Systems Change not Climate Change… but how?

Last week I published an editorial, attached to a special issue in Sustainability Science on the topic of Leverage Points for sustainability transformations (available mainly as open access here). In it, we raise nine questions for working with leverage points and systems change. For those already engaged with systems thinking, and the topic of leverage points, this special issue has been (I quote) “really helpful”, “perspective changing”, and “inspirational”.

But what if you aren’t already thinking in leverage points? I asked some (non-academic) family and friends. The special issue is (I quote) “thought provoking” but also “abstract”. A fair comment. Except… as researchers on topics of sustainability, we rather hope to produce work that helps to solve sustainability problems. So here is how I think our editorial contributes to solving problems.

Systems are everywhere!

When we hear about systems outside of the academic ivory towers, It is typically concerned with the political system, or the economic system, or the immigration system. Sometimes we hear about the food system, the climate system, the ecosystem. These are all very different things in terms of what they are looking at, and what they look like (also – the idea that there is a singular ‘the’ in any of these systems is a bit misleading). A system is basically a collection of nodes (people, or organisations, or technologies) that are connected by flows of information, or power, or resources. So, when we think about a food system, we think about the farms, farm workers, processors, transporters, shops, and consumers. And we consider the flow of food, packaging, money, chemicals, etc. through that network of nodes.

When we recognize systems, we can also start to understand their properties and characteristics. Donella Meadows talked about system properties as places to intervene in systems – their leverage points. She outlined 12 system properties. We can place these into 4 categories: materials, processes, design and paradigms/intent. We can then start to understand the systems we are looking at, in terms of the properties they have. We can understand what materials are flowing in the system, and where they are located (what chemicals are we using in our agriculture? where are they being used?). We can see the processes that shape their use (what policies and legislation control them?). We can look to the system design (a globalized agriculture, that intensifies land use in productive areas). And we can look to the system intent (creating a profit from food production). All these things are related to each other: the system intent influences the design, which influences the process, which influences the materials.

This connectedness of systems properties leads to the idea of leverage points. If we intervene in the system intent/paradigm, we can create fundamental systems change in all systems properties. However, if we intervene just in the materials, then the system doesn’t really change. So, Meadows organized these according to the depth at which you press on the lever.

Four categories of Leverage Points, organised according to their ‘depth’ or potential to transform systems

A leverage points perspective comes from systems thinking. Systems thinking prompts us to think in systems, understand what a system is, and identify its properties. This is all foundational knowledge for critically thinking about how we change systems by intervening at leverage points.

To solve our most pressing sustainability challenges, we need systems to change.

This section refers to section 2 of our editorial, and the first 3 questions that we propose.

This photo, by Overpass Light Brigade, is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Our response to the climate crisis needs to be one of systems change. Our response to the massive loss of biodiversity needs to be one of systems change. We increasingly see that carbon emissions are driven by factors well beyond the control of the vast majority of individuals. Carbon emissions and habitat destruction are built into our global economic systems; in the way we source our food, our energy sources; our growing consumption demands. You could, for example, see this report on scaling behaviour change to meet the 1.5 degrees goal.

Of course, as individuals we need to change too: 1) We all need to take responsibility for our own actions, and 2) there is no change of system that doesn’t have an impact on how we each act. But most of the time, as individuals, our changes and their impacts are limited by broader systems.

For example, I cannot use public transport to do my food shopping because there is no bus connection to my village (and there is no shop in my village!). So, the transport system constrains me. But if we look closer, we see that this transport system has fallen victim to increasing car ownership, and privatization of the bus companies; they can’t make a profit because not enough people use it. In fact, in order to reinstate the bus service, the council would now need to take it back into state ownership and pursue economic goals other than profit (well-being perhaps?!). So actually, the economic system constrains the transport system, which in turn constrains my individual environmental actions.

The Leverage points perspective prompts us to identify and understand which systems we are being influenced by, how they are connected to each other, and how they are driving unsustainability.

We have ideas about where we want systems to move to, but we are less clear on how to achieve that.

This section refers to section 3 of our editorial, and questions 6-8.

There are three things to ask about when changing systems:

  1. What’s wrong with the current system?
  2. What should the system look like?
  3. How do we move from 1 to 2?

I think question 1 is being well covered. We are quite good already at understanding how our neoliberal economic system is driving over-consumption and destroying our environment (with no additional benefit to human well-being). We also have convincing alternatives in answer to question 2. For example, degrowth has a fundamentally different system intent (human well-being instead of GDP). But we also need to pay attention to this third question. It’s not enough to know what we want the system to do, we also need to know how to make it do it.

The Leverage Points framework gives us a way to critique interventions that seek to change systems. For example, we could ask if the introduction of carbon pricing and carbon offsets will deliver the necessary systems change to address climate change*.

The framework also gives us a way to understand how historical interventions have created fundamental change. For example, we could look to the fall of communism across Europe at the end of the 1980’s, and see how political protest disrupted structures and changed the intent of systems (noting that these came together with a broader range of political and social factors).

The leverage points framework helps to understand how interventions target different points in the system. We can critique existing interventions for where they intervene in systems, and seek to create interventions at deeper leverage points.

We can all play our own parts in changing systems

This section refers to the 4th section of our editorial, and the final 3 questions.

The leverage points perspective encourages us all to think about where we are in systems, what our power is, and what our own intents are. We all have the power to do something within some systems that we are a part of. There are certain things we can do as private individuals. Reducing flying, meat consumption, changing our own fashion purchasing, are all things we can try to do (though with recognition that the systemic barriers we face affect us all differently). Sometimes, these individual actions, if done by enough people, can trigger an intervention at deeper leverage points**.

But we also need to remain aware that some of us have more influence in some systems than others. For example, at work, I am in a position to change the work travel policy for my department. This can unlock changes in travel behaviour from the researchers in that department. But I cannot change the entire academic system that incentivizes it. Someone in the purchasing department could change our policies to ensure we are only buying environmentally-conscious stationery and supplies. But they will also be limited, by budgets, by options on the market, etc. However, at some point, every system change requires someone to change a decision or an action. For some people, that change in action can unlock meaningful changes of the actions of others within the system. So, we need these key people to be aware of their role (their part and place in the system), their power, and their responsibility.

Finally, as researchers, as activists, as practitioners, as citizens of the planet, we can use the leverage points framework to guide our interventions and make their potential explicit. This, I would suggest leads us to recognizing protest and political mobilizing as a way to intervene in system structures, and demonstrate changing intent in our social systems. We could also understand that interventions such as citizens’ juries are interventions in deep leverage points, because they shift the mindsets of key decision makers in systems (as well as directly changing the behaviours of participants). I would go so far as to suggest that we should all be explicit (at least to ourselves) in which system properties our intervention targets, and through what pathway it acts. In this way, we are given a language to demonstrate the power and transformative pathways of our activities, and to refine or target them.

Leverage Points provides us with a way to guide our actions towards targeting more fundamental systems change, through the structure and intent of systems.


** See e.g. tipping points. This is rather like the opposite pathway to systems change than leverage points; it suggests that individual actions add up to unlock systems change. LP suggests that systems change unlocks individual actions. Systems change via both pathways would be ideal!

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