The Longest Levers

It’s hard to figure out the best ways to effect change. There is no shortage of causes, and no shortage of causes I agree with, but on closer inspection, the strategic elements of many of those causes are lacking. Not everyone needs a clear strategy to motivate them, but, for me, the absence of strategy looks too much like the absence of effectiveness.

So I spend a lot of time thinking about leverage, and where it makes sense to focus my limited time. I haven’t found the best places, but, through lots of discussion, I have ended up with a useful way to think about it:


The basic form is just the society I want is juxtaposed with the society I have. There are points of overlap: things that are functional in both societies that I should happily support. There are also points of divergence: things that do not exist yet, but which I would like, and things that do exist now but which directly conflict with the society I want. Finally, there are two different classes of idea: core issues and structures, and emergent effects.

If I want to make a small-scale change with an immediate outcome, dealing with the emergent effects may be enough to make progress. For example, if I wanted to stop pollution in a stream near my house, I wouldn’t necessarily need to undermine the philosophy of the polluters to get them to change their behavior. I might be able to do that with incentives, like providing an easier way to dispose of their trash. If the polluter is a corporate entity, I might be able to legally force them to change their behavior (though obviously not their philosophy). Or, if the pollution is something that already happened in the past, I might just be able to clean up the garbage.

If I want to make a large-scale change, though, I have to confront the philosophy underlying pollution. I have to deal with a frustrating set of ideas, mostly unarticulated, that incentivize and normalize the behavior. For example, the ideas that whatever you can get away with is okay; that whatever happens downstream is someone else’s problem; and that natural systems only have value for human use and abuse. Dealing with those ideas would undermine the philosophy of pollution by cleaning up the downstream emergent effects at their ideological source. Those ideas are very long levers that affect a lot of society’s moving parts.

Because I look at things this way, I also make the reasonable inference that my energy would best be spent focusing on core issues rather than getting too absorbed by their symptoms. If I spend all my energy and emotion fighting those symptoms, I will never reach the core ideas. More importantly, if I focus indiscriminately on the emergent effects, I am ignoring a huge strategic mismatch: with the core ideas left intact, the leverage remains on the side of the status quo rather than the side of change. The slightest pressure, even that of stolid and disinterested bureaucracy, is more than enough to stymie any major change.

For a practical example, defeating a pipeline is worthwhile, but the core problem is rebuilding our energy infrastructure to one that does not sacrifice our environment. Not long ago, collective action by a great many people led the President to reject the Keystone XL pipeline project. The pipeline presented local environmental problems, via possible spills, and global climate problems, via facilitating the sale and burning of tar sands oil. Stopping the project impacts both, but the bigger climate problem arises from burning the tar sands oil in the first place, and stopping the pipeline may reduce that, but won’t prevent it. If I want to mitigate climate change, the Keystone XL pipeline is a relatively short lever. It’s not as short as, say, switching to compact florescent bulbs, but it’s way shorter than other options. A carbon tax system is a longer lever. An international agreement to reduce carbon emissions by subsidizing non-fossil fuels is an even longer lever.

The longest lever, perhaps, would be building a society in which corporate and government entities embody a view the environment as a system that supports them rather than a series of components that are there for the taking. I can’t get away from the fact that the longest levers, to me, all seem to be ideas. Those ideas are the foundation for core structures of society. So even though I don’t think changing minds alone is enough to change society, I conclude that it must still be a significant part.

Returning to my diagram, I also can’t help but conclude that the most effective things we can do, the most effective thing I can do, is to help build new structures on better ideas. Partly that means advocating those ideas, but equally it means institutionalizing those ideas by building functional parts of society on top of them. If done well, that could lead the inertia of a functioning to protect, rather than oppose, new ideas. So, for me, the diagram above can become a strategic map:


My core principal, then, is to choose individual actions based on how those actions fit into the bigger picture, and to choose the longest levers available at any given moment. That doesn’t mean never working on emergent effects, but it does mean being aware of it when I do. It also means guiding work towards building the pieces we need for the society we want. The levers holding society in place are long, so we need equally long levers to make significant change. I haven’t worked out what all those levers are, but I think I’m working out how to recognize them.

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