Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Sunday, November 21, 2010

What Constitutes a Paradigm Shift?

. . .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."
-Hopi Elder

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.


  1. Great reading! "Humble generalist"; is that anything like meek? There will always be a "remnant".

  2. "With less to fight over, we will begin to understand that our strength lies in ever more local and cooperative arrangements,"

    You were doing pretty good until this point. Scarce and disappearing resources are almost the very definition of competition. Scarcity does not bring out the best in human nature in many/most cases. Else you're just re-arguing the "divine nature" idea you had rejected just a few paragraphs before.

    Better re-think how we'll be joining hands to sing "We Are The World" over that last scrap of food.

  3. Hopefully we'll be around to sing something if/when the time comes to celebrate!

    Australian ecosystems are unique in their lack of fertility, and as a result what you typically see are short food chains, with very few top predators, and many cooperative and symbiotic relationships within.

    Of course my comment was intended to be the view from a sweeping ecological perspective, based on examples from nature and human history (not given, maybe another post). I didn't mention that there might be a little population keyhole event to pass through en route. But really, any time there is a larger crisis, whether it's a snowstorm, or a world war, people (who are fighting for the same thing, and in our case we'll all be fighting for the same thing, survival) always come together, forget their differences, and work together to get through it. So I don't think this is that radical an idea.

    I don't know how the individual human life will fare during the descent phase, but on the broad scale I stand by my statement. It's just how Nature tends to do things.

    Thanks, Rotty;)

  4. Like you, Tripp, I believe in the human ability to cooperate in times of adversity.

    I saw that kind of cooperation in Minnesota, where I grew up in the 50s and 60s. The winter there can kill a person in a matter of minutes. Winter tended to bring out the best in people. Whenever soembody's car slid into a snowbank, six people would come out of nowhere to help push it out. I've seen neighbors who hated each other jumping each others' engines; and motorists stopping to pick up stranded strangers on the highway. You couldn't afford not to help a stranger in the winter, because it could be you next time.

  5. @MessianicDruid: You have one of the most descriptive handles I've ever seen, but I'm confounded by your philosophy sometimes. You're very much druid-minded like I am, but you quote scripture over at CFN fairly regularly too. Educate me on your worldview some time if you feel like it.

  6. Su, same in Spokane. Winter '08 we had 5' of snow in December, with almost 2' of that in the first 36 hours of the run. Shut the city down pretty much, especially with declining tax revenues to pay for plows, but I met everyone in my neighborhood that month, had cake, beer, got sent home with canned goods, and slid down the street holding onto truck bumpers.

    I don't want to pretend like a perpetual crisis will play out the same way, with homemade tea and crumpets every day, but I just don't see enough good reason to fear this either. We could die attempting something historic, it's true, but what's the alternative? A consumptive, cancerous growth paradigm, and a toasted landscape? I'm all in at this point.

  7. @Tripp - To be brief: I am a Melchizadek trainee learning to walk as He walked, anticipating and preparing myself, with the guidance/discipline of the Holy Spirit, for the manifestation of the Sons and Daughters of God, for which the whole Creation yearns. Anti-nicolaitan, Reconciliationist, Redeemed bond-servant.

    I think most preachers could do more good by simply reading the scriptures during worship.

  8. @Tripp - I've recognized for the past few years how as wage-earners within corporations we've become the indentured serfs of previous times. I had somehow never quite allowed myself to make the mental connection to outright slavery. Why? I have no idea. Because I continue to put in 55 hours per week in exchange for a small 40 hour per week salary in the hopes of keeping my job and maintaining the illusion of progress within a system still clinging to the river bank.

    Thank you for a very well articulated post. I see more clearly now that welding and vermiculture are much better educational pursuits during my off hours.

    And thank you also to my friends Toby (& Chris) who sent the link to your blog.

  9. Bobbie, thanks so much for the kinds words, and I'm not even sure I had put your, (very common these days), situation all the way together myself. But it strikes me that the unfortunate? end game of capitalism requires fewer and fewer people with more and more education working longer and longer hours for less and less money, while the penthouse floor of the kleptocracy plays No-limit Hold 'Em at the final table for all the marbles.

