The Highs and Lows of Leveraging Change – Part 3

Starting at the personal level and ‘Just bloody well do it!’

From 6th to 8th February 2019, 500 people gathered together at Leuphana Universität, Lüneburg, Germany, for the Leverage Points conference.  The conference was focused on sustainability science and framed around the Donella Meadows concept of Leveraging Points.  The conference aimed to inspire us to identifying the critical leverage points at which we need to put our efforts to trigger and catalyse the change needed to deliver a sustainable future.

Taking a vibrant, creative and dynamic format, the conference was a really exciting and stimulating experience and one that had quite a significant impact on me in a number of ways, both positive and negatively.  The third of three blog posts presenting a set of reflections from the conference, this post describes some of the inspiration I drew from the conference.

The conference had a very significant impact on me, but not in the way that I expected it to.  I had expected that I would gain lots of new ideas and theories and references to follow-up with regards my academic work.  But actually the impact of the conference resonated at a much more personal level and really created quite a shift in the way I think about the endeavour to deliver a sustainable future.  These new and very personal insights were triggered right at the beginning of the conference in the first keynote speeches.

I’m not going to share the whole of the inside of my brain in terms of how I now feel about sustainable futures.  But I will share two pointers that appeared as particularly important to me in terms of how we deliver action for a sustainable world.

The personal sphere as the first frontier.

One of the criticisms that arose in the conference from some of the delegates was a sense of a lack of actual actionable outputs from the vast amount of knowledge and work that academia had been producing over the last couple of decades.  There was a sense for many people in the room that actually a lot of the solutions are already known and yet they are not being delivered.  And as I looked around the room of 500 delegates I started to reflect on this at a more personal level.  The criticism regarding society’s inability to simply deliver the solutions we already had, could also be transferred onto our failure at the individual level too.  To what extent were we as a group of 500 sustainability professionals, academics and activists actually adopting all the personal and individual behaviours that we know/feel need to be adopted to deliver a sustainable future?  How much were we as a community, living the reality of our dreams of a sustainable future today?  There are so many things we can do right now.  Simple little things that nudge society towards a sustainable future, even in the current structure of the systems.  Were we as part of that sustainable movement really committed and embracing those things where they were possible for us?  Re-usable coffee cup, water bottles, bicycles and public transport not cars, environmentally friendly cleaning products, low meat and dairy consumption, reducing food waster, reducing plastic packaging.  To what extent were we adopting these types of practices? And could we do more?

These are all relatively simple and tangible things that are possible within the current system that we live.  But what about some of the more radical things we believe to be solutions for a sustainable future?  Things that are more about the way our culture operates in our vision of a sustainable future.  To what extent were we committed and able to seize those to make a sustainable future part of the reality of today? Things like reducing the length of our working day or working week so that we have more time for self-care, our families, sustainable living practices and our communities.  Things like adopting ‘Slow food’ practices so that we spend more time enjoying, savouring and nurturing one of the most essential parts of daily lives.  Things like spending some time with an elderly neighbour, or a neighbour who lives alone.  Things like making self-care the priority above and beyond our work.

Now of course, not everyone will agree with me that the above behaviour and culture changes are helpful, useful, or even possible, whether individually or more broadly across society.  And I by no means am suggesting here that any of the delegates of the conference that do not adopt, or even aspire to adopt, any of the above are bad people.  I believe that our personal lives are private and it’s only for us to decide, as individuals, the way in which we live our lives.  But equally on that merit I would also suggest that it is only ourselves who are responsible for delivering and living the life we believe in.  And that we should challenge and push ourselves to deliver on that dream.  We should ask ourselves whether we are making excuses and we should be more creative and braver about making those dreams a reality.

And that leads me on to my final point of reflection from the ‘Leverage Points’ conference.

‘Just bloody well do it.’

Where we know there are things we can do.  Where we find creative ways to deliver the future we believe in.  Where we see opportunities for change.  Don’t let fear, doubt, excuses or a not fully formulated plan get in the way.  “Just bloody well do it.”  Do it out of a place of inspiration, happiness and magic.  And do it in a way that is compassionate to yourself.

 

And to finish, some inspiration from one of the grassroots movements that is putting sustainable futures into practice today.

The Power of Just Doing Stuff – Rob Hopkins.

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The Highs and Lows of Leveraging Change – Part 2

The paradox of slow urgency.  And generating creativity and magic.  

