A New Paradigm for Thinking about Paradigms

In the debate over how most effectively to “make a difference” in the world, we’ve talked a lot about the approach of small steps in the right direction versus a complete paradigm shift.

The paradox lies in the fact that in the absence of a complete paradigm shift, small steps in the right direction are, in fact, merely smallER steps in the wrong direction. (Smaller, that is, than the giant leaps towards hell that the current paradigm prescribes.) Simply by existing within the systems we have in place, we in some way support the current paradigm.

To illustrate the point, let’s say you hang your clothes out to dry when it’s sunny, and ride your bike to work when it’s not raining. Those are certainly steps in the right direction, but you, my friend, are quite literally a fair-weather environmentalist. Paradigm shifts are hard-core, man, and I don’t mean just riding your bike in the rain. Let’s talk about avoiding commercially produced goods, redesigning all systems to eliminate waste altogether, and shunning the entire monetary system.

It will happen one day.

Really? You say…


In the wake of nuclear fallout, or whatever Global Weirding may have in store for us, there will undoubtedly be a paradigm shift, arrived at via no shortage of death, destruction, and utter civil mayhem. Paradigm shifts are scary.

But do they have to be? I would like to suggest under The New Paradigm for Thinking about Paradigms, that they don’t. While one may not be able to deny the paradigm shift that follows a marked historical event (the fall of Rome) or scientific discovery (the world is round), let’s see if we can convince ourselves that the aggregate of many hard wrought, smaller steps may deserve the same recognition.

This New Paradigm is inspired by a recent opportunity to attend a presentation by Brad Lancaster, author of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands, and a little bit of “borrowing” from recent strategies employed by the Republican party. Now don't give up on me here - I may be a lot of things, but I am most certainly not a Republican. Just read carefully, because this could be HUGE!

I read an article recently that highlighted the strategies that have allowed the Republican party to enjoy so much success in recent years (barring this month’s election, of course). First of all, they are masters of appropriating language. The Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind… you can’t argue against the concepts behind these propositions without, at least on some level of perception, arguing against patriotism itself, or for leaving children behind (poor, defenseless ones, shivering in the cold...) The bumper sticker “Peace is Patriotic” is a perfect analog for the argument I’m about to make in that it’s a response (and by responding, we validate) to the assumption that patriotism means, for the time being, support for the war in Iraq. This strategy has even been employed to recharge common symbols with whole new meanings. Since 9/11, to fly an American flag signifies support for our Republican government. How did they slip that one by?

It was clear in the 2004 election the Democrats believed all they needed to do was stand back and let the Republicans dig themselves a grave. Kerry, afterall, was the ultimate 'not Bush.' The problem was that without a clear solution for a problem that somebody else created, they left the world vulnerable to further creep to the right by the Republican party. War? The GOP is FOR it. Abortion? Not so much. Deficit spending? What better way to stimulate the economy. Revolving doors? Can't do it without 'em.

And on the ‘digging themselves a grave’ bit, it became clear that the Democrats may in fact have been too right on that one. Turns out the current administration dug a grave big enough for all of us, right at the bottom of Shit Creek.

Meanwhile, the Republicans managed, step by step, to creep the barometer right-ward on the spectrum of platform issues, until suddenly we realize we’re voting on things that shouldn’t be brought to question in the first place. Gay marriage? The right to choose? Why are we even voting on that? At this point, to bring up Democratic ideals of government programming and environmental stewardship sounds like out of touch idealism.

What I’m getting at here is that the GOP has done nothing short of shifting a paradigm. This paradigm, however, was not forced by a world-changing catastrophe, rather it came as the aggregate of lots of small, intentional, right-bound steps.

We live in a country of corrupt electoral practice, involved in a bogus war, where all the politicians are in bed with the very corporations that are acting against common interest. Oil subsidies and support for chemical agriculture hurt our ability to sustain food production amidst a growing world population while simultaneously allowing big corporations to out-compete smaller farms who are doing it right. Under this model we have our tax dollars accelerating the inevitable arrival of ‘the last drop,’ which, if catches us off guard will surely lead to the ‘hard way’ of arriving at a paradigm shift. (Death and destruction, remember?)

So how do we use these strategies to get what we want in a new paradigm?

Let’s talk about Lancaster. This guy is amazing. You could say he’s on the fringe, but you could also say he’s on the forefront (how’s that for being intentional with language?). He lives in an abundant oasis he created for himself of the fruits of his land, which lies in the seemingly barren desert of Tucson, Arizona. He proves to us that while society at large (under the current paradigm) mismanages the region’s resources, we simply don’t need to do things that way. More than arguing against the current way, Brad is actually modeling a better way. He gives us a palpable (flourishing and fragrant, even) alternative to the status quo.

Now sure, some of the things he’s suggesting might seem a little weird to the average Arizona suburbanite: A composting toilet? Recycling greywater? Hmmm… But in the last few years, things that used to be considered fringe elements (co-housing, natural food stores…) are creeping closer to the center of our operating standards. This, in my opinion, is thanks in no small part to many recent covers of mainstream publications such as TIME and Newsweek; marketing efforts of outfits such as (gasp) Wal-Mart; and the rampant upcropping of various “green” household and industrial products. While perhaps mostly “greenwash,” as sustainability gurus love to point out, it’s hard to deny that all these forces are succeeding in changing the language.

For example, LEED may be mostly bullshit (the embodiment of smaller steps in the wrong direction), but it’s certainly better than not LEED, and now everybody wants it. That’s a smaller step in the wrong direction at a societal level. HUGE! Once LEED becomes standard, the world will be ready to swallow a bigger pill.

There will always be a dominant discourse, and there will always be a voice of dissent. Though as the rules of power go, our inability to fully understand the effects of our actions over time will cause a constant effect of changing context (e.g. Global Warming). Because there will always be people on the fringe (excuse me, the forefront) - people who march to the beat of their own drummers - people who aren’t afraid to speak their minds - people who are scared shitless but speak up anyway - people who lock themselves in rooms with books and technology - people who post long diatribes on weblogs they know only their friends will read… All of these people are fomenting an energy, bursting at the seams of the dominant discourse, just ready to bubble over at every little opportunity. Because of the combined efforts of the small steps of all these people, new ideas will be in place when the old paradigm falls away – not all at once, but element by element, onion layer by onion layer.

Keep doing the little things. Those small steps will gradually change social norms until one day, to look back in time, you realize you’re sitting on a New Paradigm. No destruction necessary.

The grass is greener over here, so creep on over.