Best leverage points for changing a system like the economy

Right now many groups round New Zealand are doing a lot of thinking about how we might build back better after the pandemic. They are identifying issues and making recommendations, whether it be on addressing climate change properly, facing the wealth disparity or generally working towards a world with a future for humanity.

But where should we intervene in the global or national political economy? It’s easy to suffer from overwhelm of ideas and information so it might just  be helpful to think about which interventions would have the most leverage. Would a small intervention somewhere have a big effect?

Donella Meadows, a systems analyst focused on environmental limits to economic growth did a lot of thinking on this topic during the 1990s and wrote a classic piece. She identified twelve leverage points to intervene in a system. A complex system could be a firm, a city, an economy, a living being, an ecosystem or an ecoregion.

12 Leverage points of Intervention in a system


So I am just going to deal with the first three which bring the greatest results. They are also the hardest ones to move. Here is a quote from Wikipedia

“3. Goal of the system

Changing goals changes every item listed above: parameters, feedback loops, information and self-organization.

A city council decision might be to change the goal of the lake from making it a free facility for public and private use, to a more tourist oriented facility. That goal change will effect several of the above leverage points: information on water quality will become mandatory and legal punishment will be set for any illegal effluent.

  1. Mindset or paradigm that the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises from


A societal paradigm is an idea, a shared unstated assumption, or a system of thought that is the foundation of complex social structures. Paradigms are very hard to change, but there are no limits to paradigm change. Meadows indicates paradigms might be changed by repeatedly and consistently pointing out anomalies and failures in the current paradigm to those with open minds.

A current paradigm is “Nature is a stock of resources to be converted to human purpose”. What might happen to the lake were this collective idea changed ?


  1. Power to transcend paradigms


Transcending paradigms may go beyond challenging fundamental assumptions, into the realm of changing the values and priorities that lead to the assumptions, and being able to choose among value sets at will.

Many today see Nature as a stock of resources to be converted to human purpose. Many Native Americans see Nature as a living god, to be loved, worshipped, and lived with. These views are incompatible, but perhaps another viewpoint could incorporate them both, along with others.”

Donella Meadows wrote, “The shared idea in the minds of society, the great unstated assumptions, unstated because unnecessary to state; everyone knows them‚ constitute that society’s deepest set of beliefs about how the world works. There is a difference between nouns and verbs. People who are paid less are worth less. Growth is good. Nature is a stock of resources to be converted to human purposes. Evolution stopped with the emergence of Homo sapiens. One can “own” land. Those are just a few of the paradigmatic assumptions of our culture, all of which utterly dumbfound people of other cultures. Paradigms are the sources of systems. From them come goals, information”.