An elegant blueprint: How an ecological paradigm can advance transformative justice


Kiley Arroyo


‘People normally cut reality into compartments, and so are unable to see the interdependence of all phenomena. To see one in all and all in one is to break through the great barrier, which narrows one’s perception of reality.’ Thich Nhat Han

In May 2019, Alliance magazine published the piece, ‘Systems change—are we already doing it?’ In it, authors Sarah-Brown-Compello and Lauren Bradford discuss the depth of current social transformation efforts and suggest, ‘…Secondary and third levels are oftentimes ignored or gilded over, and not given the attention they deserve when analyzing the systems that we work in.’ These structures refer to those defined by the Causal Layered Analysis framework. This systems thinking tool demonstrates how reality emerges from human behaviors that reflect worldviews about who and what has value and the underlying paradigm from which entire systems grow. Ignoring deeper levels fails to take advantage of what we now know about how complex systems change, from both western and non-western perspectives.

Systems scholar, Donella Meadows identified leverage points that have varying degrees of capacity to affect systemic change. Because systems are arise from paradigms, transforming these is necessary to ignite lasting change. However, Meadows takes this suggestion one step further, urging humanity to transcend the idea that that one worldview can represent every culture.

There is growing consensus that the issues of our time are rooted in an outdated worldview that privileges White, Western, and patriarchal values. By extending colonial practices, this ideology creates conditions that enable power, wealth, and wellbeing to remain concentrated amongst the few. A supremacist ideology depletes the fertility that cultural diversity and shared prosperity generate. Racial injustice pushes foundations and social investors to reckon with the ways this ideology contributes to the field’s existence, while intensifying its need. Therefore, those committed to transformational justice must consider how a more expansive ideology can foster conditions in which all life flourishes.

An increasing number of disciplines are adopting an ecological paradigm as a more appropriate way to influence change in living systems.[1] In doing so, they demonstrate how a more expansive ideology can catalyze systemic change by creating space for people with varying worldviews to encounter differences, engage in meaningful dialogue, and discover new ways to care for the common good. By embracing the fundamental interdependence of all life, an ecological paradigm is consistent with many indigenous worldviews. Therefore, it seems possible that embracing a more expansive frame can begin to decolonize the mindsets that hold injustice in place and by extension, transform the ways systems change is practiced.

Around the world, individuals are discovering that their views on systems change are complementary, despite having arrived at those perspectives from culturally different starting points. This is well illustrated by the marked similarities between the core principles of western systems science, permaculture, and the Traditional Ecological Knowledge handed down over generations by indigenous groups.[2]

Indigenous leaders and western scientists demonstrate how an ecological paradigm can facilitate intercultural collaboration. For example, indigenous traditions such as agroforestry and inter-cropping are revolutionizing western agriculture. A new generation of regenerative farming practices is reversing climate change and strengthening the resilience of local ecosystems and livelihoods, by prioritizing biodiversity and the restoration of soil fertility. This movement reflects global efforts to advance Agroecology and flips the script on historically degenerative development models, in favor of enhancing the regenerative capacity of places.

As a holistic approach to bottom-up development, Agroecology seeks to transform the underlying conditions that cause injustice in ways that integrate food sovereignty, restorative economics, human and ecological health, and cultural rights through participatory methods. This non-western approach to systems change offers valuable insights into ways restorative practices can help to redistribute power, wealth, and wellbeing.

I hope these insights inspire foundations and social investors to reimagine theories of investment and the roles they might play in systems change work. Working to disrupt the status quo is risky. Those with wealth also have an opportunity to take chances that others may not be able to. I invite you to imagine what nature-inspired philanthropy might look like:

  • What would your work look like if you approached like a soil keeper, whose primary role was to create fertile conditions that enable the emergence of new relationships, ideas, and ways to respond to complex issues?
  • What would your investment strategies look like if they mirrored the ways that capital (such as nutrients, minerals, and water) move through regenerative ecosystems?
  • How might you help to recognize and respectfully preserve non-Western knowledge, particularly that which is typically transmitted through oral traditions and amplify its integration into systems change efforts?

Kiley Arroyo is Executive Director at Cultural Strategies Council 


  1. ^ All living systems are composed of networks of interdependent relationships, with collective responsibility for maintaining conditions conducive to life. An ongoing cycle of unity and creation, belonging and becoming, characterize the ways these systems continuously evolve to maintain equitable conditions. Power and risk are decentralized, enabling different elements to self-organize in response to environmental stimuli and the availability of resources. Diversity increases the resilience of living systems by providing limitless ways to respond to change equitably and inclusively and broadcasting effective strategies across the network.
  2. ^ As defined by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992, Article 8 (j), Traditional Ecological Knowledge refers to the knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities around the world. Developed from experience gained over centuries and adapted to local culture and environment, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is transmitted orally from generation to generation. It tends to be collectively owned and takes the form of stories, songs, folklore, proverbs, cultural values, beliefs, rituals, community laws, local language and practices.

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