Paradigm Change


Our complex global economy is built upon millions of small, private acts of psychological surrender, the willingness of people to acquiesce in playing their assigned parts as cogs in the great social machine that encompasses all other machines. They must shape themselves to the prefabricated identities that make efficient coordination possible... that capacity for self-enslavement must be broken.  -- Theodore Roszak in The Voice Of The Earth

Colleges and universities continue to equip the young for short-term success in the extractive economy, not for long-term success in a society of sustainable and resilient communities. The hard truth is that the planetary emergency now upon us is not the fault of the uneducated, but of the well-educated, sporting degrees from our proudest educational institutions.  — David W. Orr, Ecological Literacy and Earth in Mind.



Our fundamental community is actually the Earth community, as a whole. It’s important that we begin to think and feel and assess things at that level. . . .  We have to examine the different institutions in our society, and re-think them through the point of view of the larger planet.Brian  Swimme


I refer to paradigm change in many places on this site, so this page explains how I see it.  Although the term "paradigm change" is not altogether satisfactory, it is a serious issue, not just a New Age slogan and not just a corporate ad.  It was only when I began to study deep ecology in 1986 that my understanding of the Western industrial worldview came into focus with regard to our environmental crises. That is when I began to think about paradigms and understand the need for a change in the dominant, industrial paradigm. 

"Worldview" has often been used interchangeably with "paradigm."  Alternative terminologies for paradigm change are ‘change in consciousness,’ ‘leap in consciousness,’ ‘paradigm shift,’ ‘shift in worldview,’ ‘global mind change,’ ‘conscious evolution,’ ‘going from mechanics to organics,’ etc.  Joanna Macy calls it the “Great Turning.”  Richard Tarnas has called it “the modern psyche's rite of passage.”  Some writers on this subject refer to worldviews and paradigms as stories or narratives that govern our perceptions and behaviors, which is a more fluid, less solid conception.  Stories seem easier to change!

Thomas Kuhn, an historian of science, is acknowledged to be the first person to bring the idea of paradigms to public consciousness, which occurred with the publication of his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. He introduced the notion of paradigm as a conceptual model by which our perceptions of the world are structured.  Kuhn discovered that science—instead of being fearlessly neutral in its quest for truth, as it claims to be—typically proceeds by seeking confirmations of the prevailing paradigm.  Far from subjecting the paradigm itself to constant testing, conventional science avoids contradicting it by routinely reinterpreting conflicting data in ways that would support the paradigm, or by neglecting such awkward data altogether.  The paradigm acts as a lens through which every observation is filtered, and is maintained as an authoritative bulwark by common convention.

Paradigm Crisis

Further, Kuhn argued that when the gradual accumulation of conflicting data finally produces a paradigm crisis and a new imaginative synthesis eventually wins scientific favor, the process by which that revolution takes place is far from rational.  The history of science is not one of linear rational progress moving toward ever more accurate and complete knowledge of objective truth, but is one of radical shifts of vision in which a multitude of nonrational and nonempirical factors play crucial roles.

Since Kuhn made his observations about scientific practice, many people have pursued the implications of his ideas for our society, based as it is upon science.  We have since come to see that every culture has a worldview that structures its perceptions and relationships with the rest of the world.  Our worldviews are composed not just of ideas, but of stories about the world that are handed down by culture. 

A paradigm is a highly abstracted model or picture of reality that has been derived over generations from a culture’s cosmology, or story of origins.  Hidden within the paradigm or the worldview are beliefs and assumptions, attitudes and values which are seldom questioned.  In other words, the paradigm is lodged in the unconscious where it is used unconsciously as a referent for making sense of the world. 

The paradigm of the culture is what is operating when a person says, “Oh, everybody knows . . . .”  People derive a sense of security from thinking that “everybody knows” what they know.  Conversely, people feel very insecure and threatened when their unconscious paradigm is challenged, or when it is suggested that all paradigms are relative.  So, though you might like to think that if we change the story, the paradigm will automatically change, this doesn’t happen overnight.  Paradigms are quite resistant to change.

