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What Might Systems Change Look Like? Useful Theories and Models


Blog 4 of 5 in UKYCC's Systems Change Not Climate Change Series. Click here for blogs 1, 2 and 3.

If you’ve read our first three blogs in the Systems Change series, you’ll probably have a good idea of the problems our current system is causing. In blogs 1 and 2, we looked at each of our ecological and socioeconomic systems and the crises they are causing. In blog 3 we showed how the environmental and social injustices caused by our global systems are deeply interlinked and caused by the very structures of our society and way of life.

But, you might ask yourself, what can we do about it? How do we go from a broken global way of doing things to something truly sustainable and just?

The question we’re tackling in this blog is: what big ideas are there that point us in the direction of systems change?

Systems change or not systems change?

To understand what constitutes systems change, we need to first talk about what isn’t systems change. Have you ever heard of the three-legged stool of sustainability (also known as the three pillars of sustainability)? The three-legged stool is the most common model used when businesses and governments start thinking about social and environmental issues. The idea goes that if the legs on the stool - the economic, social and environmental realms of the world - are balanced, we are achieving a sustainable system.

Three legged stool of weak sustainability

But the three legged stool doesn’t work. Why? Because it doesn’t account for the fact that the environmental leg of the stool can only get so big. Imagine we grow our economy, and the economic leg of the stool gets bigger. Well, that’s fine according to this model - we can just grow our social and environmental legs too. In theory, we could make the stool infinitely tall - as long as the legs are balanced, we have a ‘sustainable’ system.

This would make sense if we lived on an infinite planet, but we only have the capacity for so much growth. We are already using three planets’ worth of resources and causing all kinds of ecological problems. And if the environmental leg has a hard limit, there has to be some kind of limit to how much our economy and society can expand. Meanwhile, the three-legged stool is being used all over the world to justify infinite economic and social growth.

The three-legged stool is what’s called weak sustainability. It includes the environment somewhere, but it doesn’t account for the fact that we only have one planet to exist on. For systems change, we need to be using a strong sustainability model.That means a model that keeps human development within our planetary boundaries. Believe it or not, this is a radically different way of planning our global system.

Strong and stable sustainable

So what does strong sustainability look like? An easy way to think about this is by using Doughnut Economics.

Doughnut Economics refers to the human race living in the sweet spot between our minimum social needs and our planet’s hard limits. We need to ensure that everyone globally has access to rights like food, safety, healthcare, education and equality - the social and economic legs of the three legged stool - but we also need to ensure that by achieving this we don’t push the Earth over the edge. What’s cool about Doughnut Economics is that it also frames the conversation in terms of Rockstrom et al.’s nine planetary boundaries, beyond which we are risking irreversible environmental damage. Check out this great one-minute summary:

But how do we stay within our planetary boundaries when we’ve already passed some of them? At present, economic growth relies heavily on resource use - cutting down trees, mining, oil extraction, etc. The mainstream argument is that as long as we can separate or ‘decouple’ economic growth from resource use, we’ll be able to maintain (and perhaps even continue to increase) our current level of economic development.

Taking things further

However, others believe that it won’t be possible to completely decouple resource use and economic growth. Degrowth scholars are in this camp. Degrowth, though rarely defined, is a fast-growing literature which argues that our addiction to GDP growth must be challenged. Supporters of the degrowth movement believe that GDP growth as a positive phenomenon is a western myth, and encourage the western world to accept that our current levels of GDP are linked not only to climate breakdown but also to social inequalities. Instead of glorifying growth, we should reorientate society away from the GDP metric and reduce production and consumption in the Global North down to levels based on sufficiency and a simpler, slower way of life.

Rather than just living within the boundaries of our environment, the degrowth movement encourages us to think of humanity as a part of the ecological system. It calls for the liberation of the western imagination away from growth, and towards a society that supports well-being, sufficiency, modesty and abundance.

From theory to practice

The two theories/models described above are pretty cool, but they’re just examples of what systems change could be based on. We know we need big change, and that change has to include placing real value on our planet’s health, and measuring human well-being not by GDP but by our needs being met. Other than that, the path is wide open.

The next big challenge we have is to take theories like these and translate them into practical steps governments and people can take. These steps need to be considered carefully - they must push our global systems in the right direction, while ensuring international justice by tackling Global North/South inequalities and placing the largest burden on countries that have done the most climate damage. In the next blog, we’ll look at efforts around the world so far to challenge the global system and talk about how much further we have to go.


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