In 1999, systems scientist Donella Meadows published her now-famous article on systems thinking in which she identified twelve places of any complex system that people could manipulate to create change. These so-called leverage points were ranked from easiest/least effective to hardest/most powerful. This article and her life’s work inspired a generation of systems thinkers. The social and economic devastation that we now face in the wake of COVID-19 inspired us recently to reflect on Meadows’ teachings as a way to better understand the situation we find ourselves in and imagine how we might move forward from it.
One of Meadows’ lessons is that throwing money and resources at a problem is often the easiest but least effective solution. In contrast, changing the values, rules and structures by which a system operates has a more dramatic effect. We can observe this dynamic easily in our nation’s response to the pandemic.
On the medical front, states are desperate to secure masks, ventilators, hospital beds, and essential workers. These resources are absolutely crucial to reacting to confirmed cases, but a more powerful leverage point—social distancing—can minimize the stress on our healthcare system in the first place. Research shows that in New York City, where we are based, the city could have prevented 90% of its confirmed cases if social distancing had been implemented just two weeks earlier. COVID-19 has been devastating for our nation, especially in our black, brown, and indigenous communities, because the disease is happening in the context of a byzantine, profit-driven healthcare industry and decades-long divestment from our public health infrastructure. A more powerful, but also more politically difficult leverage point exists in this context—changing the values and goals of our healthcare system, so that it prioritizes care and equity over profit, would profoundly increase our society’s ability to fight off a pandemic.
On the economic front, we see a similar pattern. The CARES Act injected billions of dollars into the nation’s economy in order to keep households and businesses afloat. While this money is a lifeline for millions, it is another “throw money at the problem” bandage. At best, the one-time stimulus check supports households for at most a month and the Paycheck Protection Program does not even begin to reach a majority of the smallest businesses and nonprofits. The relief act ultimately keeps in place the same capitalist apparatus that catalyzed the economic devastation in the first place—neoliberal deregulation of banks and financial systems, systematic attacks on labor unions and good-paying jobs with benefits, astronomical student debt, and relentless urban gentrification.
You’ve probably been hearing a lot the sentiment that we cannot go back to normal, because normal was never working. We agree and have been thinking about what not returning to normal means. For us, it means not returning to the same organizational, economic, and governmental structures that uphold capitalist notions of wealth and productivity. These structures, shaped by (white) supremacy culture, have been harmful to people of color, queer people, women, people with disabilities, working-class people, plants, animals, and the land for over 400 years. Why would we want to return to them? Thinking in systems terms, we need to change the values and rules by which these systems operate, and not merely shuffle around people, money, and resources inside these systems while their overall paradigm remains the same.
At Daniel Lim Consulting, we draw inspiration directly from nature and apply an ecological systems thinking lens to our work. When imagining what a new normal might look like, we turn to nature for guidance, because it has over four billion years of experience in building diverse, resilient, and equitable living systems. Nature teaches us that community care characterized by mutual aid (not privatized care) is key to building a society that is truly safe and resilient. Nature teaches us that relationships that move at the pace of trust and that center justice and love (not transactional relationships that value efficiency and productivity) are what advance social cohesion and equity. These are just two lessons that we’re learning from observing the natural world.
We are applying these lessons internally as well as in our work with clients. As a team, we are consciously challenging the role that the notion of productivity plays in our team culture in order to make more space for health. We are establishing new expectations with our clients that move our work at the pace of trust, rather than of some contractual timeline. We are having deep conversations about “doing work that matters” in this time, including making space and time for us as individuals to do personal, communal and ecological healing work.
All of us are at multiple, personal and societal bifurcation points. Every system that we have participated in is being strained and some are at their breaking point. We have never been at a better time to make a profound decision. Do we go back to the old structures that precipitated our current ecological and social crisis or do we draw up the courage to abandon them and build regenerative structures that sustain all life?
How has this pandemic forced or inspired you to make profound changes in your organization and community? What is dawning on you about what truly matters in your life and what you would want to cultivate more of? Tell us your story of radical transformation.
Daniel Lim Consulting (DLC) Team
Welcome Our New Associate!
We’re excited to welcome Sonya Buglion-Gluck (she/her) as our newest Associate Consultant. Sonya identifies as a white settler born and raised on Abenaki land in rural Vermont. Her passion for environmental justice and diversity, equity and inclusion work grew out of her love for learning and reciprocity. She studied power and privilege in environmental education at the University of Vermont. Sonya joined our team in April. Read Sonya’s full bio.
Speaking to a New Generation of Environmental Leaders
Last month, our founder and principal, Daniel Lim, had the honor of speaking at his alma mater, University of Vermont, to a new generation of students in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. As a panelist on the largest Zoom call he’s ever participated in (160 participants!), Daniel shared his personal journey of working at the intersection of ecology and social justice—a journey familiar to many queer, people of color in environmental leadership. He talked about his decade-long effort to envisage a regenerative practice in which ecological principles inform social justice work and, conversely, social justice discourse expands to include ecological justice, i.e. justice for plants, non-human animals, and the land. Daniel was joined by fellow panelists, Nathaly Agosto Filion, Chief Sustainability Officer of the City of Newark, NJ, and Kunal Palawat, graduate student studying citizen-led soil science on indigenous land in Arizona.
Supporting a Leader in Placemaking
In this time of economic hardship, we are tremendously grateful to be able to continue doing our work. We are excited to start a working relationship with our newest client, Project for Public Spaces. Our work with this prominent leader in the field of placemaking will focus on strengthening internal leadership and team development and implementing an equity lens to the work of placemaking. We will be collaborating with organizational development consultant and executive coach, Mohan Sikka, on this project.
An MBE in New York State!
We’ve been a certified Minority-owned Business Enterprise (MBE) in New York City for over a year. We’re excited to share that we are now also a certified MBE in the entire State of New York!