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Change resistance as the crux of environmental sustainability problem


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Why, despite over 30 years of prodigious effort, has the human system failed to solve the environmental sustainability problem? Decomposing the problem into two sequential subproblems, (1) how to overcome change resistance and (2) how to achieve proper coupling, opens up a fresh line of attack. A simulation model shows that in problems of this type the social forces favoring resistance will adapt to the forces favoring change. If change resistance is high this adaptation response either prevents proper coupling from ever being achieved or delays it for a long time. From this we conclude that systemic change resistance is the crux of the problem and must be solved first. An example of how this might be done is presented. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
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Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
Change resistance as the crux of the environmental
sustainability problem
Jack Harich*
Why, despite over 30 years of prodigious effort, has the hu man system failed to solve the environmental
sustainability problem? Decomposing the problem into two sequentia l subproblems, (1) how to overcome
change resistance and (2) how to achieve proper coupling, opens up a fresh line of attack. A simulation
model shows that in problems of t his type the social forces favoring resista nce will adapt to the forces
favoring change. If change resistance is h igh this adaptation response either prevents proper coupling f rom
ever being achieved or delays it for a long time. From t his we conclude t hat systemic change resistance is
the crux of the problem and must be solved rst. An example of how this might be done is presented.
Copyright © 2010 Joh n Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Syst. Dyn. Rev. 26, 35–72, (2010)
There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the
Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854
This paper seeks to help solve the global environmental sustainability problem by
approaching it from a novel and possibly more effective perspective. Instead of begin-
ning 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 sus-
tainability problem?
The science of environmental sustainability is undergoing a profound paradigm shift
(Kuhn, 1996) in its problem-solving process. Due to inability to solve its central prob-
lems, the eld nds itself struggling to replace its defective old paradigm (its old pro-
cess) with a new one that works. Laments like “modern environmentalism is no longer
capable of dealing with the world’s most serious ecological crisis” (Shellenberger and
Nordhaus, 2004) abound. In the spirit of Kuhn’s “revolutionary science,” this paper
identifi es the old paradigm, explains why it’s fl awed, and presents a seed candidate for
the new paradigm.
Kuhn felt that . . . scientists will be reluctant to embrace [a new paradigm] unless
convinced that two all-important conditions are being met. First, the new candidate
must seem to resolve some outstanding and generally recognized problem that can be
* Cor respondence to: Jack Har ich, 1164 DeLeon Court, Clarkston, GA 30021, U.S.A. E-mail: jac k@t hwi
Received November 2008; Accepted June 2009
System Dynamics Review
System Dyn amics Review vol 26, No 1 (January–March 2010): 35–72
Published online 14 January 2010 in Wiley InterScience
( DOI: 10.1002/sdr.431
36 System Dynamics Review
Copyright © 2010 Joh n Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Syst. Dyn. Rev. 26, 35–72 (2010)
DOI: 10.1002/sdr
met in no other way. Second, the new paradigm must promise to preserve a relatively
large part of the concrete problem solving activity that has accrued to science through
its predecessors” (p. 169). Third, the new paradigm must solve more important problems
than the old one. The candidate has been thoughtfully constructed to meet these
We begin by identifying the old paradigm.
The old paradigm: proper coupling as the problem to solve
To answer our driving question we must introduce a new term, proper coupling, so that
we can more correctly understand system behavior. 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 example, if you never got hungry you would
starve to death. You would be improperly coupled to the world around you. In the
environmental sustainability problem the human system has become improperly
coupled to the greater system it lives within: the environment.
The universal consensus among environmentalists is that how to achieve proper
coupling is the problem to solve. The early literature of global environmental sustain-
ability framed the debate this way.
In 1972 The Limits to Growth brought the environmental sustainability problem to
the world’s attention, and defi ned the problem as how “to establish a condition of eco-
logical and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future” (Meadows et al.,
1972). In other words, how can we properly couple the ecological and economic systems,
by fi nding and implementing the right policies to keep environmental impact at a sus-
tainable level? Works like The Limits to Growth and its predecessors, notably Rachel
Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and Jay Forrester’s World Dynamics in 1971, fi rmly estab-
lished the normal science of environmental sustainability as one that saw what can be
called “proper coupling” as the problem to solve.
Subsequent analyses and dialog strengthened this perspective into the dominant
paradigm. In 1987 the United Nations’ Brundtland Report stated that Our Common
Future serves notice that the time has come for a marriage of economy and ecology . . .”
(World Commission, 1987, back cover). In 1997 the nascent fi eld of ecological economics
argued that “three policies to achieve sustainability” are “a broad natural capital deple-
tion tax, application of the precautionary polluter pays principle, and a system of eco-
logical tariffs” (Costanza et al., 1997, pp. 206–207). These are all proper coupling
mechanisms. They attempt to internalize externalized costs, which itself is a proper
coupling perspective.
Turning to the common-pool resource literature, in 1968 Garrett Hardin’s The Tragedy
of the Commons launched a fi ery, long-running debate on how to manage common-pool
resources. His thesis that “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all” caused sustain-
ability scholars to see their driving question as: What rules are necessary to effectively
manage common resources? Hardin discussed potential management solutions includ-
ing privatization, polluter pays, and regulation. These too are proper coupling
In 1990 Elinor Ostrom published Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institu-
tions for Collective Action. This in uential work presented eight design principles for
J. Harich: Change Resistance as t he Crux 37
Copyright © 2010 Joh n Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Syst. Dyn. Rev. 26, 35–72 (2010)
DOI: 10.1002/sdr
community-based resource management. For Ostrom a design principle is “an essential
element or condition that helps to account for the success of these institutions in sus-
taining the [common-pool resources] and gaining the compliance of generation after
generation . . .” Rule compliance is a proper coupling point of view.
In 2002 the U.S. National Research Council published The Drama of the Commons,
a 500-page exhaustive study of commons research. It too takes a proper coupling per-
spective. How strongly the eld adheres to the old paradigm may be seen in this sen-
tence from chapter 1, page 25 (italics added):
It requires considerable ingenuity to design institutions that cope effectively with
the attributes of a particular resource given the larger macro-political institutions,
culture, and economic environment in which that resource is embedded.
In commons literature “institutions” means “the rules that people develop to specify
the do’s and don’ts related to a particular situation” (p. 21) Substituting “proper coupling
mechanisms” for the fi rst occurrence of “institutions” in the sentence causes no change
in its meaning. Even a high-level synthesis of “a universal set of factors that are critical
to successful governance of common-pool resources,” based on three studies including
the work of Ostrom, fails to break out of the old paradigm of proper coupling as the
problem to solve (pp. 53–54).
Finally, in 2007 the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report
stated that: A wide variety of policies and instruments are available to governments
to create the incentives for mitigation action. They include integrating climate policies
in wider development policies, regulations and standards, taxes and charges, tradable
permits, fi nancial incentives, voluntary agreements, information instruments, and
research, development and demonstration” (IPCC, 2007, p. 18). Once again, these are
all proper coupling mechanisms.
Because proper coupling is seen as the problem to solve, nding and implementing
the right coupling policies has become the raison d’être of the sustainability movement.
But if we examine the problem from another perspective and decompose it differently,
it’s possible to see a potentially much more productive approach, one driven by a new
The new paradigm: change resistance as the real problem to solve
Years ago the author was discussing a perplexing problem with a bright young engineer/
manager from the U.K. He suggested that if you’ve looked at a problem from all angles
and are still stumped, then you probably have a missing abstraction. Find it and the
dif culties will melt away.
The voices of Lewin, Senge, Sterman and many more tell us that change resistance
is that missing abstraction.
Change resistance is the tendency for a system to continue its current behavior,
despite the application of force to change that behavior. Also known as policy resistance
(Sterman, 2000, pp. 5–12), the origin of the concept is described by Dent and Goldberg
(1999, italics added):
The notion of resistance to change is credited to Kurt Lewin. His conceptualization
of the phrase, however, is very different from today’s usage [which treats resistance
38 System Dynamics Review
Copyright © 2010 Joh n Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Syst. Dyn. Rev. 26, 35–72 (2010)
DOI: 10.1002/sdr
to change as a psychological concept, where resistance or support of change
comes from values, habits, mental models, and so on residing within the individ-
ual]. For Lewin, resistance to change could occur, but that resistance could be
anywhere in the system. As Kotter (1995) found, it is possible for the resistance to
be sited within the individual, but it is much more likely to be found elsewhere in
the system.
Systems of social roles, with their associated patterns of attitudes, expectations,
and behavior norms, share with biological systems the characteristic of home-
ostasis—i.e., tendencies to resist change, to restore the previous state after a
Lewin had been working on this idea, that the status quo represented an equilibrium
between the barriers to change and the forces favoring change, since 1928 as part
of his fi eld theory. He believed that some difference in these forces—weakening of
the barriers or strengthening of the driving forces—was required to produce the
unfreezing that began a change.
Today’s “status quo” is, alas, an unsustainable world. When problem solvers attempt to
solve the sustainability problem, their strengthening of “the forces favoring change”
causes the system to maintain homeostasis by automatically increasing the “barriers to
change.This is a natural and expected adaptive response that must be expected and
taken into account.
We hypothesize that one way to do this is to decompose diffi cult social problems into
two sequential subproblems: (1) how to overcome change resistance and then (2) how to
achieve proper coupling. This is the timeless strategy of divide and conquer. By cleaving
one big problem into two, the problem becomes an order of magnitude easier to solve,
because we can approach the two subproblems differently and much more appropri-
ately. We are no longer unknowingly attempting to solve two very different problems
There’s a simple reason this decomposition works so well: change resistance is usu-
ally what makes social problems dif cult. In fact, regardless of whether change resis-
tance is high or low, it is impossible to solve the proper coupling part of a social problem
without rst solving the change resistance part. This is nothing new, however. As the
old joke goes, “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one.
But fi rst the light bulb has to want to change.”
In diffi cult social problems the system spends a long time trying to overcome change
resistance. Once that occurs proper coupling is achieved relatively quickly by introduc-
tion of new norms/laws and related mechanisms, and is refi ned still further over time.
This pattern has occurred in countless historic social problems whose solution benefi ts
the common good, like universal suffrage, slavery, racial discrimination, the dangers
of smoking tobacco, the rule of colonies by other countries, the recurring war in Europe
problem (solved by creating the European Union, which properly coupled member
nations together to reduce pressures for future wars), and the non-benevolent ruler
problem (solved by invention of democracy, which properly coupled the people and
their rulers via the voter feedback loop). True to form, the pattern is occurring again in
the sustainability problem.
J. Harich: Change Resistance as t he Crux 39
Copyright © 2010 Joh n Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Syst. Dyn. Rev. 26, 35–72 (2010)
DOI: 10.1002/sdr
Here’s what the third edition of Limits to Growth had to say about change resistance.
The term was never used, because it was a missing abstraction (Meadows et al., 2004,
p. 24):
[The second edition of Limits to Growth] was published in 1992, the year of the
global summit on environment and development in Rio de Janeiro. The advent of
the summit seemed to prove that global society had decided to deal seriously with
the important environmental problems. But we now know that humanity failed to
achieve the goals of Rio. The Rio plus 10 conference in Johannesburg in 2002 pro-
duced even less; it was almost paralyzed by a variety of ideological and economic
disputes, [due to] the efforts of those pursuing their narrow national, corporate, or
individual self-interests.
