Using Causal Layered Analysis for Transformational Change
By Ilana Lipsett, IFTF Senior Program Manager
Since Covid-19 flipped our world upside down almost 2 years ago now, I have observed conversations about challenges — Covid, inequity, climate — take on a new level of depth, with a broader, more systemic view of these overlapping and cascading crises. Among those who are working for systems change, connecting lines between the dots have become clearer, and more urgent. It seems that our newsfeeds are increasingly populated with headlines that, for example, link climate change to racial inequity and health outcomes, such as “Climate Change Tied to Pregnancy Risk, affecting Black Mothers Most.”
There is no shortage of stories that highlight the need for equity at the forefront of the conversations about chronic problems that are further exacerbated by overlapping and underlying systemic issues.
Causal Layered Analysis (CLA) is an instructive futures framework for understanding the layers of complex and intersectional issues. Understanding these layers allows us to see similar root causes to the many urgent issues we are facing, thereby also allowing us to see potential for root solutions that can come from creating transformational stories of the future.
From Covid to Climate to Change
Let’s try, for a moment, to remember life before Covid, before the Black Lives Matters demonstrations that swept the country and brought a long-overdue reckoning about racial justice mainstream, before the January 6 insurrection, before a record year of climate events — from fires to floods — changed the global conversation on how we address climate change.
In the liminal months between a world pre-Covid and today’s world, there were hints of new narratives about the future: the potential for collective action and community to create social, economic, and environmental resilience, that Covid-19 was giving the earth the chance she needed to breathe again, with viral videos posted showing goats running wild through the empty streets of Wales, dolphins coming closer to the edge of the Bosphorus in Istanbul, and cougars exploring Santiago, Chile. And amidst these possible new narratives came a warning (with hope): that Covid-19 was dress rehearsal for climate change, the now widely-understood language (flattening the curve) and concepts (mutual aid) would not only help us get through the pandemic, but would be relevant and applicable to how we prepare to face climate change.
One of these narratives was that climate change, the warning signs of which we had been willfully ignoring for decades, would be the next pandemic. But following the murder of George Floyd, came a different story: The next pandemic is, and has been, systemic racism.
As lawmakers across the country declared racism a public health emergency, it became impossible — and irresponsible — to talk about climate futures without talking about racial justice. Neither one stops while we’re focused on the other, and we can’t imagine futures in which one is solved without the other. As Sunrise Movement’s digital director Mattias Lehman said, “All of our fights for justice are occurring within a shared ecosystem.”
The Causal Layered Analysis Tool
In this context, when applied to both racial injustice and climate change, the CLA framework allows us to see that the root cause of one is the root cause of the other, born of the same worldview that allows domination and exploitation, whether it be of humans or of the land.
This method, pioneered by Sohail Inayatullah, breaks issues down into four layers:
Litany: the surface understanding of an issue, backed by data
Systemic Causes: social, economic, political structures and policies underlying the issue
Worldview: Deeper cultural assumptions and perspectives that enable structures and behaviors
Metaphors & Myths: The social narratives and imagery, acting at the level of collective consciousness, usually expressed through art and stories
The impacts of climate, racism, and environmental racism are well-documented. As climate scientist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson writes, “People of color disproportionately bear climate impacts, from storms to heat waves to pollution. Fossil-fueled power plants and refineries are disproportionately located in black neighborhoods, leading to poor air quality and putting people at higher risk for coronavirus.” And climate gentrification will inevitably impact those who are already bearing the multiple brunts of climate, poverty, and racism more severely than their whiter and wealthier counterparts.
Trying to address these particular impacts at this level is important on a short-term scale, but if we want to create long term equitable futures, the CLA framework invites us to go deeper into the hidden layers of structures; change at this level has the potential to be long-term systemic change.
Within these four layers of analysis there are opportunities for four levels of transformation from which new culture and systems can emerge. It is at the level of Metaphors and Myths — of narrative shift — that we have the opportunity to embed equity from the start.
The Pop Culture Collaborative understands this well — working with the “social justice sector and pop culture industries, the Collaborative believes activists, artists, and philanthropists can encourage mass audiences to reckon with the past and rewrite the story of our nation’s future.” A 2014 poll revealed that watching shows that featured LGBTQ characters helped drive support for marriage equality.
The CLA framework reminds us that in order to make change at the levels that are most visible to us, we need to start by creating new myths and metaphors that in turn will support the worldview and systems needed for a more equitable future in which there is space for us all to thrive. By listening to and highlighting the voices and stories of Black individuals and Black environmentalists, we collectively create new societal myths while also creating new cultures, systems, and solutions to the racial and climate challenges we are facing.
NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice program Director Jacqui Patterson writes that “to ensure an economy built on cooperative and regenerative principles which look out for all people…We need frontline communities leading our own solutions…Our future must be rooted in a just transition. This involves moving away from a society functioning on extraction to one rooted in deep democracy and to one integrating regenerative processes, cooperation and acknowledgement of interdependence and again, where all rights are respected (indigenous, women’s, and all marginalized communities) and honored…We have to get to a place where we can live in harmony with each other and the Earth.”
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