Some Thoughts on System Change

September 8, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

It becomes clearer with each passing day that simply ameliorating current problems is not going to be sufficient. This blog is about how we might scale up transformative change.

There is an ongoing litany of alarming and depressing news regarding climate change and the growing gap between our aspirations for addressing it and reality (and climate change is only one of the nine planetary boundaries). There is similarly grim news about exponentially increasing levels of inequality, conflict — including in what Naomi Klein calls fossil fuel sacrifice zones — and the emergence of a nation of refugees.

Pondering appropriate responses to our increasingly chaotic and unstable global context has led me to identify a few central issues. First is the high degree of interconnection between the problems that we face. I would argue that proportionate reactions to climate change, for example, demand exploration of how energy is used — which in turn demands not just an understanding of the role of energy in our economies, but a preparedness to move away from relying on economic growth as the primary aim of economic policy. Generally we shy away from questioning the fundamentals of our economic system: if they come into conflict with the major issues we face, we somehow manage simply to ignore such conflict. See, by way of example, the EU’s (secret, internal) position during COP21 that nothing could be agreed which might jeopardise TTIP and similar agreements.

Continuing on the theme of connection, or the lack of it, I’m also struck by how little connection there is, generally, between top down responses to global issues and the bottom up movements also seeking to act on those issues. Again using climate change as example, the chair of IPCC working group 2, Debra Roberts, commented on the general lack of access to high level processes and agreements: “These things can’t remain discreet agreements that are signed somewhere in New York to great fanfare and don’t impact on the lives of people in the streets. How do we construct that opportunity of access and participation and responsibility in this new era that is the post-Paris era?”

Finally I’ve been exploring the effectiveness with which the change movements have brought expert understandings of psychology into their practice. In Engaging with Climate Change, a collection of essays from a variety of contributors on psychoanalytic and interdisciplinary perspectives edited by Sally Weintrobe, there is an exploration of the difference between three forms of climate change denial: denialism (deliberately misinforming), negation (saying what is, isn’t) and disavowal (apparently accepting reality, but minimising its significance). Weintrobe suggests thatDisavowal can lead us further and further away from accepting the reality of climate change, with murderous and suicidal consequences. This is because the more reality is systematically avoided through making it insignificant or through distortion, the more anxiety builds up unconsciously, and the greater is the need to defend with further disavowal.” It feels key to me that we all try to understand and grapple with our own levels of disavowal, which dangerously allow us to “cope” and carry on as if everything was fine.

That’s because one of the dangers of individual or societal disavowal is an undermining of our capacity to care, to love, to show concern. As Klein argues in her discussion of fossil fuel sacrifice zones, “A culture that places so little value on black and brown lives that it is willing to let human beings disappear beneath the waves, or set themselves on fire in detention centres, will also be willing to let the countries where black and brown people live disappear beneath the waves, or desiccate in the arid heat.

In responding to the interconnected and urgent challenges we face, how might we seek to address both visible, linear causal factors and, crucially, also make links through to underlying cultures, seeking to unleash and foster a caring imagination? How do we move away from the supremacy of ego and other manifestations of the Algonquin concept of Wetiko, while also remembering that as a society we value compassionate over selfish values even if it doesn’t necessarily feel that way? In attempting to do so it is useful to bear in mind the research showing that, in Tom Crompton of Common Cause’s summary, “How we talk …and think about … other issues will prove to be of crucial importance in building public support for action on climate change”.

Given this setting, what can/should funders who agree that systems change is urgently needed do? In her blog in April on the practice of philanthropy Florence reported a comment from the chief executive of one of the largest grantmakers in the UK that, “If you’re in the game of amelioration, the system is fine. If you’re interested in long-term systems change, the fundamental mechanism of grant-making is not fit for purpose.” From my perspective and experience the core question is how might funders responsibly take risks and give greater support to radical — or potentially radical — work which looks at the kinds of interconnections I raised previously.

As Jen Morgan pointed out in her December 2015 post on systems change on the EFN Blog, really engaging in understanding, and working towards, systems change needs different approaches. In particular I wonder how funders might explore taking risks more, in supporting potentially transformative ideas from a range of potential change agents. Leading climate modeller Kevin Anderson said, “We all have the potential to be agents for change, the person, organisation or city whose ideas and examples initiate a whole new way of thinking. It is not an issue of top-down or bottom-up, of us or them. If we are to deliver the timely revolution in … our emissions it will need to be a partnership – not something simply imposed from above or forced through from below.”

The time for a revolution in how we live, way beyond our relationship with energy, is very short. It can’t take place in isolation from other societal changes, including in our cultures of care or uncare. Exploring how to engage with this conundrum is my primary focus.

Photo credit: Common Cause website

Peter Lipman

Peter Lipman is the former (founding) chair of Transition Network and Common Cause Foundation. He also chaired the UK government’s Department for Energy and Climate Change’s Community Energy Contact Group. He’s been a teacher, a co-operative worker, an intellectual property lawyer, and worked at UK charity Sustrans, latterly as external affairs director, before setting up Anthropocene Actions, a community interest company that promotes fair, loving, and ecologically regenerative societies.

Tags: building resilient societies, climate change communication, climate change policy, funding, systems change