. . . humanity has largely squandered the past 30 years . . .
What is the underlying cause of such massive change resistance? Whatever it is, it must
be incredibly strong to cause such a powerful effect.
In business, change resistance has long been known as resistance to change, organi-
zational momentum, or inertia. Peter Senge describes the structural cause (Senge, 1990,
p. 88, italics added):
In general, balancing loops are more diffi cult to see than reinforcing loops because
it often looks like nothing is happening. There’s no dramatic growth of sales
and marketing expenditures, or nuclear arms, or lily pads. Instead, the balancing
process maintains the status quo, even when all participants want change. The
feeling, as Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts put it, of needing ‘all the running
you can do to keep in the same place’ is a clue that a balancing loop may exist
Leaders who attempt organizational change often fi nd themselves unwittingly
caught in balancing processes. To the leaders, it looks as though their efforts are
clashing with sudden resistance that seems to come from nowhere. In fact, as my
friend found when he tried to reduce burnout, the resistance is a response by the
system, trying to maintain an implicit system goal. Until this goal is recognized,
the change effort is doomed to failure.
This applies to the sustainability problem. Until the “implicit system goal” causing
systemic change resistance is found and resolved, change efforts to solve the proper
coupling part of the sustainability problem are, as Senge argues, “doomed to failure.
In this paper systemic means originating from the system in such a manner as to
affect the behavior of most or all social agents of certain types, as opposed to originat-
ing from individual agents.
Classic Activism
Under the old paradigm, problem solvers see proper coupling as the problem to solve,
so that’s what they’re doing. Their work follows a pattern that can be called Classic
Activism, as diagrammed in Figure 1. While overcoming individual change resistance
40 System Dynamics Review
Copyright © 2010 Joh n Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Syst. Dyn. Rev. 26, 35–72 (2010)
DOI: 10.1002/sdr
is included, overcoming systemic change resistance is not, which explains why the
process frequently fails.
Classic Activism has been used for centuries by citizen groups to solve common good
problems that democratic governments are not addressing. If it succeeds then govern-
ments assume solution responsibility.
The process begins with discovery of the problem symptoms, which triggers step 1:
identify the problem to be solved. This consists of understanding the symptoms enough
to identify what they are, when they will occur, and what their immediate causes are,
such as loss of habitat contributes to species extinction.
The symptoms are caused by the proper practices are not being followed. For example,
the symptoms of environmental degradation are caused by too many people not follow-
ing the proper practices that would make their behavior sustainable. Proper practices
are not being followed has three possible causes:
Cause A, solved by step 2. If the problem is new, problem solvers must start with the
rst cause: A. The proper practices are not yet known. This can be solved by step 2:
nd the proper practices. For example, renewable energy sources can be developed,
tested, and proven to be effective.
Cause B, solved by step 3. Once the proper practices are found, classic activists move
on to the second cause, which is: B. People don’t know about the proper practices or
don’t know why they should follow them. This is to be expected if the problem or
proper practices are new. This can sometimes be solved by step 3: tell people the
truth about the problem and the proper practices. The truth can be spread by lobbying,
The Process of Classic Activism
problem symptoms
proper practices are
not being followed
caused by
B. People don't know
about the proper practices
or don't know why they
should practice them
A. The proper
practices are
not yet known
C. People don't want to
follow proper practices, even
though they are fully aware
of them and why they should
logically follow them
Step 2. Find the
proper practices
Step 3. Tell people
the truth about the
problem and the
proper practices
Step 4. Exhort, inspire
and bargain with people
to get them to support
the proper practices
can be solved bycan be solved bycan be solved by
Step 1. Identify
the problem to
be solved
Fig. 1. The process of Classic Activism
J. Harich: Change Resistance as t he Crux 41
Copyright © 2010 Joh n Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Syst. Dyn. Rev. 26, 35–72 (2010)
DOI: 10.1002/sdr
articles, environmental magazines, interviews, conferences, pilot projects, scienti c
reports, and so on. For extremely easy problems, solutions 2 and 3 are enough.
Cause C, solved by step 4. But usually there is a third cause: C. People don’t want to
follow the proper practices, even though they are fully aware of them and why they
should logically follow them. This is individual change resistance, though due to the
missing abstraction it is seldom called that. The standard strategy to overcome it is
step 4: exhort, inspire and bargain with people to get them to support the proper
practices. This is attempted with eloquent writing, passionate speeches, pleadings
with decision makers, bargaining with concerned parties, demonstrations, marches,
confrontational stunts to shock the public into coming to its senses, and so on.
To my knowledge, all what-to-do environmental literature falls into this process. Silent
Spring was a superb mixture of steps 3 and 4, with a little bit of 2. Natural Capitalism,
a book about how corporations can take the lead and create the “next industrial revolu-
tion” by switching to more environmentally sustainable technology, uses mostly 2 and
3. Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance is mostly 3. Environmental and nature magazines,
such as Sierra, National Wildlife, and Audubon, are 3 and 4. Step 3 is also known as
education on the facts or “appeal to logic,” while step 4 is the “appeal to emotion,”
which attempts to magnify the truth with rhetoric and bargaining. The 2006 Stern
Review on the Economics of Climate Change performed step 1 from an economic point
of view and presented evidence that “the benefi ts of strong, early action considerably
outweigh the costs,” which is step 3. The actions reviewed were all proper practices.
As discussed earlier, the common-pool resource literature sees its mission as nding
the right proper coupling practices, which is step 2.
Environmental organizations also rely on steps 2, 3, or 4 to achieve their goals. Law-
suits to comply with existing environmental regulations would seem to fall outside of
2, 3, or 4. However, this is enforcement of the legal truth by telling judges about the
truth of the facts involved. It is thus a form of 3. Lobbying is a mixture of 3 and 4.
Scienti c research into alternative energy, sustainable agriculture, recycling, ways to
reduce population, and so forth is 2. Extremist actions such as sit-ins and blocking
nuclear test sites are forms of 4. So are demonstrations, marches, and publicity stunts.
Polls, such as how strongly people support a clean environment, are a form of 3. They
are “the truth” why decision makers should enforce proper practices. Corporate social
responsibility campaigns, since they play on psychological elements, are step 4.
Even the innovative sustainability solutions pioneered in developing countries, such
as ecotourism, microfi nance, acceleration of the demographic transition, direct market-
ing cooperatives for green products, and community-based common-pool resource man-
agement, are a collection of better proper practices. Perfecting them is step 2. Education
and assistance are step 3. Pleading and bargaining with developed nations, NGOs, and
international agencies to support them and with developing countries to adopt them
are step 4.
The Limits to Growth employed the general pattern of Classic Activism. The World3
model focused mostly on step 1: identify the problem. The 1972 fi rst edition said little
about the solution. But due to lack of solution progress, the second and third editions
did. The 1992 second edition presented “a simple set of general guidelines for restruc-
turing the world system toward sustainability,such as “improve the signals . . . speed
up response times . . . minimize the use of nonrenewable resources” (pp. 213–214). These
42 System Dynamics Review
Copyright © 2010 Joh n Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Syst. Dyn. Rev. 26, 35–72 (2010)
DOI: 10.1002/sdr
are proper coupling practices, so the book was advocating step 2 and performing step
3. The authors acknowledged the presence of change resistance: “Systems strongly resist
changes in their information ows, especially in their rules and goals” (p. 223). But
when addressing how to deal with resistance, the authors turned to the old paradigm
of Classic Activism: “In our search for ways to encourage the peaceful restructuring of
a system that naturally resists its own transformation, we have tried many tools” (p.
223). The tools were “visioning, networking, truth-telling, learning, and loving” (p. 224).
These are techniques used to implement Classic Activism steps 3 and 4. The 2004 third
edition repeated these suggestions.
More recent modeling efforts continue to follow the four steps of Classic Activism.
The Millennium Institute’s Threshold 21 sustainability model focuses on how a nation
can better manage proper coupling. The IPCC assessment reports seek “the understand-
ing of human induced climate change, potential impacts of climate change and options
for mitigation and adaptation” (IPCC, 2009). But this understanding, which is heavily
model based, starts with the symptoms and stops at the same intermediate causes of
the World3 model: the IPAT factors.1 Like the three editions of Limits to Growth, the
four IPCC assessment reports have progressively tiptoed into Classic Activism steps 3
and 4. The fourth report took a leap in section 4: adaptation and mitigation options.
This contained an extensive listing of existing proper practices and projections by sec-
tor on their effectiveness, which is step 3. Section 5, the long-term perspective, used
“fi ve reasons for concern” to emphasize that Adaptation is necessary in the short and
longer term to address impacts resulting from the warming that would occur even for
the lowest stabilization scenarios assessed.” While expressed in the dry language of
scientists, this is nevertheless the exhortation of step 4.
We have shown that sustainability writers, organizations, innovative developing
country solutions, and models all employ Classic Activism to achieve their objectives.
None that we are aware of deviate from the four steps. Let’s model these steps so we
can determine why, while Classic Activism works on some problems, it has so far failed
to solve the global environmental sustainability problem.
The three-loop dynamic hypothesis
We begin with a generic high-level model. The three main forces at play are represented
by the three feedback loops in Figure 2.
Intermediate causes is the problem to solve. When symptoms of those causes begin
to arrive or a few forward-looking thinkers spot those causes and gure out the conse-
quences, unsolved problem symptoms starts to grow. This activates the Problem Com-
mitment loop. This causes force committed to favor change to start growing, which
activates the Forces Favoring Change loop. If the model contained only the loops below
the dotted line, growth of the middle loop would eventually increase adopted proper
practices enough to reduce the intermediate causes to an acceptable level, which would
solve the problem.
But the human system is not that simple. A third loop sits atop the other two, silently
lurking, just waiting to be activated. That occurs when known proper practices start
growing. This increases anticipated loss for some agents, causing the Forces Resisting
Change loop to spring into action. If loop amplifi cation is strong enough, change
J. Harich: Change Resistance as t he Crux 43
Copyright © 2010 Joh n Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Syst. Dyn. Rev. 26, 35–72 (2010)
DOI: 10.1002/sdr
resistance will be high enough to overwhelm efforts to get the known proper practices
adopted. The result is solution failure.
Our analysis has discovered two possible systemic root causes of why the upper loop
exhibits such high gain. These are instances of the two high-level root cause classes
shown. The root cause of why techniques enhancing resistance succeed must be
resolved rst, since this resistance also applies to changing agent goals that confl ict
with the common good.
Given the consequences of not proactively solving the environmental sustainability
problem, problem solvers need to push on points with the highest leverage possible.
Systemic root causes like these allow that.
motivation to
solve problem
committed to
favor change
work on
proper practices
proper practices
agent goals that
conflict with the
common good
committed to
resist change
Favoring Change
systemic root cause
of improper coupling
systemic root cause of why
change resistance succeeds
Resisting Change
Here’s what classic
activists don’t see.
Since they don’t see
that systemic change
resistance due to a
feedback loop driven
response must be
considered, they
assume it’s a minor
issue and easily
solved by overcoming
individual change
resistance. This is
attempted with step 4
of Classic Activism.
