In one of Donella Meadows lectures she introduced the trap of systems where there is ‘success to the successful’. Otherwise known as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This happens when there is a reinforcing feedback loop and so the more success you have, the more you can have.
My daughter was reading a Terry Pratchett book where one of the characters described being able to understand life through boots. There are those in life who can’t afford good boots so they buy cheap boots that don’t last long. Say £10 boots that last a year. Whereas if you have money you could buy £50 boots that could last 10 years. (I’m not suggesting these as real prices). Over 10 years the poor person has had to buy 10 pairs costing £100, and the rich person has only spent £50 in the same time. The poor person loses money while the rich person saves money – or success to the successful.
Another example using the same theme of shoes is illustrated in the classic fairytale the Elves and the shoemaker. Here, the shoemaker is so poor that he will go out of business and not be able to afford any more leather to make shoes if he can’t sell his last pair. The elves come to help and make a fine pair of shoes that sells immediately. They are then able to buy some more leather and gradually work their way out of their poverty with the intervention and skill of the elves, without them though they would have been poor getting poorer.
There are examples all around us showing how this is true, from the housing market to education to international policies; cases where having privilege – earned or inherent – enables us to gain more privilege. And smaller examples such as you have more opportunities to practice playing music with others if you are already a good musician, so you become even better. Donella Meadows talks about some of the ways out of this system trap are to level the playing field, increase the advantage of the weakest and limiting the amount the ‘winners’ can get ahead; taxes are one way in which this happens to a degree.
I am also intrigued to see what this means in our own day to day lives; where can we see this in action and how can we use it – can it become a design opportunity rather than a trap of the system? I harvested pea seeds today and am hoping that the success of this year will be built upon next year as I have many more seeds to start with. Any time we are successful in our lives it actually has more impact and value than just the act in itself, as we can use it to build patterns of success. A productive day can reinforce our feelings of effectiveness and lead to an exponential growth of productivity. Some exercise can lead us to feeling good about ourselves and doing a bit more the next time. We can use the idea of success to the successful in all sorts of ways beyond just financial gain. And we can use it in ways that do not inhibit the success of others – times where we do not create a win/lose situation, but win/win situations. We can look to build different capitals not just financial, but our experiential, social and living capitals as well, by allowing our systems to flourish and create patterns of success. We can also look for opportunities to help others and carry out little acts of intervention that give others a step up.
Systems thinking is one of the 7 ways to think differently, and is perhaps the one that gives the most surprises. Permaculture begins with observation and this is a perfect place to start with systems thinking. There are endless opportunities to observe systems and the way they work around us. It is via observation that we can then make effective and thoughtful interventions.
(Donella Meadows is author of Limits to Growth and Thinking in systems.)
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