Donella Meadows wrote a delightful and splendidly useful essay on leverage points – places to intervene in a system. She identifies 12 leverage points for change, the most powerful of which are transcending paradigms, changing mindsets, and defining the goals of the system. Least effective, and thus lowest on her list, are constants, parameters and numbers. In sustainability and its component such as climate change and social justice, we tend to focus more on the measures (eg levels of CO2 and employment rates) than the mental frame we are using to generate and perhaps solve the problem.
This mindshift is crucial. Karl Polanyi wrote that while the economy used to exist as a service for society, increasingly we are shifting to a world in which society exists to feed the economy. Importantly this has moved us from relations of reciprocity and redistribution to ones of self-interest at individual and company level. Where once your birth guaranteed you a place in society unless you violated an important cultural norm, today that place needs to be earned. We see systematic reduction in the US, for example, of social benefits for the unemployed and the poor. The message: if you or your capital are not employed, you are not considered a productive member of society and lose your rights.
Today we can extend this further to the environment feeding society that in turn feeds the economy. Thus we plunder the earth while reducing the quality of the environment (through overfishing, fracking and emissions of CO2 for example) at little or no economic cost, while systematically emphasizing labour efficiency over job creation. This leads to high unemployment rates, and environmental damage – both aspects that don’t seem reasonable social goals but which society seems to struggle to solve.
The Occupy movement and the Arab Spring both sought a participatory discussion to discuss how we could be more participatory and intentional about our societies. In Ireland a festival called Kilkenomics invites economists from all over the globe to come and discuss economics in pubs – with the discussion moderated by comedians. Says Simon Kuper of the Financial Times: “I’ve been to lots of festivals and conferences, but Kilkenomics may be the best. More than that: it felt like democracy. It recalled the 1960s “teach-ins” on American campuses. It reminded me of the proposal by Bruce Ackerman, Yale law professor, to sit ordinary people down with experts to talk through complicated issues like the Tobin tax or British membership of the European Union and actually change some minds. Kilkenomics could work far beyond Kilkenny.”
The role of Art of Hosting
In Scotland today as a move for independence grows, questions such as "How do we create the conditions for deep, systemic change in Scotland? How can we help the emergence of a new way of living by listening to the voice and spirit of the people?" are being hosted by the Art of Hosting to enable citizens to consider what society they would like to create. These are the kinds of questions that question the existing paradigm – and thus come at the top of Donella Meadow’s hierarchy of leverage points for effective change.
The Art of Hosting provides the methodologies and ethos that enable disparate groups of people to create a sense of common purpose as well as move into prototype actions. When you need to design whole systems you need the system in the room and ensure the discussion is so safe it can spread beyond the room and into the community.
Imagine if we had such discussions around sustainability for our societies and for our environment. For example, what if we were to discuss the question: How might we help create a society that flourishes while all its citizens thrive? How could we align our society with the circular systems inherent in nature – where the byproduct of any product remains infinitely useful as material for something else? Answers to these would represent not only real change, but help bring about the rethink that transcends the paradigms that keep us stuck in unsustainable ways of life today. Viva Donella Meadows!
Meadows, D. Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. 1999. The Sustainability Institute.
Kuper, S. Davos with Jokes: downloaded 24.11.13 from http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/b4973980-523b-11e3-8c42-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2laFDfb58
Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation. 1944. Beacon Press.
Small, M. An Independent Scotland in every sense. The Guardian. Downloaded 24.11.13 from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/21/independent-scotland-yes-campaign-snp-radical-alternative