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A Struggle of Paradigms

Perhaps the most fascinating factor shaping today’s debates about the future of industrial society, and certainly among the most frustrating, is the rapidity with which any such debate plunges into territory outside the reach of rational argument. Watch a conversation about the subject, and nearly always one of two things will happen: either the participants will find they share basic assumptions in common, and will proceed to build a conversation on that firm ground, or their assumptions will differ and they’ll spend the rest of the conversation talking past one another.

Any number of examples could be cited, but the one that comes to mind just now is the way that communications break down over the subject of environmental limits. It’s no exaggeration to say that either you believe in limits or you don’t. If you do, it seems glaringly obvious that modern industrial civilization, which depends on ever-increasing exploitation of finite and nonrenewable resources, is in deep trouble, and the only viable options are those that jettison the fantasy of perpetual economic growth and aim at a controlled descent to a level of energy and resource use per capita that can be sustained over the long run.

If you don’t believe in limits, by contrast, such notions are the height of folly. Since, according to this way of thinking, progress can by definition overcome any limit nature might impose on human beings, it seems glaringly obvious that modern industrial civilization needs to push progress into overdrive so that it can find and deploy the innovations that will get us past today’s problems and launch our species onward toward its glorious future, whatever that happens to be.

Readers of this blog will have little trouble guessing the side of this division on which I can be found. As a student of ecology, I’ve learned that environmental limits play a dominant role in shaping the destiny of every species, ours included; as a student of history, I’ve reviewed the fate of any number of civilizations that believed themselves to be destiny’s darlings, and proceeded to pave the road to collapse with their own ecological mistakes. From my perspective, the insistence that limits don’t apply to us is as good a case study as one might wish of that useful Greek word hubris, otherwise defined as the overweening pride of the doomed. Still, the fact that these things seem so self-evident to me makes it all the more intriguing that they are anything but self-evident to most people in the industrial world today.

This same territory was mapped out the year I was born, from a different perspective, by Thomas Kuhn, whose famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is as influential as it is rarely read. Kuhn was among the first historians of science to put the popular image of scientific progress to the test of history, and find it wanting. In place of the notion that science advances toward objective truth by the steady accumulation of proven facts – a notion that continues to shape histories of science written for popular consumption – he showed that scientific beliefs are profoundly shaped by social and cultural forces, and that the relation between scientific theory and the facts on the ground is a great deal more complex than conventional ideas allow.

Kuhn’s take on things has been misstated often enough that it probably needs a summary here. During a period of what he calls “normal science,” scientists model their work on a paradigm. This isn’t some sort of vague worldview, in the sense too often given to the word recently; rather, it’s a specific example of science at work, an investigation by an exemplary scientist and the successful and popular theory resulting from that research. In bacteriology, for example, Louis Pasteur’s research program in the 1870s and 1880s, which led to the first successful artificial vaccines, became the paradigm that later researchers followed; good bacteriological research – in Kuhn’s terms, normal science – was research that followed Pasteur’s lead, worked at fine-tuning his theories, and asked the same kinds of questions about the same kinds of phenomena that he asked and answered.

Sooner or later, though, a mismatch opens up between the paradigm and the facts on the ground; the research methods drawn from the paradigm stop yielding good answers, and the paradigmatic theory no longer allows for successful prediction of phenomena. Scientists respond by making the theory more elaborate, the way that Ptolemy’s earth-centered cosmology had to be padded out with epicycle after epicycle to make it fit the vagaries of planetary motion. Crisis comes when the theory becomes so cumbersome that even its stoutest believers come to realize that something is irreducibly wrong, or when data emerges that no reworking of the paradigmatic theory can explain. Sooner or later the crisis resolves when a researcher propounds a new theory that makes sense of the confusion. That theory, and the research program that created it, then becomes the new paradigm in the field.

