If you are familiar with the history of science you have probably heard of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it, Thomas Kuhn describes how science progresses not by gradual evolution but by revolutionary transitions or “paradigm shifts” between “normal science” and new models of reality. Normal science chips away at small areas of ignorance around the fringes to build out the basic accepted framework of knowledge. The new model or paradigm, on the other hand, incorporates all the information explained by the previous framework, but also explains incongruities in the old “normal” or accepted view, as well as incorporating new observations and problematic evidence that the previous paradigm could not explain. A classic example would be the shift from Newtonian physics and Einstein’s relativity theory.
We very well may be at a point today where economics is undergoing a paradigm shift from the classical paradigm based on the assumption of perpetual growth, to a new ecological economics that takes into account the finite resource base, the ecological basis of human societies, and the planetary population limits that classical economic theory ignores entirely.
French mathematician René Thom developed catastrophe theory in the 1960’s to describe sudden transformations in natural systems. Under certain conditions, a system will sudden transition into new very different kinds of behavior. This bifurcation value of the parameter is sometimes also called the “tipping point.” The concept was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his immensely popular book by that name, in which he describes situations in everyday life in which such sudden fundamental transformations occur.
Today, we appear to be at or very near a “tipping point,” in our relationship to the earth system of which we are a part. Much evidence now supports the idea that if we do not experience a cultural tipping point immediately, we will shortly find ourselves at a catastrophic ecological tipping point – beyond human control – that will lead to a fairly rapid slide into conditions that will force species extinction in a matter of a few decades.
What will it take to turn the corner from the “business as usual” approach which attempts to apply old imaginary entities such as “free markets” and Adam Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand” in attempting to respond to the economic implications of climate disruption, which is fundamentally outside the old economic paradigm? That is the question of our time. Only by a rapid cultural paradigm shift in political economy will humanity be able to respond adequately to the catastrophic consequences of the old model on the biosphere.
As markets developed in corporate industrial economies, and as corporations and cartels extended their domination over economies, the concept of free markets became irrelevant of to actual economic systems controlled by a few corporations. Yet, the “science” of economics, as well as the practice of corporate business held onto the concept as a useful ideological tool to maintain political power. But both the ideology and the practice of market economics are increasingly detrimental to any scientific understanding of the relationship of economic behavior and systems to the biosphere on which we all depend.
Tipping points and paradigm shifts are like chickens and eggs. Tipping points in human systems are constituted by cultural paradigm shifts. The evidence of the failure of classical economics to operate as an “invisible hand,” guiding an ideal distribution of income and wealth without political intervention is now overwhelming, despite the political and economic power of corporate and academic “free market” ideologues. The evidence of the severe damage of corporate-industrial economies to the planet is now irrefutable.
Yet the existing institutional interests fight hard to retain their cultural and political control. The consequent inability of the political economy to respond to the ecological crises it has generated is now so obvious as to be undeniable [except, of course, by Senator Inhofe and a few other corrupt science deniers]. Not only is the paradigm no longer defensible as a framework for economics, but its ecological consequences are no longer tolerable from the perspective of human survival.
It is increasingly clear that a massive reduction in resource extraction and a re-allocation of existing resources by means of a comprehensive reorganization of society to effectively change the ways in which we live – in order to drastically reduce carbon emissions – is necessary in the near term. Otherwise, global warming will continue to the point where human action becomes futile and human survival is no longer possible.