. . .There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are torn apart and will suffer greatly.
Know the river has its destination.
The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above water.
And I say, "See who is in there with you and celebrate. . .
We are the ones we have been waiting for."
The concept is enigmatic, but with the current energetics shift underway, also very appropriate for discussion. The term was coined by Thomas Kuhn in his book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" (1962), and he suggests that they occur when scientists encounter anomalies which cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm within which scientific progress has thereto been made. Take quantum mechanics (QM), for example, which is a branch of theoretical physics that doesn't conform to Newtonian principles. Whether or not QM ever amounts to anything more than a fascinating rumination, it does indeed represent a paradigm shift. A new physical construct had to be developed to explain the behavior of the quantum world.
So let's apply the concept to peak oil and our future as a species here on Earth. What would constitute a legitimate paradigm shift in this case? As with most questions of this nature, it is instructive to first further refine the implications of a paradigm shift, and then to define just what exactly our current/previous one is or was.
The paradigm, in Kuhn's view, is not simply the current theory, but the entire worldview in which it exists, and all of the implications which come with it. Take for example the idea of slavery. In the 18th century it was considered "liberal" to oppose slavery, whereas in the 21st century it is considered barbaric not to. This is a pretty big deal. The idea that one human has the right to capture and enslave another, by whatever means necessary, for his own energetic benefit is not just outmoded, it's inconceivable to most modern industrial humans. This constitutes a major shift in worldview, and by extension, a paradigm shift. But was it a genuine paradigm shift, or merely a new moral high-ground gladly settled on by people who had mastered better techniques for energy exploitation? I think it's curious that the immense energetic value of oil was discovered in the 1850s, just before the great debate over slavery was settled the following decade. To extrapolate that line of logic back a bit farther, did the areas of the U.S. and Britain that produced coal, another immense form of fossil energy, also produce anti-slavery sentiment? If coal was mined in the south instead of the north, might the Civil War have been pressed on the Yankees by southern liberators? Is it easier to give up the energetic advantage of human slavery when there is a technological replacement that is free of the fear and loathing that must've registered in every slaveholders mind? And not only a replacement, but a superior technology to boot! Too easy.
So we're forced to re-evaluate our perception of a legitimate paradigm shift concerning human slavery, and replace it with the less-gratifying concept that we merely found an exponentially better way to enslave energy for our desires. The game-changing energy derived from coal and then oil made it easy. Slavery became an obsolete technology. At least in the first world. The question of whether we will return to slavery in an energy descent world immediately comes to mind. And while I'd like to think that we have truly outgrown such atrocities in the last century and a half, the logical answer to me is yes, of course we will. When it is energetically advantageous to do so.
Moreover, did we really ever leave it behind? Don't we still exist in a world where covert slavery is acceptable, so long as it's not the classical whipped and chained Africans on the southern cotton plantation image before us? I can't count how many times Americans, when confronted with the sweat shop labor argument, have offered an explanation to the effect of "well, at least we're providing them with jobs!" Right, like several millennia of exquisite Chinese civilization depended on them making plastic toys for us. Is five bucks and a bowl of rice a day really any different from slavery? The ugly truth of it is that buying cheap goods made in the third world condones the modern day version of slavery. And it's "over there" because the practice would never fly within our borders. We're too guilty to look it in the eye. Slavery didn't disappear, we just outsourced it and moved on to something better.
So if we're starting to question the existence of genuine paradigm shifts in the thought patterns of industrial culture, what might we expect to constitute a legitimate one? The Aquarian New Age movement might have the answer, right? I mean, paradigm shifting is their piece de resistance, isn't it? So let's take a look then. What does the New Age offer us?
As I understand them, the tenets of the New Age are as follows:
1)Monism - All is One. Dr. Bronner's favorite. Everything and everyone is interrelated and interdependent.
2)Pantheism - All is god. Every living and non-living object in the universe contains within it a spark of the divine.
