Monday, May 27, 2024

System Change is Needed but Elusive: What Next?

Dr. Kai Chan is a professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia, a TEDx speaker, and founder of CoSphere, a Community of Small-Planet Heroes.

[Reposted from the National Observer; Meta doesn't allow links to media organizations in Canada, so link here instead, and then go there.]

It has been five years since 132 nations declared that only a complete overhaul of how our world works could save it. Yet we are still sleepwalking deeper into the climate and ecological crisis. A million species are still at risk of extinction, and we are among those that will lose from our inaction. We have been lulled into complacency by urgent distractions and the comforts of modern life. For a healthy, sustainable future, we must change the very systems we rely on: economic, political, social, and more.

While the COVID pandemic interrupted the groundswell of climate concern, the nations were never really poised to initiate the “transformative change” they touted. The declaration was not mere posturing, though. As a leading author of the UN report that inspired the declaration—the Global Assessment of the UN’s Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services—I could see genuine concern in the diplomats who negotiated the summary. But there’s a huge gap between calling for system change and making it happen. In hindsight, it was naïve to think that governments could undertake such a transformation without an adamant social movement demanding it.

Galvanizing that unified social movement is our task. It falls upon us to demand systems change towards sustainability. Fortunately, this doesn’t require giving up a day job to stop traffic on busy bridges. Instead, it starts from five feasible but essential foundations:

Go Deep: we move beyond what’s quick and easy—both in our actions, and in policy. Picking low-hanging fruit is not a recipe for system change. It’s a favored approach of policymakers to achieve short-term wins when the system works well. New technologies like electric vehicles might help somewhat, but they are popular because they don’t require changes in our economic, political, or social systems. This easy approach is insufficient.

So we challenge doing what’s easy in law and policy. We also need to prioritize what’s effective in the long term, reminding skeptics that we are beyond easy solutions. So, not only subsidies to encourage low-carbon technology, but reforming the much larger subsidies that support the status quo in agriculture, fishing, and other resource extraction.

Update Tradition: we transcend “this is how we do things”. How often have you heard people justify an action this way? History provides context, but we cannot fix what’s broken by following precedent.

We can challenge decision-making by questioning the process. Policymaking in many nations is rooted in economic analyses that assume little will change. This is self-defeating when seeking system change. Economic analysis must be complemented by systems science—the integrated study of social and natural systems that acknowledges deep uncertainty, nonlinear change, and multiple ways of knowing. This way we don’t get trapped in decisions that only make sense economically in the short term.

Embrace Uncertainty: we resist oversimplifying problems. As American writer H.L. Mencken wrote, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” Populist political parties spout simple-sounding solutions to all that’s broken, glossing over the uncertainty and unintended consequences inherent in big changes. We must keep questioning.

We also can’t be certain about our own favored policies for big changes. Is a strong carbon tax the way to go? Maybe. Should governments subsidize businesses facing rising fuel costs? Probably not, but maybe. When systems evolve, everything is subject to change, and the way forward is to proceed adaptively. Not meekly, but boldly, experimenting for the sake of learning, with a plan to use that learning to improve our decision making and institutions.

Seek Widespread Solidarity: we embrace multiple perspectives. It is easy to find comfort in echo chambers. However, polarization not only breeds hate and fear, it poisons harmonious futures. To change laws, the economy, and society in democratic nations, we must push together.

We can guard against division by actively supporting rigorous and balanced journalism, so we draw from a common body of facts across the political spectrum. Some of my students turned away from mainstream media because coverage of fighting in Gaza felt biased—because it legitimized perspectives other than their own. But juxtaposing contrasting perspectives in context is what’s needed—that’s how journalism favors discussion over disconnection.

Engage Science: we enhance public access to system science (as with CoSphere). With everything connected, how else can we orient efforts to change systems, or anticipate the resulting impacts? How else can we contest policies? When politicians of all stripes promise to make housing affordable, voters struggle to interpret what each intends, or what evidence supports each approach. By enlisting academics—whose job it is to assess evidence while divulging and overcoming biases—we can all interpret claims and better understand pressing problems.

We can initiate and grow partnerships involving academics and communities. Scientists like me have long felt that merely studying problems is deeply unsatisfying. While I remain curious, my bigger purpose is to help anyone find community in their unique contribution to a better future. I’m not alone.

Globally, we’re not on track to rosy futures. But by leveraging systems together, boldly and adaptively, we can meet this challenge that’s bigger than any of us alone.

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