Change Resistance as the Crux of the Environmental Sustainability Problem

System Dynamics Review coverThe paper

This paper PDF was published in the System Dynamics Review, an A journal, in January 2010.

Except for the section describing the simulation model, the entire paper is designed to be easily understood by non-specialists because that's who the paper is for. It's for serious activists who are wondering why the sustainability problem is so impossibly hard to solve and how they can do better.

Here's the abstract:

Why, despite over 30 years of prodigious effort, has the human system failed to solve the environmental sustainability problem? Decomposing the problem into two sequential subproblems, (1) How to overcome change resistance and (2) How to achieve proper coupling, opens up a fresh line of attack.

A simulation model shows that in problems of this type the social forces favoring resistance will adapt to the forces favoring change. If change resistance is high this adaptation response either prevents proper coupling from ever being achieved or delays it for a long time. From this we conclude that systemic change resistance is the crux of the problem and must be solved first. An example of how this might be done is presented.

Key extracts

Until the “implicit system goal” causing systemic change resistance is found and resolved, change efforts to solve the proper coupling part of the sustainability problem are, as [Peter] Senge argues, “doomed to failure.”

After a patient has described her symptoms to the doctor, the next step is diagnosis. What is the root cause of the problem? The doctor and patient both know that if it’s a serious illness, then they absolutely must get the diagnosis right or the treatment will fail.

Problem solvers must therefore abandon the Sisyphean task of trying to strengthen the two lower loops, (see below) and change to strategies centering on how to weaken the upper loop.

Despite the simplicity of the model, the root causes we are about to present are so deeply systemic (so rooty, we could say) that they appear to be the source of most large difficult problems whose solution would benefit the common good.

We have thus found one possible root cause, one so pervasive it provides a steady drip, drip, drip that erodes even the best-intentioned efforts to solve common good problems like sustainability.

Therefore systemic change resistance is the crux of the problem and must be solved first.

But that is not what environmentalists have been doing, which leads to our most provocative (and potentially productive) conclusion:

This shows that problem solvers have spent the last 30 years trying to solve the wrong problem, which is a striking conclusion that should send shockwaves throughout all of environmentalism.


The key illustration

Causal Loop Diagram of the Process of Classic ActivismThe above extract of:

Problem solvers must therefore abandon the Sisyphean task of trying to strengthen the two lower loops, and change to strategies centering on how to weaken the upper loop.

refers to the illustration to the right.

Study the diagram closely. It summarizes the central message of the paper. Today's environmentalists are using a problem solving process that can be called Classic Activism. This has no concept of root causes and avoids deep analysis, so classic activists can see only what's below the dotted line. That's a tragic flaw because it means they can't see the loop.

However, after you've read the paper you can see all three loops. You can see why the environmental movement has failed to solve the overall environmental sustainability problem. It's made some progress. However this is like winning a few battles but losing the war.

If you have encountered resistance to your proposed solutions, then you have run smack into the loop. Now that you can see the loop, you are no longer limited to solutions based on proper practices like renewable energy, recycling, and corporate social responsibility appeals. These are low leverage point solutions because they do nothing to resolve the root causes.

Better is to spend your time understanding the two systemic root causes shown, and direct your solution strategies there.


Here's how the paper begins. Note how jargon free it is.


This paper seeks to help solve the global environmental sustainability problem by approaching it from a novel and possibly more effective perspective. Instead of beginning with the usual “What are the proper practices needed to live sustainably? How can we get them adopted?” we ask a radically different question: “Why, despite over 30 years of prodigious effort, has the human system failed to solve the environmental sustainability problem?”  

The science of environmental sustainability is undergoing a profound paradigm shift in its problem solving process. Due to inability to solve its central problems, the field finds itself struggling to replace its defective old paradigm (its old process) with a new one that works. Laments like “modern environmentalism is no longer capable of dealing with the world's most serious ecological crisis” abound. In the spirit of [Thomas] Kuhn’s “revolutionary science,” this paper identifies the old paradigm, explains why it’s flawed, and presents a seed candidate for the new paradigm.

