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27 Jun 2024
Jamie Bristow and Rosie Bell

The Missing Inner Dimension of System Change

In this blogpost, which is part of NORRAG’s “Systems Thinking” blog series, Jamie Bristow and Rosie Bell argue that lack of attention to the psychological and cultural dimension of systems is widespread – but these inner factors are fundamental to global crises and the approaches we require.

In 1972, the Club of Rome published the world’s first advanced computer modelling of projected climate impacts. The Limits to Growth report emerged as an iconic critique of unbridled economic growth on a finite planet, becoming a pillar of the global sustainability movement. Yet fifty years later, its sequel Earth for All reckons with a host of lessons unlearned; offering a sobering account of the radical socio-economic transformation now required to prevent ecological and societal collapse.

Humanity does not lack the necessary policies, technological innovations, or even resources to avert catastrophe and create an equitable world within planetary limits – yet action to date has been disastrously inadequate. Now, specialists in the interplay of inner and outer change have come together to ask: what’s stopping us? Complementary to Earth for All – and to all systems approaches – their new deep-dive paper The System Within advocates for transformation not only within our socio-economic frameworks but in our deepest cognitive and cultural fabric.

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’.

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 ‘elements of the inner’ often missing from systems thinking can be understood in two broad categories. First, we risk forgetting the role of paradigms or systems of meaning in shaping societal structures and behaviour. Core cultural narratives about the world are typically experienced as reality itself – leading for example to blindness within individualist societies to the interdependence of all life, and the complexities of our changing world. Second, we require better awareness of the transient subjective states and enduring psychological traits – such as cognitive biases and threat responses – that drive behaviour and influence meaning-making at individual and collective levels, and the transformative capacities of heart and mind that can be cultivated to support resilience and collective action, and shift foundational attitudes over time.

In many ways foundational to failing societal systems is a particular worldview 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. Its core principle of materialism has led to a widespread devaluing of inner life, and popular rationalism to a dangerously simplified understanding of human motivations, resistances, and potentials – catastrophic for systems that rely on a functioning account of human behaviour.

With these factors in mind, what we need is not a shift away from emphasis on material solutions, but rather a holistic reimagining of systemic change strategies. A dual approach to shifting the visible, external structures of society and the invisible, internal landscapes of the human mind and heart. Prominent theories and practices are already evolving to integrate these inner dimensions with external systemic transformation. Emerging models aim to develop capacities in leaders, support mindset shifts in teams and organisations, and foster comprehensive initiatives for individual, societal, and planetary flourishing.

The Earth for All report advocates five ‘extraordinary turnarounds’ in policy. In response The System Within 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.

This blogpost is a revised version of a previous blogpost published on the website of the Club of Rome.


About the Authors:

Jamie Bristow, Public Narrative and Policy Development Lead for the Inner Development Goals; Research Fellow at Life Itself Institute and Honorary Associate of Bangor University

Rosie Bell, Senior Creative Associate at Life Itself Institute and the Climate Majority Project

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