Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Joern Fischer

Have you ever thought that sustainability science seems to be missing the point, half the time? That’s we’re just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and that we’re fiddling around the edges? Well — you’re not alone. A group of eight scholars from Leuphana University Lueneburg (myself included) got together early in 2014 to write a project proposal on precisely this. And just a short while ago we found out that our proposal was successful, funded through an exciting initiative by the German state of Lower Saxony to fund excellence in sustainability.

Our new project is called “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation”. Conceptually, we start with an idea by Donella Meadows, which she published in 1999, in an essay called “Places to Intervene in a System“. Her idea was that there are many ways to intervene in complex systems — but some of these ways are not particularly influential (they have shallow leverage), while others are highly influential (they have deep leverage).

leverage points

Looking at the list of leverage points identified by Donella Meadows (see above), one might argue that a lot of sustainability science has focused on the things on the left — on relatively shallow leverage points. Think about the “reform” of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy, of laws to ban incandescent light bulbs, or maybe even of REDD+. These are all good things, but it seems they are only small steps in the right direction; while the forces for un-sustainability continue to operate with the same strength as before.

Arguably, it’s time for sustainability science to more routinely look at the things with deeper leverage — on the right hand side in our graphic above. Our new project will try to do precisely that. For the purpose of convenience, in our new project, we will look at leverage points within three spheres, which for convenience we labelled restructure, reconnect, and rethink. Restructure will deal with the role of institutions; reconnect with relationships between people and their natural environments; and rethink will critically investigate what types of knowledge are needed to advance sustainability (including from outside academia). As focal themes, our new project will focus on food and energy; and as case study areas, we will compare Lower Saxony (in Germany) with Transylvania (in Romania).

work package structure

The project is designed to run for four years, and will start in spring 2015. There will be four postdoc positions and eight PhD positions starting in mid-to-late 2015. Stay tuned!

The other PIs on this new project are (in random order!) Ulli Vilsmaier, Dave Abson, Henrik von Wehrden, Julia Leventon, Thomas Schomerus, Jens Newig — and our speaker, Daniel Lang.

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8 thoughts on “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

  1. That’s interesting. These lines “These are all good things, but it seems they are only small steps in the right direction; while the forces for un-sustainability continue to operate with the same strength as before.” carry quite a similar idea to a comment I made in a conference on human ecology two weeks ago. While there are successes in addressing such wicked problems as environmental degradation and poverty (e. g. successfully protected ecosystems, decrease in number of poor people in a province), many are happening at small scales while the wicked problems persist at a larger scale (e. g. greater swathes of land converted, greater number of poor people in the Philippines despite our economic growth). As scientists, it has become absolutely essential to notice that our efforts to address these problems are not keeping up with the speed and the magnitude by which the scale of the problem expands. A small example of this is that while we hear discussions, lectures, blogs, and whatnot, about the implications of excessive consumerism on our ecological footprint, the advertisements and displays bombard people with the message to buy and consume. And it appears our science is still not anywhere near matching the pervasiveness of that message.

    One of the observable changes in our way of working in the sciences has been the emphasis and the movement towards a more integrated approach in the recognition that wicked problems cannot be addressed by one discipline. For instance, the CGIAR Research Program on Aquatic Agricultural Systems is taking the step to integrate Participatory Action Research and the Gender Transformative Approach in its various initiatives. To make integration happen, doing this with partner organizations have been essential to us. A number of CGIAR research programs are doing the same. I think that moving towards integration is a step in the right direction and one that can lead to deep and lasting change.

    When I made that comment two weeks ago, I thought about the inclusiveness of the integration process — how involving actors outside the academe: local leaders, community champions, private sector may help our science hasten and deepen the positive changes it hopes to achieve, at scale. Communication is key to that — and it entails a step, likely many steps, down the ivory tower of the academia — which if more of us do, and which if we do more of, would be a paradigm and behavioral shift towards the right direction.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I think there is a growing number of scientists who see this problem, but relatively little is being done or written about it so far. In case you’re interested, two of the papers in which I have tried to raise this issue are “Mind the Sustainability Gap” and “Human behavior and sustainability” — available for example via scholar.google.com .

    • Interested to read that. I’ll look for those papers. They will be good to share with my colleagues at WorldFish with whom I’ve had conversations around this issue. Thanks.

  3. Pingback: New project website: Leverage Points Sustainability Transformation | Ideas for Sustainability

  4. Pingback: The seesaw metaphor of leverage points for sustainability | Ideas for Sustainability

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