Where and when to intervene?

A nice summary of key insights emerging form Leverage Points 2019

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Josie Chambers

The uphill struggle for a more sustainable future can seem endless. The leverage points framework seeks to inform where and when to intervene to help gather momentum to truly transform old systems into new systems – rooted in different interwoven intents, designs, processes and outcomes. During my journey home from #leverage2019, I had the chance to reflect on some key insights from a fascinating session on where and when to intervene:

1. System structures and designs facilitate material flows and feedbacks that lead to particular outcomes over others. These processes both emerge from and actively reinforce certain deeply held paradigms.

2. For example, Per Olsson showed how rapid transformations occur both in the name of sustainability (e.g. expansion of linked protectionist conservation paradigm and natural park system) and in the name of development (e.g. expansion of neoliberal economic paradigm of growth and deregulation/privatization efforts).

3. Given these…

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Dancing with the system

Another post on #leverage2019 by Maraja Riechers

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Maraja Riechers

I am exceptionally bad at navigating. When I come out of a restaurant after dinner I occasionally do not remember where I came from and I even can get lost in my home town (which at one point had more cows than people). What is more, complexity often overwhelms me. Not, that complexity is something negative, and complexity does not need to be complicated. But sometimes it is just a bit, well, a bit too much for me.

Being exposed to all the information, warnings, pitfalls, details, conceptual and theoretical nuances, disciplinary expert knowledge and jargon, I feel immensely incapable of coping with its totality. Rather, I am acutely aware of my own knowledge gaps, shortcomings and limitations. In this chaos I am looking for perspectives that show me patterns, structures, something that helps me acknowledge the messiness, yet giving me tools to handle it (be it…

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Your journey to inner transformation

Another wonderful summary of a great session by Zuzana Harmackova

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Zuzana Harmackova

When it comes to transformations towards sustainability, focusing on policies, strategies and actions is not enough. What we need equally importantly are the deep, individual leverage points of transformation– those related to Inner Transformation.

Remember reading all the cool conference blogs? Now imagine you get the chance to write one… and what is more, at a conference on a really exciting topic – the Leverage Points of transformation towards sustainability. There is one problem, though. You are a terrible writer.

The session on Inner Transformation is your number one choice (you feel that this is exactly what you need). You are waiting for the start, in a room packed with people just as curious as you are. While the session chair Stella Veciana does a great job demonstrating that a raised hand means a signal for silence (a skill mastered by all of us later during the…

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Feeling naked

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

It was a more random line that Elena Bennett said in her plenary session this morning: “I feel naked without a pointer and presentation, but I will just go with it”. Feeling naked and exposed, in unusual, uncomfortable, honest and authentic situations. Embracing this feeling struck me as important, because today at the Leverage Points 2019 conferences it was all about exploring the notion of deep and neglected leverage points. By deep leverage points, we mean primarily those that tackle the systems design – such as re-defining the goal of the system, its information flow or self-organisation – and those that tackle the intent of the system – changing mind-sets and transcending paradigms.

But what does that mean for us? Digging deep. Transcending paradigms.

For me, it means we have to strip us barren from paradigms that we hold on to, which comfort us, and keep us in a…

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Keynote at Leverage Points 2019: Elena Bennett

Elena Bennett was our second keynote speaker this morning. Elena spoke of the role of “narrative” in bringing about societal transformation. Narratives should be inspiring and plausible – and they need to help us link tangible actions to ambitious targets.

Science at its best, Elena argued, needed to tell a good story about how the world works. One branch of science, Elena argued, had been particularly useful in this context, namely the branch of “scenario development”. Scenario approaches have been influential in many sustainability contexts by now – Elena mentioned, for instance, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, as well as scenarios developed around the lakes of Wisconsin. Scenarios work on the notion of “what if” … getting people to think about how things might turn out under different circumstances.

Despite scenario work having been prominent and powerful in numerous sustainability contexts, Elena highlighted three possible weaknesses. First, scenarios to date have mostly focused on a small number of drivers, including technology, addressing questions such as whether technology will save us or cause more problems than benefits. Second, scenarios have often highlighted single solutions, rather than addressing multiple interconnected challenges. Third, scenario work to date has often focused on the “end point”, e.g. in 30 years, without much guidance for stakeholders as to how we might get there.

So, narratives and visions of the future are powerful, but there is more to be done.

