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Transforming Paradigms: Easier Said Than Done?

We hear over and over about the need to transform paradigms in response to the unprecedented risks of climate change, but do we really know how to do it? This is a critical question at a time when multiple crises are converging and shaking the foundations of our collective sense of security. The answer to the question of “how” is likely to depend on unspoken assumptions about whose paradigm actually needs shifting. Often, we spend more time trying to change the paradigms of others than personally “occupying” and embodying a new paradigm ourselves.

Dominant development paradigms
If we take climate change seriously and consider its drivers and consequences within the context of poverty and inequality, biodiversity loss, food and water insecurity, gender inequities, and a long list of other social and ecological issues, then it is no surprise that there are repeated calls for paradigm shifts. Johan Rockström emphasizes this quite clearly in a recent Great Transition Initiative article on planetary boundaries: “As the human enterprise becomes more encompassing and interdependent, the prospect of achieving human well-being within the dominant development paradigm grows dim.”

But convincing or cajoling individuals, institutions, and organizations to adopt a new paradigm seldom works, as paradigms can be linked to economic, social, political, institutional  and personal relationships. The dominant development paradigm is indeed closely aligned with business as usual, education as usual, research as usual, and even science as usual. This last realization is usually followed by a deep sigh and a reference to Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” In this 1962 publication, Kuhn recognized that scientific paradigms change gradually, through the rather slow replacement of one generation of scientists with another. Unfortunately, the “funeral approach” to paradigm shifts does not leave much hope for human well-being in the context of climate change.

Paradigms and worldviews
Fortunately, this is not the full story. A paradigm is a pattern of thought that is closely tied to the worldview underlying theories and methods of science. We know that worldviews can and do change when habitual thoughts are disrupted, as they often are in times of crisis or as new generations question precedents and “givens.” Indeed, the proponents of alternative theories and methods are more likely to find a resonant audience when it becomes clear that current solutions are inadequate or even bankrupt. Kuhn (1962, p. 153) noted that “probably the single most prevalent claim advanced by proponents of a new paradigm is that they can solve problems that have led the old one to a crisis.”

“crisis simultaneously loosens the stereotypes and provides the incremental data necessary for a fundamental paradigm shift.”
(Thomas Kuhn, 1962, p. 89)

One way to disrupt patterns of thought without waiting for a full-blown crisis is to challenge the assumptions underlying consensual knowledge, asking the simple question of “what if…?” What if development were not dependent on economic growth? What if collaboration worked better than competition? What if humans saw themselves as both individuals and collectives? What if we truly believed we could create an equitable and sustainable world?

Posing “what if” questions can open up for novel ways of thinking, theorizing, and eventually empirically testing and evaluating new paradigms. This in turn can create spaces for alternatives to manifest. There is no doubt that such questions are now being asked with an increasing frequency. The alternatives emerging from “what if” thinking range from transition towns, collaborative economies, local currencies, and urban agriculture to thoughts like “what if we could geoengineer the atmosphere, or terraform Mars?” The question to ask is whether these are, in fact, truly new patterns of thought.

Quantum thought experiments
Thinking differently is not easy. Yet Kuhn recognized the important role that analytical thought experiments have played in historical paradigm shifts, pointing out that they are “perfectly calculated to expose the old paradigm to existing knowledge in ways that isolate the root of crisis with a clarity unattainable in the laboratory” (Kuhn 1962, p. 88).

If thought experiments are the best way to begin challenging taken-for-granted assumptions about resource-intensive economic growth, persistent poverty, growing inequality, consumption, and other drivers of environmental change — as well as assumptions behind the solutions proposed — we need to look carefully at the underlying premises, i.e., what we consider real. And this demands nothing less than a radical “what if” approach. A good example is Alexander Wendt’s new book called “Quantum Social Mind: Unifying Social and Physical Ontology,” which explores consciousness as a macroscale quantum mechanical phenomenon. Wendt considers what entanglement, non-locality, indeterminism, and other quantum phenomena mean for social life and social theories, drawing on some of the latest science on quantum biology and quantum brain theory.

What if humans have true agency — not just the classical individual agency, but a quantum, collective agency? In positing that his quantum consciousness hypothesis could be true, Wendt presents a naturalist argument supporting the idea that humans are more than classical machines with no free will. While many of the interpretive social sciences take this as a starting point, it has not been integrated into the models or language of  climate change responses, where technological and behavioral changes are prioritized, rather than deliberate social actions that can lead to systemic changes. In the coming weeks I will reflect on what Wendt’s quantum thought experiment implies for social transformations, and why his ideas can play a critical role in empowering a quantum leap to sustainability.

Shifting Ourselves
Rockström argues that “such a turn toward sustainability demands a deep shift in the logic of development away from the assumption of infinite growth toward a paradigm of development and human prosperity within Earth limits.” Going back to the question of how, we know that such a shift is seldom a deliberation or choice, but a process of internalizing new thought patterns and making them “home.” It is about occupying and embodying a new viewpoint.  The quantum social view that Wendt offers as a thought experiment gives us an active role in the universe — he shows us that humans matter, both in the classic and quantum sense. To really get that, we may have to shift ourselves, for paradigms are more than merely thought patterns — they are actualized in our every day actions and practices, and in our ways of being in the world.

To shift paradigms thus calls for more than translating a quantum thought experiment into the language of  Earth systems science, social constructivism, or other intellectual traditions. As Kuhn said, “to translate a theory or worldview into one’s own language is not to make it one’s own. For that one must go native, discover that one is thinking and working in, not simply translating out of, a language that was previously foreign.” Going native into a new perspective may thus be the best way to shift paradigms. But this is much easier said than done!

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