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Science Seminar Series 01 Sam Wells
Science Seminar Series 01 Sam Wells
Science Seminar Series 01 Sam Wells
Science Seminar Series 01 Sam Wells
Science Seminar Series 01 Sam Wells
Science Seminar Series 01 Sam Wells
Science Seminar Series 01 Sam Wells
Science Seminar Series 01 Sam Wells
Science Seminar Series 01 Sam Wells
Science Seminar Series 01 Sam Wells
Science Seminar Series 01 Sam Wells
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Science Seminar Series 01 Sam Wells


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Wherever we look today we are confronted by challenges to global sustainability, but it's difficult to cite instances where our response as a community, as a species, has been equal to the challenge. …

Wherever we look today we are confronted by challenges to global sustainability, but it's difficult to cite instances where our response as a community, as a species, has been equal to the challenge. We certainly have sufficient understanding and technical capability to shape an effective response, so it seems that the will is lacking. How do we explain – and make good - this lack of will? I suggest that part of the answer to our apparent paralysis can be found in the writing of an historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, who in his work on The Structure of Scientific Revolutions introduced us to the notion of 'paradigm'. Kuhn's critical insight into the dynamics of a shift in paradigm is that we do not shift away from an established paradigm, no matter how uncomfortable we are about its ability to answer our questions satisfactorily. When the shift finally comes, it is always towards a new, compelling paradigm, not away from the old, flawed one. So, I argue that an essential, and missing, ingredient in the current discussions and debates on global sustainability is a genuine shared vision of a sustainable future - as the late Donella Meadows describes it, not what we'll settle for, but what we really want. As a community, we will not shift away from the current paradigm of fragmentation and scarcity until we can engage with a new and better vision of wholeness and abundance.

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  • I’m an Historian – drawn to an historical coincidence that I think goes some way towards answering our question.Rachel Carson – In the face of failing health and these attacks on her credibility, Carson persevered, and by the time of her death in 1967 her work had prompted a public policy turnaround, and the start of restrictions on the use of DDT.Despite her personal greatness and her undeniable achievements, for 40 years we have continued to fight her fight, over and over again. The fight is fought on different fronts, in different contexts, but essentially it is the same fight, combating the insidious damage to complex natural systems caused by unrepentant self-interest or, even worse, well-meaning but short-sighted attempts to improve mankind’s control of nature…the road to hell, paved with good intentions. These battles are often won, but victory in the war - a fundamental shift in the way we see the world, which makes it unnecessary to fight more battles - remains elusive. Is there something about the ground we have chosen to defend that keeps us from the triumph of balance, harmony, goodness, abundance, nourishment and loving interdependence that we seek?Donella Meadows – like Carson, died tragically young – best know for her co-authorship of the 1972 work, now much in focus, The Limits to GrowthWe’ll return to Meadows and the ‘failure of vision’ shortly.
  • One of his most piercing insights concerned the motivation for a shift in paradigm. Kuhn observed that when evidence emerged that caused uneasiness about the validity of the established paradigm, the first response of the defenders of orthodoxy was, in fact, to change…but only at the margins. The changes were to refine or ‘complete’ in some way this or that facet of the current paradigm, or to elaborate on the underlying principle - in other words, the changes had the practical effect of actually reinforcing the established model. Even when the evidence of flaws started to become overwhelming, there was still a reluctance to make a fundamental shift in thinking - changes were only just sufficient to stave off the full implications of the evidence.
  • Cf Mike Young’s ‘moving house’ analogy re the need for a new policy framework for the Murray Darling
  • We have been so preoccupied with the threats to our present and future wellbeing, so intent on depicting what will happen if we do not act, that we have given ourselves few reasons to act boldly or to make the shift required. We have busied ourselves at the edges of the current paradigm, the current way of thinking, trying desperately to bend and shape it so that it can respond to each symptom of crisis and save us from harm. Like fearful creatures caught in the headlights of oncoming disaster, we have allowed our vision of the future to be shaped by the future we fear.In other words, when it comes to questions of global sustainability, the vision of what we really want is a vision of wholeness and healing. But in order to embrace that vision and move forward, we are being asked to surrender what we have settled for – all the fragmented thinking and all the convenient compromises and comfortable rationalisations that sustained the unsustainable. It is not easy. Fifty years ago, Leon Festinger described our reflex response to the discomfort of “cognitive dissonance” – the simultaneous engagement with two incompatible “knowledges” – and our talent for misleading the intellect, or rationalising, so that we can reduce the experience of conflict and live with the contradiction.It may be, then, that our paralysis has two dimensions. The ‘headlights’ in which we are trapped, seemingly powerless to move, may be our sense of oncoming disaster; but they may also be the uncomfortable brightness of our unspoken vision. We are preoccupied with the catastrophic consequences of inaction, but seduced by the sense that action comes most readily, most comfortably, from within the old paradigm. On both counts, the new paradigm of wholeness cannot gain sufficient ‘traction’ to set in train the process of a paradigm shift.
  • Envisioning is not just an intellectual exercise. It requires us to bring the whole of our humanity to bear – vision is rich in values and images that speak directly to the heart.We mustn’t subject vision to the constraints of our past or present experiences. Nor should we undermine envisioning by demanding of ourselves, or others, that the vision should include its own implementation plan – of course, implementation will be important, but let’s not dilute what we really want, just because we can’t immediately see a pathway by which to reach it. Often people who don’t know what’s ‘not possible’ go ahead and do it anyway. In a complex and uncertain world, the path reveals itself as we tread it, as long as we hold fast to the vision.Vision is not a product of the intellect, but it must be informed by our reason – not so as to undermine the values at the heart of vision, but to ensure that the emerging vision can encompass the physical realities of our world. This is not a case of either/or – either vision or reason – but both/and. Reason helps to ensure a responsible vision.Close your eyes. Smell the smells, hear the sounds, see the shapes of your sustainable world – engage all your senses.Don’t get side tracked into ‘solutions’…”We will have solved climate change”. Of course we will have! But that’s just survival. Our vision must be more than that – a sustainable future offering us a world that looks much, much better than the one we have now.
  • Transcript

