Written and composed by Linda Booth Sweeney, a systems educator, researcher and writer.

From the introduction of the book:

“In a spider’s web, what happens on one part of the web affects every other part. The same is true of a living system. Whether it be an ant colony, a forest or a city. Like a spider’s web, a living system is so intricately woven that no part exists in isolation. Like a web, a living system is both purposeful and beautiful. With the wisdom of ancient storytellers, this book celebrates living systems, how they affect us and are affected by us.”

Sweeney’s book explores 12 natural laws or principles. Principles found in dynamic systems theory, which is basically the theory about how living systems behave. A theory that is not often described in a language that even children can understand. This book combines descriptive language for parents and children, with ‘story-telling language’, rich in metaphors and as such able to reach deeper ways of knowing. She searched for old folk tales, that illustrate systems principles. The result is beautiful.

The laws or principles that Sweeney talks about are the following:

  • interdependence
  • systems integrity
  • biodiversity
  • cooperation and partnership
  • rightness of size
  • the commons
  • living cycles
  • waste = food
  • balancing feedback
  • reinforcing feedback
  • nonlinearity
  • earth time

The stories that are linked to the different principles range from a Balinese folktale about a Gecko that discovers he is connected to all the other members of his jungle community in ways he never knew (interdependence), to a folktale from the Philippines where parts of the house start arguing about which is most important (systems integrity).

Sweeney starts the book with an anekdote about her own interaction with her son, to illustrate the power of stories, to develop systems-consciousness.

One night I was reading Aesop’s Fables with my son Jack. We were flipping through the book, looking for ’the boy who cried wolf’, when Jack stopped at the story ‘Hercules and Pallas’. Oh! he said, looking at the picture of Hercules whacking a fierce-looking called Strife. “Let’s read that one!” In the story, Hercules and Strife are locked in a mounting battle of wills. With every whack from Hercules, Strife grows bigger. Only when Hercules stops attacking Strife, does Strife start to diminish in size. When we finished the story I asked Jack is this tale sounded familiar to him. “Have you seen this happen in real life?” I asked. He nodded and pointed to his four-year-old brother, asleep on the sofa. He explained how sometimes when he teased his little brother, his brother poked him back. Then one poke led to a bigger poke and then to tears.

Jack had picked up on a living system law or principle – called reinforcing feedback – illustrated by the story. Reinforcing feedback occurs when a change builds on itself over time. In the language of living systems, this particular kind of reinforcing feedback is often called escalation.  

After we read the story, I asked Jack what he might do differently with his little brother. He thought for a moment and said, “Maybe it’s better if I just leave him alone.” What happened? For one precious moment, Jack experienced a subtle but powerful shift in understanding. When Jack saw himself as part of, rather than separate from, a living system (the system of siblings), it changed his view of ’the problem’. He saw the connection between his actions and the actions of another. And now, when I see that pattern of sibling rivalry starting, I can say: “Remember that story about Hercules and Strife?”

Sweeney then refers to Aristotle, who said once: “the friend of wisdom is also a friend of myth.” She states: “Today, as we learn to live sustainably on this planet, one of our challenges is to remember what we already know. The stories of the ancients can help us do that.”

Sweeney’s book is for students, educators, parents and anyone who wants to make everyday decisions within the context of an understanding of living system principles. It was a book I really enjoyed reading and can recommend to anyone, who’s developing a similar understanding.