In her "Note from the Editor," Diana Wright advises the reader that the manuscript for "Thinking in Systems" went unpublished for eight years before Dana Meadows' unfortunate death. Perhaps there was a reason for that: perhaps Dana Meadows recognized that the manuscript was not ready for publication. For the text is uncertain whether it is an introduction to systems analysis as a scientific endeavor, a tableau of counter-intuitive results "explained" by "systems thinking", or a pseudo-analytic basis for the usual policy preferences of the political left. In its raw form, it is a mish-mash of these and other incomplete themes, so by the end you're not sure what the point was.
Were it an introductory text in systems analysis for freshman students of English literature, the first four chapters might be ok. Meadows introduces the notions of stocks, inputs, and outputs in a way that could persuade a non-technical reader that systems analysis was a quantitative science and that the relevant quantities might be computed so long as students from another department were available. She also introduces the notion of feedback and discusses the qualitatively different forms of output resulting from positive or negative feedback. She even discusses the effects on the output of varying feedback delay. This may be about as far as you can go without introducing any math, and as Meadows did not introduce any math, this also might have been a good place to stop.
But sadly, the editors chose to publish what came next. Next was chapter 5, "Systems Traps...and Opportunities." Here we find discussions of a variety of very complicated systems--Romanian and Swedish abortion policy, for example--whose analysis is beyond most humans, let alone freshman literature students. From these discussions Meadows derives generalized "systems traps" and "ways out".
Her first trap, for example, is called "policy resistance": "When various actors try to pull a system stock toward various goals, ...[it] just pulls the stock farther from the goals of the other actors and produces additional resistance...." Translation: people disagree. And here's the "way out": "Let go. Bring in all the actors and use the energy formerly expended on resistance to seek out mutually satisfactory ways for all goals to be realized...." Translation: can't we all just get along. And so on. The "traps" and "ways out" are of a nature so obtuse as to defy any sort of concrete analysis, and as insights they are the sort that cease to seem profound after sophomore year.
And it gets worse. Chapter 6, "Leverage Points--Places to Intervene in a System," might have been a good place to discuss system sensitivity analysis--in a qualitative way, of course--but instead it leans heavily toward the justification of pet liberal causes like environmentalism, government regulation of industry ("The power of big industry calls for the power of big government...; a global economy makes global regulations necessary"), and high taxes on anyone with more wealth than a Dartmouth professor. Chapter 7, "Living in a World of Systems," sets new standards for sentimental whole-earthism, recommending, on the strength of "the tool of systems thinking," that the future be "brought lovingly into being," that we learn to "dance with great powers" as the Eskimo "have turned snow into ... a system with which they can dance." Be caring, be good: these are the final admonishments before the book, thankfully, ends.
In addition, there is economic illiteracy displayed throughout, as for example this, which follows an inept discussion of Adam Smith's "invisible hand": "Economic theory as derived from Adam Smith assumes first that 'homo economicus' acts with perfect optimality on complete information, and second that when many of the species 'homo economicus' do that, their actions add up to the best possible outcome for everybody." This is utter nonsense. Smith says nothing about perfection of optimality nor completeness of information. He merely observes that, in the aggregate, a collection of humans seeking their individual interests often advances the economic welfare of society as a whole. And he certainly does not assert that everybody will arrive at "the best possible outcome." The "invisible hand" operates even in the presence of individual failure and distress, and in some ways because of them.
Winding up for the conclusion, Meadows admits that "[s]ystems thinking has taught me to trust my intuition more and my figuring-out rationality less...." If you've gotten this far in the book, you will certainly agree, for in writing it she gave intuition free rein while rationality was on the Costa del Sol. If you're a student of Dana Meadows, this book will give you considerable insight into her intuition and her prejudices. If you are simply interested in some qualitative discussion of systems, there are some not-bad introductory bits in the first four chapters. But if you're going to buy just one book on systems analysis, buy a different one.