Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Leverage points for sustainability transformation

Abstract

Despite substantial focus on sustainability issues in both science and politics, humanity remains on largely unsustainable development trajectories. Partly, this is due to the failure of sustainability science to engage with the root causes of unsustainability. Drawing on ideas by Donella Meadows, we argue that many sustainability interventions target highly tangible, but essentially weak, leverage points (i.e. using interventions that are easy, but have limited potential for transformational change). Thus, there is an urgent need to focus on less obvious but potentially far more powerful areas of intervention. We propose a research agenda inspired by systems thinking that focuses on transformational ‘sustainability interventions’, centred on three realms of leverage: reconnecting people to nature, restructuring institutions and rethinking how knowledge is created and used in pursuit of sustainability. The notion of leverage points has the potential to act as a boundary object for genuinely transformational sustainability science.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

References

  1. Andersson, E., S. Barthel, S. Borgström, J. Colding, T. Elmqvist, C. Folke, and Å. Gren. 2014. Reconnecting cities to the biosphere: stewardship of green infrastructure and urban ecosystem services. Ambio 43: 445–453. doi:10.1007/s13280-014-0506-y.

  2. Ansell, C., and A. Gash. 2008. Collaborative governance in theory and practice. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 18: 543–571.

  3. Armitage, D., M. Marschke, and R. Plummer. 2008. Adaptive co-management and the paradox of learning. Global Environmental Change 18: 86–98.

  4. Arthur, W.B. 1994. Increasing returns and path dependence in the economy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

  5. Banson, K.E., N.C. Nguyen, O.J. Bosch, and T.V. Nguyen. 2015. A systems thinking approach to address the complexity of agribusiness for sustainable development in Africa: A case study in Ghana. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 32: 672–688.

  6. Bauer, M.W., and C. Knill. 2014. A conceptual framework for the comparative analysis of policy change: Measurement, explanation and strategies of policy dismantling. Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice 16: 28–44.

  7. Berkes, F. 2009. Evolution of co-management: Role of knowledge generation, bridging organizations and social learning. Journal of Environmental Management 90: 1692–1702.

  8. Berkes, F., J. Colding, and C. Folke. 2002. Navigating social-ecological systems: Building resilience for complexity and change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  9. Câmpeanu, C.N., and I. Fazey. 2014. Adaptation and pathways of change and response: A case study from Eastern Europe. Global Environmental Change 28: 351–367.

  10. Carey, G., and B. Crammond. 2015. Systems change for the social determinants of health. BMC Public Health 15: 1.

  11. Eburn, M., and S. Dovers. 2015. Learning lessons from disasters: Alternatives to royal commissions and other quasi-judicial inquiries. Australian Journal of Public Administration 74: 495–508.

  12. Ehrenfeld, J.R. 2004. Searching for sustainability: No quick fix. Reflections 5: 1–13.

  13. Fischer, J., T.A. Gardner, E.M. Bennett, P. Balvanera, R. Biggs, S. Carpenter, T. Daw, C. Folke, R. Hill, and T.P. Hughes. 2015. Advancing sustainability through mainstreaming a social–ecological systems perspective. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 14: 144–149.

  14. Fischer, J., T. Hartel, and T. Kuemmerle. 2012. Conservation policy in traditional farming landscapes. Conservation Letters 5: 167–175.

  15. Fischer, J., A.D. Manning, W. Steffen, D.B. Rose, K. Daniell, A. Felton, S. Garnett, B. Gilna, R. Heinsohn, and D.B. Lindenmayer. 2007. Mind the sustainability gap. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 22: 621–624.

  16. Foley, J.A., N. Ramankutty, K.A. Brauman, E.S. Cassidy, J.S. Gerber, M. Johnston, N.D. Mueller, C. O’Connell, D.K. Ray, P.C. West, C. Balzer, E.M. Bennett, S.R. Carpenter, J. Hill, C. Monfreda, S. Polasky, J. Rockstrom, J. Sheehan, S. Siebert, D. Tilman, and D.P.M. Zaks. 2011. Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature 478: 337–342.

  17. Folke, C., S.R. Carpenter, B. Walker, M. Scheffer, T. Chapin, and J. Rockström. 2010. Resilience thinking: integrating resilience, adaptability and transformability. Ecology and Society 15: 20.