From 6th to 8th February 2019, 500 people gathered together at Leuphana Universität, Lüneburg, Germany, for the Leverage Points conference.  The conference was focused on sustainability science and framed around the Donella Meadows concept of Leveraging Points.  The conference aimed to inspire us to identifying the critical leverage points at which we need to put our efforts to trigger and catalyse the change needed to deliver a sustainable future.

Taking a vibrant, creative and dynamic format the conference was a really exciting and stimulating experience and one that had quite a significant impact on me in a number of ways, both positive and negatively.  The second of three blog posts this contribution presents a set of reflections about the key challenges and weaknesses of this sustainability science movement, as revealed to me through my engagement in the conference, as well as some of the exciting opportunities and inspirations that I drew from it.

 

The paradox of approaching Urgency Slowly.

One of the important ideas that arose in the conference was that the types of processes that we believe will create action and change for a sustainable future, actually need to be given lots of time and need to be carried out really slowly.  They often require a larger commitment than can be offered by a typical funding bid and in many cases can actually take decades and generations to provide results because they are embedded in complex social processes and conflicts.  This need to work at a slower pace than we are currently used to, is actually felt much more broadly in society as is evidenced by a growing interest in the “Slow” movement, which advocates for taking more time over the the things we engage with, so that we can experience them more fully and implement them with more quality.  Slow food is probably the most famous example from this philosophy.  More and more people are looking to shift away from the fast-paced, competitive, quantity over quality approach to life that pervades western society and for which much of our environmental and social degradation can be attributed to.

But unfortunately this need and desire to take things more slowly is in tension with the stark urgency that global challenges, such as Climate Change, present us with.  With global temperatures rising and more and more frequent signs of the consequences of climate change, we need to be delivering action and change now. We (those of us who are concerned and empowered) rush to find the answers and solutions and we rush to engage and bring more people into the movement for change, and our minds rush around the fear and frustration that we still haven’t made the changes we need to make and we are/have run out of time.

I would like to argue here, however, that maybe Slow Urgency, or delivering Urgency Slowly, is the perfect paradox.  Whilst it seems contradictory, it may be that by approaching the urgency of the situation more slowly, more carefully and more conscientiously, we may be more likely to have success.  That, in the way that we rush into things and try to do things quickly and with mass engagement and maximised impact, (a mindset of the industrialised, capitalist culture that contributed to the issues we are trying to resolve) we actually don’t deliver the necessary outcomes and the change that we need.  But by giving ourselves more time, more freedom, less obsession with scale and more careful and responsive practices, it may be that we could actually deliver the change we need.  To repair and resolve the global problems that we have created, we need to use a different approach and culture than the one that delivered us to these problems in the first place.  That’s not to say that we spend the next 100 years working out what to do, it’s imperative that we start now and that we start with action.  But we need to give ourselves more time and space to make that action possible.

Let’s never forget the fable of the “Tortoise and the Hare”.  I’d suggest it’s more relevant now than ever before.

 

Seizing creativity and magic.

Creativity and magic were too central themes present in the Leverage Points conference.  Firstly in the way that the conference was designed and facilitated.  The space was built as a creative and beautiful space to inspire and relax.  Many different methods for encouraging dialogue, discussion and communication were provided including a ‘Transformation Timeline’, ‘Conversation Corners’ and ‘Knowledge Harvesting Wall’ at which a group of graphic harvesters created beautiful and creative representations of the conversations and discussions that had been taking place throughout the programme.  In addition to this music, theatre and dancing were included as tools not just for inspiration and vitality, but also as different forms of expression and exploration of ideas and concept.  These spaces and tools inspired me personally to think about, organise, and approach my work in a more multi-faceted and creative way, thinking outside of the box of traditional modes of academic research and publication process.  In fact it went as far as to renew my commitment to ensure that my PhD research produces something more tangible and engaging to share with the participatory research community, than just peer-reviewed publications.  What was particularly nice about all of this was that the atmosphere of the conference was very different to any I’ve been to before.  It felt less academic, less formal and less corporate, and more community-building, more friendly, more supportive.  It felt different.

