The system within

Rosie Bell, senior creative associate at Life Itself Institute and the Climate Majority Project, and Jamie Bristow, Public Narrative and Policy Development Lead for the Inner Development Goals; Research Fellow at Life Itself Institute; Honorary Associate of Bangor University

Lack of attention to the psychological and cultural dimension of systems is widespread – but inner factors are fundamental to global crises and the approaches we require. A new deep dive paper complementing Earth for All begins to redress the balance. 

50 years since The Limits to Growth called time on unbridled economic expansion on a finite planet, Earth for All proposes an emergency to-do list: global policy levers that must now be pulled fast and decisively to prevent ecological and societal collapse. The 2023 report to the Club of Rome outlines ambitious pathways for system change – but stops short of addressing the human inner dimension of necessary collective action. Who must pull these levers – and most importantly at this late hour, what’s stopping us? Despite having the necessary policy tools, technological innovations and resources, humanity has consistently failed to take action at the rate, scale and depth necessary to prevent catastrophe. Seven co-authors, all experts at the intersection of inner-outer change, have come together to ask why. Their recent ‘deep-dive’ paper highlights the profound transformations we require not only in our socioeconomic structures, but also in the very fabric of human cognition and culture. 

The inner dimensions of sustainability and systems transformation are endlessly overshadowed by material priorities in high-level policy discussions, yet are fundamental in both creating and perpetuating our current crises. From the rise of consumerism fuelled by materialist values and evolutionary impulses, to the fragmentation of collective identity and the innate biases steering our perceptions and political behaviour, inner factors are constantly at work, subtly pulling the levers of our external world. Indeed it is this level of mindsets – that Donella Meadows, lead author of The Limits to Growth, described as the ‘deepest leverage point for change’.  

At the very root of failing societal systems is a particular system of thought, with origins in the European ‘Enlightenment’. This dominant mindset has underpinned modern scientific advancement, bringing extraordinary material comfort to large parts of the world. At the same time its reductionist tendency has shaped over centuries a mass culture of alienation and exploitation on a planetary scale, setting human civilisation on a trajectory for collapse. This same reductive materialism has likewise influenced a widespread de-prioritisation of inner life – as such our understanding of human drives, impulses, resistances and potentials is often remarkably poor and drastically over-simplified. 

We may hesitate at the concept of ‘intervention’ in inner life – yet human wellbeing is indisputably served by the fuller realisation of innate inner capacities; particularly in a world where material ‘progress’ is pursued at all costs, while inner wealth has been sorely neglected. More alarmingly, our inner lives are routinely manipulated by commercial and political interests, which shape public opinion and consumer behaviour in ways that contribute directly to our polycrisis. It’s now essential that we integrate understanding and cultivation of the inner – individual and collective – into systems approaches. Wisdom traditions and scientific research alike show that we are capable of understanding, nurturing, and transforming our inner landscapes in ways that support the flourishing of all life. A burgeoning evidence base supports methods for necessary inner development at individual, group and societal levels. 

The authors explore important ‘elements of the inner’ absent from much systems thinking, within two broad categories. First, the role of collective beliefs and systems of meaning – mental models co-created by groups and replicated in culture – in shaping societal behaviour. They discuss the primacy of mindsets, core narratives, and constellations of identity that reinforce narrow individualism or sensitivity to collective interdependence. Next, attention turns to less abstract aspects of human experience. Transient subjective states and enduring psychological traits drive behaviour and influence meaning-making at individual and collective levels. Accordingly, transformative capacities of heart and mind can be cultivated to support collective action and shift foundational attitudes over time: from deeper awareness of our cognitive biases and threat behaviours, to resilience and adaptability at both individual and community levels, and modes of cognition and imagination fit for the complexities of our changing world. 

Finally the essay introduces leading approaches in inner-outer transformation already integrating factors such as core narratives, psychological mechanisms and inner capacities into meaningful action toward system transformation. Innovators and researchers are evolving theory and practice in this territory at all scales. Prominent models focus on capacity development for leaders, mindset shifts in teams, organisations and systems, and integrated initiatives for individual, societal and planetary flourishing.

The authors call not for a shift in emphasis away from material solutions, but for a holistic reimagining of our approaches to systemic change; integrating outer with inner dimensions. Transformative change must involve a dual approach: shifting the visible, external structures of society and the invisible, internal landscapes of the human mind and heart.  

The Earth for All report advocates five ‘extraordinary turnarounds’ in policy. In response this deep-dive paper insists on a sixth, widespread turn towards the under-appreciated inner in all system thinking, discourse, policies, allocation of resources and strategies for change. Without such a turn, we may expect that systems solutions of the necessary depth will continue to evade us. To achieve it, however, could open the field of possibility not only to adequate crisis response, but to a level of flourishing and quality of life that we have not yet learned collectively to hope for. 

The system within: Addressing the inner dimensions of sustainability and systems transformation by Jamie Bristow, Rosie Bell, Christine Wamsler, Thomas Björkman, Phoebe Tickell, Julia Kim and Otto Scharmer, published by The Club of Rome and Earth4All. 

An event on 3 July will explore the content of this deep-dive paper with the authors in a panel hosted by Earth for All co-author and Club of Rome co-president Sandrine Dixson-Declève . Find out more and register here.

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This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of Earth4All or its supporting organisations. 

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