An abstraction is a representation that omits the unessential. How much is omitted determines the “level of abstraction.”

Why this tool is important

All thought deals in abstractions because full representations of reality are physically impossible for the brain to handle. The right abstraction is also much faster. The better one’s abstractions are, the more efficient one’s work becomes. Eventually this can mature into thinking at the correct level of abstraction, an important problem solving skill.

Application example


Once we've learned the abstraction of a human face, it takes very few cues to spot one. Likewise, once we've learned the abstractions presented in this glossary, it takes far fewer cues to spot how to solve difficult problems. 1

For example, once you become familiar with causal chains and feedback loops, you can spot them instantly when confronting a problem. This gives you insight into the powerful underlying forces that are causing the problem. Digging down to the most fundamental forces involved will, with some care, lead to identification of the root causes.

Thinking at the correct level of abstraction all the time can be greatly enhanced by a process that fits the problem. As the problem is explored, the process provides the appropriate abstractions by asking the right question at each point on the long road to solving the problem.

For example, a process may ask “What are the symptoms of change resistance?” This introduces the powerful abstraction of change resistance. It's a concept that few activists, environmental, political, or otherwise, are treating as a distinct and separate problem to solve. That's because the abstraction doesn't exist in their minds.

Then the process may ask “What are the feedback loops that are causing those symptoms?” This adds the abstraction of feedback loops and a model of the problem to the analysis.

A model of the problem is the biggest abstraction a problem solver can have, because it incorporates all the smaller abstractions necessary to solve the problem. For the sustainability problem, the definitive example of this was the World3 model of The Limits to Growth, first published in 1972. The model brought the problem alive in readers minds so vividly and persuasively that the book became an international best seller and went on to sell 30 million copies over its three editions. More importantly, the book put the global environmental sustainabiliy problem on the world's table of problems to solve. Before the book the abstraction of that problem was of minor concern. Afterwards, it was the problem of the 20th century.

Here's the core abstraction introduced by the book:


This is the “business as usual” simulation run from page 124 of the first edition. In one stroke this graph and others like it demonstrated the sustainability problem was real and required urgent attention NOW if we were to avoid collapse LATER.

Only by converting the global environmental sustainability problem into the correct abstractions can we hope to solve the problem.


(1) We're unable to find the creator of the incredible image. If you know who did it, please contact us so we can give them credit and ask for permission feature it.

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The Power of Abstractions

The history of Homo sapiens is tied to the growth of ability think abstractly. For example, the invention of language allowed people to interact using verbal symbols. Our brains evolved to process speech better. As a group's vocabulary grew, so did it's power of reasoning about the world. With that power came increased ability to manipulate the world.

Fast forwarding to today, that power has turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is the quality of life we enjoy. The curse is modern civilization is threatened by the unintended consequences of manipulation of our world, which has created the sustainability problem.

An untapped part of the blessing is that if we can find the right powerful abstractions, the sustainabiliy problem can be solved.