Tipping points need Paradigm Shifts: Paradigm Shifts are Tipping Points

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.

Errors, Mistakes, and Stupidity: Why Magical Thinking Can Be Deadly

We humans are both rational and emotional beings.  The mix between the two can produce some strange and amusing results.  Conventional economics assumes that all human behavior is rational in the sense that everyone chooses only actions that serve their best economic interests and the result is the best overall outcome for everyone.  Yet all sorts of factors are known to influence behavior.  So, we have to conclude that the “scientific” theory that has become the greatest intellectual source of public policy is built on an empirically falsified myth.  Human decisions are demonstrably based on many psychological and social factors as well as economic ones.  No wonder we have so much concentration of wealth at the top and so much unemployment and poverty among the general population.  But that’s another (related) story.

It is well known among social scientists that human decisions result from a complex of emotional, experiential, and rational elements.  We resist changing our minds about things that we have been comfortable with for a long time.  People change their behavior more often in response to the perception that their neighbors and friends have done so than because of any rational argument.  In fact, social psychologists have long known that people often act on impulse or under some other influence they may not even be aware of and then produce a “rationale” for what they have done after the fact.  On top of that, mistakes can be made because of misconceiving the situation, and the results can be catastrophic.  That is why ballistic missile systems with nuclear warheads involve so many “fail-safe” features.  Even so, there have been numerous incidents where nuclear missiles were almost launched in error.  No human system or related technology is completely fail-safe.

Looking at the big picture is not the forte of most of us.  We are busy trying to “make ends meet” or make a million bucks.  Citizen participation has been largely taken out of the political process.  Decisions of public policy are usually made in response to the economic interests of powerful institutions and supported by their propaganda.  Some fairly simple logic and clear evidence may easily refute such propaganda when it is counter-factual, but is rarely heard in the mass media, which is controlled by those same powerful institutions.  Yet the truth sometimes leaks out.  So it is with global warming and climate disruption.

I recently ran across a YouTube video that reminded me of those good old “type I” and “type II” errors that form the basis for statistical decision making for risk analysis in science.   In a very humorous way, “One Guy” demonstrated the failed logic of “climate deniers” who place their magical thinking above scientific evidence.  The problem is not just that they don’t understand the facts – although they often don’t – it is that, whatever their psychological or other sources of their conclusions, their logic for deciding what to do about the future is fatally flawed.  And, if accepted as the basis for public policy, that logic could be fatal for the planet.

Here is the real-world situation we face as a species:  If we assume for argument’s sake that we don’t know if global warming and climate disruption are “real” or can produce complex catastrophic results for the planet, there are two choices.

  • Do nothing, because climate scientists may be wrong and the actions taken to counter global warming will be expensive and wasted if scientists are wrong.
  • Take action (drastically cut carbon emissions and invest in carbon neutral technology) because if the climate scientists are right, failing to take action will result in mass extinctions and possibly extinction of the human race.

The possible consequences of the first choice are: 1) It’s the right decision (because climate disruption is not real) and we save a lot of money; and 2) It’s the wrong decision (because climate disruption is real) and the results for humanity are catastrophic (massive death and destruction if not extinction).

The possible consequences of the second choice are:  1) It’s the right decision (because climate disruption is real) and we spend a great deal of money and employ many people to reduce carbon emissions, with the result that we save humanity through major changes in the way we all live; and 2) It’s the wrong decision (because climate disruption is not real) and we spend a lot of money and employ many people in reducing carbon emissions when it was not necessary.  When faced with maybe saving some money but maybe destroying the planet in the process, or spending a lot of money to save the planet, what would you do?  I’d spend the money.  Full employment is a valuable side benefit.

There are errors by incompetence and errors by corruption – some are by corrupt incompetence .  Both can be confounded with elements of magical thinking, which results from combining ignorance, rigid belief, and ill-logic with an inability to perform critical thinking.  When you combine an aversion to complexity with magical thinking and unwavering belief in the face of facts [confirmed evidence from observation], the result is insistence that absurd counter-factual assertions must certainly be true.  Unwavering believe in the face of evidence really is stupid, especially when it can in some situations – such as climate disruption – be catastrophic in its consequences.