Crew Commentary

Systems Change Isn’t Easy, Yet It’s Required

Bob Leonard - Climate Risk Manager


More people are beginning to perceive the root of the problem in our misguided value system, and they are searching for new values and new ways of living. Many now understand the need for an awakening to a new consciousness. At This Spaceship Earth we call this new consciousness “crew consciousness”. That is thinking and behaving as active crew members tending to the viability and health of Spaceship Earth… not passive passengers just along for the ride.


Adapting to climate change (redesigning infrastructure, hardening homes and businesses against fires and floods, etc.) does not address the societal systems and values that underlie our current crises. What’s needed is “systems change” that fundamentally shifts our priorities, our politics and our economies in ways that put people, community and Nature first.


The central challenge of our climate crisis is the struggle to halt the buildup of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Fossil fuels are embedded into every facet of our economies and societies. Yet we must make a swift transition to renewable energy. We must get to the root of our problem… the real cause of our climate catastrophe. What is it about our culture, our political and economic systems that put us on this path to collapse?



Let’s start with soulless corporations focused on near term profits and endless growth. To that end, they lobby and make donations to politicians in an attempt to limit regulations to keep their pathway to profit clear and open. And the corporations hire advertising, marketing and sales professionals to ensure that consumers and businesses continue to buy ever more stuff. All of this requires cheap energy which is provided by fossil fuel companies aided and abetted by government subsidies. This is the system we are currently operating in.


But it doesn’t have to be. Systems change looks beyond preparing for floods and other extreme weather events and asks, “What kind of economy and society would be best for the wellbeing of people and the other inhabitants of Spaceship Earth?”


One that transitions away from our current political and economic system.


Consumer Capitalism


Decades ago, the US unleashed a virulent, fast-growing variant of consumer capitalism on the world, and it has taken hold over much of Spaceship Earth. Even so-called communist countries like China and Russia have adopted profit seeking as a catalyst toward economic growth. This basic operating system of our society greatly rewards the pursuit of growth, profit and power, yet does nothing to encourage the wellbeing of people and Nature. 


Such an economy needs guard rails… restraint and guidance in the public interest. Governments must develop and enforce policies and regulations to supply the appropriate guard rails. Yet the corporate executives and tech bro entrepreneurs have largely taken over our political life. Corporations have long been the principal drivers of our economies. They are now also our primary political actors. The result is a combined economic and political system of massive power and greed pursuing narrow economic interests without restraint.


Consumer capitalism requires constant growth… much like a bicycle if there’s no forward motion, it crashes. This growth requires vast amounts of energy. Growth is measured by calculating GDP at the national level, and sales and profits at the company level. The pursuit of GDP and profits are priorities in economic and political life. GDP simply adds everything up: the good and the bad. For example, money spent to put out a forest fire counts toward GDP – as a positive.


Yet (unless the forest is owned by a logging company) there’s no accounting for the economic loss. A forest purifies the air, draws down carbon dioxide, emits the oxygen we need to survive, keeps soil from eroding, and provides habitat for plants and animals.


There is no penalty or cost for our relentless plundering of limited resources, and treating our atmosphere and oceans as dumping grounds for industrial waste and heat sinks.


Profits are increased by externalizing social and environmental costs, which are borne by society at large. Profits can also be increased through regulatory loopholes, tax breaks, subsidies and other rewards from government. Last year, annual government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry are estimated at $7 trillion. Together, the externalization of costs plus subsidies results in prices at the pump which are lower than what they should be. So consumers buy more fossil fuels.



A commonly held belief is that banks and other financial institutions should seek the highest returns on their investments. One result is that today the big banks are financing the destruction of our planet’s climate.


The Military Industrial Complex


After World War II the rise of the U.S. security state boosted the priority given to economic growth, giving rise to the military industrial complex, and draining attention, time and financial investment away from social and environmental causes. This deflection did have benefits (especially to the US economy). People experienced an increase in their standard of living. Until it reached a critical point where the damages to global ecosystems and the heating of our atmosphere have turned the tide. There are a very small number of people who continue to reap the benefits of growth. But the vast majority of us (plus the other species inhabiting Spaceship Earth) are no longer benefiting. 


Grassroots Change


There are positive and encouraging signs of growing civic engagement. Doubts about our current systems are rising and entering public discourse. Calls for transformative change are becoming louder… as evidenced by a growing interest in co-ops, worker ownership and trade unions. A rebirth of protest is stirring. Activism is increasing, including labor advocacy among the young and the marginalized. And climate activism is becoming more overt and high profile… even  climate scientists are taking to the streets to protest the lack of meaningful action.


Climate legislation, notably the Inflation Reduction Act, challenges the hold of free-market fundamentalism. The conventional wisdom that unregulated laissez-faire markets are good, and government oversight is bad, is being challenged. 


Impressive initiatives are being deployed by some states and cities. Many of the most ambitious system shifts happening today are at the local level where the future is being brought into the present in countless programs and projects. Check out the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, the New Economy Coalition, the Finite Earth Economy or the Solidarity Economy.


Progress towards systems change is beginning to happen, but we are in a race. Climate impacts and severe weather events are increasing in frequency and severity. We need to accelerate the transition to a GHG free economy and society. Inform yourself of politicians’ policy positions. Get involved locally (and beyond, if you can). Please try your hardest to overcome the pessimism, despair and fear of systems change that society at large sows within you. Activism is a cure for climate anxiety. We are all in this together. Let’s get busy!


Are you crew?