Tom Atlee: Seeking Leverage for Deep Transformation

Blog Wisdom, Cultural Intelligence
Tom Atlee

June 21, 2011

Seeking leverage for deep transformation

I have long been fascinated by efforts to clarify which approaches to change work are most needed and effective. Among my favorite models are:

* Donella Meadows’ Twelve Leverage Points to Intervene in a System

* Joanna Macy’s Three Dimensions of the Great Turning

* Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation

Each of these has informed and shaped my thinking. I’m looking for guidance for activists, philanthropists, and others who wish to make a positive difference. I seek not only to identify what actions offer the highest leverage — the “more bang for the buck” factor which is so important right now. I seek also to understand the value each different approach offers and how all the approaches might usefully fit together. Finally, I tend to think of all this in evolutionary terms: What will help us make the collective evolutionary leap we need within the next few decades?

In recent years a new approach to this has been slowly coming together for me. I offer here an outline of its current form, in which I appreciate each approach for its real value while listing them in order of what I consider their increasing transformational leverage, where #7 offers the highest leverage.

1. AMELIORATE THE PAIN – act on our inborn humanity
Respond to the immediate needs of suffering individuals, marginalized groups and communities, and all living things…. We are biologically evolved to do this, and we have many spiritual and communal supports for it. There is real and compelling urgent need. As sensitive beings, we can feel ourselves expand or contract according to our compassionate responses…

2. SLOW THE DAMAGE – act on our expanding sense of humanity and buy time for humane transformation
Take action to stop the victimization of whole groups, the degradation of human and natural communities, the destruction of what we love, and the crises that threaten to overwhelm us, our resources, and all future generations and possibilities….

3. CREATE ALTERNATIVES – work to develop the pieces of the new world that matter to us
Innovate sustainable technologies — social as well as physical. Revitalize and empower communities — natural as well as human. Develop new forms of economics, politics, health care, education, cities, art… Take the leap: Try new things: Let both successes and failures guide our next steps…

4. CATALYZE CONNECTIONS – network the new puzzle-pieces to empower them and begin to weave a new world into being
Match up people with ideas, connect visions with resources, spark collaborations and synergies, bridge chasms. At each and every level, in and across all sectors, bring together “the whole system” in one room, over and over…

5. UNDERSTAND THE BIG PICTURE – realize how it all fits, see the whole, and share our maps and meditations
Explore and share comprehensive consciousness of the whole situation and process, the underlying dynamics and realities, the expanding perspectives and resources, the emerging possibilities and synergies to attend to — the way things are, the way things could be, and the way forward — so the whole journey becomes clearer and more real…

6. CHANGE THE STORY – make a new world obvious and attractive to more and more people
The narrative field we live in shapes our responses and beliefs about what is real, good, and possible, generated by media, education, and economic and political dynamics. We come to know it through sharing our stories, dreams, and critical social analysis. We create new stories of possibility and an evolving coherent story of the world we want –and then inspire each other to live into them…

7. TRANSFORM THE SYSTEMS – make sustainability and joy natural outcomes of everyday life
We co-create whole structures that shape the conditions we live in. Our current systems set things up so our ordinary activities destroy the planet. So we transform those systems — especially economic and political systems — so they shape our daily activities in ways that heal the earth, sustain nature and civilization, and bring greater meaning and joy to our individual and collective lives.

In the higher-leverage approaches, I recommend focusing on political and economic systems. Politics is where we collectively decide what rules will govern every sector of society and how we will steward and use our huge collective resources. Economics is where the self-organizing dynamics of society are most powerfully present. In order to move to the society we want, we need to set things up so that concentrated power cannot colonize our collective rule-making process. We need to improve our decision-making process so that it routinely generates true collective wisdom to guide us. And we need to make economies whose normal operations generate real and lasting quality of life. If we manage to do these things, I suggest that other issues will largely get worked out by the healthy dynamics of those two supremely powerful systems.

I hope this perspective usefully informs and serves your own desires to make a difference in the world.

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