But what really brought this idea of creativity and magic to the conference was the keynote speech by Prof. Ioan Fazey on the morning of the first day of the conference.  Ioan encouraged us to reflect on Johannes Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ in which a sorcerer leaves his apprentice to tidy up the castle.  In order to save time the apprentice tries using some of the sorcerer’s magic to do the job for him.  The apprentice successfully gets the spells working only to find they become out of control and he doesn’t have the wisdom to stop them.  The poem was epitomized by Disney’s film Fantasia, where Mickey Mouse features as the apprentice.  Ioan likened our present day situation to that in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, where we’ve been trying out all the different spells that we’ve learnt, but they are out of control and we don’t know how to bring them back to order.  Ioan expressed that we have the knowledge and theory for what needs to change to deliver a sustainable world, but we don’t have the wisdom and the understanding of ‘how to’ make these changes.  This wisdom and ‘how to’ knowledge, Ioan argued, doesn’t come from a place of academic knowledge and theory-making but from a place of practice, experience and creativity.  He encouraged us to unleash our creativity and ask the really difficult questions, critiquing the approaches we’ve taken so far, and being prepared to try out and experiment with doing things completely different, and in doing so, we might just release some magic.

 

The above reflections are just a brain dump of my reflection after participating in the Leverage Points conference.  The comments are not water tight arguments and reflect a lot of personal experience I had at the conference.  They are therefore open to debate and I welcome further challenges and critique in the comments below.

The Highs and Lows of Leveraging Change – Part 1

“Where’s the action?” and “Getting to know your ‘tribe.’” 

From 6th to 8th February 2019, 500 people gathered together at Leuphana Universität, Lüneburg, Germany, for the Leverage Points conference.  The conference was focused on sustainability science and framed around the Donella Meadows concept of Leverage Points.  The conference aimed to inspire us to identifying the critical leverage points at which we need to put our efforts to trigger and catalyse the change needed to deliver a sustainable future.

Taking a vibrant, creative and dynamic format the conference was a really exciting and stimulating experience and one that had quite a significant impact on me in a number of ways, both positive and negatively.  This blog posts presents a set of reflections about the key challenges and weaknesses of this sustainability science movement, as revealed to me through my engagement in the conference, as well as some of the exciting opportunities and inspirations that I drew from it.

 

Theory. Theory. Theory.  Where’s the action?

The conference gave a lot of opportunities to meet different people and discuss and reflect collectively, and one thing that struck me after day one, was some of the feelings of frustration expressed by the younger students of the conference.  To paraphrase – ‘This is just a whole bunch of people that know each other, and have been having the same conversation for years, and it’s all theory, there’s no action here, no-one is actually creating any action or change.’  This really struck me at the time, because I’d had a really great day, including a number of personal revelations, and a feeling that it was great to find a whole community of professionals who were working in the same area and tackling the same problems as me.  But their comments reminded me of how I felt engaging with the ecosystem services community when I was an undergraduate; exacerbated at the lack of solutions, hearing the same conversations and debates every time, with a seeming lack of progress for moving beyond those, and no sign of action!  And suddenly I was stood in the shoes of the undergraduate again, passionate, driven, enthusiastic and empowered to make change and create a positive future, and wondering why decades of sustainability research hadn’t helped us make significant paradigm shifts in society yet.  Why were we still discussing the same issues, and splitting the same hairs and still theorising every little minutiae of the subject?  Why weren’t we all taking action and creating change? Why wasn’t there more ‘how to’ knowledge represented? And how had I become one of the academics obsessed with theorising to try to find an ultimate solution?

I’ve been running this through the back of my mind for the last week and a number of thoughts have emerged.  Firstly research is a predominantly a place for knowledge creation, not action.  Research at it’s most fundamental is intended to create new understanding and not to create change.  We need to recognise and honour the role that research plays in society.  That being said as researchers we want to have impact and we should be stepping back more regularly to gain a greater perspective of our work in the context of these global challenges, to critically ask ourselves whether our work is really delivering the impact we want and intend it to have.  We need to ask ourselves “Is my work delivering action and change?”

Secondly, building on from that point, we need to also ask ourselves “Should my work be delivering action and change?”  Ioan Fazey made a really important point in his keynote speech on day 1 describing how people often talk about the knowledge: action gap, and criticise and push the sciences to work harder to reduce this gap, but actually this is misdirected thinking, because action itself needs a different type of knowledge, not produced in the sciences, a more experiential, practical and intuitive knowledge that comes from a place of practice not research.  We need to consider whether research really has a place in delivering action, and if it does whether there is a limit to the amount and types of action that research can deliver.  Where there are limits we need to acknowledge and accept them and not try to make research deliver things that a very different type of practice is better able to deliver.  Many of us at the conference were talking about research processes that are intended and designed to create action, but equally we need to continue to take a critical view regarding the extent to which we are actually managing to achieve this and where.

