Where do we go from here? A blog post on crisis and leverage

This post is written by Julia Leventon, Ioana Duse, Felix Beyers, Tamara Schaal and Josefine Laudan. They work together as a research group at Leuphana University, headed by Julia. The projects they work on are primarily focused on systems change for sustainability, within the food and textiles systems. Julia is currently in the Czech Republic with her family (and therefore in week 2 of lock-down), the others are at home in Germany.

On day 5 of quarantine, I (Julia) walked to the top of the hill at the back of my house. I sat for a bit and listened to the bird song. And for the first time in days, I felt like there might be some hope. I am scared right now, for my family and friends, for my colleagues, and for people I have never met; for humanity. Covid-19 is challenging and removing the structures that we live our lives around. We don’t feel safe, and the systems we trusted to look after us are failing. But like many working in sustainability, I haven’t felt safe for a long time. There are injustices everywhere I look, and climate change related deaths are rocketing, hidden, but on an unimaginable scale.

So why do I have hope?

I have hope because once we have survived the coming months, we need to rebuild. This storm will pass and the choices we make now could change our lives forever. We don’t have to rebuild our systems to the way they were before. We have a chance to do things differently, and to align the world with the values that we are now seeing emerge. Those of altruism, collective action, community. Shown in instances of community organizing to deliver groceries to vulnerable people; or opening cultural and intellectual resources; or connecting with our neighbours in a shared goal; and recognizing the value of the workers who really keep the food on our tables, and help us fight disease.

These are values that have been hidden, buried or squashed by the world’s power structures – pushing us into profiteering for the individual as our end goal, and ignoring the common good. This goal is institutionalized within our current food system, driving down prices to consumers and the price paid to producers, and forcing the industrialization of our farming landscapes, with negative consequences to livelihoods, cultural heritage, and biodiversity. It is institutionalized in our textile industry, driving down prices to consumers and the price paid to workers, creating chemical pollution and unsafe working environments for poverty wages. In pursuing profit (for the few) as our end goal in such systems, we are destroying our world, and the people within it.

In our work, we are interested in processes of transformation – how we create more sustainable food and textile systems. We have been working with Donella Meadows’ framework of Leverage Points to intervene in a system in order to create fundamental change. In our case, we are looking at how we can intervene to create more sustainable systems. The basic framework is that we can engage with shallow leverage points, such as materials and resources within the system. While easy things to change (e.g. adjust subsidies to farmers), they don’t do much to change the sustainability of the system (as evidenced by the failure of CAP to really protect Europe’s biodiversity in agricultural landscapes). Alternatively, we can engage with deeper leverage points, such as goals and system intent. These are much harder to change, but will bring about more fundamental transformation, and will necessarily cause changes at all of the shallower leverage points too.


The Leverage Points framework (graphic by Dave Abson). More information on how we engage with the framework in research is here.

From our perspectives as sustainability governance researchers, these deep leverage points are hard to engage with because of path dependencies in the system. The structure reinforces the goals and values that are incorporated within it; it’s hard to change the individual goals while they have to work within a particular system, and even if you do, there is little they can do to act on it. This is the fundamental problem of e.g. asking individuals to act sustainably. We can all want to do the sustainable thing, but we also all have to survive within the economic and political world that we live in. We know that there are many agricultural producers who want to produce food in sustainable ways, and would like to sustain cultural practices that are good for biodiversity, but can’t because it will force them out of business (forthcoming in Tamara Schaal’s PhD publications). Similarly, we know that changing the structures of the system without changing the values and goals of people within it will likely lead to a rejection of those structures, and some failed initiatives. For example, my own PhD research (and other pieces of research from other scholars, for example here and here) showed that downloading of the pre-existing EU governance system into the newer member states was problematic, and lead to instances of failed policy implementation, because the people and organisations that were supposed to be implementing it rejected the goals, norms and assumptions that it incorporated.

But we have also been working on identifying those moments at which we have an opportunity to adjust the goals of the system. We were inspired by Baumgartner and Jones’ punctuated equilibrium theory, which shows that policy systems remain in equilibrium, without fundamental change, until there is a big shock in the system. A punctuation to the equilibrium. They use examples of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and its impact on nuclear policy in the US. It has since been applied to how Fukishima created a punctuation in Germany’s nuclear policy. Recently, we have been looking at how similar punctuations occur in a policy-change process in the Romanian food system; we have noticed how events and interruptions in the negotiation process have created windows of opportunity for actors to influence the goals that are being incorporated into the policy (Forthcoming in Ioana Duse’s PhD publications).

Covid-19 is a punctuation in our equilibrium, a ‘breakout’ from our established routines There are many calls to start the conversation about shifting our food systems (e.g. here and here). In particular, there are calls to reflect on what we have learned about our food system as the inequities and vulnerabilities that are built within it become so visible in our empty supermarket shelves, and unavailable home-delivery slots for vulnerable people.

Our contribution to this debate is to say that we should take this challenging punctuation point, and use it to engage with the deepest of Leverage Points. This is not to say we welcome this opportunity; indeed proponents of degrowth argue for equitable transformations, that provide wellbeing and satisfy needs (which is very much NOT the situation we are currently experiencing). However, once this “window is closed” the chance to take the opportunity is no longer possible. Therefore, once the dust settles, we should be looking to rebuild our systems towards different goals. Goals that more closely align with the values we now see coming to the fore. It remains to be seen if we build on this opportunity and adopt the path of altruism, collective action and community or we choose to treat everything under politics-as-usual and prolong the crises, which will probably result in even more catastrophic outcomes and a failed system transformation. Unfortunately, there is precendent for doing the latter – carbon emissions rose sharply after the 2008 financial crisis, where we responded with fiscal stimuli to return to business as usual. With this crisis, we need to choose a different path.

So how do we choose a different path?

This is the critical question. As sustainability scientists, this is where we have a role to play. We can draw on what we know about transformation and change, and start to put the pieces of our knowledge together. At the same time, we need to be careful not to over-stretch what we know, and not to leap in, treating COVID-19 as the latest buzzword in our academic publishing game (I’m looking at you publishers and the explosion of special issues). Therefore, we close by asking the question – what can we learn from other punctuations to change the trajectory we are on? What do we know from systems change to inform how we pick ourselves up from here? Perhaps future blog posts follow…

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