Could you tell what are the root causes of the sustainability crisis?

Mariana Mirabile
4 min readApr 2, 2021


Cet article est aussi disponible en français.

You may agree with me if I said that to solve the sustainability crisis we need a radical change in the way we think, the way we organize, and the way we use our collective resources. You may agree that we need to “change the system”, and that the system to be changed is nothing else than society.

For bringing about systems’ change, understanding the system we are trying to influence is fundamental. The analysis described in this series tries to find answers to questions such as:

  • why we get the (unsustainable) results we get from our socioeconomic system;
  • what would need to be different to obtain better results; and
  • how we can concretely move from the current system to a “new” one.

The analysis described here is the result of over 7 years of research by a group of engineers at, led by Jack Harich. I see a lot of value in this analysis, and I write these articles to share this work with you in a succinct and non-technical manner, with the aim to spur a conversation.

I would be very keen to get your feedback and reactions, to know what you agree and disagree with, whether the information shared here feels like good news or depresses you, etc. Think of these articles as my present to you, and of your feedback — allowing me to enrich my understanding — as your present to me.

Why you should read this

Photo by Shantanu Pacharkar on Unsplash

To successfully change a system, we first need to understand its functioning. And to understand a system’s functioning we need to be able to observe its structure. This is because in a complex system, the results we observe emerge from the system’s structure.

A systems’ structure is the way in which its parts are organized, the web of cause and effect relationships, the rules and incentives within the system. In complex systems’ structures, there is a particularly interesting type of cause and effect relationship: feedback loops. If you are not familiar with this concept, you may watch this 6-minute video or read this short article. Should you want to go deeper on this concept, this is a great resource.

To understand a systems’ behavior, we need to be able to identify what are the dominant feedback loops in the system’s structure. It is only by observing these loops that we will be able to understand why the present system behaves the way it does, and thus understand the root causes of the problems we want to solve. Having clarity on the “why”, leads us fairly naturally to an understanding of what to change and how to bring about that change.

What is the plan

To understand the root causes of the sustainability crisis, Thwink analyzes the key features of the structures of the political and the economic systems, and “uncover” the high leverage points to bring about systemic change. The authors divide the environmental crisis into four sub-problems:

  1. The political system blocks the environmental laws we need.
  2. Large corporations dominate the political system at the expense of the common good.
  3. The political system is unable to identify and adjust previously relevant solutions that are no longer relevant.
  4. Humans have an unsustainable impact on the biosphere.

This series will focus on the first sub-problem, i.e. the political system resistance to environmental (and social) laws. This sub-problem is the first and most important to be solved, as solving the other sub-problems with a political system that resists, rather than wants to solve the environmental crisis, has proven to be ineffective.

Here is what the series looks like. While I suggest reading the articles in order, each article can be read as a stand-alone piece.

  1. Beware of your brain.

An article to invite you to be attentive to your reactions and identify what “closes your mind”.

2. Your strategy (and mine) is doomed to fail.

This article can be uncomfortable. It concludes that the problem-solving process used by changemakers leaves us ill-equiped to solve the environmental crisis, as it skips a fundamental step: root cause analysis.

The article argues that your strategy is likely doomed to fail, which is not an easy-to-accept message. This is the reason why I suggest reading Beware of your brain first.

3. There is rational hope.

This article describes the different steps of the problem-solving process developed by Thwink. If you are impatient to get to the results, I suggest that you skip this article. If while reading the results the logic does not make sense, this article can then help.

4. A new strategy for ambitious environmental laws

This article presents the results of the analysis of the first sub-problem: the political system resistance to environmental (and social laws). To facilitate reading, the article is split into sub-articles.

The following support articles complement the analysis:

Please do not hesitate to get in touch should you wish to discuss any of this further. You may add comments to the articles or contact me through Linkedin. I will respond.

Keep reading.

Photo by Sarah Dorweiler on Unsplash



Mariana Mirabile

I am an economist with a passion to improve systems. All views are my own.