A nonconfrontational strategy for social change

via A nonconfrontational strategy for social change

In “Heal the world. A solution-focused systems therapy approach to capitalism and growth” (in press), Steffen Roth argues for a nonconfrontational approach to social change. Roth writes,

As careful observers of the state of the world, environmentalists often feel the natural impulse not only to interpret this world in various ways but also to change it. As the need for urgent change could not be more obvious in the twilight of the bleak prospects for the future of our planet, there is serious concern about the slow pace of this change as well as the still considerable resistance faced by those concerned with the prevention of the self-extinction of the human race. The dominant strategy to speed up change is to confront sceptics and resisters with the sheer omnipresence of warning signs that indicate the severe side-effects of decades of unsustainable growth mania (Daly, 1974; Mishan, 1967; van Griethuysen, 2010) or fetishism (Hamilton, 2004) and the corresponding lifestyle of unrestrained compulsive consumption and behavioural addiction (Higham et al., 2016; Ryan, 2013). In fact, a considerable number of serious scholars (e.g., Jackson, 2009; Latouche, 2009; Lorek and Spangenberg, 2014; Rees,
1999; Slaughter, 2012; van Griethuysen, 2010; Victor, 2008) confront the public with the diagnosis that capitalist “societies are addicted to growth: there is always a demand for more, no matter how large the economy is already” (Haapanen and Tapio, 2016, p. 3495). This appetite for growth and self-destruction does not even spare sustainability concepts as environmentalists must face that “(e)ven the most recent ‘circular economy’ strategies aim at ‘boosting the economy’ (…)” (Khmara and Kronenberg, 2018, p. 721).

Roth S. (in press), Heal the world. A solution-focused systems therapy approach to environmental problems, Journal of Cleaner Production

But, on an individual level, experience shows that confronting someone directly and “showing them the error of their ways” often backfires. The other person or other side reacts defensively, digging in and finding new arguments. Thus, we might be better off ignoring the actual problem and redirecting the person’s attention to something else. Rather than using political arguments to produce social change, we can use economic media (buying power), as in the 1955-56 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. Or we can use art to indirectly (as a side-effect of pursuing art for its own sake) promote social change. Technological innovation also tends to produce unexpected, unanticipated social change. For example, the television was not invented to promote civil rights, but civil right workers used it (especially the nightly national news) for that purpose. The modern birth movement was initially Malthusian, as it promoted contraception in the name of reducing overpopulation and alleviating poverty; it wasn’t primarily about women’s rights, though the two movements overlapped.

As Roth observes, confrontational approaches are problem-centered, and they tend to sharpen or multiply problems. The reform movement also becomes co-dependent on it targeted problem. In social systems theory terms, an organization might form to combat a particular social problem, but the organization, even if “unintentionally,” finds ways to reproduce itself, possibly even forgetting about the original reason for its formation.

If we want to save the human species by curbing capitalist expansion, we might promote zero-growth or degrowth. But, as Roth argues, a better approach might be to promote growth in other areas of society. For instance, we can expand the art world, which is one of the function systems in Luhmannian theory. Or we can expand science, education, healthcare, etc. Moreover, the art, science, or education doesn’t have to be explicitly anti-capitalist. This is an important point. Art, science, education, and healthcare, etc., can be promoted as ends in themselves. As an unintended consequence, one of these social systems might even solve the problem of capitalist growth or climate destruction.

If we want to heal the world, we might look for an effective “therapy.” In this context, Roth contrasts solution-based and problem-based therapies. A problem-based therapy, which is the traditional approach, seeks greater understanding of the problem (e.g., depression, anxiety), but greater understanding doesn’t necessarily alleviate the pain. According to Roth,

Within a solution-oriented framework . . . there is no need for a particularly comprehensive or sophisticated account of the problem to develop effective solutions.

In terms of capitalism, all we really need to understand is that economic growth is the core concern of capitalism. A capitalist economy must grow to sustain itself. Here is one definition of economic growth:

Economic growth is an increase in the capacity of an economy to produce goods and services, compared from one period of time to another. It can be measured in nominal or real terms, the latter of which is adjusted for inflation. Traditionally, aggregate economic growth is measured in terms of gross national product (GNP) or gross domestic product (GDP), although alternative metrics are sometimes used.


An underlying assumption of capitalism is that the economy is the most important feature of any society. If the economy works well, the society should work well. As the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign said, “It’s the economy, studid.” But why does the economy have to be the central function system of society? The answer is, it doesn’t. There is also art, education, science, sport, etc. Life doesn’t have to be all about buying stuff. As Wordsworth wrote, …

Via A nonconfrontational strategy for social change


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