This is all the problem
solving process of
Classic Activism sees.
Since that’s all it sees ,
that’s what it assumes
will solve activist
problems. When
solutions fail, all
classic activists can do
is try the same things
again, but this time
somehow better and
harder. Since that
doesn’t include
resolving the root
causes of the problem,
such efforts will have
only modest or
temporary effect.
The root causes of failure to solve the environmental sustainability
problem probably lie somewhere in the upper loop , because if change
resistance was low the problem would already be solved , and because
resistance cannot originate in the lower loops .
Fig. 2. Causal loop diagram of t he process of Classic Activism. Solid ar row is a direct relationship;
dashed arrow is an inverse relationship
44 System Dynamics Review
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DOI: 10.1002/sdr
Resolving dominant agent goals that confl ict with the common good changes “The
goal of the system.” This scores a 3 on Donella Meadow’s scale of leverage in Table 1.
By contrast, popular solutions like taxes, regulations, and alternative energy subsidies
push on leverage point type 12, which has the lowest leverage of them all. Even recent
dynamic solutions like cap and trade only push on type 8, though that has aspects of
type 5.
The other root cause class, techniques enhancing resistance, scores only a 7. But as
we explain later, one of these techniques is the root cause of the success of the universal
paradigm presently driving the human system over the cliff of unsustainability. Resolv-
ing the root causes changes that paradigm to a sustainable one. Since paradigms score
a 2, so does resolving their root causes. This follows the principle that leverage comes
from what other places in the system a place to intervene controls, rather than just the
point of intervention itself.
The core of the dynamic hypothesis lies in the tension between the upper and middle
loops. This directly models Kurt Lewin’s “. . . idea, that the status quo represented an
equilibrium between the barriers to change and the forces favoring change . . .” To pre-
serve the status quo the upper loop strives to block adoption of proper practices, while
the middle loop promotes adoption. The winning loop determines whether the problem
is solved or not.
Next we turn to system dynamics to understand the dynamic behavior of this
The simulation model
Figure 3 is a generic model showing how Classic Activism is used to solve pro blems whose
solution would benefi t the common good. It’s a qualitative model since measurement of
Table 1. Places to intervene in a system (in increasing order of effect iveness)
12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards)
11. The size of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to t heir ows
10. The str ucture of material stocks and ows (such as transport network, population age structu res)
9. The length of delays, relative to the rate of system changes
8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the effect they are trying to correct against
7. The gain around driv ing positive feedback loops
6. The structure of informat ion fl ow (who does and does not have access to what ki nds of information)
5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, pu nishment, constraint s)
4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system st ructure
3. The goal of the system
2. The mindset or pa radigm that the system—its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters—ar ises out
1. The power to t ranscend pa radigms
Reproduced from Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, by Donella Meadows, 1999. Available:
Of interest is the last page, where Donel la w rites: “The higher t he leverage point, the more the system w ill
resist changing it . . .”
J. Harich: Change Resistance as t he Crux 45
Copyright © 2010 Joh n Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Syst. Dyn. Rev. 26, 35–72 (2010)
DOI: 10.1002/sdr
SU work
start rate
percent of
problem solved
loss rate
Step 1
of Classic
wakeup call
motivation to
solve problem
force available to
solve all problems
force com mitted to
solving this problem
cost curve
Forces Favoring
Well Known
rate awareness
rate adoption
rate obsolescense
forget it's
important rate APP lifetime
proper practices
needed for solution
needed for
<Adopted Proper
<Well Known
Proper Practices>
Proper Practices>
total proper
<total proper
the truth
the truth
the truth
allocation to
to magnify
allocation to
allocation to
Step 4
Step 3Step 2
discovery delay adoption delay
awareness delay
cost curve
awareness cost
adoption unit cost
one year
resistance ratio
force needed for
maintenance budget
percent solved
budget threshold
<percent of
problem solved>
<one year>
Forces Resisting
the truth>
force comm itted to
resisting change resistance delay
force available to
resist change
motivation to resist
solving problem
competing net loss
of other problems
anticipated net loss
to affected agents
anticipated net loss
per proper practice
adoption unit
cost curve
<actual symptoms>
<force available
to solve all
problem s>
normal for ce available
to solve all problems
force erosion per s
mptom unit
cost reduction for
100% understanding
<cost reduction>
budget implem
entation delay
<force available
to resist change>
normal force available
to resist change
effect of catas
trophe on ado
ption cost
effect delay
over emphasis
of recent events
SU Work In
SU gro
wth rate
The great blind
spot: What classic
activists don’t see
Fig. 3. The process of Classic Activism, with emphasis on why it fails when change resistance is high.
Solid arrow is a direct relationship; dashed ar row is an inverse relationship; dotted ar row is a constant or
lookup table
Note: The model image contains an error.
"causes" should be "intermediate causes".
46 System Dynamics Review
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DOI: 10.1002/sdr
so many soft factors has never been done. The model is designed to explore the dynamic
hypothesis in the simplest manner possible so the model may be understood by a wide
audience. Thus it fi ts on one page. The model is not meant to be the defi nitive analysis
of how problem solvers work or where the root causes of resistance are. Rather it is a
rst step in a new direction of exploration, one pointing to where we might start digging
to fi nd those causes.
Model validity depends primarily on the soundness of the concepts of proper cou-
pling, change resistance, and Classic Activism, plus arrangement of the three main
loops. The rest is detail that could be modeled many ways. See the end of this paper
for model equations.
The purpose of the model is to fi nd the systemic root causes of solution failure in the
observed pattern of Classic Activism by modeling the critical things social agents have
been doing. Why they are doing them is a large and separate topic, except for root causes
and the motivation to solve problem and motivation to resist solving problem nodes,
and is not addressed in this paper.
This paper uses “common good” in the utilitarian sense of “the greatest good for the
greatest number.” Thus the common good is the mixture of industrial production, social
factors, environmental health and other elements that optimizes quality of life for all
living people and their descendents. The general goal of the common good should not
be confused with common-pool goods, which are shared goods whose wise management
benefi ts the common good.
To understand the model let’s begin with the right side of the Forces Favoring Change
loop. Maximum problem impact is 100 quality of life (QOL) units/year. If the problem
is not solved then the system will lose that amount of common good. 100 is the arbitrary
amount all other variables in the model are relative to.
In a qualitative model constants like this are estimated. What’s important are not
their actual values but their values relative to each other. When the model is run, in-
sights come from the relative differences in the simulation runs, rather than exact
numerical outcomes.
A simulation run begins with all stocks empty. Because Adopted Proper Practices
start at zero, so does percent of problem solved. This causes intermediate causes to start
at 100 percent of maximum problem impact. Later intermediate causes falls as percent
of problem solved rises. When the problem is 100 percent solved intermediate causes
equals zero.
After a symptoms delay of 200 years the actual symptoms appear. But if we wait until
then to solve the sustainability problem it will be too late, due to overshoot and collapse.
The model handles this with the Symptoms Understanding stock. This varies from zero
to 100 percent and represents how well society understands what the symptoms are,
when they are likely to occur, and what their intermediate causes are. This is the type
of work the IPCC and many environmental scientists are engaged in, as well as what
early efforts like The Limits to Growth focused on. Symptom understanding is the
equivalent of problem identifi cation, the fi rst step of Classic Activism.
As Symptoms Understanding rises from zero to 100 percent, predicted symptoms
changes from actual symptoms to intermediate causes. Thus as our understanding starts
to grow, predicted symptoms rise faster than actual symptoms. This prediction of what
hasn’t happened yet represents the foresight required to proactively solve problems with
large symptom delays.
J. Harich: Change Resistance as t he Crux 47
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DOI: 10.1002/sdr
Unsolved predicted symptoms grow just as quickly as predicted symptoms at rst,
since percent of problem solved starts at zero. Later, as percent of problem solved rises
toward 100 percent, unsolved predicted symptoms falls toward zero.
The Problem Commitment loop starts growing when unsolved predicted symptoms
begin to rise above zero. The model theorizes that in a democracy (and to some extent
socialist and theocratic societies), when people and organizations notice problems their
government is not addressing a pool of potential public-interest activists react by becom-
ing motivated to work on solving the new problem instead of competing problems (and
opportunities, which is merely another problem type), either of their own or society.
They compare how bad that problem is to the other problems they and their society
faces. This reaction, which is the very heart of activism, is modeled by motiva-
tion to solve problem = unsolved predicted symptoms / (unsolved predicted symptoms +
competing unsolved symptoms).
From a stimulus response standpoint, unsolved predicted symptoms is the stimulus
and motivation to solve problem is the response. Competing unsolved symptoms are
competing stimuli. While each agent works on one or a small number of problems, the
model represents the aggregate behavior of all activists. This allows the use of a macro-
oriented equation.
This formulation is consistent with social-psychological theories of individual behav-
ior change. Jackson (2005, pp. 21–61) reviews 22 such theories as they apply to motivat-
ing sustainable consumption. Ranging from rational choice to means-end-chain to
value-belief-norm theory, the theories share a common pattern: favorable preconditions
plus problem stimulus leads to behavior change as the response. Here the favorable
preconditions are the “pool of potential public-interest activists” referred to earlier.
While this propensity can be measured with scales such as the New Ecological Para-
digm (Dunlap et al., 2000) and the threshold required for commitment could be mod-
eled, this level of detail is not needed for model purposes.
Competing unsolved symptoms is 500 QOL units/year, which is fi ve times the size of
maximum problem impact. If unsolved symptoms are all of that then motivation is 17
percent: (100 / (100 + 500) = 17 percent). Larger problems cause higher motivations. For
example, if a comet will hit the earth in ten years, society might conclude maximum
problem impact was a catastrophic 10,000. At fi rst all of that would be unsolved, giving
an ultra-high motivation of 95 percent (10,000 / (10,000 + 500) = 95 percent). This is
realistic. Of course, in an extreme case like a comet more people would suddenly join
the pool of activists. This simplifi ed model omits that behavior.
Once activists are motivated they act in proportion to that motivation and their abil-
ity to take action. This social reaction is captured in force committed to solving the
problem = (force available to solve all problems × motivation to solve problem) +
maintenance budget. The budget is normally zero and is explained later.
Next comes the fi rst step of Classic Activism. The force committed to solving
this problem is allocated to the four steps. Allocation to understanding contains
the portion going to step one. That and understanding cost determine the system
understanding work start rate. After a delay for work in progress to be completed,
the Symptoms Understanding stock increases. This in turn increases predicted
symptoms, which increases unsolved predicted symptoms and we’re back where we
started. The Problem Commitment reinforcing loop grows until the problem is solved,
excessive diminishing returns are encountered in understanding cost, or the problem
48 System Dynamics Review
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DOI: 10.1002/sdr
is not solved and collapse occurs, which erodes the force available to solve all
The Problem Commitment loop does one main thing and does it well: it reinforces
growth in the force committed to solving this problem, which creates the social pres-
sure needed to drive the four steps of Classic Activism.
