A nonconfrontational strategy for social change

In “Heal the world. A solution-focused systems therapy approach to capitalism and growth” (in press, Journal of Cleaner Production), Steffen Roth argues for a nonconfrontational approach to social change. Roth writes,

As careful observers of the state of the world, environmentalists often feel the natural impulse not only to interpret this world in various ways but also to change it. As the need for urgent change could not be more obvious . . . (citations omitted), there is serious concern about the slow pace of this change as well as the still considerable resistance faced by those concerned with the prevention of the self-extinction of the human race. The dominant strategy to speed up change is to confront sceptics and resisters with the sheer omnipresence of warning signs that indicate the severe side-effects of decades of unsustainable growth.

But, in interpersonal contexts, confronting someone directly and “showing them the error of their ways” often backfires. The other person reacts defensively, digging in and finding new arguments to support their current views; therefore, indirect, oblique tactics tend to work better. Thus, we might have better success by “strategically ignoring” (Roth) the actual problem and redirecting the person’s (or social system’s) attention to something else. In other words, rather than using political arguments or other political means to produce social change, we can use economic media (buying power), as in boycotts. Or we can use art to indirectly (as a side-effect of pursuing art for its own sake) promote social change. Technological innovation also produces unexpected, unanticipated social change.

As Roth observes, confrontational approaches are problem-focused, and they tend to sharpen or multiply problems. Problem solvers may also become co-dependent on their targeted problems. An organization might form to solve a particular problem, but the organization, as operationally autonomous social system (Luhmann, 2012), finds ways to reproduce itself, possibly even forgetting about the original reason for its formation.

If we want to save the human species or “heal the world” by curbing capitalist expansion, we might promote zero-growth or even degrowth. But such movements rely heavily on moral arguments—for example,it is immoral to bequeath to our children and grandchildren an unlivable climate—and moral arguments often produce the opposite of the intended effect.

A better approach, perhaps even more radical approach, as Roth argues, might be to promote growth in other areas of society. For instance, we can expand the art world (or more precisely, art-based communication), which is one of the functional subsystems of society in Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory. Or we can expand science, education, healthcare, etc. Moreover, the art, science, or education doesn’t have to be explicitly anti-capitalist. This is an important point. Art, science, education,and healthcare, sport, etc., should, ideally, function as ends in themselves. If an artist sets out to produce anti-capitalist, ant-consumerist, anti-patriarchal, or anti-something-else art, then the targeted system will perceive the threat and fight back. The targeted system may even gain strength, like a targeted species of mosquito or cockroach. Thus, the indirect, nonconfrontational approach might be the better option.

As an unintended consequence, or fortunate accident, one of these marginalized social systems might actually solve some of the problems created by carbon capitalism. Yet, any such unintended consequence must be kept in the system’s “blind spot”; that is to say, it cannot be brought clearly into focus. That’s what an unintended consequence is. Logically, we cannot intentionally produce an unintended consequence.

If we want to heal the world, we might look for an effective treatment or therapy. In this context, Roth contrasts solution-focused and problem-focused therapies. A problem-focused therapy, which is the traditional approach, seeks greater understanding of the problem—the diagnosed condition. But greater understanding or insight doesn’t necessarily alleviate the pain or save the patient. But fortunately, compressive understanding of the problem isn’t necessary. As Roth writes,

Within a solution-oriented framework . . . there is no need for a particularly comprehensive or sophisticated account of the problem to develop effective solutions.

In fact, if we follow the logic of science, understanding the problem becomes an end it itself. Science, qua science, seeks greater understanding of climate change, depression, terrorism, breast cancer, or any other identified problem without any overt concern for solving the problem. Researching the problem is fascinating in itself. But in the case of something like cancer, the healthcare system (a separate, operationally distinct social system) attaches itself “parasitically” to science, using the results of “pure” science for its own ends. Engineering does the same thing. The political system (defined in social systems theory as a system of collectively binding communication) can also use the results of climatology to fashion public policy. The political system doesn’t require a sophisticated understand of the global climate. In terms of capitalism, all politics really need to understand is that the expansion of carbon-fueled production and consumption, or carbon capitalism (Muzi, 2015), is making our planet unlivable.

An underlying assumption of capitalism is that the economy is the most important or fundamental feature of any society. Economic production (its means and relations) is the foundation, or base, of the social superstructure.But why does the economy have to be the central or dominant function system of society? The answer is, it doesn’t. It fact, the economy is not the dominant function system because, given the complexity of contemporary global society, there can be no dominant function system. In social systems theory, politics, art, education, religion, science, law, mass media, etc., are not elements of a superstructure; rather, they are operationally autonomous social systems. The economy is not more basic than law, politics, art, education, or anything other function system of society.

Under the economy-based model, Gross Domestic Product is the prime indicator is a well-functioning society. But we can prioritize different kinds of growth (e.g., greater access to healthcare, greater access to education, better (non-waste producing) technology). But there is no central social system, such as a world government, that can decide to focus on a particular goal. Nothing is steering the ship of global society. But if we encourage the growth and autonomy of other areas of society, we might indirectly or accidentally solve the problems created by carbon capitalism.


Di Muzio, Tim. Carbon Capitalism: Energy,Social Reproduction and World Order. London; New York: Rowman & Littlefield International,2015.

Luhmann, Niklas, and Barrett, Rhodes. Theory of Society Volume 1. Cultural Memory in the Present. Stanford, Calif.: StanfordUniversity Press, 2012.

Roth S. (in press), Heal the world. A solution-focused systemstherapy approach to environmental problemsJournal of Cleaner Production.


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