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It’s not the economy, it’s the stupid paradigm

Dr. Williams wrote her dissertation on The role of social paradigm in human perception and response to environmental change. She is the director of UAA’s Office of Sustainability.

Americans’ level of concern for the environment waxes and wanes, depending on how the economy is faring, as illustrated in the 2011 Gallup chart below. The chart shows responses to the question whether the economy or the environment should be given preference asked from 1985 through 2011. Note the trending decline in concern for the environment starting in 2001 with a precipitous drop in 2008 when the economy hit the skids. It’s a truism that our environmental behaviors and our understanding of causes of environmental degradation always lag behind the level of our environmental concern. Why?

The question asked by Gallup is really not fair because the economy and the environment are not separate (contrary to the claims of many economists). Everything that we make comes from the physical environment – clothing, food, computers, vehicles, . . . Nothing we make is independent of the environment – and when we finish using it, it gets discarded back into the environment.

Research suggests that our behaviors are a reflection of the story we tell ourselves about how the world works. This is commonly referred to as a social paradigm. Nash and Lewis define a social paradigm as “common-sense beliefs about the world rooted in culture and history. Citizens adopt ideological values as they become socialized in their environments – values that become so ingrained that they are taken as reflecting objective reality.”

What are the beliefs that make up our social paradigm? One main belief is in the need for continuous growth of the economy. This is a message we heard daily from both Presidential candidates, and now hear regularly from our elected politicians. Another belief is that the governmental regulation of business is ill-advised (because it will stunt growth of businesses). Collectively, Americans also strongly believe that we will be able to rely on technology to resolve our problems, particularly our environmental problems. Foremost of our beliefs is that humans are more important than anything else on the planet (anthropocentrism).


William Kilbourne and his colleagues at Clemson University have studied these beliefs. Their research suggests that people who have high scores on belief in the western industrialized dominant social paradigm (WISP) are negatively correlated with concern about the environment and do not believe there is a need to change their behaviors. They are also highly materialistic. People in the United States score higher on this social paradigm than any other country tested.

How do we reasonably assess whether these ideas are good or bad without adding a political component? We can ask two questions:

  1. Will this make humans more adaptable to change? and,
  2. Will it support long-term existence of humans?

If the answer to these questions is no, then the idea is maladaptive, and we should reject the idea because it makes us less resilient – less able to live a long time into the future.


Let’s assess the idea of continuous growth using these criteria. If you ask whether continuous growth in a finite system is possible, most people will answer no. It’s just common sense that infinite growth cannot happen. If you then ask if the Earth is a finite system, most people will acknowledge that it is. Yet, people fail to understand the conflict between the Earth being a finite system and a continuously growing economy, or unregulated, continuously growing businesses. The answer to the question of whether continuous growth of the economy and of businesses will support long-term existence of humans seems obvious since continuous growth in a finite system is not possible. Thus, these ideas are maladaptive and should be abandoned.

Economic modeling suggests that without innovation, which usually means technological advances, business growth stops at the point where increased investment in new machines equals the number of machines breaking down (depreciation). As a result, companies must innovate to keep growing. There is, therefore, a very close link between growth of companies and technology.

Will technology save us? Humans have done some pretty amazing things with technology. We are healthier, we produce more food, and many of us are able to live comfortably almost anywhere we choose on the planet. All of these are arguments that technology has made us more resilient (meaning more adaptable and tending to have a longer existence). Are we good at assessing the potential future consequences of technology? I don’t think that Henry Ford (or most other people alive at that time) would have dreamed of the pollution, gridlock and energy use problems that automobiles now cause. The green revolution brought us increases in food production, but nobody anticipated the dead zones produced in the Gulf of Mexico from all the nutrients washed down the Mississippi River, or the crash of fish populations caused primarily by increased fishing efficiency brought about by technology. We have a tendency to embrace most technologies (with a few notable exceptions, including nuclear and nanotechnology) without even assessing potential negative consequences. Technology will probably help make us more resilient, but our current technology is heavily fueled by and reliant on fossil fuels – another limited resource. Human resilience will require that we abandon blind acceptance of technology and develop a method to better assess and weigh the positive and negative consequences of technology.

Probably the single most dangerous idea that humans have embraced, in my opinion, is anthropocentrism – that we are more important than anything else on the planet. If you can’t grow continuously in a finite system, then it follows that you can’t grow human population continuously in a finite system. Yet, because anthropocentrism is so entrenched in our psyche, suggestions that human population growth should be discouraged and not subsidized, or, dare I say, regulated, leads to outrage, including death threats to people who make such suggestions. We are clearly a biological species, and if we overshoot the capacity of our environment to supply us with air, food, water and shelter, we will become extinct, just as other species do.


It is well established that humans ignore information that we receive that contradicts our values and beliefs, and that we pay special attention to messages and information that support our values and beliefs. This makes the messages of our social paradigm even more problematic. We are socialized from the time we are young to believe the ideas of our social paradigm. Our parents, teachers, our peers, and the media repeat these ideas over and over to the point that we take them as true without question and they become our values and beliefs. Thus, when we hear that continuous growth is not possible, we might agree that it sounds logical, but it conflicts with what we have learned growing up, so we feel an uncomfortable tension (psychologists call this cognitive dissonance). Common human response to this tension is not to change our behaviors, but to discount, ignore, or twist the information that conflicts with our beliefs. Sound familiar?

It is time that we question these ideas and start thinking about their implications for our long-term survival. We are not the most important species on the planet, cannot grow either our population or our economy infinitely and we need to acknowledge our limits before our limits confront us. If we are truly as intelligent as we think we are, we can do this.

Editorial Notes: Link to an Italian translation of the article by Giulio Pesenti Campagnoni.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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