Faith's Blog

Ch. 5: System Traps… and Opportunities

Posted on: September 14, 2010

Traps could be defined as problematic behavior of systems resulting from “surprising” system structures, such as delays, nonlinearities and a lack of firm boundaries.  Meadows calls these problematic system structures “archetypes.” Some of the traps, or behaviors, that arise from these system structures include: addiction, drift to low performance, escalation, gaining an advantage in a system and moving the system stock in his direction, trying to overpower policy resistence, the tragedy of the commons, competitive exclusion (success to the successful), rule beating, and finally, seeking the wrong goal. Meadows not only describes these traps, but she also offers ways out. Though this chapter focused on the problematic structures of systems, a negative, though necessary, topic, Meadows offered hopeful alternatives.  For instance, rule beating, which Meadows described as “abiding by the letter, but not the spirit of the law,” or acting against the intent of the rules, could be evaded by the design, or redesign, (of)  rules to release creativity not in the direction of beating the rules, but in the direction of achieving the purpose of the rules” (137). For the trap “seeking the wrong goal,” Meadows suggested, “Specify indicators and goals that reflect the real welfare of the system” (140).

Though these examples of ways out seem pretty straightforward, Meadows offered a couple examples that I didn’t quite understand. One is the tragedy of the commons, where “each…is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited” which ultimately leads to ruin. Meadows offers three ways to avoid the tragedy of the commons: 1. educate and exhort, 2. privatize the commons, and 3. regulate the commons.  What I wonder about is that fact that Meadows claims privatizing the commons wouldn’t work, so instead, the only option is “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon” (120). When would such an idyllic compromise take place? It’s difficult to believe, and thus, I don’t know if it’s fair that Meadows offers it as a solution.

And finally, I don’t really understand the trap “Addiction,” which meadows describes as “Shifting the burden to an intervenor.” What exactly does it mean that “addiction is painful” (134)? Painful because it’s difficult to break out of? Meadows says that the best way out is to avoid getting in, but how exactly do you “get in”? How do you start to go down that path and how does it snowball into addiction?


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