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  • System change - introduction

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    “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” – Ursula Le Guin

    The system we’re talking about is the ‘political economy’ – the combination of political and economic power embodied in the current state-corporate alliance. We don’t believe that the crises of ecology and democracy that we’re facing can be solved within the existing political economy. Neither do we believe that the current system is inevitable – systems have always changed and always will. Below are what we see as the main factors affecting the need for, and potential for, system change.

    Human nature

    Most people are perfectly nice – kind, friendly, honest and with a desire to leave the world a better place than they found it. But some people aren’t. It’s only a small minority, but some people are selfish, greedy and ruthless. The problem is that in this system, those kinds of people will do very well, and reach positions of influence. In fact, the current system is biased in favour of those people. And so we need a new system – one that rewards good qualities rather than bad ones. The problem is not ‘human nature’, and it’s not enough to replace corrupt people at the top of the corporate ladder, because similar people will quickly replace them. People die, and companies come and go – think Lehman Brothers or Enron. The problem is the system itself.

    An opinion which perhaps embodies why we need systemic change
    Alan Sugar on the Apprentice: “She is ruthless. She’ll walk over anybody, chew them up for breakfast and spit them out. That’s what I like about her.”

    Lifestyle change

    Most of this website is about ways in which people can change their lives, one topic at a time. But it’s not enough, because not enough people will do it. Think about the most popular food, furniture or clothing brands, retail outlets, newspapers, magazines, TV programmes and books; about the ubiquity of advertising; about the most popular political parties; about the ability of the corporate media to shape opinions – then ask yourself if enough people are going to change. The corporate system we live under, apart from promoting bad human qualities, is inherently damaging to nature and to democracy, and therefore has to be replaced. Lifestyle change without systemic change is like serving organic food on the Titanic – it looks like a sustainable thing to do until you step back and see the whole picture.

    Revolution or reform

    If we need system change as well as lifestyle change, does that mean violent overthrow of the current system? Well, that’s been tried before, and the people who take power by force always end up keeping it by force. Karl Marx’s revolutionary idea was the last (implementable) one as far as system change is concerned – but the 20th century showed that it wasn’t the right one. Some will say that Marx’s idea was never really tried – but if we go down the route of violent revolution, strongmen take centralised power, inevitably resulting in totalitarianism.

    The scale of ecological damage (and the fact that it’s not stopping, or even slowing down) is too great for regulation – even if we could elect governments that will bring in the right regulation; and that’s a very big if. Today, we don’t get to vote for where the real power is, due to the predominance of economic power over political power.

    Mikhail Bakunin
    Mikhail Bakunin warned Marx that his approach would result in totalitarianism.


    So if lifestyle change is not enough, and neither voting nor violence bring meaningful change, what’s the solution? But before you put forward your favourite idea, remember that it has to be implementable. It’s a waste of time saying that your idea is to switch power to local, democratic institutions, or to get corporate money out of politics, or to stop war or manufacturing weapons if you don’t have a strategy to make it happen. We can all wish for things that are basically unimplementable – that’s the easy part.

    Taking a ‘left’ or a ‘right’ position affects implementability. We all have to talk – Christians to Muslims, vegans to hunters, socialists to conservatives. If we don’t talk, we’ll divide into camps that can only result in stalemate. Left and right can surely agree that we need a system that is sustainable, democratic and community-building – which the current system is clearly not.

    Michael Moore and Ron Paul
    It’s not about left v right any more.


    Some people point to new technologies and suggest that they could be used to help us transition to a system of pure democracy – electronic referenda on all issues, for example. That may well be an improvement on the current corporate system, but a potential problem is that the vast majority of people don’t really understand the issues, and many people will vote in their own self-interest rather than in the interest of all. This could be very bad news for minorities or for the environment. This kind of pure democracy has been described as ‘two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner’.

    So what about no state at all? Well, without government we’d need to organise well to prevent corporations from running the show (although some, like Kevin Carson argue persuasively that multinational corporations would lose their ‘economies of scale’ without state assistance).

    There are other issues around technology: cloning, nuclear weaponry, genetic modification, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence – all these things present huge risks for the future of humanity. Currently, decisions about whether we use these technologies or not are made on the basis of how much money can be made from them, which is clearly a bad idea – but in a stateless society, who would make those decisions?

