Transformation for sustainability: a deep leverage points approach

Abstract

Change and transformation of human systems are increasingly seen as the fundamental solution space for treating the root causes of unsustainability. What does transformation of human systems for sustainability exactly mean and entail, and how to effectively transform human systems? This paper addresses these essential questions in a holistic, systems thinking approach following and extending the leverage points tool for systemic change proposed by Meadows (Thinking in Systems: a primer. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, 2008). The paper focuses on the often unquestioned, largely unconscious, systemic realm of mental models and human intent. It targets Meadows’ deepest leverage points of purpose and paradigm; beyond, it deals with worldview, core metaphor, and human thinking. The fundamental outcome of this conceptual study is that unsustainability roots in a cognitive illusion coupled to a lack of teleological thinking. Transformation needs us to see and reconceive the human–world bond through the systemic lens of dynamic inclusion, aliveness, purpose and value. Learning to think in terms of living systems, physical and mental, and substituting the iceberg metaphor-in-use in conventional systems thinking with a holistic metaphor of nested leverage points are the first transformation steps toward a new sustainability paradigm. Practical evidence and ecological content come from the transformative design discipline of biomimicry, which consciously turns to nature as the source of its conceptual system. The paper concludes that transformative practice for sustainability will gain momentum by braiding together systems thinking in practice and biomimicry thinking. In sum, this transdisciplinary approach opens up exciting research horizons in ontological, epistemological, methodological and teleological directions.

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adapted from Capra (1983)

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Acknowledgements

I thank Julia Leventon and David Abson for supporting me as editors of the Special Issue on Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformations as well as two anonymous reviewers for their critical and constructive comments which helped substantially improve the manuscript. Many thanks to Frederiek van Lienen for discussing and commenting on the article, to Luisa Burgers for carefully reading the manuscript, and to Paula Davelaar Burgers for her helpful suggestions and professional assistance in drawing the figures which are an essential part of the article. This work was not funded.

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Correspondence to Danielle Davelaar.

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Handled by Julia Leventon, Leuphana University, Faculty of Sustainability, Germany.

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Davelaar, D. Transformation for sustainability: a deep leverage points approach. Sustain Sci (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-020-00872-0

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Keywords

  • Biomimicry
  • Holistic systems thinking
  • Leverage points
  • Metaphor
  • Nested hierarchies
  • Sustainability paradigm