(ResearchGate. 2017. Jack Harich)

Change Resistance, Jack Harich, 2010

Section
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment
Page
4.5

“This paper seeks to help solve the global environmental sustainability problem by approaching it from a novel and possibly more effective perspective. Instead of beginning with the usual “What are the proper practices needed to live sustainably? How can we get them adopted?” we ask a radically different question: “Why, despite over 30 years of prodigious effort, has the human system failed to solve the environmental sustainability problem?”

https://www.thwink.org/sustain/articles/009/Harich_2010_ChangeResistanceAsTheCrux.pdf

This is how Jack Harich opens his argument in the journal ‘System Dynamics Review’1. It is quite a challenge. I have included his paper here because I think it is a challenge worth making, and because he is insightful about the processes we have deployed up until now. It also provides a perspective – not the only one – of what we do in our environmental work, volunteering and action, how effective this is, and how we might do better.

Harich argues even more strongly that it is not just the last 30 years that we have been battling environmental degradation and not succeeding, but that this has gone on for 200 years!

“Although the world began awakening to the catastrophic consequences of unsustainable growth in the 1960s and 1970s, the significant intermediate causes “started” around the time of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, over 200 years ago. Serious efforts to solve early symptoms of the sustainability problem began about 100 years after that, such as the setting aside of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees in the USA in 1864, and establishment of the world’s first international environmental organization, the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire, in the British Colonies in 1903 (McCormick, 1989, p. 18). Thus, over 200 years have gone by and we haven’t solved the problem yet.”

 He describes the almost universal approach up until now as ‘Classic Activism’ and says it is based upon the concept of ‘proper coupling’. This is defined as: “Proper coupling occurs when the behavior of one system affects the behavior of other systems in a desirable manner, using the appropriate feedback loops, so the systems work together in harmony in accordance with design objectives.” For the environmental problem, he says, the human system has not been properly coupled with the larger system it lives within – the environment, and almost all environmental actions over the last 100 years or more have had the objective of achieving a ‘proper coupling’ between the two.

He goes on to describe the process of achieving this coupling, through Classic Activism, in his Figure 1.

I think we all are familiar with this structure and process, and the problems get harder to solve as one moves to the right – towards Step 4. The Classic Activism process is relatively simple, logical and sometimes effective, but it seems not so for larger, more complex and sophisticated ‘social’ environmental problems, and it was perhaps naïve to think that it could be effective in those arenas.

Harich says that Classic Activism hasn’t been able to solve these modern-day, mega environmental problems because it doesn’t sufficiently focus on the resistance to change of the system and the root causes that drive the system. He goes on to say that this resistance to change exists within the individual, but that this is relatively small, and that “when change resistance is high, the vast majority of it is systemic”.

Harich identifies the system as global capitalism, and the operators, its corporations: “large for-profit corporations are now the dominant life form in the biosphere. The corporate life form’s goal is to maximise the net present value of profits, while the goal of Homo sapiens is to optimise quality of life…which includes protection of the environment on which we depend for life. These goals are mutually exclusive”.

This belief system, or as I prefer to call it – a ‘religion’ – resists change through what Harich terms deception effectiveness. He observes that: “In a common good problem, altruistic activists stand on the side of the truth of what will benefit the common good, while selfish special interests resisting change cannot. Special interests must instead depend on deception (defined below) to influence voters, politicians, and other decision makers.” He defines deception as “an act of convincing others to believe what is not true or only half-true”, though he says this is not done, in most cases, out of malice, but as a rationalised expediency to achieve the goal of resistance to change. He elaborates the all-too-familiar process thus:

“Therefore selfish special interests must depend on deception. This is used to attack the argument that a particular solution would increase the common good, to argue a solution won’t work or will cost more than expected or will take too long or is unfair, to attack the premise that the problem exists in the first place, to argue that solving the problem would create other problems that are worse, to argue that uncertainty is so high that no action is necessary now, to argue there are higher priority problems, and so on. The ubiquity of fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) campaigns against stricter environmental legislation is one result.”

Higgs2 (see Section 1.3.4) identified these techniques and players throughout her fine book ‘Collision Course’. She quotes American businessman and PR representatives as saying their goal was “to put the environmental lobby out of business”, and “Our goal is to destroy, to eradicate the environment movement – we’re dead serious – we’re going to destroy them”.

When this attitude is coupled with immense resources then it is hardly surprising that deception effectiveness is as powerful as it is, and why we seem unable to make large-scale, systemic, change.

Harich concludes that ‘super capitalism’ has been able to “fool most people into acting against their own best interests, creating a sort of Age of Unreason, whose ultimate end is rapidly becoming mass ecocide”. To his credit, though, he does not leave us in a ‘slough of despond’, but suggests fundamental changes to address the problem (even deeper than the key drivers of the I = PAT equation, which he says are intermediate causes, whereas the root cause is capitalism and its corporations, which I identify as ‘churches’), and a reminder constantly to drive to the root of the system, to channel our energy and awareness to structural drivers and beliefs, as per his Table 1 below (from Meadows 1999):

How to respond to such sharp, incisive observations? Overwhelmingly, I think Harich is right, though not entirely. I think he is right about who runs the world, how and why, and the sheer scale and power of the new global ‘religion’. (He describes this succinctly as: “Less developed countries and industrialised ones have fallen under the same alluring spell: economic growth is good and nothing else matters nearly as much. This highly infective and addictive meme is spread by the corporate life form and ingrained by the global system”). He is also right to eschew triviality and atomisatIon of action, and instead to drive for deeper understanding and the addressing of root causes, behaviours, structures and systems. This said, I think his identified root cause – capitalism and corporations – is also, in fact, an intermediate cause, albeit an extremely powerful and important one, as mentioned. Capitalism and the Growth God are modern-day manifestations of a deeper malaise within human nature, a dysfunctional understanding of, and relationship with, Nature, that has expressed itself at various times and in various ways (see 1.1.4, ‘Articles) through the ages and cultures of humankind, whether they were capitalist, Marxist, socialist, feudal, European, Asian, black, white, Australian or Argentinian; this is why 50% of T10 is devoted to Section 1, ‘Build the Nature-Human Relationship’.

I am also not entirely sure that other actions ‘higher up the tree’ are necessarily wasted or mutually exclusive of deeper, ‘root’ goals so long as they are carried out with a constant view to the bigger picture, bigger actions, strategic change. I think Heinberg3 (see Section 1.1.8) has it about right when he says the way forward is through a combination of mutually supportive actions, namely: “Re-design, preserve, build alternatives, subvert, and brace for impact”. T10 is constantly seeking the essence of environmental problems and I abhor displacement and trivialisation, but I believe, also, that there are many steps along this path and that this is understandable, sometimes even necessary, so long as the final, deeper goal is never out of sight, nor is the urgency denied.

(ResearchGate. 2017. Jack Harich)

 

1 Harich, J. 2010. Change Resistance as the Crux of the Environmental Sustainability Problem. System Dynamics Review, 26.

2 Higgs, K. 2014. Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet. The MIT Press, Cambridge, U.S.

3 Heinberg, R. 2021. Capitalism, the Doomsday Machine. Resilience.org. February 25th.

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