Thirdly, it is important for me to mention that I am not suggesting that research has no role to play in supporting practice, of course there are many examples where it does, particularly in feeding into the theories that practitioners can use in their work.  But there was a general sense at the conference that practitioners weren’t widely represented.  We need to support and encourage practitioners to attend these conferences so that we can create opportunities for mutual learning, creating a more reflexive culture of learning and action.  Isabel Carlisle, an activist from the UK, read a letter to the conference on 8th February imploring researchers to take their knowledge into the place of practice (see blog post of letter here).  To bring their knowledge to the activists and the practitioners so that it can be used and implemented and benefited from.  Isabel also challenged comments that we should invite practitioners and grassroots movements to the conference, by explaining that they can’t attend conferences because they are working.  Let’s hold conferences at time, locations and prices that make them accessible to a broader range of people.

 

‘You feel like you’ve found your tribe!’

One of the interesting things that emerged over the three days was the realisation that whilst there was a sort of sense within the room that we were all one community, on the same page, heading in the same direction, with the same politics and the same professions, this wasn’t actually the case.  This poses three important problems.

Firstly, by generally assuming we were all ‘of the same tribe’ and a generally homogeneous group, a number of delegates who didn’t identify with ‘the tribe’ felt excluded, isolated, and like they weren’t able to honestly express their opinions. For some delegates the extent to which they didn’t feel a part of ‘the tribe’ meant they actually felt like ‘the tribe’ were ‘out of touch with reality’ and in a ‘crazy bubble’.  Part of the irony of some of this is that a strong theme in discussions throughout the conference was that differing opinions and perspectives and conflict actually are fertile places for creativity and innovation.

Secondly, the culture of ‘the tribe’ appeared to be strongly “Left wing”.  It was a culture that speaks in terms of ‘ethics of care’, ‘love and compassion’ and one that directly and explicitly challenges discourses of militarisation, mechanisation and concepts of oppression.  This particular strain of politics and ethics means that it would discourage a wider group of people, with different perspectives from engaging and participating it the movement towards sustainability that we are trying to create.  I certainly felt that the conversations we were having were heavily politicised in a particular frame of what’s right and what’s wrong.  Now some people may argue that we don’t want to engage with people who do support ideas of militarisation, competition and capitalist progress, because these ideas are damaging and wrong (not my point of view, but the view of some).  But to deliver a sustainable future we need to have everyone involved and so engaging with the whole patchwork of politics, values, views and opinions is essential for uniting to create the change that’s needed.

What is particularly ironic about the two points that I have just made is that much of the discussions we were having during the conference were about being able and willing to bring a much wider and greater range of perspectives into the conversation.  But by assuming we were all cut from the same cloth and by being so strongly politicised in our comments and the way we spoke to one another, we actually isolated those within the delegates who did not identify themselves with the mass.  And we certainly make it hard for other people to come and get involved and join the conversation.  We need to be much more careful about the types of language we use and the way we present ourselves when discussing our work and engaging with other groups of people, if we do indeed want to draw together a broader and more diverse network of people.

A final point on the matter of being ‘part of a tribe’.  Kathryn Andrews made the point that we need as a community to have a really explicit conversation about where we think we are heading, when we talk about delivering a sustainable future.  This struck me as a really important point because we are not a homogeneous group of people and so we inevitably have a whole range of ideas about what a sustainable future looks like, and it’s very likely that we don’t all agree with each other’s dreams of the future.  This creates a really difficult tension when we know that we need to be united in delivering a sustainable future, but we may not agree on the ‘Where to’ and ‘How’ questions behind that move.  Do we need to work to build a consensus to work together?  Do we have time for that?  Or is it okay if we all work in our own way and in our own direction?  Can the delivery of a nuanced range of sustainable futures, still bring a safer, more equitable planet for future generations?

 

The above reflections are just an emerging brain dump of my considerations and challenges to what I experienced and witnessed at the Leverage Points conference.  The comments are not water tight arguments and reflect a lot of personal experience I had at the conference.  They are therefore open to debate and I welcome further challenges and critique in the comments below.