Out of the force committed node emerge the three branches of the Forces Favoring
Change loop, one for each of the remaining steps of Classic Activism. As force commit-
ted to solving this problem grows, so do these branches. Where the force goes is deter-
mined by the allocation constants. In run one 5 percent goes to step 2, 10 percent to
step 3, 30 percent to step 3, with the remainder of 55 percent to step 1. 5 percent to step
2 may seem low, but it’s industry and government who mostly fund technological R&D,
not activists. For simplicity, allocation is restricted to 5 percent increments and is fi xed
during a run, rather than dynamic or stepped.
The three stocks containing proper practices form an aging chain. While step 3 causes
some adoption, most require step 4, especially when resistance is high. For simplicity
the model shows only step 4 as causing adoption.
When the change resistance ratio is zero, adoption cost is 5 percent of maximum
adoption unit cost. The 5 percent is the normal amount of individual change resistance.
It approximates the relatively low amount of individual change resistance arising out
of instinctual responses and long-formed habits, versus the high amount of systemic
resistance originating in the upper loop due to the two systemic root cause types shown
in Figure 2. The model thus theorizes that when change resistance is high, the vast
majority of it is systemic.
As steps 2, 3 and 4 of Classic Activism are performed, the proper practices needed
to solve the problem move closer to where they must be to do that: the Adopted Proper
Practices stock. When they get there activists take a quick break, dance a little jig and
celebrate, because this causes percent of problem solved to go up, which causes unsolved
predicted symptoms to go down.
That is does go down is what makes the Forces Favoring Change loop a balancing
loop. As more and more of a problem is solved, motivation to solve problem decreases.
This could easily cause the problem to never be fully solved, except for the way activ-
ism works. Once the forces of activism solve enough of a major problem, governments
usually take over and solve the rest by passing new laws and implementing/enforcing
them, which usually requires a much larger budget. The model handles this with the
percent solved budget threshold constant, which is 40 percent. Once percent of problem
solved rises to 40 percent a system phase change occurs. The maintenance budget is
turned on and changes from zero to the force needed for maintenance budget, which is
$6000/year. Comparing this to the normal force available to solve all problems of
$10,000/year, you can see why this is a welcome outcome for activists. Otherwise they
can solve no more than a handful of problems.
Looking at the upper left of the model, the cost reduction node captures the increas-
ing returns from knowing more about symptom cause and effect. This node reduces
the cost of the rst three rates in the aging chain. For example, the more we know
about the immediate causes and trends of freshwater scarcity, the easier it is to develop
plans to reduce consumption and manage reservoirs/sources, the more data there is to
promote the truth about the plans, and the more proof there is they should be
J. Harich: Change Resistance as t he Crux 49
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DOI: 10.1002/sdr
Finally, notice the small subsystem at the bottom left. Actual symptoms can erode
the forces available to solve problems or resist change. Erosion is an important consid-
eration: “The difference between the overshoot and oscillation, and overshoot and col-
lapse, is the presence of erosion loops in a system. These are positive feedback loops of
the worst kind. Normally they are dormant, but when a system gets bad, they make it
worse by carrying a system downward at an ever-increasing pace” (Meadows et al.,
2004, p. 164, italics are in the original).
Public-interest activists tend to be a minority. They have limited resources for solving
problems. This state is captured in normal force available to solve all problems, which
is $10,000/year. If no erosion of problem-solving ability has occurred yet, this equals
force available to solve all problems. But as actual symptoms increase, the force
decreases. For simplicity a linear relationship between symptoms and erosion is used.
Pitted against agents favoring change are those resisting change. The normal force
available to resist change is $50,000/year, which is fi ve times as much. In the real world
this might represent activist NGOs struggling against large corporate interests, who
have much larger budgets. These are so large that ve times as much is conservative.
The advantage of the opposition is much more.
The force available to solve all problems and force available to resist change nodes
approximate the way those with lower discretionary spending power (activists) suffer
more at fi rst when economic or environmental problems occur. For example, in simula-
tion run 3 (Figure 6) each side loses about $5,000/year of force to erosion. But because
the normal force is $10,000 for activists and $50,000 for those resisting change, activists
suffer 50 percent erosion, while those resisting change suffer only 10 percent erosion.
This completes description of the lower two loops.
How Classic Activism should work
What we’ve described so far is the way classic activists think and work. Running the
model gives the behavior in run 1 (Figure 4). This shows how the process should work
on all problems.
0 100 200 300 400 500
maintenance budget
Symptoms Understanding
Adopted Proper Practices
actual symptoms
adoption cost
Fig. 4. Run 1: what shou ld happen, given the process
50 System Dynamics Review
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DOI: 10.1002/sdr
Due to the symptoms delay of 200 years the actual symptoms arrive gradually. But
the rapid growth of Symptoms Understanding causes predicted symptoms to rise rap-
idly at fi rst. This motivates activists to solve the problem. After the delays of the proper
practices aging chain, Adopted Proper Practices starts to rise. This reduces the inter-
mediate causes of the problem, which results in a slight drop in predicted symptoms,
which is a prediction that the actual symptoms won’t be that bad after all. After about
90 years the Adopted Proper Practices rise to 40 percent of what’s needed to solve the
problem. This triggers the government’s maintenance budget to start. Since this has
only a ten-year delay, this almost immediately shoots from zero to high enough to solve
the problem. The result is a new homeostasis that uses a maintenance budget to hold
the Adopted Proper Practices high enough to bring the actual symptoms down to zero
Table 2 shows the settings used in run 1 and later runs. These may be used to down-
load the model and duplicate all seven runs.
The Forces Resisting Change loop
Run 1 illustrates the general pattern common good problems go through as they are
solved by the traditional process of Classic Activism. But it’s not working in this case.
Civilization is nowhere close to solving the complete2 global environmental sustain-
ability problem. Why is this?
To fi nd the answer problem solvers must expand their paradigm to include the Forces
Resisting Change loop. This loop models the adaptive response so common in complex
social systems, as well as the way the strongest forces resisting change tend to be sys-
temic in nature, rather than located in individuals.
For example, Beder (2002, p. 16) describes the response of U.S. corporations to the
rising success of activism in the 1960s. Note how it took them only seven years to adapt:
In various business meetings, corporate executives lamented their decline in infl u-
ence. “The truth is that we’ve been clobbered,” the CEO of General Motors told
chiefs from other corporations. The Chairman of the Board of General Foods asked
“How come we can’t get together and make our voices heard?”—which is of course
what they did. Throughout the 1970s, US corporations became politically active,
Table 2. Simulation run sett ings
Model settings Simulation runs
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Allocation to magnify 30% 50% 50% 50% 50% 50% 50%
Deception ef fectiveness 0 10% 15% 15% 15% 40% 40%
Catastrophe start year NA NA NA 70 65 NA NA
Catastrophe size 0 0 0 10 10 0 0
Norma l force step change year 200 No No No No No No Yes
Problem solved? Yes Yes No Yes No No Yes
J. Harich: Change Resistance as t he Crux 51
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DOI: 10.1002/sdr
getting together to support a conservative anti-regulatory agenda and nancing a
vast public relations effort aimed at regaining public trust in corporate responsibil-
ity and freedom from government regulation.
According to David Vogel in his book Fluctuating Fortunes: The Political Power of
Business in America, “It took business about seven years to rediscover how to win
in Washington.” Once they realized how the political scene had changed, corpora-
tions began to adopt the strategies that public-interest activists had used so effec-
tively against them—grassroots organizing and coalition building, telephone and
letter writing campaigns, using the media, research reports and testifying at hear-
ings, “to maximize political in uence.” To these strategies corporations added huge
nancial resources and professional advice.
The Discovered Proper Practices and Well-Known Proper Practices stocks contain the
proper practices social agents must follow once the practices are adopted. It’s obvious
to some social agents that these practices will cause them to suffer a net loss, as captured
in the anticipated net loss per practice. This times the number of discovered and well-
known practices equals the anticipated net loss to affected agents. As soon as those
agents recognize this potential loss they do the same thing activists did: they compare
the size of that problem to the competing net loss of other problems and calculate their
motivation to resist solving problem in a manner identical to the way motivation to
solve problem was calculated. This in turn is used to arrive at the force committed to
resisting change, in the same way force committed to solving the problem was
Change resistance is the ratio of forces resisting change to those favoring change.
Thus it would appear that change resistance ratio equals force committed to resisting
change divided by the force of magnify the truth.
This leads to unrealistic model behavior, however. The normal force available to resist
change is $50,000/year, while the normal force available to solve all problems is only
$10,000/year. Since activists are allocating only 30 percent to magnify the truth, that
equals only $3000/year. This gives a ratio of 50,000/3000 = 17. This is such an over-
whelming advantage it should smother proper practice adoption efforts, via counter
efforts like pseudo think tanks, political donations, and lobbying. But activists are not
losing to those resisting change by such a lopsided margin. So what have we missed?
In a common good problem, altruistic activists stand on the side of the truth of what
will benefi t the common good, while selfi sh special interests resisting change cannot.
Special interests must instead depend on deception (defi ned below) to infl uence voters,
politicians, and other decision makers. The model captures this by change resistance
ratio = (force committed to resisting change × deception effectiveness) / magnify the
Compared to the truth, deception is much less reliable, which causes deception
effectiveness to be well under 100 percent. If effectiveness was 10 percent then the
change resistance ratio would be 1.7 instead of 17. This is fairly realistic.
All models are a simplifi cation of reality. This one doesn’t capture the way some
so-called activists pursue their own sel sh interests, dressed up as ones that purport-
edly improve the common good. Likewise, the model omits the many honest and altru-
istic people who, even though they work for those resisting change, are pushing from
52 System Dynamics Review
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DOI: 10.1002/sdr
within to cause their employers to behave less selfi shly and more honestly. But these
are exceptions. Overall, one side employs the truth about the need for proper practices
while the other side utilizes bold lies, half-truths, spin, sophism, reality as they see it,
and all sorts of twaddle. We need to capture in a single term all of the forces working
against the truth.
Here deception means the act of convincing others to believe what is not true or only
half-true, though in most cases this is not done out of malice but as a rationalized,
subconscious expediency to achieve the goals of those resisting change. There are those
who honestly believe a different “truth” is correct. “Deception” should therefore not be
interpreted as a pejorative term, but as a neutral one describing observed behavior that
must be modeled.
Deception is a technique for enhancing resistance. Without it those resisting change
would have to rely on the truth. However, earlier we defi ned the common good as that
which optimizes quality of life for all, and implied there exists a class of problems
whose solution would clearly benefi t the common good, though when these problems
are young this is less clear due to low certainty about symptom cause and effect. There-
fore opposition to solving common good problems with high certainty (a component of
high Symptoms Understanding) cannot be based on the truth, because solving these
problems is desirable to society as a whole.
Therefore sel sh 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 fi rst 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.
For simplicity other techniques for enhancing opposition, such as political donations,
bribery, and force, are omitted. We feel mass deception is the most important technique,
since deception appears to play the largest role in in uencing political decision mak-
ing.3 Thus deception alone is an imperfect but adequate choice for use in this concept
model. Adding more factors would change only one of the sample solutions and none
of our main conclusions.
Unless deception effectiveness is absurdly low (less than about 3 percent) change
resistance is high enough to dramatically slow down the adoption rate. This is accom-
plished by increasing the adoption cost to such a high level that activist’s resources are
exhausted. They simply can’t afford to match what the Forces Resisting Change can
throw against them. The result may be seen in run 2 (Figure 5), where a deception ef-
fectiveness of 10 percent is used. (0 percent was used in run 1 to turn the resistance
loop off.)
