Sustainability and systemic change resistance

The environmental sustainability problem has proven difficult to solve. The modern environmental movement has attempted to solve the problem in a large variety of ways. But little progress has been made, as shown by severe ecological footprint overshoot and lack of sufficient progress on the climate change problem. Something within the human system is preventing change to a sustainable mode of behavior. That system trait is systemic change resistance. Change resistance is also known as organizational resistance, barriers to change, or policy resistance.

While environmentalism had long been a minor force in political change, the movement strengthened significantly in the 1970s with the first Earth Day in 1970, in which over 20 million people participated, with publication of The Limits to Growth in 1972, and with the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. Early expectations the problem could be solved ran high. 114 out of 132 members of the United Nations attended the Stockholm conference. The conference was widely seen at the time as a harbinger of success:

However, despite the work of a worldwide environmental movement, many national environmental protection agencies, creation of the United Nations Environment Programme, and many international environmental treaties, the sustainability problem continues to grow worse. The latest ecological footprint data shows the world’s footprint increased from about 50% undershoot in 1961 to 50% overshoot in 2007, the last year data is available.

In 1972 the first edition of The Limits to Growth analyzed the environmental sustainability problem using a system dynamics model. The widely influential book predicted that:

Yet thirty-two years later in 2004 the third edition reported that:

Change resistance runs so high that the world’s top two greenhouse gas emitters, China and the United States, have never adopted the Kyoto Protocol treaty. In the US resistance was so strong that in 1999 the US Senate voted 95 to zero against the treaty by passing the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, despite the fact Al Gore was vice-president at the time. Not a single senator could be persuaded to support the treaty, which has not been brought back to the floor since.

Due to prolonged change resistance, the climate change problem has escalated to the climate change crisis. Greenhouse gas emissions are rising much faster than IPCC models expected: “The growth rate of [fossil fuel] emissions was 3.5% per year for 2000-2007, an almost four fold increase from 0.9% per year in 1990-1999. … This makes current trends in emissions higher than the worst case IPCC-SRES scenario.”

The Copenhagen Climate Summit of December 2009 ended in failure. No agreement on binding targets was reached. The Cancun Climate Summit in December 2010 did not break the deadlock. The best it could do was another non-binding agreement:

This indicates no progress at all since 1992, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was created at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The 2010 Cancun agreement was the functional equivalent of what the 1992 agreement said:

Negotiations have bogged down so pervasively that: “Climate policy is gridlocked, and there’s virtually no chance of a breakthrough.” “Climate policy, as it has been understood and practised by many governments of the world under the Kyoto Protocol approach, has failed to produce any discernible real world reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases in fifteen years.”

These events suggest that change resistance to solving the sustainability problem is so high the problem is currently unsolvable.

Understanding change resistance requires seeing it as a distinct and separate part of the sustainability problem. Tanya Markvart’s 2009 thesis on Understanding Institutional Change and Resistance to Change Towards Sustainability stated that:

The thesis focuses specifically on developing “an interdisciplinary theoretical framework for understanding institutional change and resistance to change towards sustainability.”

Jack Harich’s 2010 paper on Change Resistance as the Crux of the Environmental Sustainability Problem argues there are two separate problems to solve. A root cause analysis and a system dynamics model were used to explain how:

The paper discussed the two subproblems:

The proper coupling subproblem is what most people consider as “the” problem to solve. It is called decoupling in economic and environmental fields, where the term refers to economic growth without additional environmental degradation. Solving the proper coupling problem is the goal of environmentalism and in particular ecological economics: “Ecological economics is the study of the interactions and co-evolution in time and space of human economies and the ecosystems in which human economies are embedded.”

Change resistance is also called barriers to change. Hoffman and Bazerman, in a chapter on “Understanding and overcoming the organizational and psychological barriers to action”, concluded that:

John Sterman, current leader of the system dynamics school of thought, came to the same conclusion:

These findings indicate there are at least two subproblems to be solved: change resistance and proper coupling. Given the human system’s long history of unsuccessful attempts to self-correct to a sustainable mode, it appears that high change resistance is preventing proper coupling. This may be expressed as an emerging principle: systemic change resistance is the crux of the sustainability problem and must be solved first, before the human system can be properly coupled to the greater system it lives within, the environment.

