Using a leverage points perspective to compare social-ecological systems: a case study on rural landscapes

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A leverage points perspective recognises different levels of systemic depth, ranging from the relatively shallow levels of parameters and feedbacks to the deeper levels of system design and intent. Analysing a given social-ecological system for its characteristics across these four levels of systemic depth provides a useful diagnostic to better understand sustainability problems, and can complement other types of cause-and-effect systems modelling. Moreover, the structured comparison of multiple systems can highlight whether sustainability challenges in different systems have a similar origin (e.g. similar feedbacks or similar design). We used a leverage points perspective to systematically compare findings from three in-depth social-ecological case studies, which investigated rural landscapes in southeastern Australia, central Romania, and southwestern Ethiopia. Inductive coding of key findings documented in over 60 empirical publications was used to generate synthesis statements of key findings in the three case studies. Despite major socioeconomic and ecological differences, many synthesis statements applied to all three case studies. Major sustainability problems occurred at the design and intent levels. For example, at the intent level, all three rural landscapes were driven by goals and paradigms that mirrored a productivist green revolution discourse. Our paper thus highlights that there are underlying challenges for rural sustainability across the world, which appear to apply similarly across strongly contrasting socioeconomic contexts. Sustainability interventions should be mindful of such deep similarities in system characteristics. We conclude that a leverage points perspective could be used to compare many other types of social-ecological systems around the world.

Original languageEnglish
JournalEcosystems and People
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)119-130
Number of pages12
Publication statusPublished - 03.2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.

    Research areas

  • Ecosystems Research - Farming, Holistic management, paddock trees, path dependence, productivism, smallholders, Transylvania