A new method for scenario development advocated by Elena is to start with the positive things already happening today. These positive incidences of change already taking place are what Elena terms Seeds of Good Anthropocenes. Many hundreds of such seeds (i.e. real-world narratives) have now been collected by her and her colleagues, and Elena detailed a couple of examples in her presentation.

Seeds, as they are being mentioned and analyzed by Elena, can teach us many different things. They teach us about what is wrong about the world today; they show us that some kinds of approaches are useful for tackling specific problems; while others are useful for tackling a whole range of interconnected problems. We might learn how context influences whether a given local initiative takes off or not; and indeed, we might learn from such positive seeds how to generate new, forward-looking scenarios for the future.

A new technique advocated by Elena was the “three horizons method”, recently discussed in depth in Ecology & Society by Sharpe et al.. This method, Elena argued, seemed more suited to drawing out some of the deeper issues that past scenario work perhaps could not get to; it also enabled users to directly see pathways towards the future, rather than simply focusing on an endpoint.

Hope and story telling, Elena concluded, could be very powerful leverage points for a better future.

Keynote at Leverage Points 2019: Ioan Fazey

“It’s the end of the world as we know it” … with these words, Ioan Fazey began his opening keynote lecture to Leverage Points 2019. With everything changing, faster than ever before — what is our role in this? What does it mean to be a knowledge producer? Either, we will have massive transformations because of “natural” processes; or we will ourselves instigate a more mindful kind of transformation, in order to avoid some of the less desirable outcomes.

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Photo by Ioan Fazey: Playing Giants, Fairies and Wizards in rural communities, Solomon Islands

Ioan moved on to show examples of how climate change, for example, will affect us, focusing on the city of New Orleans. Here, climate change is not a problem of the future, but rather of the present, with some communities already being displaced. A combination of human caused factors, here, leads to “land loss”, and in addition, there is a high incidence of hurricanes. How can such situations be governed, when traditionally, government departments were designed to address issues from within different types of sectoral silos? Three key “emergencies” need to be addressed in situations such as these: there are real emergencies, conceptual emergencies, and in fact, existential emergencies—the very real fear of facing big change.

What can we, as knowledge producers, do to support the changes that are needed? Ioan went on to explain that science and technology had, of course, generated a lot of good for the world – but they had also generated intentional destruction, power unbalances in terms of who benefits from technologies, and unpredictable, unintentional side-effects. In other words, what is happening is that we have unleashed a problem that we do not know how to control …

And from here, we went to … the sorcerer’s apprentice … in that story, a wizard’s apprentice is meant to clean up a castle. Because he is lazy, he tries to use magic to clean the castle…. And … he has just enough knowledge to get the process of cleaning going, but as he tries to stop it, the brooms take on a life of their own, become more and more, and so on … until eventually there is total chaos until the senior wizard comes home and puts an end to it all.

So – humanity’s story right now is pretty much like this … JUST WE DON’T HAVE A WIZARD to stop it all. We’re a bunch of apprentices, and it’s up to us to put an end to the insanity we have unleashed. What does this metaphor suggest for what we need to do?

  1. We need to accept we are all apprentices! This requires humility and full recognition of what is happening around us.
  2. We need to draw on more diverse kinds of knowledge. “How to” knowledge in particular, is rapidly growing, and this type of knowledge is not sufficiently being generated in universities. Ioan indicated in addition to epistemic knowledge, we need know how (techne) and phronesis (practical wisdom). So, we need to learn from doing, and researchers need to get involved in the world of practice. And so the role of scientists must change – from outside observer, to involved in the actual resolution of problems.
  3. We need to develop wisdom, not only knowledge. The apprentice, in our story, was quite selfish – he didn’t question whether it was wise to use magic because he was lazy … and his lack of wisdom led to disastrous consequences. So what is needed is not only knowledge per se, but also an understanding of what is right and good.
  4. We need to unleash creativity and the possibility for magic, accepting that there are things we don’t know at all just yet – i.e. open our minds to think in truly new ways about some of the problems we are facing.
  5. We need to ask really difficult questions, asking not only what is the right way to do things, what are the right things … but even more broadly, asking “what is right”?

Ioan concluded with a lot of challenging questions, not all of which I can reproduce here. Perhaps one of the most interesting ones was: Who should we be at the end of the world as we know it?

 

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.

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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.

