A Leverage Points Perspective on Sustainability

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Drawing on seminal work by the late Donella Meadows, we propose a leverage points perspective as a hitherto under-recognized heuristic and practical tool for sustainability science. A leverage points perspective focuses on places to intervene in complex systems to bring about transformative change. A leverage points perspective recognizes increasingly influential leverage points relating to changes in parameters, feedbacks, system design and the intent encapsulated by a given system. We discuss four key advantages of a leverage points perspective. First advantage: A leverage points perspective can bridge causal and teleological explanations of system change – that is, change is seen to arise from variables influencing one another, but also from how human intent shapes the trajectory of a system. Second advantage: A leverage points perspective explicitly recognizes influential, ‘deep’ leverage points – places at which interventions are difficult but likely to yield truly transformative change. Third advantage: A leverage points perspective enables the examination of interactions between shallow and deep system changes – sometimes, relatively superficial interventions may pave the way for deeper changes, while at other times, deeper changes may be required for superficial interventions to work. Fourth advantage: A leverage points perspective can function as a methodological boundary object – that is, providing a common entry point for academics from different disciplines and other societal stakeholders to work together. Drawing on these strengths could initiate a new stream of sustainability studies, and may yield both practical and theoretical advances. A plain language summary is available for this article.

Original languageEnglish
JournalPeople and Nature
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)115-120
Number of pages6
Publication statusPublished - 03.2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 The Authors. People and Nature published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Ecological Society

    Research areas

  • Environmental planning
  • backcasting, scenario planning, social–ecological system, system change, transformation, transition