    Our power at this point seems to lie in not giving a rat's ass about their clam shell game based on Ponzi schemes aimed at collecting all the dollars that were borrowed into existence in the first place, and therefore have no inherent value (whew! what a release!), and reinventing our own local economies. And since I think that's an inevitable living arrangement, why not do it voluntarily at a more leisurely pace?

    And oh yeah, I definitely think welding/smithing and vermiculture are in their ascension phases!


  10. tripp i hope you had a great thanksgiving. another great post. for some reason, i was reminded of that scene in annie hall where the sufi wiseman every one called guru comes walking out of the bathroom with toilet paper stuck to his shoe. humans are a freaking mess and all of us are together and alone with it.

    over at club orlov is a great discussion about getting off the sinking good ship USA. but i am with you - i am not going to miss this cataclysmic shift. maybe people will discover their souls on this path. i can say i look upon it with some sense of detachment as i have decoupled from the structure as much as i can and am pretty happy with the outcome. and hell to the yeah i am working on that soil this winter. im doing the lasagne thing...the layers of stuff -leaves, manure, compost, leaves, etc

    recently i got a gig shooting jewelry for a company that does licensing. what they do is - guess! - send it to india to be assembled with cheaper materials and labor and shipped back to be marketed to hell i dont know who wears a necklace of purple capiz shells and fake golden grape bunches. (maybe a chick in a leopard sarong clicking along in heels poolside in las vegas?) anyway - i wasnt so high minded that i didnt do the job in spite of my awareness of the slave connection.

    the best thing i can report is the paradigm shift that happened to me. i am definitely on the right path. there is no way i would give this up for a secure job (as if) and money. i always seem to scrape by and still live well, as do you.

    so glad your blog is reaching more people.

    last photograph - is that the mighty ocmulgee?

  11. I wish! That's a nice clean little river flowing toward the Pacific in northern California. One of my pics from the permaculture class and redwood forest drive in California last year.

    You're a total bad ass, Chickory. I wish I was as self-reliant for my living as you are. Getting there, but not yet. My mushroom crop should be ready soon, and we just sold $300 worth of Jess's comfrey cream, but not making it outside the formal economy completely just yet. We just keep trying to grow more food and keep cutting bills.

    The 4 of us are down to living on 10k, so not far to go now to transition to a fed note-free existence. (I call them ferns, FRNs, federal reserve notes, as if you could just walk up and break off a piece of fern and call it money.) It's falling apart, and I'm with you. I don't want to be any more reliant on a collapsing system than need be.

    Thanks for the props!

  12. Tripp, thank you very much for your excellent writing. It is a pleasure to read, and to know there are folks like you out there.

    I ran across a couple of articles you may find interesting. I found them fascinating:



  13. I think the paradigm shift is that each thing in the universe manages to continue to exist through time because it is useful to its own future and/or its environment: quantitatively more than what it consumes in resources. I call this ratio "net future usefulness".
    In other words, humans have to shift from taking away to giving to the universe. Sustainability just isn't going to be enough.

  14. Tripp- You missed the record November snowfall in Spokane. 25" or so. It was fun to walk to the store and see the helplessness of *all* vehicles after a night when it got above freezing for several hours...

    Based on my brief exposure to your writing, I thought you might have an interest in a book that I am currently reading: Pandora's Seed by Spencer Wells. The thesis is that we have evolved more since the start of Ag than we did prior to that time. The result has not been pretty. (I trust that you know about WorldCat as a way to find hard-to-find library books. The library, though, had two copies of this one.)

    Cheers, Matt

  15. Sarah, thank you so much for those kind words. We do seem to be a rather rare, and I tend to think imminently sensible!, breed, don't we? I hope you have a worthy tribe gathering around you. I will definitely check out the links you posted. Do you have a blog?

    Auntie, "net future usefulness" eh? I like it! Here's to all of us here serving cornerstone roles of that usefulness.

    Matt, I heard about all that snow! (And I don't miss it;) Agriculture has certainly been a game-changer for us, hasn't it? A mixed blessing at best. I'll check out Pandora's Seed for sure; sounds interesting...