In this post Associate Editor Peter Bridgewater discusses an article he handled by Kai Chan and colleagues ‘Levers and leverage points for pathways to sustainability‘ – out today.

You can read a response to this post from Kai Chan and colleagues here: ‘Gloomy Facts, the Centrality of Law, and a few more responses.

At High School, physics was way my worst subject – but one thing I did learn was the art of leverage as a mechanical tool to amplify a weak force  – through use of a lever.  Kai Chan (one of our lead editors) and colleagues (who took part in the IPBES Global Assessment) use this metaphor in a new paper in the Journal: Levers and leverage points for pathways to sustainability. This is an interesting and challenging paper – and some policy makers may be tempted to put it aside after the first point in the abstract which reads: “Humanity is on a deeply unsustainable trajectory. We are exceeding planetary boundaries and unlikely to meet many international sustainable development goals and global environmental targets.” 

In some ways this rather gloomy tone pervades the earlier part of the paper, with examples that are well rehearsed.  These include: that humanity is  at risk of losing up to a million species in the near term; degrading many of nature’s crucial contributions to people (ecosystems services to those who prefer); increasing the risk of future zoonoses: and triggering catastrophic climate change.  These are of course interlinked, but they are also suppositions rather than facts.  So, while I agree that it is useful to grab the readers attention, this may be too sharp a grab for policy makers, already staggering under Covid-19 and related issues.

But I said it was interesting and challenging, and so it is if you get past the first paragraphs of doom.  A key and vital point is that much effort has focused on direct drivers of change to include a sharper – maybe even sharper – focus on indirect drivers of change, such as formal and informal institutions – norms, values, rules and governance systems; demographic and sociocultural factors; economic and technological factors; all of which provide the framing for  economic activities and propel thus the direct drivers with which we are all more familiar.  An important point the paper makes is that, despite widely held views, transformative change – now an increasingly shrill mantra – cannot happen just by scaling up or down the things we comfortably do.  And, indeed, Covid-19 has shown us that in spades.

The paper identifies how to identify levers and leverage points but in an academic setting, leaving the policy makers to pick up the threads, acknowledging that key is how this information will resonate with policy makers.  The authors used two interesting ways of approaching the issue – a nexus study they explain clearly, supplemented by deep literature reviews.  The paper gets a bit confusing taking us from 6 cross-cutting insights to 8 leverage points and  5 levers –  but boiled down, as this blog must, the key novel thoughts on leverage points are:

We need to develop better visions of a good life.  I think of this as realising that ecology and economics both derive from οίκος – so why are they always in what seems a dance of despair?  Perhaps the review by Prof Sir Partha Dasgupta will help us here…

We must address Latent values of responsibility. Here the word stewardship chimes well – until we start to be stewards of the rest of biodiversity (and that means understanding we are biodiversity) we cannot achieve even the modest Sustainable Development Goals.  Yet this also means we need to mind our language, so when the paper talks of protecting nature, rather than conserving (or stewarding) it is unhelpful – its promotes that paternalistic feeling that has got humanity into so much trouble.  But we all do it, and too frequently.

We must resolve inequalities in society, and in our (perhaps paternalistic) approach to conservation, is vital to get us on sustainable trajectories to achieve sustainable development goals.  I am not a fan of ever more biodiversity targets as this approach has failed us for two decades already, but more using narrative approaches (in the way Indigenous peoples have for millennia) may help us resolve these inequalities.

Finally, understanding the role of telecoupling is a really important leverage point, although again I feel the authors stretch a long bow by linking consumer demand to Covid-19, although poor conservation and ecosystem management certainly has helped a range of zoonotic diseases out of the forests and into urban centres.

To achieve all this, we need the levers – most are familiar. But I worry about over-emphasising law.  Generally environmental law has complicated matters, and rarely been that successful.  Law works well for people and metes out punishment for transgression.  We need more policies, rather than laws, for working and living with the rest of nature, and here is where better education, awareness, and capacity for civic society counts.

This is a good read but read it with a critical eye and brain.  I fear policy makers might get put off by some of the overly-academic approaches, but for those that read to the end there are a rich feast of messages, ideas and threads to implementation that will help us manage our way out of the current  mess humanity has created.  So, academic, policy maker, conservationist, interested bystander – whatever category, you, dear reader, identify with, please do read to the end, and pass it on…