3)If all is one and all is god, then we are god. Therefore all of humanity is ignorant of its own divinity, and a major goal of the New Age movement is to discover that divinity.
4)We discover our own divinity through a change in consciousness.
5)Reincarnation - we achieve our divine potential through a series of lives spent bettering ourselves.
6)Moral relativism - all religions are true, and there are many paths to god.
Some of these concepts seem so self-evident that only the most myopic religious fundamentalists could argue. For instance, the idea that we are all interrelated and interconnected is, from an ecological point of view, practically set in stone. I might also offer that pantheism could just as easily be described as "none is god" as it is "all is god." If we are all interrelated and interconnected, then each and every facet of the whole plays a crucial role, but certainly doesn't require divinity. This is easy enough to visualize as mineral deposits contributing their elements to biological systems that function with said elements as limiting factors to growth. For example, without the phosphates trickling down the watershed from the surrounding rocky hillsides, the plants that support the food chain couldn't flourish. Likewise, without healthy plant communities, the resident animals wouldn't survive for very long. To promote an animal consumer like Homo sapiens to a position of ordained stewardship is to not understand much about food chains. Without the primary producers and decomposers our reign as king would be short indeed. It's just as accurate to consider fungal decomposers the stewards of the system, ordained or otherwise. We'd be up to our necks in detritus pretty quickly without their tireless breakdown of recalcitrant organic molecules. But a mycocentric view of the system is no more appropriate than a human-centered one. All system functions are equally important - producer, consumer, decomposer; therefore either all are god, or none are god, but all are the same for sure.
Number 3 in the list represents my main argument against the idea that New Age philosophy represents a legitimate paradigm shift. If we are all becoming gods, or slowly waking up to the idea that we always have been, then we are still riding an expansionary train of thought. According to this reasoning it seems logical to add a fourth way of being to the old "savagery, barbary, civilization" progressivist party line: deism. Where we transcend the corporeal toil of our lowly position as animals within Earth's biosphere. From barbarian to citizen to demi-god, expanding all the way. Where's the paradigm shift?
Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for increased self-awareness and spiritual betterment, but just as coal and oil gave us a way to disdain our lowly status as slave-holders without actually having to endure a real shift in worldview, New Age philosophy continues that logical course by allowing us to disdain our lowly position as mere humans, confined by physical and natural law. This is merely the next geometric expansion of a 10,000 year old march through increasing abundance.
But increasing abundance can't last forever. What goes up must come down. Now that we've shined the light of reason on some of the past and future misconceptions about what constitutes a genuine game-changing paradigm shift, we're left with the increasingly irritating question of what one truly is!
Into that question steps the answer we're all here to discuss: global energy peak. When oil production peaked in 2006 (according to the International Energy Agency, not just some peak oil doomers) those of us in the expansionary first world were confronted with our first view of a new way of being. Permanent energy descent and economic contraction, a more or less perpetual bear. Going back to the definition that opened the essay, contraction will present science, and everyone else on the growth track, an increasing number of anomalies that can't be explained by the previously accepted worldview. Nature behaves quite differently in a contractionary phase than it does in an expansionary one. The mother of all paradigm shifts lies before us, and I, as well as many of my readers, are just starting to come to grips with the gravity of the situation. Talking about comprehensive worldview shifts, energy descent will demand bottoms-up revolutions in every facet of our existence, from agriculture to politics, and religion to gender relations. Food chains will grow steadily shorter. Biodiversity will increase, perhaps even sparking an evolutionary flowering event. And relationships among the players in that contracting system will become more cooperative. Fighting over expanding energy resources made sense, and was actually ecologically adaptive, in our growth paradigm, but energy descent will reset the table on every matter we think we understand. With less to fight over, we will begin to understand that our strength lies in ever more local and cooperative arrangements, and, counter to the segregation and specialization of growth, the humble generalist will inherit the earth.
It's a truly fascinating time to be alive! Dangerous or not, I wouldn't trade it for any other period of history.