Complete system change?

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (Natalie Louise Bennett), a UK Green Party Peer, recently discussed a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. She wrote, in part,

A lot of the immediate reaction to the IPCC report has focused on technology. On ending the use of fossil fuels, fast, and replacing their energy with solar panels and wind turbines, the petrol and diesel cars with electric. These are things we must do in the next 10 years, that we have the technological capacity to do if we have the will. But none of that will be enough, or fast enough.

You can’t fix broken food, energy, or economic systems – let alone environmental systems – with the practices that broke them.

Greens have long been saying, “system change not climate change”. You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet . . .

Business-as-usual with different technologies is not going to turn around this tide of destruction. The cleanest, greenest energy you can have is the energy you don’t need to use. The most energy-efficient journey is the one not made. The least polluting packaging is the packaging not used.

There’s no shortage of ideas, or demonstrations of the benefits from trials of a myriad of social innovations. For example, a universal basic income; a four-day working week as standard with no loss of pay; investment in education and skills for a healthy, productive life, not just exams and paid jobs; a caring economy with decently paid carers with time to give the cared-for the help they need; local food webs providing healthy vegetables and fruit; walking and cycling made the natural option for short journeys and public transport for longer; rewilding our countryside and letting wildflowers bloom in our urban spaces. The list could go on.

But none are operating at scale. We still have a world and a nation optimised for profit, with everything from care homes to playing fields privatised, essential workers underpaid and exploited, plastic wrap added to every conceivable object, fast fashion pushed from every computer screen.

Change, radical, tremendous, change is coming. The IPCC tells us that. It is our choice collectively, what course that takes. Uncontrolled, chaotic, massively destructive, or controlled, constructive, democratic change for people and planet.

The main problem here, as Michael King has observed, lies in the imprecise usage of the word system. What does the Green Party mean by system? When someone speaks of “complete system change,” we tend to assume there in just one system–or maybe just one system that matters, usually politics or the economy. When Baroness Bennett says, “You can’t fix broken food, energy, or economic systems – let alone environmental systems – with the practices that broke them,” it’s not clear what these food and energy systems are or how these “systems” relate to the global economy. From a social systems theory perspective, food and energy are primarily observed as commodities to be bought and sold. Of course, food and energy can register with other systems as well, as when scientists study food or energy, when politicians make policies on food or energy, and when the legal system makes rulings on food or energy. If you’re really interested in altering the “food system” or the energy system, you need to carefully analyze all of the ways food or energy are treated by these diverse social systems. It’s far more complicated that simply talking about so-called food and energy systems.

Furthermore, speaking of “broken” systems misunderstands social systems. As long as people are still spending money, the economic system is not broken.

The economy, however, is just one of several “function systems” in contemporary society. Steffen Roth and Anton Schütz (2015) make a case for ten function systems: economy, law, politics, science, education health, art, mass media, religion, and sport. Each of these systems uses its own communication medium; therefore, the operationally closed systems cannot communicate directly with one another; one system can only “perturb” or irritate another system, with unpredictable results.

In the context of climate change, we must understand that science cannot directly communicate with the global economy. Nor can the mass media. The only communication medium the economy recognizes is money. The economy recognizes spending. Thus spending/investing in renewable energy might be helpful. But for Baroness Bennett, investing in alternative energy sources, or different technologies, is inadequate. The only real solution would be to eliminate the need for the energy–perhaps a zero-growth or degrowth economy. As she writes,

Business-as-usual with different technologies is not going to turn around this tide of destruction. The cleanest, greenest energy you can have is the energy you don’t need to use. The most energy-efficient journey is the one not made.

Calls for “complete system change” leave us asking, how do we get from here to there? As long as we fail to understand how social systems actually work, nothing will change. We are left with mere slogans, like system change not climate change.” In contrast, one promising approach that focuses on money rather than moral suasion is the fossil fuel divestment movement.

Facts never speak for themselves; facts are framed in different ways by different self-referential systems—not just social systems but also psychic systems and organic systems. Often one or two systems respond strongly to a given fact while other systems do not even notice the “same” fact. So how does one fact, such as rising CO2, become salient for a wide variety of social systems?

For mass media, for example, global warming becomes salient when transformed into shocking images of climate disasters, glaciers crashing into the sea, etc. To maintain the attention of its audience, the mass media’s images must become increasingly shocking.

For the economy, global warming is only noticeable or meaningful in terms of possible profits and losses, stuff to buy and sell, and expansion of markets.

For politics, it is relevant in terms of possible gain/expansion or loss of political power.


  1. The problem with using ‘systems’ in this loose way is that it ends up as a virtually meaningless term that can be applied to almost anything. As you rightly observe, what Baroness Bennett seems to saying is that food and energy exist as autonomous ‘systems’, which means that there has to be an identifiable environment for each of them and some way for observers to distinguish the system from that environment. The belief that food and energy exist outside the economic system also needs to be challenged. But this does not mean that food and energy always ‘belong to the economic system’. They can just as easily exist in the legal system (regulation) and political system (responsibility for shortages), health system (necessary for the avoidance of sickness) or, for that matter, outside society – in biological systems.
    The idea that a system can be broken is pure political rhetoric and probably owes its existence to critics in the past referring to what they saw as the existing political order as ‘the establishment’ or ‘the system’ and telling us that this was now ‘broken’ and ‘cannot be fixed’. The clear political message here is that they, the Greens, have recognized the problem and are the only party able to offer a solution – a complete system change – which will save the planet.


    1. You’re right, and I was actually planning on changing that sentence before you commented. Food and energy exist in the environment of the economic system. They only register with the economic system as commodities to be bought and sold.
      And the “broken system” concept is a mechanistic metaphor. The idea is that someone can stand outside the machine and fix it.


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