The activists have adapted too, by changing allocation to magnify from 30 percent to
50 percent. This is their optimum allocation strategy in run 2. But it’s not enough to
prevent it taking 125 years (versus the 90 years of run 1) to cause the maintenance
budget to be triggered, because change resistance is now infl ating adoption cost. The
jump in that curve creates a mountain activists can barely climb over.
Worse yet, run 2 does not refl ect what’s happening in the real world. Although the
world began awakening to the catastrophic consequences of unsustainable growth in
J. Harich: Change Resistance as t he Crux 53
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DOI: 10.1002/sdr
the 1960s and 1970s, the signifi cant 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 rst international environmental orga-
nization, 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. The model hypothesizes this is due to high change
resistance, a state refl ected in run 3 (Figure 6) by raising deception effectiveness from
10 percent to 15 percent.
0 100 200 300 400 500
maintenance budget
Symptoms Understanding
Adopted Proper Practices
Fig. 5. Run 2: change resista nce, effectiveness = 10 percent
0 100 200 300 400 500
Symptoms Understanding
Adopted Proper Practices
adoption cost
Fig. 6. Run 3: change resista nce, effectiveness = 15 percent
54 System Dynamics Review
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DOI: 10.1002/sdr
Gone is the maintenance budget. Adopted Proper Practices never grow high enough
to trigger it. As the actual symptoms arrive, the forces available for solution are eroded
faster than those resisting solution, due to the way the weak suffer more than the pow-
erful at rst in collapsing social systems. The result is only about 30 percent of the
proper practices needed remain adopted, which causes symptoms to reach a steady state
of 70 percent of the total size of the problem. The model doesn’t show it, but this is more
than enough to cause global collapse. Run 3 is the reference mode and represents the
problem to solve.
Now that we’ve presented all three loops, you can see the structural reason for why
Classic Activism fails. No matter how classic activists allocate their work they cannot
resolve the root causes of change resistance, because Figure 3 contains no arrows run-
ning from force committed to solving this problem to the upper loop.
Wakeup call catastrophes
How then have activists and their governments made the progress they have? The
history of the sustainability problem shows that most environmental protection legisla-
tion occurs as a piecemeal reaction to a recent “wakeup call catastrophe.” Examples are
the way discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole led to the Montreal Protocol; Australia’s
seven-year drought and the new administration of Kevin Rudd whose rst of cial act
was signing the Kyoto Protocol in December 2007; the U.S. dust bowl of the mid 1930s
and its infl uence on soil conservation laws; the great London smog of December 1952
that killed 4000 people and caused passage of Britain’s 1956 Clean Air Act; the acid
rain problem, which caused many countries to enact legislation and led to the 1979
Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution; Love Canal and Superfund;
and the pesticide poisoning and pollution problems described in Silent Spring in 1962,
which launched the modern environmental movement and along with a series of oil
spills and other catastrophes led to creation of the U.S. EPA in 1970 and many other
This suggests solution progress is largely reactive rather than proactive. If so, then
reliance on the use of Classic Activism and wakeup call catastrophes to overcome change
resistance will not work, because by the time large enough catastrophes occur to solve
the complete sustainability problem, it will be too late. Due to ecological tipping points
the system will be in such severe overshoot that short-term corrective action will no
longer be possible. In addition, such catastrophes will erode so much of the force avail-
able to solve all problems that there will probably not be enough left to solve the envi-
ronmental sustainability problem, not to mention the many other social and economic
problems cascading off that one as collapse begins to occur.
The model explores this behavior by allowing one wakeup call catastrophe (WCC) to
occur. If we create a WCC in year 70 with ten years’ duration and a size of 10 QOL units/
year, we can see the result in run 4 (Figure 7).
The WCC causes the problem to be solved. The predicted symptoms WCC blip is half
the height of the actual one, due to Symptoms Understanding having reached only
50 percent at that point. A WCC works by causing a temporary drop in adoption cost.
That drop is 50 percent bigger than the jump in actual symptoms, due to the constant
of 50 percent for overemphasis of recent events percent. Suddenly lower adoption cost
J. Harich: Change Resistance as t he Crux 55
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DOI: 10.1002/sdr
causes a sudden rise in Adopted Proper Practices, which is what triggers the solution
But there have been no large international WCCs lately. All we’ve had are the large
ones of the past, like acid rain. The recent one of ozone depletion was too small to make
much difference. But why didn’t the early WCC of acid rain cause nations to scramble
to solve the complete sustainability problem? If we move the catastrophe start year from
70 to 65 we can fi nd out in run 5 (Figure 8).
This time the WCC does not trigger solution, because the event occurred too early.
Thus the timing of WCCs is critical.
0 100 200 300 400 500
maintenance budget
Symptoms Understanding
Adopted Proper Practices
adoption cost
wakeup call
Fig. 7. Run 4: wa keup call catastrophe, year 70
0 100 200 300 400 500
Symptoms Understanding
Adopted Proper Practices
adoption cost
wakeup call
Fig. 8. Run 5: wakeup call catast rophe, year 65
56 System Dynamics Review
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DOI: 10.1002/sdr
Further experimentation shows there is a window of opportunity in which WCCs
work. They must start in years 70–95. Before that the Adopted Proper Practices are too
low to be bumped up enough to trigger solution. After that the catastrophic symptoms
erode the force available to solve all problems so much there’s not enough left to solve
the problem.
Symptom forecasts of the many facets of the sustainability problem are now so well
explored that no large WCC is expected soon, in the next 20 years, with at least one
ominous exception: carbon emissions are rising much faster than IPCC models
expected: “The growth rate of [fossil fuel] emissions was 3.5% per year for 2000–2007,
an almost four fold increase from 0.9% per year in 1990–1999. . . . This makes current
trends in emissions higher than the worst case IPCC-SRES scenario” (www.globalcar-, retrieved 14 March 2009). This is clearly a case
where society must take action now but has not. Therefore it’s unlikely that a WCC, or
data signaling one is coming unless we change course quickly, will cause the sustain-
ability problem to be solved in time.
But that’s what the system has relied upon in the past to make substantial progress.
We must therefore look elsewhere for a dependable way forward.
Beyond the limits . . . of Classic Activism
Why does Classic Activism fail on problems like sustainability? Because at the heart
of the process lies a crippling false assumption: that change resistance occurs at the
level of individuals and can thus be overcome by the inspiration, exhortation and bar-
gaining of step 4. The world’s problem solvers appear to have fallen into one of the
biggest traps of them all: the fundamental attribution error:
A fundamental principle of system dynamics states that the structure of the system
gives rise to its behavior. However, people have a strong tendency to attribute
the behavior of others to dispositional rather than situational factors, that is, to
character and especially character fl aws rather than the system in which these
people are acting. The tendency to blame the person rather than the system is
so strong psychologists call it the “fundamental attribution error.” (Sterman, 2000,
p. 28)
This is the trap Kurt Lewin and Peter Senge warned against. In dif cult social system
problems, change resistance is much more likely to be systemic than local or located
within individual agents. So where in the system will we be most likely to fi nd the root
causes of systemic change resistance?
The root causes cannot reside in the Forces Favoring Change or Problem Commitment
loops, because resistance (whether individual or systemic) does not originate there. The
root causes can only dwell in the Forces Resisting Change loop. Problem solvers must
therefore abandon the Sisyphean task of trying to strengthen the two lower loops, and
change to strategies centering on how to weaken the upper loop.
The model identifi es four places to do this: anticipated net loss per proper practice,
competing net loss of other problems, force available to resist change, and deception
effectiveness. Drilling down in areas like these should lead to nding the root causes
with the highest leverage points.
J. Harich: Change Resistance as t he Crux 57
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DOI: 10.1002/sdr
Striking at the root: solve one problem and you solve them all
Resolving a root cause set solves all the problems emanating from that set. It follows
that for a particular set of problems caused by a root cause set, if you can solve one
problem you can solve them all. That’s why instead of showing how to solve a speci c
environmental problem like climate change or freshwater scarcity, this paper hammers
home the strategy of nding root causes so systemic that resolving them solves the
largest number of problems possible. Otherwise it’s too easy to focus on the trees instead
of the forest.
Popular consensus sees things like the IPAT factors, the human system’s growth loops,
economic inequality and poverty, and lack of cooperation and other maladapted values
as the root causes of the environmental sustainability problem, when in fact they are
intermediate causes. These are also known as proximate causes or apparent causes,
where the “apparent cause is usually a coincident occurrence, that, like the trouble
symptom itself, is being produced by the feedback loop dynamics of a larger system”
(Forrester, 1971, p. 95).
A broad and revealing example of this consensus comes from James Gustave Speth
(cofounder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, founder of the World Resources
Institute, and administrator of the United Nations Development Programme for six
years), who wrote that (Speth, 1992, italics and comments added):
The [fi ve] transitions I will mention briefl y seek to deal with the root causes of
environmental problems. . . . The fi rst transition . . . is the need for a demographic
transition to population stability [the P in the IPAT equation] . . . The second transi-
tion is . . . a transition in technology to a new generation of environmentally benign
technologies [the T in the IPAT equation] . . . The third needed transition is an eco-
nomic transition to a world in which prices refl ect the full environmental costs [a
balancing loop to put the brakes on the reinforcing growth loops of the IPAT factors,
mostly the A and T, by internalizing externalized costs] . . . The fourth transition is
a transition in social equity to a fair sharing of economic and environmental ben-
efi ts both within and among countries. Over much of the world, the greatest destroyer
of the environment is poverty—because the poor have no alternative. . . . None of
these transitions is possible without a fth—an institutional transition to different
arrangements among governments, businesses, and peoples. These institutional
arrangements are urgently needed to enlist the tremendous potential of the private
sector in what must be an unprecedented cooperative effort . . .
These are pseudo root causes, however. Why is it so hard to quickly put the brakes on
global population growth by, for example, changing to a worldwide one-child-per-
family policy for several generations? Why are technologies increasingly harmful to the
environment? Why is the system so biased towards externalizing costs? Why isn’t the
industrialized world already taking care of those less well off? Why aren’t governments,
businesses, and peoples already cooperating? Questions like these demonstrate these
are in fact intermediate causes. They are mere starting points for deeper analysis.
A root cause is a portion of a system’s structure that “best” helps to explain why the
system’s behavior produces a problem’s symptoms. Diffi cult problems usually have
58 System Dynamics Review
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multiple root causes. These are found by asking a succession of Why is this happen-
ing?” Kaizen-like questions until the root causes are found.
How do you know when to stop? A root cause has three identifying characteristics
(compare to Rooney and Heuvel, 2004, who list four characteristics):
1. It is clearly a (or the) major cause of the symptoms.
2. It has no worthwhile deeper cause. This allows you to stop asking why at some
appropriate point in root cause analysis. Otherwise you may fi nd yourself digging to
the other side of the planet.
3. It can be resolved. Sometimes it’s useful to emphasize unchangeable root causes in
your model for greater understanding and to avoid trying to resolve them without
realizing it. These have only the rst two characteristics.
