers of what might be termed control, mastery, paths to equilibrium – it’s hard to find language that doesn’t implicate us in an occult version of all we rightly oppose in others when they attempt to apply coercion – as we try to come to terms with our selves – here another spiraling abyss opens beneath this seemingly simple term we use in shorthand to name whatever it is that’s gathered within/around this bag of flesh and bones we appear to inhabit. We find powers of accommodation and acceptance. Incidents, triggers that had seemed unbearable, we not only bear, but they now appear to us as signs of vitality and let us revel in a certain resilience beyond what we had ever expected ourselves to be capable of. “The Dude Abides…”
This strength accumulates slowly and appears reassuring as its tenacity and flexibility become more and more apparent. This aids us. It allows us to peer in longer and longer side-glances at the underlying question, is there any form of control that works? Is efficacy efficacious? This boils down the equation to its core and illuminates the circularity underlying the entire enterprise. Seen this way, it’s no longer a knot to be patiently untied or arrogantly cut, but the question itself dissolves.
Mastery, control, however we want to describe it, is an illusion. Its pursuit leads inexorably to the fulfillment of the conditions of the “Success to the Successful” paradigm in which apparent efficacy breeds ease, which breeds complacency, which breeds incompetence – all within a buffering framework that props up the perpetrators until they breed their own destruction by way of their increasing irrelevance coupled with their power to achieve mischief on an ever grander scale. What appears to them to be an escalator shooting them upwards towards higher rewards is in fact a “poop-shoot” ejecting the self-selected irrelevancies out of the system with a searing, brutal efficiency.
That primal instinct not to be caught in traps resonates at a high pitch with this insight. We don’t want to knowingly put ourselves on such a path. So much contrarian energy has been spent avoiding this very kind of trap. It would be perverse to fall for it now….
What hides behind what could very easily devolve into a shell-game is that we are inevitably drawn to shell-games and will fall into them at every opportunity. This is what the will to control directs us to do. We have a strong desire to “win” at life. When we exercise that desire we press the eject-button on ourselves, our society, our species, on life on this earth. Life is not a game.
Behind an apparent inevitability in this there lingers a doubt that this is not the destined exit, like the inevitability of death, but an avoidable, or if not avoidable postpone-able condition, that it is a “waste” to “punch-out” so soon this way.
The skins of an onion. Is this the will-to-control making one last desperate bargain? Perhaps, but at least it seems a bargain in which the desire to control admits to a certain broader perspective instead of holding itself sacred and outside of direct examination.
At any event this is an unsatisfactory end-place, and in that might be its greatest gift! Our acceptance of this conundrum defies our appetite for endings, and underlines that ending can only be reached in death. If we will our desire for endings to prevail, we will generate our own deaths, and a growing circle of collateral damage as our willfulness spirals outward.
There is no escaping the need to fill each moment in our finite lives – this is what we call meaning, another circular definition that dissolves itself then reappears again and again. There is no one distillation, no one story, no one perfectly worded synopsis that frees us from this necessity. They are all illusions priming us for ejection.
I revel in new ways of stating the obvious, in finding new language, prickly and hissing, bleeding-off in asides and parentheticals because I know the necessity to avoid repetition and the dangers of codification. Insight trapped and held too closely – control rearing its head – dies, ossifies, petrifies and instead of liberating us from old traps forms a prison around us of our own devising. The metaphysics of System Thinking attempts to retell old stories. It is full of echoes of Icarus, Prometheus, Sisyphus. What appears to be missing then?
In our wish for weight to counteract the weightlessness we all cannot avoid – as our individuality is diluted by astronomical numbers pressing in from all sides – we embrace tragedy as a destiny – even as we seem to deny its power in the way we look at our daily life, and in the stories we accept about transcendental futures. We’ve misplaced the countering influence of farce – even as we revel in the inane and superficial comedies we put so much of our attention to. Icarus, Prometheus, Sisyphus are not just tragic heroes. They are farcical buffoons in their inability to see their own complicity in their downfalls as they seem bound to outcomes preordained by their actions.
If we refuse to rest on either label and blink our viewpoints back and forth between the two in a forced parallax, we can gain perspective and a precarious, but living hold…
I don’t think that there are cheap tickets to system change…. 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 letting go.
Donella Meadows, Places to Intervene in a System