New paper: Livelihood strategies, capital assets, and food security in rural southwest Ethiopia

By Aisa Manlosa

Livelihood strategies are vital to the ability of households and individuals to be food secure. But what types of livelihood strategies promote better food security, and how can these strategies be supported? We explored this question through empirical research in a semi-subsistent smallholder farming context in southwestern Ethiopia. In a new paper published in Food Security, we applied multivariate statistical analyses to determine types of livelihood strategies in a way that allowed these strategies to emerge from data, rather than through pre-determined categories. This enabled us to tease out fine differences between livelihood strategies in a predominantly smallholder farming setting. We then investigated capital assets that were associated with the different strategies. Using the Household Food Insecurity Access Scale as a measure of a household’s food (in)security, we also determined which livelihood strategies were associated with different levels of food security outcomes.

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Fig 1 Ordination plots of livelihood strategies with associated capital assets and food security outcomes. Underlying all four panels are the combined principal component analysis (PCA) and the cluster analysis of livelihood variables with each data point representing a household and a corresponding livelihood strategy indicated by a symbol. The x-axis always depicts the first principal component (26% explained variation) and the y-axis the second principal component (23% explained variation). 1a) Distribution of households by livelihood strategies in the ordination space of the PCA. 1b) PCA plot of livelihood activities highlighting the variables that most strongly correlated with the first two axes. Longer arrows suggest stronger correlations with PCA axes. 1c) Asset variables that are significantly correlated with the PCA axes at p<0.01 (permutation test). Longer arrows also suggest stronger correlations with PCA axes. 1d) Gradient of food security (measured by HFIAS scores) corresponding with the livelihood strategies.

Our research findings indicate that households in the area studied mainly relied on diversified smallholder farming. The combination of food crops and cash crops was the distinguishing characteristic of the livelihood strategies. Food crops such as maize, teff, sorghum, wheat, and barley were primarily used for household consumption; while cash crops such as coffee and khat were produced for the market. Other livelihood activities were undertaken, for example production of milk and honey, diverse home gardens, and wage labor. However, most of the variation in the data on livelihoods was explained by the types of crops produced. Five livelihood strategies were identified namely ‘three food crops, coffee, and khat’, ‘three food crops and khat’, ‘two food crops, coffee, and khat’, ‘two food crops and khat’, and ‘one food crop, coffee, and khat’ (Figures 1a and 1b). The ability of households to undertake these strategies was influenced by the types of capital assets that they had access to (Figure 1c). For example, households undertaking the strategy ‘three food crops, coffee, and khat’ had larger aggregate farm field size and learned new information on farming techniques from other farmers more frequently. Households undertaking the strategy ‘three food crops and khat’ more commonly had farms that were sharecropped and had more livestock. Through a generalized linear model, we established that the type of livelihood strategy households undertook in southwest Ethiopia was significantly associated with their food security. The more diverse the food crops in the strategies were, the better the households’ food security (Figure 1d). Furthermore, educational attainment and gender of the household heads were also significantly associated with better food security outcomes.

This paper contributes evidence to the important role of diversification in promoting food security amongst smallholder farming households. It calls attention to the need to understand local livelihood strategies and to build on what works for local farmers. We highlighted how farmers complemented food crops with cash crops, and how the benefits that farmers generate from these complementarities should be protected and maintained as governments formulate policies and interventions to support farming livelihoods. In the Ethiopian context where coffee is an important cash crop that is considered to play a role in ending poverty and hunger, our findings re-situate coffee as one of a range of important crops, rather than as the single commodity whose production should be intensified for higher income. The paper is open access and can be downloaded here.

A new kind of hope

By Joern Fischer

A small number of people working on sustainability have long been convinced that we are heading for some sort of global collapse. But partly because collapse hasn’t happened, and partly because it seems counter-productive to predict collapse, most sustainability scientists have kept up a narrative of urgent optimism. But is this changing?

Over the last few months, I have had quite a few informal conversations with colleagues about the state of the world. And it seems that many who used to be optimistic are losing their optimism – and are increasingly using terms like “climate catastrophe” not as some outlandish thing that might happen one day, but as something that is entirely plausible in our foreseeable future or that of our children.

What does this tell us? To me it is a not-so early warning signal stronger than most, as well as an invitation to think once again what we’re doing in our science.