Systemic change resistance differs significantly from individual change resistance. “Systemic means originating from the system in such a manner as to affect the behavior of most or all social agents of certain types, as opposed to originating from individual agents.” Individual change resistance originates from individual people and organizations. How the two differ may be seen in this passage:

If sources of systemic change resistance are present, they are the principal cause of individual change resistance. According to the fundamental attribution error it is crucial to address systemic change resistance when present and avoid assuming that change resistance can be overcome by bargaining, reasoning, inspirational appeals, and so on. This is because:

Peter Senge, a thought leader of systems thinking for the business world, describes the structural source of systemic change resistance as being due to an “implicit system goal:”

Senge’s insight applies to the sustainability problem. Until the “implicit system goal” causing systemic change resistance is found and resolved, change efforts to solve the proper coupling part of the sustainability problem may be, as Senge argues, “doomed to failure”.

Presently environmentalism is focused on solving the proper coupling subproblem. For example, the following are all proper coupling solutions. They attempt to solve the direct cause of the sustainability problem’s symptoms:

The direct cause of environmental impact is the three factors on the right side of the I=PAT equation where Impact equals Population times Affluence (consumption per person) times Technology (environmental impact per unit of consumption). It is these three factors that solutions like those listed above seek to reduce.

The top environmental organization in the world, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), focuses exclusively on proper coupling solutions:

The six areas are all direct practices to reduce the three factors of the I=PAT equation.

Al Gore’s 2006 documentary film An Inconvenient Truth described the climate change problem and the urgency of solving it. The film concluded with Gore saying:

The four solutions Gore mentions are proper coupling practices. There is, however, a hint of acknowledgement that overcoming systemic change resistance is the real challenge, when Gore says “…we just have to have the determination to make it happen. We have everything that we need to reduce carbon emissions, everything but political will.”

The twenty-seven solutions that appear during the film’s closing credits are mostly proper coupling solutions. The first nine are:

Some solutions are attempts to overcome individual change resistance, such as:

However none of the 27 solutions deal with overcoming systemic change resistance.

Efforts here are sparse because environmentalism is currently not oriented toward treating systemic change resistance as a distinct and separate problem to solve.

On how to specifically overcome the change resistance subproblem, Markvart examined two leading theories that seemed to offer insight into change resistance, Panarchy theory and New Institutionalism, and concluded that:

Taking a root cause analysis and system dynamics modeling approach, Harich carefully defined the three characteristics of a root cause and then found a main systemic root cause for both the change resistance and proper coupling subproblems. Several sample solution elements for resolving the root causes were suggested. The point was made that the exact solution policies chosen do not matter nearly as much as finding the correct systemic root causes. Once these are found, how to resolve them is relatively obvious because once a root cause is found by structural modeling, the high leverage point for resolving it follows easily. Solutions may then push on specific structural points in the social system, which due to careful modeling will have fairly predictable effects.

This reaffirms the work of Donella Meadows, as expressed in her classic essay on Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. The final page stated that:

Here Meadows refers to the leverage point for resolving the proper coupling subproblem rather than the leverage point for overcoming change resistance. This is because the current focus of environmentalism is on proper coupling.

However, if the leverage points associated with the root causes of change resistance exist and can be found, the system will not resist changing them. This is an important principle of social system behavior.

For example, Harich found the main root cause of successful systemic change resistance to be high “deception effectiveness.” The source was special interests, particularly large for-profit corporations. The high leverage point was raising “general ability to detect manipulative deception.” This can be done with a variety of solution elements, such as “The Truth Test.” This effectively increases truth literacy, just as conventional education raises reading and writing literacy. Few citizens resist literacy education because its benefits have become so obvious.

Promotion of corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been used to try to overcome change resistance to solving social problems, including environmental sustainability. This solution strategy has not worked well because it is voluntary and does not resolve root causes. Milton Friedman explained why CSR fails: “The social responsibility of business is to increase profits.” Business cannot be responsible to society. It can only be responsible to its shareholders.