Skip to main content

How to view sustainability's historic moment

Both change and awareness are often incremental.

Effectively addressing the barriers to creating the world so many wish to see is a tall order. In that effort, we shouldn’t expect complete change overnight.

Change is often incremental. Awareness is often incremental. It comes in waves, as people get inspired by an idea, and they become the role models that inspire other people. Increasing waves of action correspond to increasing waves of awareness, as those that resonate with an idea reflect the idea back out to compete in the battle of ideas and earn increasing amounts of mental bandwidth.

Certain barriers do require a critical mass of action at the right time to overcome the inertia that is greater than incremental change.

The growing awareness around climate change over the past few decades has achieved critical mass, and it has done so precisely by resonating with a critical mass of people. And a very significant swath of the business community is on board with taking aggressive climate action.

It’s also true that there are times where we see a sea change (the LEED green building standard taking the building world by storm, 1960s civil rights campaigns, Arab Spring democracy uprising, etc.), rather than simple incremental steps forward. Certain barriers do require a critical mass of action at the right time to overcome the inertia that is greater than incremental change.

Yet, taking the bigger picture view, those sea changes are still often part of a larger movement (greening buildings as part of the path toward "living buildings" that function like nature, civil rights leading to human rights for all, Arab Spring as an indicator of a march toward global democracy) that is moving more gradually. If the long arc of history bends toward social justice, it also bends toward environmental justice and ecological sanity.

There is no one magic bullet, but there are key bullets. And multiple bullets are needed over time.

One of the most powerful articulations of how to drive change comes from Donella Meadows. Donella (or Dana, as she was commonly known) was an author of "The Limits to Growth" (PDF), a professor, the founder of the Sustainability Institute and one of the leading system thinkers of the last third of the 20th century.

In 1997, she penned "Places to Intervene in a System," which offered 12 levels or leverage points at which change can happen:

12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).

11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.

10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures).

9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.

8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.

7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.

6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).

5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).

4. The power to add, change, evolve or self-organize system structure.

3. The goals of the system.

2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — goals, structure, rules — arises.

1. The power to transcend paradigms.

The lower the number, the more fundamental that leverage point is to the system. The lower the number, the greater the potential for real change.

Putting different hands on the faucets may change the rate at which they turn, but if they're the same old faucets ... the system isn't going to change much.

The renewable, non-toxic, ecological and equity indicators that we track to gauge global health are largely outcome numbers of the system at Level 12. Meadows lists several examples and explains why operating at this level doesn’t change a great deal:

The amount of land we set aside for conservation. The minimum wage. How much we spend on AIDS research or Stealth bombers. The service charge the bank extracts from your account. All these are numbers, adjustments to faucets. So, by the way, is firing people and getting new ones. Putting different hands on the faucets may change the rate at which they turn, but if they're the same old faucets, plumbed into the same system, turned according to the same information and rules and goals, the system isn't going to change much.

Any one intervention that we might take could fall across multiple levels. If we look at climate, greenhouse gas emissions reside at Levels 10 and 11, and the impacts of climate change take expression in many Level 12 ways.

The critical process of feedback that we’ve discussed occupies Levels 6-8 (information flow being a fundamental aspect of feedback). Political donations, legal decisions and other changes that influence future actions are rules of the game at Level 5. And our renewable, healthy, ecologically abundant and equitable aspirations reflect Level 3 goals.

As we see, changing the end outcome numbers is much less important than changing the rules (5), goals (3), dynamics and laws which bring about those outcome numbers. And critical to establishing such goals and rules is our Level 2 mindset.

Mindset and goals

The implication is that mindset is critical to get to where we want to go, more fundamental than any other leverage point besides transcending paradigms, which we will leave aside for the moment. So, if we are to be successful, we must cultivate the appropriate mindset that will lead to the goals and rules that we need.

On review, what emerges is there are specific beliefs, or myths, that cloud our ability to shape our mindset to adequately embrace these goals, like the myth of unlimited economic growth being possible in a finite system. So to be successful, we need to better understand these problematic beliefs.

Excerpted with permission from "Our Historic Moment: Purpose, Planet and Places to Intervene," by David Jaber. Available at Amazon, Google Play and at

More on this topic