  18. Geels, F.W. 2011. The multi-level perspective on sustainability transitions: Responses to seven criticisms. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 1: 24–40.

  19. Gergen, K.J. 2012. Toward transformation in social knowledge. Berlin: Springer.

  20. Gunderson, L.H., and C.S. Holling (eds.). 2002. Panarchy: Understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Washington, DC: Island Press.

  21. Hatfield-Dodds, S., H. Schandl, P.D. Adams, T.M. Baynes, T.S. Brinsmead, B.A. Bryan, F.H.S. Chiew, P.W. Graham, Nature Publishing Group, et al. 2015. Australia is “free to choose” economic growth and falling environmental pressures. Nature 527: 49–53. doi:10.1038/nature16065.

  22. Hill, R., G. Dyer, L.-M. Lozada-Ellison, A. Gimona, J. Martin-Ortega, J. Munoz-Rojas, and I. Gordon. 2015. A social–ecological systems analysis of impediments to delivery of the Aichi 2020 Targets and potentially more effective pathways to the conservation of biodiversity. Global Environmental Change 34: 22–34.

  23. Ison, R. 2008. Systems thinking and practice for action research. In The sage handbook of action research participative inquiry and practice, 2nd ed, ed. P.W. Reason, and H. Bradbury, 139–158. London: Sage Publications.

  24. Ison, R. 2010. Systems practice: How to act in a climate change world. Berlin: Springer.

  25. Ison, R. 2012. A cybersystemic framework for practical action. In Enough for all forever. A handbook for learning about sustainability, ed. J. Murray, G. Cawthorne, C. Dey, and C. Andrew. Champaign, Illinois: Common Ground Publishing.

  26. Kaiser, F.G., K. Byrka, and T. Hartig. 2010. Reviving Campbell’s paradigm for attitude research. Personality and Social Psychology Review 14: 351–367.

  27. Kates, R.W., W.C. Clark, R. Corell, J.M. Hall, C.C. Jaeger, I. Lowe, J.J. Mccarthy, H.J. Schellnhuber, B. Bolin, and N.M. Dickson. 2001. Sustainability science. Laxenburg: International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

  28. Keniger, L.E., K.J. Gaston, K.N. Irvine, and R.A. Fuller. 2013. What are the benefits of interacting with nature? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 10: 913–935.

  29. Kickert, W.J.M., E.-H. Klijn, and J.F.M. Koppenjan (eds.). 1999. Managing complex networks, strategies for the public sector. London: Thousand Oaks.

  30. Kiser, L., and E. Ostrom. 1982. The three worlds of action—a meta-theoretical synthesis of institutional approaches. In Strategies of political inquiry, ed. E. Ostrom. Beverly Hills: Sage.

  31. Lang, D.J., A. Wiek, M. Bergmann, M. Stauffacher, P. Martens, P. Moll, M. Swilling, and C.J. Thomas. 2012. Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: Practice, principles, and challenges. Sustainability Science 7: 25–43.

  32. Liu, J., H. Mooney, V. Hull, S.J. Davis, J. Gaskell, T. Hertel, J. Lubchenco, K.C. Seto, P. Gleick, and C. Kremen. 2015. Systems integration for global sustainability. Science 347: 1258832.

  33. Loos, J., D.J. Abson, M.J. Chappell, J. Hanspach, F. Mikulcak, M. Tichit, and J. Fischer. 2014. Putting meaning back into “sustainable intensification”. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12: 356–361.

  34. Meadows, D. 1999. Leverage points: Places to intervene in a system. Hartland: The Sustainability Institute.

  35. Miller, J.R. 2005. Biodiversity conservation and the extinction of experience. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 20: 430–434.

  36. Miller, T.R., A. Wiek, D. Sarewitz, J. Robinson, L. Olsson, D. Kriebel, and D. Loorbach. 2014. The future of sustainability science: A solutions-oriented research agenda. Sustainability Science 9: 239–246.

  37. Newell, B. 2012. Simple models, powerful ideas: Towards effective integrative practice. Global Environmental Change 22: 776–783.

  38. Newig, J. 2013. Produktive Funktionen von Kollaps und Zerstörung für gesellschaftliche Transformationsprozesse in Richtung Nachhaltigkeit. In Soziale Innovation und Nachhaltigkeit, ed. J. Rückert-John, 133–149. Wiesbaden: Springer.