Western science is now in the midst of a paradigm crisis for at least two reasons:  1) because the physical and biological sciences themselves, in the 20th Century, discovered that reality is not what the old scientific paradigm assumed it was—cutting-edge science has outgrown its own paradigmatic framework; and  2) because the ecological problems created by current technologies and ideologies are not solvable within the old paradigm.  The accumulation of "conflicting data" about the universe and the natural world is now so massive that the implications can no longer be ignored. This is shaking the foundations of knowledge—that is, our epistemology, our theory of knowledge.  

Lewis Mumford said that there has never been a change in the understanding of nature as great as the one that is occurring now.  Brian Swimme (a mathematical cosmologist) says that never before have humans had the context of the 13.7- billion-year evolution of the universe in which to consider themselves.  He also says that our habits of thought are not at the level that would enable us to reflect on the nature of the human in that context.  And we have never before had to deal with ourselves as a planetary force.  Our challenge is to develop the wisdom to live as a planetary power.  As a Colombian shaman put it, "Knowledge cuts up the world, wisdom makes it whole."

AppleMark In other words, we need to "reframe" ourselves, our species, our responsibilities and our potential in the context of the Earth's biosphere.   Both our current scientific knowledge and the ecological crises are demanding that we change our traditional and habitual mental patterns, which have been structured by our beliefs, values, and assumptions about reality. As Einstein observed, we cannot solve our current problems with the same consciousness that created them.  We cannot continue thinking of ourselves only within tribal and nationalistic frameworks, nor within the old Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm, without endangering the whole human enterprise and much of the rest of life on Earth.

The Old Paradigm

The Cartesian-Newtonian paradigm (upon which science has been based) is not only inaccurate, but it has become destructive in many ways.  Peter Russell (a scientist and researcher of consciousness) says that there are many aspects of the old paradigm that are wrong and need to be changed, but the "metaparadigm"—the paradigm behind the paradigm— is most in need of change. 

The metaparadigm is materialism, the belief that: “All that matters is matter, all that counts can be counted.  Objective physical reality is the only reality.  That which cannot be quantified and measured is not real.”  That leaves out mind, consciousness, subjectivity, emotions, intuitions, relationships, meaning, purpose, values, spirit and soul.  In other words, materialism eclipses the inner life and a great deal of our lived experience that comprises what we call "quality of life," and that nurtures life.

Mechanism is the corollary of materialism.  Mechanism refers to the basic paradigm or model of the world as a machine.  Newtonian cosmology imagines that God made the universe like a clock, and after he set it in motion he left it alone, to tick away with precise regularity for eternity.  Eventually, once they were no longer afraid of the Church, Western intellectuals got rid of God, but they kept the paradigm of the machine.  It somehow escaped notice until very recently that machines are made by people and people didn't make the universe; yet we continue to apply that model to everything.  The rampant and unthinking use of the machine metaphor is an obstacle to thinking about our planet as organic.  Organic life evolves from within and isn't made from without.  Organic life (also known as ‘a living system’) has completely different characteristics than a machine.

The machine metaphor or paradigm carries within it the false perception and assumption that the natural world is simply dead matter, without feeling or consciousness or soul—inanimate, without sentience.  This allows industrial civilization to exploit it mercilessly, and is seen as a cause of the biological holocaust currently underway.

This brings us to deep ecology.  Deep ecology identifies the basic cause of our environmental crises, our abuse of the organic world, to be the old scientific-materialistic-mechanistic paradigm.  The deep ecological solution is a further evolution in consciousness and a qualitative change in our worldview— in other words, a paradigm change based on the inclusive perception of open, organic, living systems instead of machines.  (See Joanna Macy’s “Living Systems” article on the links page.)

