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Outside or inside the system? Time to ask the right questions in response to our climate emergency

Forum for the Future chief executive, Dr. Sally Uren, explores how to drive the transformational shifts needed to respond to the climate crisis.

It’s only the fifth month of 2019, and already we have seen committed, passionate individuals marching through the streets of London, waving the powerful Extinction Rebellion symbol. A young, determined and articulate teenager from Sweden has stood in front of today’s elite and told them they are wrong. And liars. An environmental veteran, who for years has taken us on a journey through the world’s most fragile and beautiful ecosystems, now tells us that climate change could wipe out them all out, very soon.

The stark science laid out in the IPCC report of October has filtered into the mainstream. The world is beginning to understand that we are facing a climate emergency. This isn’t exaggerated hyperbole — it is very real.

This shift in attitudes, conversation and recognition of the urgency of the climate change challenge is an incredibly positive development. The shift prompts an important question certainly in my mind, but in speaking to others, I don’t think I’m alone: "Is my approach to sustainable development the right one? Is my organization’s strategy the most effective one?" And, specifically, "Is the change we need to see going to come working quietly in the background, carefully and painstakingly re-wiring specific systems or sub-systems so that they are reconfigured with sustainability as their central purpose — or do we need to shout louder and become activists?"

I’m wondering if, instead, a better question is: "How best can individuals and organizations use their own power and place in the system, and the skills and assets they have, to create the most change, in the shortest amount of time?"

Changing diets might actually be the way in which we restore resilience.
Activism and campaigning are critical for raising awareness, creating the need for change. Once the realization that sustainable development challenges and climate change, in particular, are problems that need solving right now, there is then a huge amount to do.

At Forum for the Future, we’ve learned that in order to deliver sustained change, the initial awareness of any issue needs to translate into a proper, full-blown mindset shift. Painful though it may be, there’s often a need to change deeply held belief systems. For example, business success in an economic system doesn’t need to equate to growth; success in the food system doesn’t necessarily equate to greater productivity per unit of land — changing our diets might actually be the way in which we restore resilience. At this stage of the change journey, building capacity to think systemically is critical.

Mindset shift is just the start. Organizational strategies need to be reconfigured and rewired; different parts of the system need to be brought together — in order to unlock the new ways of organizing and operating that form a new context. A lot of this can only be choreographed from inside the system that needs fixing, with people who are ready to work together on this transition. Simultaneously, innovations at the edge of any system need scaling and bringing into the mainstream.

There is, of course, the much more painful and disruptive route to changing systems. The one where huge shocks, such as extreme weather events, conflict and major political shifts lead to an almost instantaneous shift in a system. The longer we fail to act to change the systems on which we rely, including our economic system, the greater the chance of witnessing systems collapse triggered by these powerful shocks. But although the window for a more managed transition from our current broken systems to repatterned, resilient systems is narrowing by the day, it is still there. 

In the end, it is for us all to decide how best to use our power, our relationships, our skills, our very essence to drive the change we want to see.
While I believe that working alongside the current system to change it is a useful strategy, I am also very aware of the shortfalls. By not having a clear enough vision of what systems change (in any system) looks like, incremental change is more likely. Ambition levels also can be tempered by the realities of just how difficult it is to shift systems. Personally, then, given our climate emergency, I am watching out for this more acutely, and I’m not tolerating the usual excuses for inaction.

The fact that the climate challenge is understood for the emergency it really is is incredible. It will require wholesale change to the multiple systems that surround us, including, and probably starting with, the macro-economic system — which means we need to simultaneously pull all the levers of change available to us, from legislation to knowledge transfer to how money flows through our economy. We need governments to step up their efforts; we need the investment community to accelerate switching flows of billions of dollars from carbon-hungry industries to new, renewable ones; we need business to rethink essential goods and services, public services to create the enabling conditions for sustainable living and philanthropy to plug current market failures and be courageous in paving a new way forward. 

And what about us all as individuals? In the end, it is for us all to decide how best to use our power, our relationships, our skills, our very essence to drive the change we want to see. 

Ultimately, in order to respond decisively and urgently to our climate emergency, the change that is needed will come from organizations and individuals both outside and inside the current systems on which we depend, as well as those on the edge. We are all part of a movement. One that wants something much better than today, a sustainable future.

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