  39. Newig, J., E. Kochskämper, E. Challies, and N.W. Jager. 2016. Exploring governance learning: How policymakers draw on evidence, experience and intuition in designing participatory flood risk planning. Environmental Science & Policy 55: 353–360.

  40. Nisbet, E.K., J.M. Zelenski, and S.A. Murphy. 2009. The nature relatedness scale: Linking individuals’ connection with nature to environmental concern and behavior. Environment and Behavior 41: 715–740.

  41. Ostrom, E. 2009. A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems. Science 325: 1931.

  42. Pahl-Wostl, C. 2007. Transitions towards adaptive management of water facing climate and global change. Water Resources Management 21: 49–62.

  43. Phelps, J., L.R. Carrasco, E.L. Webb, L.P. Koh, and U. Pascual. 2013. Agricultural intensification escalates future conservation costs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110: 7601–7606.

  44. Piattoni, S. 2010. The theory of multi-level governance: Conceptual, empirical, and normative challenges. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  45. Prell, C., K. Hubacek, M. Reed, C. Quinn, N. Jin, J. Holden, T. Burt, M. Kirby, and J. Sendzimir. 2007. If you have a hammer everything looks like a nail: Traditional versus participatory model building. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 32: 263–282.

  46. Raymond, C.M., G.G. Singh, K. Benessaiah, J.R. Bernhardt, J. Levine, H. Nelson, N.J. Turner, B. Norton, J. Tam, and K.M. Chan. 2013. Ecosystem services and beyond: Using multiple metaphors to understand human–environment relationships. BioScience 63: 536–546.

  47. Restall, B., and E. Conrad. 2015. A literature review of connectedness to nature and its potential for environmental management. Journal of Environmental Management 159: 264–278.

  48. Scholz, R.W. 2011. Environmental literacy in science and society. New york: Cambridge University Press.

  49. Schultz, P.W., V.V. Gouveia, L.D. Cameron, G. Tankha, P. Schmuck, and M. Franěk. 2005. Values and their relationship to environmental concern and conservation behavior. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 36: 457–475.

  50. Schumpeter, J. 1950. Capitalism, socialism and democracy. New York: Harper and Row.

  51. Spangenberg, J.H. 2011. Sustainability science: A review, an analysis and some empirical lessons. Environmental Conservation 38: 275–287.

  52. Steffen, W., K. Richardson, J. Rockström, S.E. Cornell, I. Fetzer, E.M. Bennett, R. Biggs, S.R. Carpenter, W. De Vries, C.A. De Wit, C. Folke, D. Gerten, J. Heinke, G.M. Mace, L.M. Persson, V. Ramanathan, B. Reyers, and S. Sörlin. 2015. Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347: 1259855.

  53. Thelen, K. 2009. Institutional change in advanced political economies. British Journal of Industrial Relations 47: 471–498.

  54. Wells, N.M., and K.S. Lekies. 2006. Nature and the life course: Pathways from childhood nature experiences to adult environmentalism. Children Youth and Environments 16: 1–25.

  55. Wiedmann, T.O., H. Schandl, M. Lenzen, D. Moran, S. Suh, J. West, and K. Kanemoto. 2015. The material footprint of nations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112: 6271–6276. doi:10.1073/pnas.1220362110.

  56. Wiek, A., and D.J. Lang. 2016. Transformational sustainability research methodology. In Sustainability science: An introduction, ed. H. Heinrichs, P. Martens, G. Michelsen, and A. Wiek, 31–41. Dordrecht: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-94-017-7242-6_3.

Download references

Acknowledgments

We thank two anonymous reviewers for their critical and insightful comments which helped substantially improve the manuscript. This research is supported by a Volkswagenstiftung and the Niedersächsisches Ministerium für Wissenschaft und Kultur (Grant Number A112269).

Author information

Correspondence to David J. Abson.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Abson, D.J., Fischer, J., Leventon, J. et al. Leverage points for sustainability transformation. Ambio 46, 30–39 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-016-0800-y

Download citation

Keywords

  • Human–environment systems
  • Institutional change
  • Knowledge creation and use
  • Social–ecological systems
  • Sustainability science
  • Transdisciplinarity