This defi nition allows numerous unproductive or pseudo root causes to be quickly
The important thing is to not stop at intermediate causes. These are plausible and
easily found. Working on resolving what are in fact intermediate causes looks produc-
tive and feels productive. Intermediate cause solutions, more accurately called symp-
tomatic solutions, may even work for a while. But until the true root causes are resolved,
powerful social agents will invariably nd a way to delay, circumvent, block, weaken,
or even rollback these solutions, because intermediate causes are symptoms of deeper
causes. One must strike at the root.
This we have done. Despite the simplicity of the model, the root causes we are about
to present are so deeply systemic (so rooty, we could say) that they appear to be the
source of most large diffi cult problems whose solution would benefi t the common good.
These root causes account for not just the climate change problem, but the entire gamut
of environmental sustainability problems listed in the SCOPE study (see note 2) and at
least one signifi cant economic sustainability problem: catastrophically large economic
bubbles. There are more such problems, in both the economic and social dimensions of
sustainability, but identifying them is beyond the scope of this paper.
Resolving the root cause of improper coupling
Sometimes a vivid alternative mental model is required to jolt settled minds into a
vision of what is possible.
At rst glance what we are about to present may appear impossible. Indeed, this is
the way people reacted at rst to Jay Forrester’s analysis of the urban decay problem
(Forrester, 1989, p. 8, italics added):
The conclusions of our work were not easily accepted. I recall one full professor of
social science in our fi ne institution at MIT coming to me and saying, “I don’t care
whether you’re right or wrong, the results are unacceptable. So much for academic
objectivity! Others, probably believing the same thing, put it more cautiously as, “It
doesn’t make any difference whether you’re right or wrong, urban offi cials and the
residents of the inner city will never accept those ideas.”
As one example of a new way of thinking about systemic instead of individual change
resistance, as well as digging down to root causes instead of intermediate causes, con-
sider anticipated net loss per proper practice in Figure 3. Why is this so high?
J. Harich: Change Resistance as t he Crux 59
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DOI: 10.1002/sdr
Over the last few centuries the modern corporation has become ubiquitous, especially
in advanced economies. A productive way to view this institution is as a memetic life
form (Dawkins, 1976, ch. 11: Memes, the new replicators) that follows the same high-
level principles of behavior that genetic life forms do.
An abundance of literature (Beder, 2006b; Hartmann, 2002; Korten, 2001; Nace, 2003;
Reich, 2007), along with the obvious in uence of corporate industrialization on the
course of civilization, suggests large for-profi t corporations are now the dominant life
form in the biosphere. The corporate life form’s goal is to maximize the net present
value of profi ts, while the goal of Homo sapiens is to optimize quality of life for those
living and their descendents, which includes protecting the environment on which we
depend for life. These goals are mutually exclusive, which causes a high anticipated net
loss per proper practice for large for-profi t corporations. We have thus found one pos-
sible root cause, one so pervasive it provides a steady drip, drip, drip that erodes even
the best-intentioned efforts to solve common good problems like sustainability.
It’s tempting to call this a root cause of change resistance. But it’s more accurate to
see it as a root cause of improper coupling. If the goals of the corporate life form and
humans were not mutually exclusive, then the economic system (which corporations
dominate) would be properly coupled to the human system and hence the
The related high leverage point is the rules of the game for the dominant agent in
the system. Let’s imagine the modern corporation was reengineered to be a trusted
servant of Homo sapiens, as was the original intention (Hartman, 2002, ch. 5: The
early role of corporations in America). Its new goal would be serving its master as its
highest priority, by optimizing components of quality of life as stated in its charter.
Some would be general and some would be specifi c to each corporation, such as opti-
mizing people’s health by manufacturing food. Goal achievement would be measured
by a contribution to sustainable quality of life index. If society cannot provide this index,
then we have created a servant without a clear and correct mission. (See Robeyns and
van der Veen, 2007, for a “conceptual analysis” of a general “sustainable quality of life”
Such an index would be expressed in percent of goal achieved. A negative amount
means a company performed so poorly it should be penalized. Over 100 percent indi-
cates expectations were exceeded. The index would be calculated by each company as
part of normal accounting. Using a strategy similar to public utility incentives that
decouple profi t increases from undesirable behavior, Figure 9 shows how a company’s
index could be used to calculate percent of net income eligible for retained earnings
and dividends.4 This would cause the sustainable quality of life motive to have a much
higher priority than the profi t motive. While no index is perfect, a well-designed index
would refl ect the approximate interests of all major stakeholders. Optimizing stake-
holder interests would require such high levels of cooperation that corporate servants
will now constructively cooperate to achieve quality of life goals, as they transition
away from destructively competing to maximize shareholder profi t.
This is a rough exploratory example. Deeper analysis and extended experimentation
will be needed.5 The index can start simple. Instead of an index other approaches like
the Triple Bottom Line (Savitz, 2006) could be used. The new goal must be as simple,
unambiguous, measurable, and motivating as the one it replaces: profi t maximization.6
Otherwise it will not have the intended effect.
60 System Dynamics Review
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Goal redesign would give us Corporation 2.0 and could be introduced on a gradual
basis, say 10–20 years, so as to not overly shock the system. All that really matters are
the core motivational factors, because they create the feedback loops that drive behavior
toward the correct “implicit system goal. Get the key factors right and the rest will
automatically work itself out, because Corporation 2.0 can have the responsibility of
continuous self-improvement.
A dominant life form’s goal is such a high leverage point that once corporations are
on a virtuous cycle of self-improvement, corporate and human goals will become so
well aligned that intermediate causes of past misbehavior will automatically be
resolved. There will be little need to use symptomatic solutions to push on low leverage
points associated with intermediate causes like the infl uence of corporate money on
politics, limited liability, unlimited lifespan, corporate personhood, and lack of
employee or community ownership/control. (Corporate redesign efforts are vast and
embryonic. See and for starting points.)
Solving common good problems, because this advances the goal of Homo sapiens,
would now benefi t 2.0 corporations. Their anticipated net loss would be zero, causing
the change resistance ratio to fall to near zero in industrialized nations. Furthermore,
the force available to resist change from corporations would be transferred to the force
available to solve all problems. This would have the effect of solving the sustainability
problem in the fastest and most effi cient manner reasonably possible. Imagine what it
would be like for large corporations to work as hard to solve the sustainability problem
as they have worked in the past to not solve it. (For a book-length review of how hard
they have worked to not solve it, see Beder, 2002.) Furthermore, think how hard 2.0
corporations would work to avoid other problems like war, institutional poverty, and
economic bubbles,7 because these too cause their masters to suffer.
These examples show
how the curve becomes
more agressive over the
transition period
Contribution to sustainable quality of life index
0% 100%
Percent of net earnings eligible for
retained earnings and dividends
After 10 years
After 1 year
After 20 years
Fig. 9. Sustainable quality of life incentive curve. The new profi t ca lculation could be as simple as:
incent ive curve (index) × net income = retained earni ngs and dividends. At fi rst t he c urve would a llow
almost 100 percent of normal profi ts rega rdless of index results. Over the t ransition period from
Corporation 1.0 to 2.0 t he curve would fall to gradually have the desi red effect
Note: I forgot to include another possible solution. Instead of Corporation 2.0
we could simply switch to an existing alternative: non-profit corporations. This
life form has proven to be relatively benign. Most non-profits are created to
benefit the common good in a specific manner, as stated in their charter.
J. Harich: Change Resistance as t he Crux 61
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This distant but pleasant alternative can be modeled. First let’s raise the deception
effectiveness to a more realistic level of 40 percent to see how bad change resistance
probably really is, and turn off the wakeup call catastrophe.
Run 6 shows adoption cost now spikes so high so fast that Adopted Proper Practices
never grow to more than about 15 percent of what’s needed to solve the problem. This
approximates the very low level of proper practices adopted so far. WCCs now fail to
solve the problem, no matter how big they are or what year they occur in. This too
approximates the fact that the recent WCC emissions data mentioned earlier did not
trigger problem solution.
It’s been about 200 years since the “cause” of the sustainability problem (the Industrial
Revolution, which greatly accelerated IPAT growth), so let’s see what happens if the
world switches to Corporation 2.0 in year 200 (with no transition delay for simplicity).
In run 7 we assume that half the force resisting change comes from for-profi t corpora-
tions, which is a conservative estimate. In year 200 half the normal force available to
resist change suddenly switches to the normal force available to solve all problems. No
change is made to anticipated net loss per proper practice, since that’s needed for the
adaptive response of other agents resisting change, such as a multitude of developing
Run 7 is just what we need. Adoption cost starts falling immediately. After a slight
delay Adopted Proper Practices soar. The maintenance budget is triggered in about 30
years and humanity at last enters the Age of Transition to Sustainability.
Resolving the root cause of change resistance
The reader should review the key assumptions run 7 depends on and verify they are
reasonably sound before concluding, as we have, that run 7 is realistically possible—if
we can overhaul the design of the modern corporation.
That’s a big if, because there will be strenuous resistance from the corporate life form
to loss of dominance. Large for-profi t corporations now control so much of the system
that it’s they who overwhelmingly infl uence legislation on their own defi nition, not
people. Activists cannot suddenly say “Please change your charter to Corporation 2.0”
and expect corporations and their many supporters to oblige, as demonstrated by the
failure of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts to have any more than minor
impact. (For why CSR fails see Reich, 2007, ch. 5.) How then are we going to push on
the high leverage point of changing the goal of the dominant agent if we can’t push
directly? Where is the root cause of change resistance to corporate redesign, so we can
push indirectly?
The root cause appears to be deception effectiveness high enough to thwart, weaken,
or delay changes that run counter to the goal of the corporate life form. Earlier we
explained how selfi sh special interests rely on deception to combat the truth. Deception
creates mistaken or false beliefs/values that become premises for further beliefs and/or
actions. The more impact a belief causes and the more people who believe it, the greater
the total impact. Over the last several centuries two high-impact beliefs have emerged
that deserve special attention:
Belief 1: corporations are good. The modern corporation is benevolent and essential
to society’s wellbeing. We should not change a good thing.
62 System Dynamics Review
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Belief 2: growth is good. The higher economic growth and the stock market are, the
better life will be for people, because gross domestic product (GDP) and the stock
market are the best overall indicators of a nation’s wellbeing.
0 100 200 300 400 500
Symptoms Understanding
Adopted Proper Practices
Fig. 10. Run 6: cha nge resistance, ef fectiveness = 40 percent
0 100 200 300 400 500
maintenance budget
Proper Practices
Fig. 11. Run 7: corporation 2.0 introduced i n year 200
These are the fundamental axioms behind the dominant paradigm of our age: that free
markets, driven by the invisible hand of corporate competition, offer citizens the best
of all possible material worlds, regardless of whether a nation is democratic, theocratic,
or socialist. (See, for example Reich, 2007, p. 7, who labels this global paradigm “super-
capitalism” and argues it has replaced democratic capitalism.) The fi rst belief has
J. Harich: Change Resistance as t he Crux 63
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DOI: 10.1002/sdr
become so accepted that in 1925 President Calvin Coolidge pronounced that, “The chief
business of the American people is business” (Coolidge, 1925). The success of the second
may be measured by the prevalence of GDP and stock market index news versus news
on quality of life indexes. The former outweighs the latter by several orders of
Both beliefs are only half true, however: (1) It’s true that corporations are helpful, but
it’s not true they are providing humans with a net benefi t, because wittingly or unwit-
tingly, they are leading the drive against sustainability (Beder, 2002). While something
like corporations are essential, their exact defi nition can be changed. Thus it is only
the production role of corporations that is essential, not the way they are currently
defi ned. (2) Higher economic growth benefi ts corporations via greater sales and profi ts.