    Let’s start discussing ideas. People who suggest this are often ridiculed for not already having the big idea that will change the world, as Jeremy Paxman did to Russell Brand. But that’s asking too much of an individual, and it may not be a good idea to have a blueprint for what a new system would look like. We have to start talking.

    Meanwhile a new economic system is being built that can transcend the current one. Many see the economy, rather than the political system as the real source of power (in the West at least), and so we need to focus on ‘transcending‘ to a new economy before we can possibly have a truly democratic, sustainable political economy.

    Paxman and Brand discussing the need for systemic change
    Whatever you think of Russell Brand, it’s unfair to expect him to come up with a new system in a TV interview, just because he’s not too keen on this one.

    To summarise

    1. It’s not about corrupt individuals or corporations – the problem is the system itself.
    2. Individual lifestyle change is essential, but not enough, because only a minority will do it.
    3. Violent revolution never delivers democracy, and voting delivers only superficial change.
    4. Any new idea has to be implementable.
    5. We need to change the economic system to allow real democracy.

    The specialist(s) below will respond to queries on this topic. Please comment in the box at the bottom of the page.

    Roar Bjonnes is co-founder of Systems Change Alliance, a long-time environmental activist and writer on ecology and alternative economics, which he terms eco-economics. He was the editor of the American Common Future magazine in the mid-90s, which featured some of the first articles taking a critical look at the so-called sustainable development model. He is co-author of Growing a New Economy, which outlines the framework for an eco-economy and which world-renowned environmentalist Bill McKibben calls “a hopeful account of the possibilities contained in our current crisis.”

    The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's

    13 Comments on System change

    • Denise - August 18th, 2016

      I want to start off by saying that I really like and emphatically agree with the above analysis! You are perfectly right — and my comments here endevour to build on and deepen what you have said.

      First staying generally on the level of thought you have used here, another difficulty you will run into with both incremental change and systemic change is that the current system will defend itself (like it did with Communism during the red-scare and Cold War.). Any idea to be implementable needs to look good to those ruthless ones among us as well as those who get to be deemed the “losers” of that system. That is, it ought to be a win-win scenario like the folks who teach NonViolent Communication are fond of creating. (Just maybe the current system isn’t really a win even for the winners.)

      But there is another way I like to look at how it is that we find ourselves in this system — it involves becoming conscious of the story it has all of us living out. To put it succinctly, this current system’s story is we all are engaged in an all out competitive battle of one extreme winner and lots of extreme losers — to risk everything to be that lucky one is completely normal behavior for people living this story. As I write this the Olympics in Brazil are in process — and the efforts (and risky drugs) the athletes in those games choose for themselves are an apt example of this story being played out.

      We do NOT have to live our lives and judge ourselves winners and losers by this story. An easy to point to alternative is the story where we take pleasure in the pleasure of the people around us — for most people that is what feels right too. If enough people become conscious of having a choice, then in lots of little ways we can consciously choose to live a better story.

      Do you see anything worthwhile in this (even if I didn’t get it all precisely right)?

      • Dave Darby

        August 18th, 2016

        Hi Denise. I agree entirely – including that a system that involves environmental destruction and war doesn’t really constitute victory for the ‘winners’ – there’s no bunker that you can build to protect yourself from environmental collapse. But I can’t see any way to convince the people who’ve climbed to the top of the greasy pole that anything that reduces their wealth and therefore power is a good thing. So they’re going to kick against it, and they hold all the cards, so it’s going to be difficult.
        I agree with you about the olympics too – I watched an interview with someone involved with funding team GB. She talked about ‘return on investment’ rather than any kind of enjoyment of sport. I also read about the Brazilians deforesting a mountain to build a ski run – in the tropics!
        It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation with individual change isn’t it? I think that within this system, not enough people are going to be able to change to make a difference – they would be swimming against the tide, and I don’t see any evidence that enough people are prepared to do that.
        Ultimately, I think that if and when (and it has to be when) there’s a viable and implementable new system on the horizon, it has to be embedded in communities, and involve the families of soldiers and the police (and even soldiers and police themselves), because they will be the people who will be asked to use violence to prevent its implementation. Soldiers and police are people too.

    • Alex Hutter - September 29th, 2016

      Seems to me we need to rethink the mechanisms of progress we are using .. for example so long as profit & influence is the goal, altruistic, creative behavior is stifled. Our current system is set up very carefully to suppress community, invention & promote authoritarian instruction .. this I feel is the linchpin that must be addressed, so long as people think & act in terms of profits, influence .. so long as who says a thing is more important than what is being said we will be fighting a losing battle.

