Donella (Dana) Meadows famously identified 12 ‘leverage points’ for changing human systems, from tweaking parameters to rewriting major rules. More effective interventions typically required greater effort. Number 12 on her list – with greatest potential leverage but most difficult – was to transcend the prevailing system to see it for what it was and reject it for something new. This was to apply Kuhn’s ‘paradigm shift’ idea to the scale of whole societies.
The image is an adaptation of Meadows’ idea for the current ecological crisis – which continues to be shaped predominantly by the attitudes of wealthier nations. It might be thought of as 4 ‘leverage attitudes’ for sustainability, depicting an uphill struggle against various forms of resistance to reach more effective stances.
The embracing paradigm is the reductionist worldview that is the peculiar legacy of the Scientific Revolution. While a fruitful perspective for working out how atoms and cells work, when applied to social systems it has somehow resulted in externality-denying capitalism and expertise-debasing democracy. The shared premise of capitalism and democracy, echoing the method of reductionism, is that you can ‘add back up’ expressions of self-interest – whether spending or voting – to arrive at the best possible outcome. But unless all expressions of self-interest fully reflect latest ecological understanding, the aggregation may fall well short of a sustainable outcome.
Most difficult of all is that global ecological challenges are fundamentally ‘stop doing’ problems, i.e., stop emitting GHGs, stop destroying the Amazon etc.
The hope has been that ‘stop doing’ problems could be solved by the ‘more doing’ strategy of technological substitution – renewables, greener products etc. The private sector is felt to have advantages in innovation and so market-led sustainability has been a major form of response.
However, the evident fact of much historical technological substitution (cars replaced carts, computers replaced typewriters, etc.) is no guarantee that technological substitution can always happen fast enough to solve every problem. Instead, the main learning from 25 years of CSR, SRI, ESG, etc., is that substitution is not happening anything like fast enough to prevent climate change. While technologies like wind and solar have grown strongly, their growth is still proving more additive to fossil fuel use than substitutive:
So, we continue to face innately ‘stop doing’ problems for which the first-choice ‘more doing’ mindset is not working well enough. Not only does that challenge the modern impulse to be ‘productive’ and do more, but the capacity to do less is very unevenly distributed. Some can, some cannot.
The broader point is that sustainability may now depend upon people and institutions asking the question one – or two or three – along from the question they are currently asking themselves.