It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories. ~Donna Haraway
Paradigms are illusory. Just as fish likely do not recognize the water that sustains them and we swim through the air unthinking about its properties, paradigms, the underlying currents of our cultural thoughts, are the often unseen and unthought movers of our world. Although humans rarely consider paradigms, they structure our lives and inform our decisions from the day-to-day to the life changing. In the Western world, our current mindset, stemming from Enlightenment thinking, is leading to the destruction and desolation of our natural world, the disconnection and dehumanization of people treated unjustly, and diminishing our sense of the sacred. By engaging with paradigm level thinking, we can shift dominating Western patterns and move toward a life-fulfilling worldview.
Our world is in crisis, and its systems no longer work for life but for the fulfillment of a few at the very top of the socioeconomic scale. We are at a point where the environmental, social, and spiritual have been trampled into such disarray that we are in a crisis of planetary scale. Just a brief glimpse of the symptoms include climate change, species extinction, fresh water scarcity, policy brutality, economic inequality, fundamentalism, and widespread disconnection from other people and the earth. At the root of this systemic issue is the Western paradigm characterized by capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, and mechanistic thinking. This paradigm has disenchanted the world by dissociating the mind from the body and placing conscious mind solely in the human, typically of the white and male variety. Unfortunately, it has been exported around the world from its beginnings in Enlightenment Europe. In order to move towards a thriving and just world, humanity must seek to move beyond Westernism into a new paradigm while bringing forward all of the benefits history has provided.
Environmental scientist and systems thinker Donella Meadows examined physical and cultural systems for places to intervene when the system is not functioning as we’d like. She calls these places leverage points, and claims, “leverage points are points of power.”1 Meadows lists twelve leverage points, and the two most effective intervention points address paradigms. After addressing such pieces as buffers, delays, feedback loops, rules, and goals among others, her top two leverage points are, “2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises” and “1. The power to transcend paradigms.” Paradigms are critical to systems because all else hinges on their functioning. As the underlying, often unconscious explanation of how the world works, the paradigm is infused within all other aspects of a system. Meadows calls paradigms, “the sources of systems” and claims they are, “the shared idea in the mind of society, the great big unstated assumptions — unstated because unnecessary to state; everyone already knows them — constitute society’s paradigm, or deepest set beliefs about how the world works.”2 Paradigms exist in a space that is not often broached. They are not necessarily unconscious, but rarely become the topic of conversation because they are so entrenched within our minds and day-to-day lives. They stem from our cosmologies and cultural mythologies about who we are, why we’re here, and what we should be doing. This is why Meadows has identified paradigms as the two most effective ways to make change in a system.
At the top of her list, Meadow’s most important insight for making change is the power to transcend paradigms. This is critical, and she elegantly describes this place behind places by advising to, “keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize that NO paradigm is “true,” that every one, including the one that sweetly shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension. It is to “get” at a gut level the paradigm that there are paradigms, and to see that that itself is a paradigm, and to regard that whole realization as devastatingly funny.”3 This space behind the paradigm is exactly what has been denied by the Western worldview. It is the enchanted, magical space between worlds which exists beyond the human realm of consciousness and embodiment. Meadows sees this space as humorous because it is absurd to our rational sensibilities and yet its irrationality has no bearing on its existence. She claims, “It is in this space of mastery over paradigms that people throw off addictions, live in constant joy, bring down empires, found religions, get locked up or ‘disappeared’ or shot, and have impacts that last for millennia.”4 It is in the space beyond paradigms that we can imagine the new world of a thriving and just culture. If no paradigm is truly correct, we are free to remake our paradigms as we see fit for the good of the world community. We are no longer bound by the restrictions of the existing paradigm, and we can fashion our own truths about the way the world works. It is only from this place of knowing deeply a new truth that we can begin to question the existing Western paradigm and recognize our compatriots to build into positions of power.
When we find ways to operate in the place beyond paradigms, a space is opened for new paradigms to emerge and proliferate beyond the bounds of our restrictive and oppressive system. We are operating on multiple levels of paradigms and our conscious creation of emerging worldviews with the intention of worldwide cultural paradigm shift may be one of the few things to generate the will to implement concrete changes in our habits and lifeways to mitigate extreme destruction in our world. Paradigm shift holds the possibility to bring us toward a thriving world.
1 Donella Meadows, “Leverage Points: Toward a Sustainable World,” in Global Environmental Politics: From Person to Planet, ed. Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner, (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015), 255.
2 Ibid., 256.
3 Ibid., 267.
4 Ibid., 267.