Kuhn felt that “…scientists will be reluctant to embrace [a new paradigm] unless convinced that two all-important conditions are being met. First, the new candidate must seem to resolve some outstanding and generally recognized problem that can be met in no other way. Second, the new paradigm must promise to preserve a relatively large part of the concrete problem solving activity that has accrued to science through its predecessors.” Third, the new paradigm must solve more important problems than the old one. The candidate has been thoughtfully constructed to meet these criteria.

We begin by identifying the old paradigm.

The new paradigm: Change resistance as the real problem to solve

Years ago the author was discussing a perplexing problem with a bright young engineer/manager from the UK. He suggested that if you’ve looked at a problem from all angles and are still stumped, then you probably have a missing abstraction. Find it and the difficulties will melt away.

The voices of Lewin, Senge, Sterman and many more tell us that change resistance is that missing abstraction.

Change resistance is the tendency for a system to continue its current behavior, despite the application of force to change that behavior. Also known as policy resistance, the origin of the concept is described by Dent and Goldberg:

The notion of resistance to change is credited to Kurt Lewin. His conceptualization of the phrase, however, is very different from today’s usage. [which treats resistance to change as a psychological concept, where resistance or support of change comes from values, habits, mental models, and so on residing within the individual] For Lewin, resistance to change could occur, but that resistance could be anywhere in the system. As Kotter found, it is possible for the resistance to be sited within the individual, but it is much more likely to be found elsewhere in the system.

Systems of social roles, with their associated patterns of attitudes, expectations, and behavior norms, share with biological systems the characteristic of homeostasis—i.e., tendencies to resist change, to restore the previous state after a disturbance.

Lewin had been working on this idea, that the status quo represented an equilibrium between the barriers to change and the forces favoring change, since 1928 as part of his field theory. He believed that some difference in these forces—weakening of the barriers or strengthening of the driving forces—was required to produce the unfreezing that began a change.

Today’s “status quo” is, alas, an unsustainable world. When problem solvers attempt to solve the sustainability problem, their strengthening of “the forces favoring change” causes the system to maintain homeostasis by automatically increasing the “barriers to change.” This is a natural and expected adaptive response that must be expected and taken into account.

We hypothesize that one way to do this is to decompose difficult social problems into two sequential subproblems: (1) How to overcome change resistance and then (2) How to achieve proper coupling. This is the timeless strategy of divide and conquer. By cleaving one big problem into two, the problem becomes an order of magnitude easier to solve, because we can approach the two subproblems differently and much more appropriately. We are no longer unknowingly attempting to solve two very different problems simultaneously.

There’s a simple reason this decomposition works so well: change resistance is usually what makes social problems difficult. In fact, regardless of whether change resistance is high or low, it is impossible to solve the proper coupling part of a social problem without first solving the change resistance part. This is nothing new, however. As the old joke goes, “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one. But first the light bulb has to want to change.”

In difficult social problems the system spends a long time trying to overcome change resistance. Once that occurs proper coupling is achieved relatively quickly by introduction of new norms/laws and related mechanisms, and is refined still further over time. This pattern has occurred in countless historic social problems whose solution benefits the common good, like universal suffrage, slavery, racial discrimination, the dangers of smoking tobacco, the rule of colonies by other countries, the recurring war in Europe problem (solved by creating the European Union, which properly coupled member nations together to reduce pressures for future wars), and the non-benevolent ruler problem (solved by invention of democracy, which properly coupled the people and their rulers via the voter feedback loop). True to form, the pattern is occurring again in the sustainability problem.

For the rest, read the paper PDF .

Simulation model

Here's an image of the simulation model. The model requires Vensim to run it. Here's the simulation model ZIP .Please see The World of Simulation for how to run the model.


A special thanks to Joe Starinchak of U. S. Fish and Wildlife and Philip Bangerter of Hatch for help in creating this one page process oriented outline PDF . An even bigger thanks to Steve Wehrenberg for looking over an early draft and commenting it needed a model. I added one and that radically improved the paper. Without a model it would have not been accepted. And further thanks to Philip for going over every line twice as we worked on the second submission version, which was accepted.