OneThing36: knowing “throughput” fundamentally changes how you see

Let’s start teaching a systems lexicon

Throughput is a slightly geeky word that ought to live in the everyday language of our middle and high school students in the same way that multiplayer or sustainable do – both common and fairly well understood by any ten year old.  Just ask any of them how many pancakes they might eat at a sitting or how much of a history lecture they can listen to and remember.  They can get throughput. Totally, dude.

As the idea appears in Beyond The Limits

Here, Donella Meadows tells us that throughput is simply all the capacity a system has, first, to take stuff from sources, use it, and, second, to put it in sinks.  In other words, we use raw materials and then put them somewhere – toss it in a pile, bury it in a landfill, pour it in a stream or ocean, or put in the atmosphere.  It all goes somewhere.

In a system dynamics model using STELLA, throughput looks like this.

Using STELLA iconography, two CLOUDS identify the source and sink, an INFLOW and OUTFLOW identify the throughput, and a STOCK identifies the accumulated or level of stuff. Of course, one might use stocks to specify the source and the sink.

Certainly, there’s much more to this than what’s rather simply illustrated here, but the concept of throughput is key to everything relative to sustainability.  Can we keep taking stuff from the earth at the current rate, expecting that the earth can also absorb the rate of waste from that use?  Seems like an obvious “No,” doesn’t it?

Cover of "Beyond the Limits: Confronting ...

As Meadows clearly put it, “many crucial sources are declining and degrading and many sinks are overflowing. The throughput flows that maintain the human economy cannot be maintained at their current rates indefinitely, or even for very much longer.”

The Donella Meadows Institute


2 comments on “OneThing36: knowing “throughput” fundamentally changes how you see

  1. Pingback: OneThing37: Words to live by « itsallonething

  2. Pingback: QuickThing11: carbon sources and sinks « itsallonething

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