      • Dave Darby

        September 29th, 2016

        Hi Alex. Thanks for coming over from Facebook. I have an issue with debates on FB, for 2 reasons – 1. the debate is lost in FB history, and 2. Facebook is corporate, and then we have the hideous spectacle of Zuckerberg telling us how he’s going to change the world, without any embarrassment about the fact that actually, we need to be deciding that democratically, not allowing an individual who has made an obscene amount of money via a system that is destroying ecology and democracy, to make those kinds of decisions.

        Yes, of course, changing our own lives, changing personal behaviour, is part of the change that’s required if we’re going to avoid ecological collapse and achieve some sort of democracy. It’s essential, but not enough, because not enough people are going to do it. We’re comfortable in the West. People sit, watching their giant, flat-screen TVs, and they know for sure that they don’t want to risk something like Aleppo happening to them and their family. They make a pact with the corporate-state alliance – work for the corporate sector, get a mortgage with the corporate sector, rack up credit card debt with the corporate sector, buy from the corporate sector, don’t learn about what’s happening to ecology, don’t think about sweatshops, don’t worry about the power structure, and the likelihood of bombs being dropped on your town, or being shot in the street will be minimal. Most people accept that deal, and get angry if challenged on it.

        Luckily, it only takes a very small percentage of the population to get things happening. We have that small percentage already – and I’m sure you’re one of them. What we don’t have is an implementable plan to take power from the corporate sector, and without that, there’s lots of shouting, lots of posturing (and lots of great things happening too, of course), but nothing that challenges the power of those at the top of the corporate-state alliance. Their grip on power gets tighter every day. Nothing that is happening currently is giving them any sleepless nights. I’d like to give them sleepless nights, and I’d like to have conversations with like-minded people about how we do it.

    • Yan Golding - July 7th, 2017

      Brilliant piece. Full aligned with this practical proposal for “us” to promote the alternative models and solutions. Would love to hear your feedback.

    • Dave Thorne - August 19th, 2018

      All very interesting stuff and it’s essential to bounce these ideas around. However, most people will find the prospect of getting rid of the current economic, political and monetary systems daunting and unworkable for various reasons. I think we humans should draw influence from bacteria, yeasts and microbiomes generally. .. . Bear with me… In those communities, monocultures don’t work well, and diversity is the only way to achieve balance. The more different ways of working, the better the balance. Some ways will fail, some will thrive. Some will proliferate almost uncontrollably, like capitalism. However, new ideas can always start, and if they are good ideas they will always gain traction. The key thing is adaptability. If you could watch a community of bacteria, you would see constant change as different species grow, thrive, struggle, and generally maintain a multicultural balance by diversity and constant state of flux.
      I’m all for living without money. But many aren’t. The solutions involve finding ways for money to be less important, not gone. You can’t eradicate greed, so accept it and find ways to lessen it’s impact on your small community. A common credits system is just a hyper organised version of, for example, helping your neighbour and being given a bag of veg in return.
      If you try responding to the needs of your fellow human without asking for money in return, and do this enough without seeking reward, and you then vocalise some need or other, you will find people respond by helping you in return. This is the most human behaviour you can experience. We don’t need a system change. We need an attitude change. The system will alter as a result of being less important to people. Pooling resources and sharing risk is a model used by all large corporations, insurance companies, banks etc. If we as humans behave more like those corporations, by sharing risk and resources, and lessening our outgoings, increasing our productivity and diversifying our portfolios in terms of skillsets, shared assets and increase back scratching, and favours, we will do well. In doing so, we can become less dependent on the state, while contributing less to it and more to our local community, and all the while we will be contributing less to the coffers of the big corporations. We don’t need to topple them, we just need to become more independent from them and actually mimick them. Let those who like stock markets and enterprise continue. We still need large companies to invent design build and make innovative technologies such as power generation systems, transport systems, food production innovations, clothing etc. But they don’t need to control us and isolate us into monocultures. Be the bacterial change you want to see in the world, but don’t expect to eradicate those who don’t agree with you. Any thoughts?

    • Dave Darby - August 20th, 2018

      Dave Thorne – what’s your implementation plan for ‘attitude change’? Why and how do you think it might happen?

      I don’t think that we need multinational corporations for any of the things you mention. Imho, we don’t need ‘innovative technologies’ – right now we need to take a step back to try to see where our technocentric worldview is taking us, and it’s not pretty.

