Taking a fresh look at sustainability via a “leverage points perspective”

By Joern Fischer & Maraja Riechers

Have you ever wondered why, with all the science, and all the talk of sustainability, the world still seems to be going the wrong way? – One explanation is that we’ve done plenty of things, but … perhaps not the right things. A leverage points perspective is emerging as a new analytical lens to tackle sustainability problems. We summarize what this perspective can do for sustainability in our new paper in People & Nature; and from 6-8 February a leverage points perspective will take centre stage at the inaugural international conference “Leverage Points 2019” at Leuphana University Lueneburg, Germany.


A leverage points perspective on sustainability.

The idea of leverage points as such is not new to people working on complex systems, such as social-ecological systems. However, the idea of a “leverage points perspective” is more than just recognizing that we can intervene in systems at different points – it’s about recognizing that some interventions are more powerful than others, and that it’s not just about cause-and-effect relationships, but also about getting our goals right … but before we get carried away, let’s see how a leverage points perspective came about.

Origin of a leverage points perspective

A leverage points perspective, as we now articulate it, dates back to 1999, when Donella Meadows published a seminal essay entitled “Leverage points: places to intervene in a system”. In this essay, she proposed there were different kinds of interventions we could consider when trying to change the trajectory of a complex system. Based on her personal experience as a complex systems analyst, she argued that some interventions seemed to be relatively ineffective, while others seemed to be more powerful. This idea was picked up and further elaborated by Dave Abson and colleagues in 2017 in a paper in the journal Ambio. This paper reasoned that there were shallow and deep interventions – and it seemed that a lot of sustainability science was actually focusing on shallow interventions, while neglecting the deeper ones.

Since this paper came out in 2017, a team of researchers at Leuphana University Lueneburg has worked to put further life into the idea of a leverage points perspective. This work is now culminating in the upcoming “Leverage Points 2019” conference, which will have several hundred attendees.

Key features of a leverage points perspective

Our new paper in People & Nature provides a succinct entry point to get a sense for what a leverage points perspective is all about. In short, it’s a fresh way of thinking about deeply engrained sustainability problems. Without getting too technical in this blog post (you can read the paper for that), a leverage points perspective suggests four key priorities for sustainability.

First, we can’t just set ambitious targets, but we need to firmly link such targets to tangible actions (and vice versa). Change arises both from the intent we pursue, as well as from the ways in which interventions and outcomes are causally related. Scientists have often focused on causal explanations of change, and politicians have often focused on setting targets – but the two have rarely been effectively linked. As we describe in our new paper, technically, this priority is about linking the concepts of causality and teleology.

Second, we need to start discussing and challenging deeply entrenched beliefs and worldviews that stand in the way of a sustainable future. Can we really expect, for example, that we will reach environmental sustainability or social justice while we organize our economic systems around endless material growth? Technically, this priority means we need to look at deep leverage points, such as the goals and paradigms underpinning our social-ecological systems.

Third, we need to better understand how different types of policy interventions pave the way for change. Easy interventions, like reducing the use of plastic bags, are often advocated in order to do something tangible, and are believed to also trigger a change in mindsets. But does this logic work in practice? How should we best intervene in the world in order to ultimately bring about truly transformative change? Technically, this priority suggests we need to understand how interventions at shallow and deep leverage points interact.

Finally, we need ways to link different types of people and their diverse understandings of the world. We need to link academics from different disciplines with one another, as well as with stakeholders from politics, industry and society at large. Technically speaking, a leverage points perspective can be used as a boundary object that speaks to many different audiences.

 Further information

To find out more, read our new paper in People & Nature or attend Leverage Points 2019 in Lueneburg! The conference will ask: how do we transform ourselves, our science, our institutions, our interventions and our societies for a better future? Inspired by the way a leverage points perspective can shape scientific and social practice, the conference will use many different formats to facilitate learning: scientists, practitioners and students will engage in different sessions that use various interactive and discussion-oriented formats. Information from the many sessions will be harvested and refined by a team of graphic facilitators. This way key findings and take-home lessons from the conference will be re-distributed among the participants from all around the world, allowing for cross-pollination of challenging questions and inspiring ideas.

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