System change: introduction

“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.”

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