      The trouble with the corporate sector is that it won’t be content sitting on the margins, or sharing ownership of the economy. It wants it all. Corporate political donations, jobs for politicians and its lobby industry will ensure that it retains control, thereby sidestepping democracy, promoting perpetual growth and hence ecological destruction.

    • Mark Charles - August 20th, 2018

      Your article is exactly what of been trying to get across many platforms and i have written a book, Something to Think About @amazon.com which has just about everything you have stated. I believe that the only way we can have a better system is to get rid of MONEY and control the human overpopulation. I know that this is practically impossible to do, but there doesn’t seem to be any other way as humans have been brainwashed to think that life is all about MONEY.

    • Dave Darby - August 21st, 2018

      Mark – don’t want to get into the overpopulation debate, as it’s so huge. But it’s not impossible to develop a system that’s not based on money, and especially the concentration of money, which is so damaging to democracy. We’re developing a national network of small businesses who are prepared to trade with each other using mutual / collaborative credit. If we can then persuade larger companies (and especially co-operatives) to join to serve those small businesses, we have to basis of a very interesting trading bloc, operating via credit and not money. Never say never. See https://www.lowimpact.org/lowimpact-topic/collaborative-credit/. Sign up to our newsletter to receive news about it.

    • 6degrees - June 24th, 2021

      What do you mean with credit and not money?

    • Dave Darby - June 25th, 2021

      6degrees – https://www.lowimpact.org/lowimpact-topic/mutual-credit/

    • 6degrees - June 25th, 2021

      I have read the article but money has been pretty universal in societies larger than 150 people. Money has always been a means of exchange but wealth never left the community because it was usually a small city where wealth balanced out (more or less). What exactly is the difference between credit and money. From what I understand mutual credit is a means of trade between small bossiness’s the credit can’t leave and there is no growth in how many units there are to ratio of business’s. You also can’t make money of of another’s work. Did I get that wrong?

    • Dave Darby - June 25th, 2021

      6degrees – money hasn’t been universal; most people throughout history never saw money as in coinage or official currency notes. Wealth always left the community – the origins of money lie in rulers issuing coins to soldiers / shipbuilders / masons, who were provisioned by other subjects to obtain the coinage to pay taxes. See https://www.lowimpact.org/a-brief-history-of-money/ (where are you getting your info from?)
      ‘mutual credit is a means of trade between small bossiness’s’ – yes
      ‘the credit can’t leave’ – it can – groups can federate globally – http://www.creditcommons.net/ (actually, that’s complicated. See https://www.lowimpact.org/lowimpact-topic/mutual-credit/ again). But trade between groups needs to balance.
      ‘there is no growth in how many units there are to ratio of business’s’ – not sure I completely understood. the amount of credit depends on the amount of trade. But total credits = total debits (if one account goes into credit, another account has to go into the same amount of debit).
      ‘You also can’t make money of of another’s work’ – it certainly makes it more difficult – a great benefit, imo.

    • 6degrees - June 25th, 2021

      Interesting. I hadn’t yet read a brief history of money. I always thought that it came from economies expanding past the human threshold and needing a “myth” of trust. That also makes sense. (I meant to say business’s sorry). What do you mean by groups need to balance?
      That really helps to clear things up for me! Trade (exchange) can increase infinitely but the amount of wealth or credit cannot. If a business joins does it start with credit or can it “borrow” from the system. Is it possible to profit from someone else’s work though?

    • Dave Darby - June 26th, 2021

      ‘What do you mean by groups need to balance?’ – just that trade needs to balance. the value of what groups ‘import’ has to balance what they ‘export’.
      ‘If a business joins does it start with credit or can it “borrow” from the system.’ – you start at zero, and go into credit when you sell, or debit when you buy.
      ‘Is it possible to profit from someone else’s work though?’ – with a network of small businesses / sole traders, no, not that I can see. When / if the big boys get involved, and start to pay wages in mutual credit, they won’t pay the full value of someone’s work (or they won’t have anything left over to give to those who do no work!), but anything could happen in the mean time – would shareholders or corps be interested in the mutual credit world? I think they’re more likely to lean on governments to try to ban it. After all, they can’t dump it in tax havens. But if it spreads widely among small businesses, it might severely weaken the corporate sector.

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    The human impact on nature and on each other is accelerating and needs systemic change to reverse.

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