If we are in a situation where some kind of catastrophe has indeed become likely, how does this change what we do? To start with, how might it change our attitudes? – One might believe it will stifle all motivation and lead to depression; and therefore, we must not allow it. My sense is that this has been the dominant view among scientists – we’re not willing to face how bad things really are, because we believe that sending “negative messages” will just make everything worse, will lead to apathy and so on (and frankly, it scares us, as people not scientists!). But just like a grieving person eventually accepts her fate (for example, according to this conceptual model), there are aspects of what is happening that we simply must accept. The world as we knew it, is gone. Already, species have gone extinct. Already, we’re locked into some level of global warming. Sure, let’s work hard to minimize these problems, but already, it should be quite clear that as humanity, we are up for entirely new challenges and experiences; some further changes are already firmly locked in due to delays in system behaviour and associated feedbacks.

Facing this is not the same as giving up on a vision for a better world – but perhaps we should recognize more clearly that minor catastrophes are already happening right now, and larger ones are likely on the way. There is little benefit in denying this just because it might stifle blind optimism: if this is what is happening, then should we not face it best we can?

Having faced that many things are not going well at all means that our science can come out the other end in new, different ways. Essentially, what we need to do is navigate the trade-off between trying to rescue the systems that are (adaptation), versus letting them go, and transforming our world into a different set of systems. And importantly, we can do both: we can try with part of our energy to hang on to parts of the world as we know it (saving species, for example); but we can also prepare with the rest of our energy for a new world, at the same time. This isn’t giving up – it is seeing reality as it presents itself, and seeking genuine transformation; it is moving from denial and depression to finding entirely new ways to use our energy to make the world a better place.

And thus, as one hope dies, space emerges for a new type of hope: as hope dies that the world as we know it will persist, this makes space for hope that we can positively transform our world over the coming decades, using windows of opportunity as they arise.

If and when windows of opportunity open up – perhaps following small or major catastrophes – are we ready? Is our science ready? If we have to re-build something after some kind of collapse … do we have ideas for what that something will be? Which institutions would we favour? How would we transform our agricultural systems, personal time budgets and labour markets? Is our science sufficiently future-oriented to even ask such questions? Can we learn from positive examples, as well as localized disasters and collapses, so we can be somewhat prepared for likely small and major catastrophes? – My general sense is that most of our science wants the world to remain something it is unlikely to be; but because of this, we also miss opportunities for preparing positive visions for what a better future might actually look like.

I wonder if in hindsight, science will conclude that the Anthropocene will not be a geological era after all – simply because it will have been rather short-lived. At least the current phase of the Great Acceleration by definition cannot be sustained; so we’re out of the Holocene, but we’re clearly not yet in a new equilibrium. What we’re in right now is probably the middle of a major, global regime shift to … well, we don’t know to where.

In conclusion, then, perhaps it’s time to face that we are already facing small catastrophes, and larger ones are likely on the way. As these open windows of opportunity, it would be nice if our science is ready to offer new, positive visions for how to build something more durable than the current version of the “Anthropocene” – which, in its current, exponentially changing form, will only ever be a blink in our planet’s geological history.

Scenarios for southwestern Ethiopia

By Jan Hanspach

In the previous posts, Joern reported about our outreach tour that we went on in southwestern Ethiopia. An important aspect of that was the presentation of the scenarios that we had developed together with stakeholders from the area. While the details can be taken from our scenario book, I’d like to share a short summary and the scenario illustrations in this post.

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The scenario development was largely based on more than 30 stakeholder workshops in 2015 and 2016, through which we collected information on major social-ecological changes in the past, the present, and the future, the main drivers and main uncertainties and their relationships. From that we collated a causal-loop diagram, which describes the main dynamics of the system.

Based on that systems understanding we developed a scenario logic and draft scenario narratives, which we validated and discussed through six more workshops in 2018. Based on these, we finalized the scenario narratives, and with the help of some ink and watercolors I have put together some illustrations that should give a glimpse of what the future could look like under the different scenario conditions in a “typical” village in the area.

Additionally, I have drawn landscape cross-sections, so that one doesn’t only see how the village and the farmland might change, but also the forest.

Landscape cross-sections for the different scenarios

Based on these visualisations we designed posters, which we handed out to the key stakeholders in the region. Also, we printed 10,000 postcards with the scenarios and distributed them widely in the villages. Posters and postcards can be seen and downloaded here.

 

 

postcard piles

Piles of postcards – later to be distributed among local people.

We hope that distributing all the outreach material will foster discussions and help people to think about how current decisions and dynamics can shape the future of southwestern Ethiopia.