It also benefi ts people by raising our standard of living. But as the inventor of GDP,
Simon Kuznets, observed, “The welfare of a nation [can] scarcely be inferred from a
measure of national income” (Kuznets, 1934, p. 7). GDP does not measure quality of life
once survival and security are assured. Nor does the stock market, which is really more
of a shrewd ploy to get as many people as possible to support the goals and behaviors
of corporations (Beder, 2006a, ch. 12: Shareholder democracy). Thus both beliefs are
But yet modern culture believes both beliefs are true. So true that the worst thing
that can happen to a country, short of war, is a recession or depression. Growth must
be continued at all costs. Economic growth and technological advances solve all prob-
lems, so the mantra goes. But as models like Forrester’s World2 showed long ago, this
is false. That doesn’t matter, however, because deception effectiveness is high enough
to convince most of the public, press, and politicians that solving economic problems
has a higher priority than solving environmental problems. For the latest proof, look at
the world’s response to the fi nancial meltdown of 2008, and compare that to the
response to the Stern Review of 2006 and the fourth IPCC report of 2007.
We have found the possible root cause behind the success of systemic change resis-
tance: high deception effectiveness. Now then, where is the related high leverage point
so we can resolve that root cause?
Ever since the Age of Reason in the 17th century, educated people have prided them-
selves on building theories and making decisions based on reason, rather than intuition,
tradition, emotion, or ideology. They don’t do it perfectly, but they make reasonable
decisions. They suf ce.
The model shows how those promoting their own agenda with deception effectiveness
have found a way to make history run backward. They have found a way to reliably
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. (See for example
Frank, 2004, which tries to fathom why people in Kansas consistently vote against their
own economic and social interests.)
But history could move forward again if we could push on the related high leverage
point of general ability to detect manipulative deception (not shown). This can be done
many ways, such as: universal education on how to detect common fallacies by some-
thing as simple as the Truth Test, which would lead to truth literacy and is just as vital
to the health of democracy as reading literacy (see Table 3); independent political truth
rating organizations like, except they would rate politicians over their
entire careers to arrive at average truth ratings; corporate environmental responsibility
64 System Dynamics Review
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ratings, at the level of individual corporations, industries and 1.0 versus 2.0 corpora-
tions; quality of life and sustainability indexes; and the many more ways activists will
discover as they start pushing on this high leverage point.
For example, in 1999 the U.S. Senate voted 95 to zero to reject the Kyoto Protocol,
despite a democratic President and a strongly pro-environmental Vice President, Al
Gore. The rationale was that “Developing Country Parties” were not included and the
treaty “would result in serious harm to the economy” (
KyotoSenate.html, retrieved 3 March 2009). If the above solution had been in place
people, the press, and politicians would have seen this as a blatantly unsound argument
for at least three reasons: (1) Stated plans were that developing nations would be
included later, and should not be included at rst because the bulk of emissions came
from developed nations. (2) Whatever harm a solution causes now will be much less
than the harm occurring later if the problem remains unsolved. (3) “Serious harm” was
an unproven overstated bogeyman and had been a common but false justi cation of
similar previous resistance.
Currently general ability to detect manipulative deception is abysmally low. But as it
starts to rise, deception effectiveness will start to fall. Soon it will fall so low the major-
ity of the population will see right through the two fallacious beliefs and many more.
Pilot Corporation 2.0 programs can then be tried and legislation for a transition to Cor-
poration 2.0 passed, eventually at the international level, and scenarios like run 7 can
become reality instead of one more pipe dream.
What about developing countries? Isn’t their change resistance a major factor that
must also be considered?
Less developed countries and industrialized 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 into
the global system. Conversion to Corporation 2.0 will remove the tendency to spread
this destructive meme and replace it with the urge to spread a benefi cial one, such as
the concept of moving from growth and ef ciency to suf ciency (Princen, 2005). This
is the same as “There are two possible routes to af uence. Either produce much, or
desire little” (Anon.).
Figure 12 summarizes how this example of systemic root cause resolution could work.
The leverage chain threads its way through the system in a manner that allows the rela-
tively small force of public interest activists to be suf cient to solve the problem pro-
Table 3. The tr uth test
1. What is the argu ment?
2. Are a ny common patterns of deception present?
3. Are t he premises true, complete, and relevant?
4. Does each conclusion follow f rom its premises?
The truth test is a simple test designed to tell whether a statement is true, false, or just plain nonsense. This
allows voters to tell reality from illusion. They can then answer the question every democracy depends on:
Is this trut h or deception?
By using pattern recognition you can determine the truth of most political appeals in little more than the time
it takes to hea r or read them. All that is required is to learn the patterns.
From [ret rieved 20 March 2009].
J. Harich: Change Resistance as t he Crux 65
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actively. The output of solving subproblem 1 becomes the critical solution element for
solving subproblem 2. Because of aligned goals the system is at last self-organizing in
the right direction, which quickly leads to proper coupling.
The leverage ratings (LR) come from Donella Meadows’ scale of leverage in Table 1
and are only relative rankings. The lower the number, the higher the leverage. Coopera-
tion is not explicitly mentioned in the scale, but probably rates a 4. If evolution of the
system toward proper coupling becomes driven by the right universal paradigm, then
the chain as a whole would rate a 2.
As radical as the above may seem, it pales in comparison to what it took to solve the
age-old problem of the arbitrary and often horrifi c rule of dictators, kings, warlords,
despots and other oppressive rulers. The solution was inconceivable long ago but is
intuitively obvious today: the addition of the voter feedback loop. This could also be
called the ruler benevolence feedback loop.
Is the system missing the corporate benevolence feedback loop?
Summary and Implications
Change resistance versus proper coupling allows a crucial distinction. Society is aware
of the proper practices required to live sustainably and the need to do so. But society
has a strong aversion to adopting these practices. As a result, problem solvers have
created thousands of effective (and often ingenious) proper practices. But they are
stymied in their attempts to have them taken up by enough of the system to solve the
problem because an “implicit system goal” is causing insurmountable change resis-
tance. Therefore systemic change resistance is the crux of the problem and must be
solved fi rst.
7 LR
truth test, truth ratings ,
corporate responsibility ratings,
QOL and sustainability indexes
general ability to detect
manipulative deception
high deception
high change resistance low change
rules of the game for
dominant life form
universal fallacious
improper coupling
mutually exclusive goals
of top two life forms
systemic disagreement
on what to do
Symptoms proper
Corp 2.0
8 LR 5 LR
3 LR
Subproblem 1.
How to overcome change resistance
Subproblem 2.
How to achieve proper coupling
4 LR
Solved State
Solved State
Causes 2 LR
Fig. 12. A leverage cha in perspective. Block a rrows represent state changes over t ime. Line arrows a re
infl uences. Not shown are the feedback loops essential to keep change resistance in the solved state
66 System Dynamics Review
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DOI: 10.1002/sdr
But that is not what environmentalists are doing.
Instead, in every case I’ve examined so far, problem-solving organizations, from
the Sierra Club and the Club of Rome all the way up to the United Nations Environ-
mental Programme and the European Union Environmental Directorate General, are
trying to solve only the proper coupling part of the problem. The same holds true for
researchers. I have yet to fi nd a single individual or organization focusing on the
systemic change resistance part of the problem, though there must be some. This shows
that problem solvers have spent the last 30 years trying to solve the wrong problem,
which is a striking conclusion that should send shockwaves throughout all of
Consider the old saying “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”
Problem solvers have been working on nding the water (fi nding proper practice solu-
tions) and leading horses to it (promoting those solutions and tediously putting them
under each horse’s nose, which is the strategy of changing one mind at a time). But that
is not working. What they should be working on instead is how to get all the horses to
simultaneously decide to drink.
A recent article in Science observed that “The civil rights movement provides a better
analogy for the climate challenge. Then, as now, entrenched special interests vigorously
opposed change. The piece ended with:
Of course, we need more research and technical innovation—money and genius are
always in short supply. But there is no purely technical solution for climate change.
For public policy to be grounded in the hard-won results of climate science, we
must now turn our attention to the dynamics of social and political change. (Sterman,
2008, italics added)
Could this be the next frontier of system dynamics?
1. The IPAT equation is a simpli cation of the three factors causing environmental deg-
radation: environmental Impact = Population × Affl uence (consumption per person) ×
Technology (impact per unit of consumption).
2. By “complete” we mean the top 11 of the 34 issues identi ed in the Scientifi c Committee
on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) study, as summarized in the UNEP’s Global
Environment Outlook 2000 on page 339. We have removed non-environmental degra-
dation symptoms like “poor governance” and “changing social values” because these
are potential causes, not symptoms. In order of importance the top 11 are climate
change, freshwater scarcity, deforestation and desertifi cation, freshwater pollution,
loss of biodiversity, air pollution, soil deterioration, ecosystem functioning, chemical
pollution, stratospheric ozone depletion, and natural resource depletion. To date only
one of these, ozone depletion, has been solved. If we can solve the top 11 problems we
can solve them all. See
3. We’ve not found a measurement of general political deception to prove this assertion,
but observe system behavior: Think back to any important political decision, whether
it was who to elect, what position to support, which party to support, or even what
long-term values people should adopt. Of the arguments presented by those trying to
infl uence these decisions, how many were neutral and factual and how many were
J. Harich: Change Resistance as t he Crux 67
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biased and employed rationalizations, fallacies, or outright lies? My own personal
estimate is that over 90 percent fall into the second category, because most parties to
a political issue are driven by the competitive need to bend the facts and reasoning to
suit their own interests. But don’t take my word alone for this:
“We live in a world of spin. It fl ies at us in the form of misleading commercials for
products and political candidates and about public policy matters. It comes from busi-
ness, political leaders, lobbying groups, and political parties. Millions are deceived
every day . . . ‘Spin’ is a polite word for deception” (Jackson and Jamieson, 2007,
pp. vii–viii).
. . . the history of politics and public opinion in this century can be written in terms
of the uses of often deceptive public relations techniques to ‘engineer consent’ among
the governed” (Bennett and Entman, 2000, p. 282).
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions
of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate
this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true
ruling power of our country” (the opening lines of Propaganda, by Edward Bernays,
1928). Bernays fathered what came to be known as public relations by pioneering tech-
niques for the shaping and manipulation of public opinion, which he labeled the
“engineering of consent.”
In democracies, most political decision in uence energy goes into discourse rather
than force, political donations, bribes, etc. If a line of discourse carries favor with the
majority of the target decision makers (politicians, voters, reporters, etc.) it usually
wins. From this we conclude that “deception appears to play the largest role in infl u-
encing political decision making.”
