What's the Problem?
Human activities are causing widespread biodiversity loss and climate change. Because of the vital role nature plays in supporting our very existence, humanity's current trajectory threatens the foundations of our livelihoods, health, economies, and quality of life. “The future we want” that was established by a global participatory process at Rio+20, culminating in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, may soon be out of reach. Read the UNEP and IPBES reports.
In order to achieve a sustainable future, we need system-wide change—and soon. Most of the world’s nations asserted this in 2019, and yet most have been unable to initiate this transformation. The incremental changes we’ve been making as governments and individuals (e.g., recycling and enhancing/taking public transit) are important, but they won’t do the job alone. We need transformative change to put us on a pathway to sustainability.
What is Transformative Change?
Transformative change means doing things differently – not just a little more or less of something we’re doing already, but really transforming the structure of our society and economy.
This transformation must boldly change the way we grow food, extract resources, and produce goods. It also means shifting the values, goals, and paradigms that propelled us into the current ecological crisis. It requires actions that build new social norms, evolve worldviews, and transform legal systems to unlock sweeping change.
How Does it Work?
Think of the process of transformative change like moving an almost immovable object: you need leverage. The “object” in question is the system of institutions, governance structures, and firms that run the economy but also perpetuate environmental degradation. The levers are the interventions that we can employ to move—reshape—those systems towards sustainability. The fulcrum represents the leverage points—the variables that are critical to achieving a sustainable future.
Based on cutting-edge, internationally agreed science, we can identify and undertake actions that will have the greatest effect in transforming the systems towards a more sustainable future.
One thing is clear: it’s going to take more than everyone just recycling, composting, and buying things differently. These private actions might be enough to maintain a sustainable pathway, but they can’t accomplish transformative change. For that, we need a cadre of heroic individuals who will take the social-signalling and system-changing actions towards sustainability.
These levers and leverage points—based on the IPBES Global Assessment and the UNEP Making Peace with Nature report—are not a menu of individual options that lead to a sustainable future, but rather a checklist of the necessary components to reach that future.
Most (137) of the world’s nations agreed that this is needed. Why can’t we leave it to governments? Governments generally don’t act based on science alone—unless it’s easy. And system change isn’t easy.
As acknowledged by the nations themselves, “By its very nature, transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo, but such opposition can be overcome for the broader public good.” Government officials often have close ties to vested interests. Governments themselves have vested interests.
But transformative change can and does happen, when those who are committed to a better future make it happen—against all odds.
Levers for Change
What kinds of interventions will bring about transformative change?
Reform subsidies so they directly improve social and environmental outcomes.
Reform organizations, programs, and policies to make them pre-emptive, inclusive, integrated, robust to uncertainty, and geared toward the complexity of social and ecological systems.
Bolster environmental laws & policies and eliminate corruption.
Leverage Points for Change
Where is it most critical to intervene?
Paradigms and visions of a good life
Embrace visions that emphasize relationships over material consumption.
Reduce total material consumption (a function of population size, per-capita consumption, and waste).
Unleash existing environmental values of responsibility to enable action.
Reduce inequalities in income, gender, race, and class.
Practice inclusion in decision-making, especially including indigenous peoples and local communities.
Internalize the negative effects of our actions, which are often hidden, distant, diffuse, and delayed.
Innovation and Investment
Move toward technology that produces net-positive impacts on people and nature.
Grow the knowledge and education systems needed for citizenship at all levels, and spread knowledge about sustainability.
Where are the areas for system transformation?
Food and Water
Economy and Finance
Human Health, Equity and Peace
IPBES (2019). Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. S. Díaz, J. Settele, E. Brondízio et al. Bonn, Germany, IPBES Secretariat.
According to the IPBES GA SPM: “A fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”
Resources for Transformative Change
IPBES Global Assessment Report
A critical assessment of the status and trends of the natural world, their social implications, causes, and the actions required to ensure a better future for all.
UNEP Making Peace with Nature
A scientific blueprint for how climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution can be tackled jointly within the Sustainable Development Goals.
Lever and Leverage Points for Pathways to Sustainability
A research article that builds upon the Global Assessment with the aim of sparking transformative change.
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