Your strategy — like mine — is doomed to fail.

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The starting point of the analysis presented in this series, carried out by Thwink.org, was to understand why change-makers — i.e. anyone making efforts to change the world for the common good — could not solve the environmental crisis. Thwink argues that this is the case as the problem-solving process used by change-makers is not adapted to the level of complexity of the problem to be solved.

Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash

All problems have root causes. To solve a problem, we need to target such root causes. We have seen that in complex systems, the behavior or the results we observe, including life-threatening results — such as emitting more greenhouse gases than what is safe for the proper functioning of ecosystems (and thus of society) — emerge from the systems’ structure. Only by understanding this structure can the root causes be found.

How easy or difficult it is to find a problem’s root causes depend on the problem in question. For example, if the chain comes out of your bike’s derailleur, you can easily understand why your bike is not working anymore. Your problem is that the bike is not working, the root cause of that problem is that the chain has come out of the derailleur. The solution is to put the chain back into the derailleur. Easy. Now, if it is your car that is not working, you may not have the expertise to find the root cause of why that is, but a mechanic most likely will. S.he will know how to find the root cause of why your car is not working, and solve it. Likely a bit more expensive, but still fairly easy. When it comes to complex problems, and in particular to problems such as the sustainability crisis that involves all of society, finding the root causes is much more difficult.

Thwink researchers investigated how change-makers go about solving problems and found a worrying pattern. According to their research, the process can be described as follows: “Solving the problem is a matter of finding solutions that will work, and then spreading that knowledge. Once people and governments see what’s in their own best interests, they will start doing things that way”. The process can also be described as having three-step:

  1. Identify the problem.
  2. Find the solutions (ask how to solve the problem).
  3. Implement the solutions (by raising awareness on the problem, by lobbying for laws, etc)

This problem-solving process lacks a step: the identification of root causes. The lack of a root cause analysis step could be compared to the situation in which a doctor skips diagnosis (the root cause analysis step) and guesses what a good treatment (solution) should be.

Thwink argues that the problem-solving process currently used by change-makers is not fit to the complexity of the problem at hand, leaving change-makers ill-equipped to find the problem’s root causes. As a result, change-makers’ attention and efforts go to intermediate causes rather than root causes. Examples of intermediate causes include cost externalization by enterprises, a growth-oriented paradigm, the lack of ambitious environmental laws, or the fact that we are still not a “critical mass”. Many of those were, to me, root causes. We will see why, according to Thwink (and now also myself), they are not.

Here is one of the key insights of the analysis. Given the nature of the sustainability crisis, change-makers’ efforts targeting intermediate causes will always be weaker than the force the system will employ to resist those changes. It is as if change-makers were shooting arrows at a target that is behind a brick wall that they cannot see. The arrows represent the efforts of mobilizing and raising awareness, of explaining the problems, and advocating for solutions: our marches, lobbying efforts, civil disobedience, etc. The brick wall is systemic change resistance, and how to tear this wall down is the focus of a more detailed article (spoiler: not with arrows).

In a nutshell, the analysis suggests that we should focus on bringing the wall of change resistance down first so that the necessary laws can finally pass. Lobbying for environmental laws, marches, awareness campaigns, and the whole range of “more of the truth” strategies used by change-makers today are otherwise doomed to fail.

If I said “otherwise” in the previous sentence is to highlight that I am not saying that “more of the truth” strategies are then useless. I am not saying that change efforts only make sense if they target systemic change resistance or other root causes. Raising awareness and mobilizing people is fundamental, and can likely only be done through ‘more of the truth’ efforts that catch people’s attention. We need mobilization and awareness-raising efforts, but we will not change the system by doing just that. Here is more on why.

Don’t forget my present

This article can be uncomfortable. Did your brain try to find reasons why it made no sense? Did you find yourself thinking about all of the root cause analyses you have done in the past that you could name to prove the article wrong? Or how problems in the past were also very complex and we were still able to solve them? Or maybe this article depressed you as if mobilizing and raising awareness does not work, then you do not know what could.

Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

Two comments here. The first is that I would love to know more about your reactions so that I stop the wild guesses above. The second is that, even though it may not look like it, what I just presented is great news.

This article says that our strategies are failing because we are targeting intermediate causes rather than root causes. By doing so, the system’s force to “defend” itself is stronger than the force (the sum of our actions) we can exert to change the system. Arrows cannot tear down a brick wall.

If our problem-solving process leads us to solution strategies that have not worked in the past, then we may see value in understanding that, so that we change the process. If you find this idea interesting, the next article is for you.

Keep reading.

This article is part of a series, available here.

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