Periods of Paradigm Change

Paradigm change, as Thomas Kuhn observed, is not easy and it is not linear and rational.  Periods of paradigm change are difficult.  Many people with an historical perspective agree that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift that is epochal.  There are often wars and social turbulence as the "paradigm police" of the old order, the orthodoxy, fight to preserve the status quo from those who see the need for change.  This is happening all around us on many fronts -- in science, religion, politics and economics.  I call this kind of turmoil the "worldview wars" because these conflicts are basically about different versions of reality—different values, different priorities, different ethics, different visions of the future, etc.  And people kill each other to defend and enforce their paradigms, their own versions of reality.  

During the last major paradigm change, the Copernican Revolution—which replaced the Earth as the center of the universe with the Sun as the center of our solar system—the Inquisition took place, in which millions of women, men and animals were tortured, drowned and burned at the stake.  There were also plagues and multiple religious wars that killed many thousands of people.

Synchronistically, as I was first writing this essay for my online course, the devastating attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred on September 11, 2001.  At the time, I framed that event, including the US government's immediate call for war, as an example of the worldview wars.  In the minds of many people, but not in the Western mainstream media, this event appeared to be an opportunity for a change in consciousness; for the World War II/Cold War mentality that beat the war drums clearly appeared not only anachronistic but dangerous. 

The terrorist attack on the US' symbols of power was like a stun-gun aimed at a complacent American psyche, which opened portals to goodness, love, and higher mind for many people.  Many of us prayed that our numbers would reach a critical mass that would transform the American cultural psyche before more innocent lives would be lost.  That, I am sorry to say, has not yet happened.  Instead, as we know, this event was used to launch the “war on terror.” 

As I write this, the US is still occupying Iraq, with the promise to stay indefinitely.  I don't need to tell you all that has happened since 2003.  The world is in turmoil.  And still there is not enough of a critical mass in the world to shift the collective perspective toward nonviolence and diplomacy, and away from war. 

Times of paradigm change are confusing and frightening.  The level of anxiety is often unbearable.  When people act out of fear and anxiety, we do irrational things that perpetuate the anxiety.  Whoever flew those planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (there are still questions about that) intended to raise the level of anxiety and trauma in American society.  The US government has chosen to act out of fear and anxiety—or at least to manipulate public fear and anxiety—and to ignore the consequences of perpetuating it.

So, more than ever, I feel it is imperative that we understand the nature of paradigm change in human societies, and that we reframe our experience on this planet to take all of humanity and all of life into consideration.  This reframing has already begun, as the articles on the Paradigm Change Links page demonstrate, but at the same time we have a war on terror that many feel is fueling more terror. 

We do not know what we are going to be living through in the coming decades as a result of the attacks on Washington and New York and the response of the US government, or as a result of global climate change, peak oil, species extinctions, and all the other ecological, economic, and political problems of this critical time.  But if we can see our moment in history in its true proportions, and help others to do so, I believe the future has a better chance to be worth living in.

Caspar David Friedrich

Therefore, I encourage everyone to get a feeling for the subject of paradigm change from different perspectives.  The perspectives I appreciate and find the most exciting and provocative are those of people who are actively pursuing this subject on a personal as well as a collective level.  These are people I consider to be Dharmagaian Allies, those who are courageous in pursuing truth and challenging outmoded ways of thought, and who are concerned for the future of the whole Earth and all of life.  The links page provides different angles for understanding this phenomenon called paradigm change.

Whereas this whole Dharmagaians site is about paradigm change and the Great Turning, Deep Ecology, the New Cosmology and Ecopsychology and their links pages go into detail about significant ways that these fields are contributing to paradigm change.  Indigenous Wisdom, Animal Allies, and their links pages also relate to paradigm change.


Paul Koppenberg’s Billboard, Crestone, CO


It's all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it is no longer effective.... Our challenge is to create... a new sense of what it means to be human.  —Thomas Berry


© 2009 Suzanne Duarte