4. The non-eligible portion might go to areas like public costs for the index program,
helping those hurt by that company’s low level of performance, R&D on proper practices,
assistance to fi rms in developing countries, etc. Negative or low indexes would serve
as a survival of the fi ttest gate. Over 100 percent might lead to awards, a share of the
non-eligible portion of other corporations, a “surplus fund” to offset future shortfalls,
etc. Perverse incentives must be avoided.
Corporate servant indexes would be included in advertisements and printed on
product packaging and literature, so that customers could make more informed deci-
sions. This is a critical new feedback loop.
5. A recent survey of empirical applications shows that at present, no scholar even has
worked out the theoretical foundations of a capability-index of life quality, let alone
engaged in the work of operationalizing and testing empirically such a quality index.
Thus in the prevailing state of the art, developing a capability-index is a pioneering
task” (Robeyns and van der Veen, 2007, p. 57). But so was inventing modern
Index calculation is complex, potentially expensive, and fraught with subjective
opinion. The index as described may be unworkable. Thus the index and other changes
are intended only as a placeholder example. But if we keep it simple at fi rst, there is a
way forward.
6. About replacing profi t maximization: please don’t interpret this to mean we are saying
profi ts are bad. In a modern economy, corporate profi ts are as necessary as the people
profi ts employees make from selling their labor. It is only the blind or overly selfi sh
pursuit of profi t that is harmful.
68 System Dynamics Review
Copyright © 2010 Joh n Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Syst. Dyn. Rev. 26, 35–72 (2010)
DOI: 10.1002/sdr
7. For example, the immediate causes of the meltdown of 2008 were (roughly) the huge
amount of mortgages and other loans that should never have been made, loan resales
(which thwarted a key feedback loop), unreliable ratings, and the unhealthy capital
ratios of large fi nancial institutions, all mostly in the U.S.A. and Europe. The cause of
that was insuf cient regulation. The cause of that was the profi t motive of 1.0 corpora-
tions, which caused them to promote lax regulation and to compete to fi nd evermore
exotic ways to keep short-term profi ts growing, no matter what problems that might
cause later.
See for how one nation,
India, avoided these mistakes by not allowing their banking system to be controlled
by corporate interests. “Unlike Alan Greenspan, who didn’t believe it was his job to
even point out bubbles, much less try to defl ate them, Mr. Reddy saw his job as making
sure Indian banks did not get too caught up in the bubble mentality.
A hearty thanks to the editor, two referees, a member of the system dynamics commu-
nity, and a sustainability business manager for help in bringing this paper up to a robust
Jack Harich is a systems engineer, BS ISyE Georgia Institute of Technology. After 20
years of small business management and consulting, in 2001 he founded
in order to help solve the global environmental sustainability problem and began work
as an independent researcher. His work focuses on the importance of process in solving
dif cult social problems, a comprehensive process-driven analysis of the complete
problematique of the sustainability problem, and practical applications of theoretical
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Appendix: model availability and equations
The simulation model may be downloaded from the online version of this article or A free version of Vensim PLE capable of running and editing the model
may be obtained from
adoption delay = 20 years
allocation to discovery = 5%
allocation to magnify = 30%
allocation to promotion = 10%
anticipated net loss per proper practice = 100 $/practice
APP lifetime = 50 years
awareness cost = 50 $/practice
awareness delay = 10 years
budget implementation delay = 10 years
catastrophe duration = 10 years
catastrophe size = 0 QOL units/year
catastrophe start year = year 70
competing net loss of other problems = $10,000
competing unsolved problems = 500 QOL units/year
cost reduction for 100% understanding = 70%
deception effectiveness = 0%
discovery delay = 5 years
effect delay = 3 years
force erosion per symptom unit = 70 $/QOL unit
force needed for maintenance budget = 6000 $/year
max discovery cost = 300 $/practice
maximum adoption unit cost = 5000 $/practice
maximum problem impact = 100 QOL units/year
memory lifetime = 2 years
normal force available to solve all problems = 10,000 $/year
normal force available to resist change = 50,000 $/year
one year = 1 year
overemphasis on recent events percent = 50%
percent solved budget threshold = 40%
proper practices needed for solution = 100 practices
resistance delay = 10 years
solution delay = 30 years
symptoms delay = 200 years
understanding delay = 10 years
understanding lifetime = 50 years
J. Harich: Change Resistance as t he Crux 71
Copyright © 2010 Joh n Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Syst. Dyn. Rev. 26, 35–72 (2010)
DOI: 10.1002/sdr
All stocks are calculated by integrals of inputs minus outputs.
actual symptoms = DELAY3I (intermediate causes, symptoms delay, intermediate
causes intermediate causes) + wakeup call catastrophe
adoption cost adoption unit cost curve (change resistance ratio) × maximum adoption
unit cost × effect of catastrophe on adoption cost
adoption rate = MIN (magnify the truth/(adoption cost × (1 cost reduction)), Well
Known Proper Practices/one year)
allocation to understanding = MAX (0, 1 (allocation to discovery + allocation to
magnify + allocation to promotion))
anticipated net loss to affected agents = anticipated net loss per proper practice ×
(Discovered Proper Practices + Well Known Proper Practices)
awareness rate = MIN (promote the truth/(awareness cost × (1 cost reduction)),
Discovered Proper Practices/one year)
change resistance ratio = DELAY3I (force committed to resisting change × deception
effectiveness/magnify the truth, resistance delay, 0)
cost reduction = Symptoms Understanding × cost reduction for 100 percent
discover the truth = DELAY3 (force committed to solving this problem × allocation to
discovery, discovery delay)
discovery cost = discovery cost curve (total proper practices/proper practices needed
for solution) × max discovery cost × (1 cost reduction)
discovery rate = discover the truth/discovery cost
effect of catastrophe on adoption cost = DELAY3I (MAX (0, XIDZ (actual symptoms
infl ated catastrophe, actual symptoms, 1)), effect delay, 1)
force available to resist change = MAX (0, normal force available to resist change
(actual symptoms × force erosion per symptom unit))
force available to solve all problems = MAX (0, normal force available to solve all
problems (actual symptoms × force erosion per symptom unit))
force committed to resisting change = force available to resist change × motivation to
resist solving problem
force committed to solving this problem = (force available to solve all problems ×
motivation to solve problem) + maintenance budget
forget it’s important rate = Well Known Proper Practices/memory lifetime
Fig. 13. Lookup tables
72 System Dynamics Review
Copyright © 2010 Joh n Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Syst. Dyn. Rev. 26, 35–72 (2010)
DOI: 10.1002/sdr
infl ated catastrophe = PULSE (catastrophe start year, catastrophe duration ×
(1 + overemphasis of recent events percent)) × catastrophe size × (1 + overemphasis
of recent events percent)
intermediate causes = DELAY3I (1 percent of problem solved, solution delay) ×
maximum problem impact
magnify the truth = DELAY3 (force committed to solving this problem × allocation to
magnify, adoption delay)
maintenance budget = DELAY3 (IF THEN ELSE (percent of problem solved percent
solved budget threshold, force needed for maintenance budget, 0), budget imple-
mentation delay)
motivation to resist solving problem = anticipated net loss to affected agents/
(anticipated net loss to affected agents + competing net loss of other problems)
motivation to solve problem = unsolved predicted symptoms/(unsolved predicted
symptoms + competing unsolved symptoms)
obsolescence rate = Adopted Proper Practices/APP lifetime
predicted symptoms = (Symptoms Understanding × intermediate causes) + ((1
Symptoms Understanding) × actual symptoms)
promote the truth = DELAY3 (force committed to solving this problem × allocation to
promotion, awareness delay)
SU growth rate = DELAY3 (SU work start rate, understanding delay)
SU work start rate = (force committed to solving this problem × allocation to under-
standing)/understanding cost
total proper practices = Discovered Proper Practices + Well Known Proper Practices
+ Adopted Proper Practices
understanding cost = understanding cost curve (SU Work In Progress + Symptoms
understanding loss rate = Symptoms Understanding/understanding lifetime
unsolved predicted symptoms = (1 percent of problem solved) × predicted
wakeup call catastrophe = PULSE (catastrophe start year, catastrophe duration) ×
catastrophe size
adoption unit cost curve = [(0,0)-(100,1)], (0,0.05), (5,0.15), (11.5,0.27), (23.5294,0.448399),
(42.5882,0.679715), (64,0.864769), (83.7647,0.960854), (100,1)
discovery cost curve = [(0,0)-(1,1)], (0,0.05), (0.23,0.13), (0.42,0.25), (0.62,0.4), (0.77,0.55),
(0.88,0.7), (0.95,0.85), (1,1)
understanding cost curve = [(0,0)-(1,400000)], (0,1),(0.167059,1779.36), (0.352941,6049.82),
(0.55,17000), (0.694,36300), (0.809412,68327.4), (0.9012,124000), (1,250000)
... It can also have affective, cognitive and behavioural components that create a psychological resistance to making a change in particular situations. According to Harich (2010), "resistance to change is the tendency for a system to continue its current behaviour, despite the application of force to change that behaviour". Resistance itself is a representation of different power relations in an organisation that has aptitude to sway the cause of the change process (Courpasson and Vallles, 2016); any dissenting actions that slow, oppose and/or obstruct a change effort (Armenakis and Harris, 2009); or as observable deeds, conduct, and event that prevent the cause of change (Fiedler, 2010;Lines et al., 2014). ...
... Other studies also identified culture of resistance to change behaviour as key issue militating against the implementation of sustainable construction practices in the construction industry (Al Amri and Marey-Pérez, 2020;Ametepey et al., 2015;Djokoto et al., 2014;Olowosile et al., 2019;Pham et al., 2020;Powmya and Abidin, 2014;Wong et al., 2018). Specifically, Harich (2010) and Harich et al. (2012) link the failure of human system to solve the problems of sustainability over the last two decades to the resistance to change. Wong et al. (2018) identifies resistance to practice change within the contractors' firms as one of the key barriers to more extensive adoption of prefabrication. ...
... Although the more sustainable product could be used in specific circumstances, the user keeps preferring a less sustainable alternative in some conditions [59]; • The users' needs get changed and/or they can be fulfilled in new ways and the EDP is not sufficiently exploited [60]. ...
Full-text available
Eco-designed products can contribute to sustainable development if consumers choose them rather than the less environmentally friendly alternatives and if they are used properly. However, eco-design methods have so far failed to address the issue of unsustainable behaviors, whose sources have not been recognized. In light of this deficiency, the authors have analyzed a large number of eco-designed products with the aim to capture the possible unsustainable behaviors arising from their use and consumption. The subsequent characterization of unsustainable behaviors has led to the creation of a framework of unsustainable behaviors, which has been subjected to the evaluation of a pool of experts in the field. In its final version, the framework includes nine classes of unsustainable behaviors, which are categorized into the corresponding product lifecycle phases (purchase, use, end of life), and different kinds of undesired effects (harmful, insufficient, excessive) based on the TRIZ-oriented functional analysis. The classes, whose significance has been checked in the literature, include frequent causes of unsustainable behaviors and corresponding examples. Through the framework, designers can take into due account the possible circumstances that would prevent their developed products from being prone to unsustainable behaviors. In a future step, the classes of unsustainable behaviors are to be linked with indications arising from Design for Sustainable Behavior.