Compassionate change strategies: Can compassion help as a system change strategy?

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How can the stages of compassion offer approaches, tactics, and strategies to those working towards economic system change?

Written by David Pencheon and Katherine Trebeck

This short reflection has been a long time coming. 

It flows from personal experience and leads to some suggestions for approaches that folks working on economic system change might want to consider – or at least mull over (or ‘noodle on’ as our US friends say…) 

Some of it has been hard to write, as it is a gentle challenge to current ways of thinking about and doing economic system change. We write it because one of our saddest observations is that what might otherwise be a collegial, mutually reinforcing movement, all too often shows signs of fracture. Its component parts ostensibly find it easier to critique each other over differences of approach and emphasis (differences that are certainly small relative to the bigger change needed). This hinders the large-scale change that is so sorely needed, and which certainly looks unlikely to be achieved in the time our planet and its people need it to happen.  

We have also been spurred to write now having taken inspiration from the field of compassion. In our reading about the science underpinning the work of compassion advocates we have come to appreciate the several stages that comprise compassion. We have found hope in what we see as the potential for compassion to be at the heart of change efforts. 

One of the lessons we have learned is that action underpinned by interpretation and understanding is fundamental to compassion. What matters is understanding why someone might be suffering. This is more proactive than empathy and certainly more thoughtful than simple responses to suffering often dismissed as old-fashioned charity. We have written elsewhere about why that understanding is aligned with the upstream focus of economic system change. 

Here, we want to reflect on how the stages of compassion, and especially on how the emphasis on understanding, offers a message for the approaches, tactics, and strategies of those working towards economic system change. And to do that we need to first reflect on what is currently happening in the economic system change movement itself. Not happening all the time by any means, and certainly not happening to the extent it is a defining characteristic, but happening so it is felt, noticed, and risks having a deleterious impact.

Comradely critique

We have seen and sometimes been at the rough end of people berating others whose work is focused on interventions in different parts of the system. 

We have heard others condemned for not focusing on a particular issue sufficiently, and seen pet-policy ideas championed as if they were a silver bullet. 

Sometimes we have been told we are ‘selling out’ because we work with policy makers to change the goals of government and instruments they design. 

We have both experienced being told we are not critical enough of the current system and then the next day told we are too ambitious (‘naive’ even) in the magnitude of our suggestions for change. 

And we have listened in bewilderment as a sort of either-or is wedged between “doing” and “thinking”, as if one without the other would be adequate or even useful. Hearing this false binary we are reminded of the Japanese proverb (loosely translated and attributed to Honda Soichiro): ‘Vision without action is a dream. Action without vision is a nightmare’.

Realities of change: diversity delivers

The frustrating (not to say sad) thing about this is that all the evidence is that change happens via a mixture of – indeed an interaction between – ideas and action. A plurality of both tactics and changes is needed: a mosaic of approaches and transformations. There is a need for evidence (which helps politicians sell change). There is a need for ideas for action. There is a need for good communication. There is a need for action to build public support. And there is a need for concrete examples of the difference that change can make. No single action or intervention or individual will bring about change of the extent and scale needed. Leadbetter and Winhall have explained that what matters is a ‘diverse constellation of people’. 

Robin Hahnel is rather forceful about the importance of a range of approaches for system change: 

Without the example of successful experiments…people will never move beyond reform, which never fully solves problems and is always vulnerable to “roll back.” On the other hand, without much larger reform movements, experiments in equitable cooperation will remain isolated and never reach enough people. Broadly speaking, the answer is more powerful reform movements and campaigns, combined with more and larger experiments in equitable cooperation. Neither alone will prove successful, but fortunately each helps mitigate predictable pitfalls in the other.

It is hard to disagree with Hahnel, Leadbetter and Winhall, and many others. In our own efforts to contribute to system change we have seen that there will be those who deliver pioneering practice that demonstrate the sort of change required and act as magnets and exemplar projects. But, we recognise that there is also a role for ensuring these emergent practices changes add up to something more than isolated pockets of good practice surrounded by a sea of business as usual. 

Just making the path by walking is inadequate on its own. It will become overgrown if no one else knows about it and if no one wants to follow it. Stellar examples of the future may be bright stars in the night sky, but while it is still night there is a long way to go before such practices are bright enough to create a new dawn. So magnet projects and pioneering practices need more than nourishment: they need connection and amplification, and linking to policy change, so that they move from being vulnerable islands to changing the tide towards large-scale change.

Thus, alongside those undertaking the pioneering practices via projects, others need to play a role in shaping the policies – rules of the game – that hinder or hasten transition. Policy change matters, whether it is in the case of a certain sector (energy transition, for example); a small town (reorientating mobility to elevate walking and public transport over cars, for example); an enterprise (creating circular production practices or becoming employee owned, for example); or an entire country (ensuring taxes and incentives encourage the activities society needs more of and discourage those that need to be powered down).

In turn, ideas and visions help shape politics (see here and here for concrete examples and discussion of the ideas ecosystem and policy funnel). One of the original degrowth scholars, Serge Latouche explains: ‘Outlining the contours of what a non-growth society might look like is an essential preliminary to any programme for political actions that respects the ecological demands of the moment’. 

As one of today’s best systems thinkers, Maja Gopel, has said: there is a need to ‘create frictions in common sense and accepted justifications to create openness to change. It is about delegitimizing the status quo explanations and [purported] solutions’. In other words, this is about naming the problems of the current set up and enabling us to ask hard questions about the status quo. It is about helping folks to change their assumptions about the economy, and then helping them imagine something different, and in turn even agitate for it and get active in building it. 

Of course – and crucially – tangible practices can bolster the sense of possible and offer proof of feasibility that informs policy change.  People working on the policies for economic system change often seek to shine a light on where change is already happening, as it enables wider and further action.

These dynamics of mutual reinforcement offer a virtuous cycle, not individual pillars of distinct and disconnected action.

Unfriendly fire or compassionate debate?

While interrogation of methods and ideas and emphasis of fellow movement-members is important and keeps standards high and goals bold, how it is done matters. We should take care not to cast a shadow of fragmentation over the economic change movement which gives the impression of incoherence and distracts from working on common goals. 

This is by no means a call for homogeneity or letting things that need to be debated and discussed slide. It is a call that we do this in recognition of each other’s contribution. 

This movement should be the very embodiment of compassion, collegiality, and plurality: because compassionate, collegial and plural is what the economy we advocate and campaign for needs to embody. This matters because as many experts of change have noted and as laid out here by Smart CSOs ‘activists, organisations and campaigns can play a much more positive role in cultural change if they embody and communicate the values of the new system’. ‘Friendly fire’, which is all too often not very friendly, also exhausts and discourages people whose energy is often already at a low ebb: as Donella Meadows noted, ‘Challenging a paradigm is not part-time work…The world has a vested interest in, a commitment to, not getting it. The point has to be made patiently and repeatedly, day after day after day’.   

Compassionate change

Change makers are understandably and necessarily passionate and forceful about the sort of changes they think are needed. Adding compassion to passion and focus brings open mindedness and respect for the contributions and proposals of others. This combination is essential for system change, but it requires a special set of skills and values, and takes a rare sort of genius: a compassionate change maker. 

Join us to challenge, create, and make change happen.