Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Avoiding Cultural Suicide
distributed 11/4/05 - ©2005

I'm hearing a perplexing, horrifying message from several respected sources recently.

  • Britain's Prince Charles just called the pace of climate change "terrifying," and said that economic progress was "upsetting the whole balance of nature."
  • In the New Yorker series, "The Climate of Man," Elizabeth Kolbert wrote, "It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing."
  • Jared Diamond's book, Collapse, takes a historical look at many cultures that have done themselves in -- such as the people on Easter Island who knowingly cut down all the trees on the island -- and makes it clear that our modern society is part of the parade. One reviewer of Diamond's book wrote, "The lesson of Collapse is that societies, as often as not, aren't murdered. They commit suicide: they slit their wrists and then, in the course of many decades, stand by passively and watch themselves bleed to death."
Our own global society -- in full awareness of global warming and the political instabilities of an economy utterly dependent on scarce oil -- plows ahead on its insane course. As British Prime Minster Tony Blair said recently, "The blunt truth about the politics of climate change is that no country will want to sacrifice its economy in order to meet this challenge." We have slit our collective wrists, and we're watching the effects.

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As I try to make sense of this bizarre cultural behavior, I have re-read a classic document in revolutionary theory. It isn't Marx or Malcolm X. No, I go for the really hard core: Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions -- a historical and theoretical analysis that spells out the phenomena of "paradigm shifts" in scientific communities.

I go back to Kuhn every few years because I see important parallels between the revolutionary change that sometimes happens in particular fields of science -- marked by thinkers like Copernicus or Einstein -- and the revolutionary changes that can happen in societies when new ideas take hold.

Revolutions -- whether in science or society -- don't happen often or easily. Most of the time, we just roll along under a generally accepted paradigm or worldview. In "ordinary times," the conflicts or confusions that we face are relatively minor and easily resolved, and the core agreements are broad and generally solid.

The rare moments of profound change grow out of some sort of a crisis, a situation that the prevailing paradigm is unable to address. This level of crisis isn't just a technical problem -- it is one that threatens the core understandings, the central paradigm, the prevailing worldview. When a crisis emerges of that scope, a solution calls for a comprehensive rethinking of previously unquestioned ideas -- like Copernicus making the heretical suggestion that the sun is at the center of the universe.

When I read Kuhn this fall, I was struck with how a profound crisis is -- or is not -- resolved. He outlines three possible options.

Sometimes normal science ultimately proves able to handle the crisis-provoking problem ... On other occasions the problem resists even apparently radical new approaches. Then scientists may conclude that no solution will be forthcoming in the present state of their field. The problem is labeled and set aside for a future generation with more developed tools. Or, finally, ... a crisis may end with the emergence of a new candidate for paradigm and with the ensuring battle over its acceptance.
To make the large jump from scientific research to cultural change, it seems that societies "commit suicide" when they can't find a viable and comprehensive answer for a profound crisis that they know exists. Rather than existing in a perpetual, unresolved crisis, they -- like perplexed scientists -- decide to set aside the problem, and go on as usual.

In today's world, there are many who are trying desperately to solve climate change and its related problems within the dominant paradigm of technology and free markets -- with wind power and international carbon trading and energy efficiency. They are doing good things, but their strategies within this worldview are nowhere near solving the problems.

And there are many who are exploring new paradigms -- new ways of living in community, principles of voluntary simplicity, new expressions of faith and cosmology that draw us into different ways of living. In other directions, we see a rise of fundamentalism, especially in Christianity and Islam, which also seeks to describe different ways of living in the world. The variety of new paradigms being tested is an indicator of deep social crisis. The stark conflict between them shows that no one paradigm has emerged with the potential for guiding a societal transformation.

We are living in the face of a great and recognized crisis. But so far, our leaders -- and indeed, most of us -- feel less threat from the changing climate than from the threat to our reigning paradigm. If we have to choose between a hot and unstable planet, and living without the psychic order we find in market economies dependent on constant growth -- well, if that's the choice, we'll take the heat. Remember the words of Mr. Blair: "no country will want to sacrifice its economy." We simply can't comprehend changes that close to our core beliefs.

We live under a pervasive and overarching paradigm of economic life, and until a different paradigm for our community relations emerges, climate change may be an unsolvable problem -- one that will be "set aside," even as we race into social collapse.

It seems crazy, but there is a rational psychology to it. A collapsing worldview is a social threat that is just as real as the physical threat of calamitous climate change.

Our challenge -- if we really want to confront climate change and avoid cultural suicide -- is to venture boldly into a dramatic new paradigm of a just and sustainable society. We must discover and describe new ways of living and thinking sufficient to meet this great crisis, new ways that can turn us away from the failed paradigm of economic growth.

That challenge is profoundly religious. It takes us into fresh considerations of who we are in our relationships with God, with human communities, and with the rest of creation. It is a challenge of the highest urgency, and one that may be doomed to fail if religious communities are not broadly engaged in the task.

We can "stand by passively and watch ourselves bleed to death." Or we can throw ourselves into the life-saving search for new understandings. What's your choice?


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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