Resilience 2017: Rising interest for a leverage points narrative?

By Maraja Riechers

At a big conference like Resilience 2017 in Stockholm last month, there are bound to be many emerging topics and interesting links to one’s own work. However, I was positively surprised by the generally warm response to our Leverage Points for Sustainability project. My colleagues and I left the conference with the feeling that the concept of leverage points is likely to become more important over the next couple of years. From dinner table talks to explicit Leverage Point-themed sessions such as: Pathways and leverage points for transformative change chaired by Ryan Plummer, Donella Meadows’ concept of leverage points seemed to generate deep interest and genuine fascination. Those discussions showed me that diverse research on leverage points is already underway, with varying focus. The themes of finding leverage points for transformational change covered biodiversity, the Water-Energy-Food-Nexus, food systems and many more. Discussions ranged from personal inner transformation, to landscape level, to national and global levers of change. Many of these topics are also touched on within our own leverage points project, giving us interesting new insights and possibilities for sharing knowledge.

Our project focusses on changes in relatively intractable, but potentially highly influential, system properties that could help to realign complex social-ecological systems to the normative goals of sustainability. Specifically, we analyze three sustainability-relevant leverage points: Re-Structure, Re-connect and Re-think. Maybe it was just me seeing it all fall into place – but the discussions arising at the Resilience conference for me had a strong connection to our project structure. Re-Structure for example includes research on institutional failures and how these can be opportunities to lever positive change or on the Water-Energy-Food Nexus. Re-think is focusing on paradigm shifts, knowledge and knowledge production, as Rebecca Freeth showed us in her recent blog post. This, in turn, was also the topic in a session run by Cristina Apetrei et al. at Resilience 2017: Tackling Framing Effects of Dominant Knowledge Systems in Transformations. In Re-connect I build on work by my colleagues Christoper Ives et al. (2017 & in rev.) to examine five dimensions of nature connectedness: material, experiential, cognitive, emotional and philosophical dimensions. We aim to uncover their influences on each other, as well as influences of landscapes and landscape changes using qualitative, quantitative and transdisciplinary methods in Germany (Lower Saxony) and Romania (Transylvania). Through comparisons between the different countries, their landscapes and their respective landscape changes we hope to unravel leverage points for sustainability transformation.

All of these issues were also addressed at the Resilience conference in one way or another. And for me, being used to thinking in these three leverage points, this threefold conceptual structure seemed to also run through the conference, albeit invisibly at times. What might be missing to date is a clear narrative that places deep leverage points for sustainability transformation at the center of attention. But with all this emerging interest in leverage points, it seems that now is a good time to highlight the notion of deep leverage points in discussions about how to bring about sustainability and transformative change.