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.