So far, so good. Kuhn pointed out, though, that while the new paradigm solves questions the old one could not, the reverse is often true as well: the old paradigm does things the new paradigm cannot. (Sailors who navigate by the stars still use Ptolemaic astronomy, for example, because one of the questions it answers elegantly – what does the movement of the heavens look like from Earth? – is awkward to work out using the Copernican system.) It’s standard practice for the new paradigm to include the value judgment that the questions the new paradigm answers are the ones that matter, and the ones the old paradigm does better don’t count. Nor is this judgment pure propaganda; since the questions the new paradigm answers are generally the ones that researchers have been wrestling with for decades or centuries, they look more important than details that have been comfortably settled since time out of mind. They may also be more important, in every meaningful sense, if they allow practical problems to be solved that the old paradigm left insoluble.

Yet the result of that value judgment, Kuhn argued, is the false impression that science progresses, replacing relatively false beliefs with relatively more true ones, and thus gradually advances on the truth. He argued that different paradigms are not attempts to answer the same questions, differing in their level of accuracy, but attempts to answer entirely different questions – or, to put it another way, they are models that highlight different features of a complex reality, and cannot be reduced to one another. Thus, for example, Ptolemaic astronomy isn’t wrong, just useful for different purposes than Copernican astronomy. (From the standpoint of relativity theory, please note, this is quite correct: since there are no fixed points in the cosmos, only frames of reference, it’s as meaningful to take an earth-centered frame of reference and calculate the movements of the planets from there as it is to take a sun-centered frame of reference and do the same thing.)

All these same considerations sprawl outside the limits of the sciences to define the rise and fall of paradigms in the entire range of human social phenomena. This brings us back around to the irreconcilable differences that introduced this post, for the difference between the believers and the disbelievers in limits is, at root, a difference in paradigms. Those who believe that modern industrial society is destined for, or even capable of, unlimited economic expansion have drawn their paradigm from the industrial revolution and its three-century aftermath, with James Watt and his steam engine playing roughly the same role that Louis Pasteur played in the old paradigm of bacteriology, say, or Isaac Newton still plays in some aspects of physics. Like any other paradigm, the industrial revolution defines certain questions and issues as important, and dismisses others from serious consideration.

This is where the problems arise, because a solid case can be made – and this blog has tried in various ways to make it – that some of the questions dismissed from consideration by the “normal culture” of industrial expansion are among those our species most needs to face just now, as the depletion of fossil fuel reserves and the soaring costs of environmental damage become central facts of our contemporary experience. The industrial paradigm can only interpret running out of one resource as a call to begin exploiting some even richer one. If there is no richer one, and even the poorer ones are rapidly being depleted as well, what then? From within the industrial paradigm, that question cannot even be formulated; the assumption that there is always some new and better resource to be had is hardwired into the ways of thinking that the industrial paradigm makes inevitable.

Thus a change of paradigms is necessary. The belief in limits discussed earlier in this post derives from a different model of this kind – the model of ecology, which is still sorting out its historical vision and has not yet quite found its paradigmatic theory, researcher, and discovery. (Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and Charles Darwin are among the current contenders.) From within this paradigm, the models that provide the most insight into our contemporary situation are those found in nonhuman nature – specifically, the cycles of increase, overshoot, and dieoff which afflict so many other species that rely on outside forces to control their numbers. Unless we take that model and its implications into account, the ecological paradigm suggests, some of the most important factors shaping our future are completely out of sight.

The change from one paradigm to another, however, is not an overnight thing. Kuhn points out that in the sciences, it usually has to wait until most of the older generation of scientists, who have been trained in the old paradigm, have been removed from the debate by old age and death. The same thing is too often true in other fields. Thus it’s uncomfortably likely that even as the industrial paradigm fails to explain an increasingly challenging world, a great many people will cling to the faith that progress will bail us out. Meanwhile, those of us who have made the Copernican leap to a universe in which human beings are no longer central will have to accomplish what we can on the smaller scales available to us.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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