    • 1. Dr Sam Wells<br />Caught in the headlights - What holds us back from the big shift?<br />
    • 2. “I would give all the wealth of the world, and all the deeds of all the heroes, for one true vision.” <br />– Henry David Thoreau<br />
    • 3. OUR RESPONSE TO THE CHALLENGES OF <br />GLOBAL SUSTAINABILITY<br />Everywhere we look, the challenges mount:<br />Climate change; poverty; community fragmentation; <br />water scarcity; deforestation; desertification; <br />threats to food quality and distribution; <br />urban pollution; soil depletion; decreasing biodiversity; <br />accelerating species extinction; economic collapse<br />But despite a growing sense of alarm and urgency, our collective response has not yet been equal to the challenge.<br />Why is it that we seem almost paralysed by the threats to our present and future wellbeing? <br />See also in O’Brien, J (ed) (2009) Opportunities Beyond Carbon, pp. 19-27<br />
    • 4. TWO BOOKS THAT THROW LIGHT ON THE MYSTERY – <br />AN HISTORICAL COINCIDENCE<br />1. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962)<br /><ul><li>For many, this marks the beginning of the modern environmental movement
    • 5. She won a heroic battle, against the odds, to limit the use of DDT etc.</li></ul>But we seem to be still fighting Carson’s battle…over and over again.<br />Donella Meadows (a contemporary giant in Sustainability) has suggested that it might have something to do with the ground we choose to defend:<br />Environmentalists have failed perhaps more than any other set of advocates to project vision. Most people associate environmentalism with restriction, prohibition, regulation, and sacrifice.…The best goal most of us who work toward sustainability offer is the avoidance of catastrophe. We promise survival and not much more. That is a failure of vision. <br />Meadows, DH (1994) ‘Envisioning a Sustainable World’<br />
    • 6. TWO BOOKS THAT THROW LIGHT ON THE MYSTERY – <br />AN HISTORICAL COINCIDENCE<br />2. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)<br /><ul><li>An historian of Science – his insights have had an impact way beyond his intended field of research
    • 7. Introduced us to the notion of paradigm
    • 8. Theoretical framework or way of seeing things, that becomes entrenched in a given period, and can even accommodate evidence from nature that seems to contradict it
    • 9. Classic response to challenge is to reinforce the current paradigm by fiddling at the margins to accommodate the uncomfortable evidence</li></li></ul><li>THE DYNAMICS OF A PARADIGM SHIFT<br /><ul><li>Kuhn had a critical insight into the dynamics of a paradigm shift
    • 10. The shift doesn’t come away from the established paradigm, no matter how shaky it becomes.
    • 11. The shift only comes towards a new paradigm presenting itself – one that better explains the evidence from nature.
    • 12. In the absence of a new paradigm, people will find ways to rationalise the continuing dominance of the established paradigm.
    • 13. It follows that the new paradigm, when it presents itself, does not ‘build’ on the old, but rejects it as flawed and inadequate.</li></li></ul><li>CAUGHT IN THE HEADLIGHTS<br /><ul><li>Perhaps this helps too explain our paralysis – like creatures caught in the headlights:
    • 14. Our vision of the future shaped by the future we fear</li></ul>Or perhaps…<br /><ul><li>Dazzled by the brilliance of our own unspoken vision and unable to let go of the safety and comfort of our current (failed) course</li></ul>Either way, the answer lies not in hand-wringing contemplation of the consequences of inaction, but in an inspiring, compelling vision of something better…<br />
    • 15. THE ROLE OF VISION <br /><ul><li>Kuhn’s thinking on paradigms connects to Meadows’ thinking on vision
    • 16. The new paradigm must be reflected in a concrete vision, not of merely escaping disaster, but of securing something much better than we have now</li></ul>Thought leaders in every field of endeavour have a responsibility to help us shape a vision of something better, and make it live in the collective mind<br /><ul><li>A vision, not of what we’ll settle for, but of what we really want
    • 17. A vision not based on ‘trade-offs’ – e.g. ecology or economy – but on ‘both…and’</li></li></ul><li>THE WAY FORWARD<br />Meadows tells us that the art of envisioning lies in recapturing the child’s capacity to articulate what we really want, without submitting to our habit of: <br />second-guessing ourselves; <br />Allowing the intellect to crowd out the rest of our humanity<br />seeing first all the reasons why not; and <br />demanding a certain pathway to the goal. <br />The way to our vision lies through complexities that will not admit any certainty, but if the vision is true, the path emerges. <br />And we are freed to travel it –<br />from the old paradigm to the new <br />from paralysis to action <br />from scarcity to abundance <br />from fear to opportunity<br />
    • 18. Merry Kohn<br />
    • 19. Next Seminar: 14 August<br />Dr Kane Aldridge<br />What is the future for the Lower Lakes?<br />