Paradigm [pair-a-dime] is a word you probably don’t use often, or perhaps at all. The concept is, however, crucial to the navigation of our mutual future.
My own understanding of paradigms is shaky at best, so I consulted my friend Arnold while we were watching the Forty Niner game on his massive flat screen video. Arnold is the smartest person I know—so smart that corporations and governments hire him to think for them. He uses words like paradigm with great frequency and was glad to fill up halftime with the explanation I needed.
“The idea of a paradigm,” he told me, “was first developed to help describe critical junctures in the history of science when discoveries shifted the entire framework of scientific thought—such as the massive rethinking generated by the astronomy of Copernicus or the physics of Einstein. With usage of the word outside of the scientific world, it has assumed the wider meaning of a commonly held belief system of any sort. Our paradigm is our ‘world view,’ a set of shared assumptions that a) provides a prism through which we view events and b) dictates a set of behaviors and responses for acting the paradigm out. Our paradigm defines our shared reality and what we expect from it. It tells us what the world is and who we are in it. Variations in paradigms are part of what makes one society distinct from another, though globalization has blurred a lot of edges. Paradigms also shift, often distinguishing one historical epoch from another, such as the Rise of Islam or the Industrial Revolution.”
“So,” I asked as halftime was ending, “what happens when reality itself is at odds with the description of reality a paradigm provides?”
“One of three things,” Arnold answered. “Either the society recognizes that discontinuity and shifts its paradigm. Or it institutionalizes its paradigm into a faith which substitutes ‘allegiance to doctrine’ for ‘accurate description of external behavior’ and just goes on as before. Or…”
Arnold tailed off into distraction as the Niners lined up to open the second half.
“Or?,” I insisted.
“Or,” he shrugged, “the shit hits the fan.”
Which is pretty much where we find ourselves now.
Our communal paradigm looks increasingly dysfunctional and rather than contributing to our survival, may very well impede it. We need to rethink ourselves.
Consider the reigning American paradigm:
It assumes the natural world is stable, predictable, and will stay that way. Resources are abundant, to be exploited and utilized to the greatest degree possible. Economic growth is paramount. Everyone can get rich and getting rich is the best life has to offer. Consumption defines identity and is a good unto itself, independent of need. People by and large get what they deserve and they ought to look after themselves, by themselves. Military force is the ultimate intermediary. The dominant prevail and it is essential to enforce our will. Our state is more important than any other and we get to go to the head of the line whenever we wish. Corporations are the same as people, only bigger, richer, and more important. Individualism is the highest expression of human nature and communal identity is suspect. Everyone else in the world ought to follow our lead and want to be like us.
That paradigm has carried us a long way, but it is now on a collision course with a potentially catastrophic transformation in physical reality which we must either avert or engage to our advantage. In either case the conditions which our paradigm has successfully exploited will disappear and adjusting to life without them dictates tasks which our current paradigm seems ill suited to cope with, much less prosper in the face of. We may be about to become the proverbial square peg in a round hole.
Consider the eventuality if, as most who study the issue expect, essential resources contract as demand escalates and cheap exploitation disappears as an option. Climate patterns alter, growing seasons shift, and habitat relocates or disappears. The planet’s carrying power diminishes, shrinking our collective wealth, widening the divide between haves and have nots. Rising seas devastate coastlines. Populations migrate, sometimes desperately, as altered weather redefines habitability. Dominance is no longer synonymous with control or even victory. Institutions may break down under the increased strain. If so, disorder will rise and dislocation spread.
To maintain civilization within the prospect of a drastically different physical circumstance in which “abundant” is replaced with “diminishing”, we must at the very least be able to do three things: make more out of less, take care of each other, and reduce our collective atmospheric foot print by an order of magnitude or more. Generating this adaptation will require us to reconfigure our approach to ourselves and each other. And to do that, we must acknowledge our circumstance and reboot our paradigm to an approach that fits our likely future.
Which is why the biggest issue facing us is framed by an obscure word I have to get a smart guy to explain.
Obscure or not, Paradigm matters. It provides a foundation for our political and cultural structure and enables us to cope. And we can change paradigms. Indeed, paradigms have shifted throughout human history as we have constructed and reconstructed our civilization. Part of the human condition is our ability to rethink and adapt, but to utilize that capacity now, in time to affect the planet’s outcome, we need to invoke our deepest selves and insist the issue of paradigm be moved to the very top of the human agenda.
It’s at that level of social vision that change needs to happen. And in that process, the question we need to answer is not Republican or Democrat, Left or Right, East or West, Pure or Impure, Strict or Loose, Liberal or Conservative.
The relevant question is Who Do We Need To Be To Deal With What’s Coming Our Way?