The following is an excerpt from a Donella Meadows article that originally appeared in Whole Earth, Winter 1997. The article, Places to Intervene in a System, appeared on the Rocky Mountain Institute website in 2001 as part of a Donella Meadows Memorial. In the article, she lists nine "places" to intervene. She considered this one to be the most important:
1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises.
Another of Jay Forrester's systems sayings goes: It doesn't matter how the tax law of a country is written. There is a shared idea in the minds of the society about what a "fair" distribution of the tax load is. Whatever the rules say, by fair means or foul, by complications, cheating, exemptions or deductions, by constant sniping at the rules, the actual distribution of taxes will push right up against the accepted idea of "fairness."
The shared idea in the minds of society, the great unstated assumptions -- unstated because unnecessary to state; everyone knows them -- constitute that society's deepest set of beliefs about how the world works. There is a difference between nouns and verbs. People who are paid less are worth less. Growth is good. Nature is a stock of resources to be converted to human purposes. Evolution stopped with the emergence of Homo sapiens. One can "own" land. Those are just a few of the paradigmatic assumptions of our culture, all of which utterly dumbfounded people of other cultures.
Paradigms are the sources of systems. From them come goals, information flows, feedbacks, stocks, flows.
The ancient Egyptians built pyramids because they believed in an afterlife. We build skyscrapers, because we believe that space in downtown cities is enormously valuable. (Except for blighted spaces, often near the skyscrapers, which we believe are worthless.) [I like her sense of humor. MH] Whether is was Copernicus and Kepler showing that the earth is not the center of the universe, or Einstein hypothesizing that matter and energy are interchangeable, or Adam Smith postulating that the selfish actions of individual players in markets wonderfully accumulate to the common good.
People who manage to intervene in systems at the level of paradigm hit a leverage point that totally transforms systems.
You could say paradigms are harder to change than anything else about a system, and therefore this item should be lowest on the list, not the highest. But there's nothing physical or expensive or even slow about paradigm change. In a single individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind, a new way of seeing. Of course individuals and societies do resist challenges to their paradigm harder than they resist any other kind of change.
So how do you change paradigms? Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the seminal book about the great paradigm shifts of science, has a lot to say about that. In a nutshell, you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you come yourself, loudly, with assurance, from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don't waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.
Systems folks would say one way to change a paradigm is to model a system, which takes you outside the system and forces you to see it whole. We say that because our own paradigms have been changed that way.
She goes on to add an extra leverage point:
0. The power to transcend paradigms.
Sorry, but to be truthful and complete, I have to add this kicker.
The highest leverage of all is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to realize that NO paradigm is "true," that even the one that shapes ones comfortable worldview is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe.
It is to "get" at a gut level that paradigm that there are paradigms, and to see that that itself is a paradigm, and to regard that whole realization as devastatingly funny. It is to let go into Not Knowing.
People who cling to paradigms (just about all of us) take one look at the spacious possibility that everything we think is guaranteed to be nonsense and pedal rapidly in the opposite direction. Surely there is no power, no control, not even a reason for being, much less acting, in the experience that there is no certainty in any worldview. But everyone who has managed to entertain that idea, for a moment of for a lifetime, has found it a basis for radical empowerment. If no paradigm is right, you can choose one that will help achieve your purpose. If you have no idea where to get a purpose, you can listen to the universe 9o put in the name of your favorite deity here) and do his, her, its will, which is a lot better informed than your will. [Alternatively, if you have the time, you can read a diverse range of books and discover purpose through intellectual exploration. I think this is a matter of personality preference. For those who are inclined to discover through exploration, you might start with Jung. MH]
It is in the space of mastery over paradigms that people throw off addictions, live in constant joy, bring down empires, get locked up or burned at the stake or crucified or shot, and have impacts that last for millennia.
She concludes the article with the following:
Back from the sublime to the ridiculous, from enlightenment to caveats. There is so much that has to be said to qualify this list. It is tentative and its order is slithery. There are exceptions to every item on it. Having the list percolating in my subconscious for years has not transformed me into a Superwoman. I seem to spend my time running up and down the list, trying our leverage points wherever I can find them. The higher the leverage point, the more the system resists changing it -- that's why societies rub out truly enlightened beings.
I don't think there are cheap tickets to system change. You have to work at it, whether than means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off paradigms. In the end, it seems that leverage has less to do with pushing levers than it does with disciplined thinking combined with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go.
While I may not be able to transcend paradigms, I do think that I know of a new paradigm that is better than the existing one. But first, a review of the existing paradigm; best described as the unhealthy paradigm. (Please note that anytime I label something, I do not intend to compare it with any point in the past. Rather, my intent is to compare it with what is possible.)
Characteristics of the existing paradigm:
1) money/possession are of the utmost importance; conflicts of interest are many amongst the powerful, so much so that our national leadership comes perilously close to returning us the pre-Enlightenment age. Bill Moyers is one of the few on the national scene to recognize this -- and speak out about it.
2) retirement is emphasized
5) fear-based and debt-based (close relatives)
6) emphasis on income
7) unhealthy by almost any measure
All of these are related and a vibrant, new paradigm would represent the healthy side of each of these characteristics:
1) time and rights are of utmost importance
2) engagement -- particularly of the mind -- is of utmost importance
4) steady state
5) morality-based -- not to be confused with the hypocrisy of religious and economic fundamentalism/literalism
6) expense focused
7) comprehensive health -- may or may not have heavy government involvement
As Donella Meadows indicates in the above excerpt, individuals and societies resist challenges to their paradigm harder than they resist any other kind of change. Change is particularly difficult at this time because the powerful are doing very well -- at least in material terms -- and the rest of us are too busy to think about how we escape from this unhealthy paradigm. As a consequence, change in the near-term will not be demanded by the general public. It must take place in private institutions.
A personal story is illustrative. One of the reasons my wife and I moved to Spokane is because of the low cost of living. As someone who found the conventional world to be utterly incomprehensible, I wanted to spend time researching the cause with an eye to a solution. I was able to do it because Spokane was one of the few places where under certain conditions, it was possible to survive on one income. Recently, we started exploring selling our house. We found that home prices in our neighborhood have almost doubled in seven years. The result is that someone like myself who wants to take the time to explore the "state of our paradigm" will no longer be able to do so in my neighborhood -- or almost any neighborhood. The average household now requires two incomes or eighty hour per household workweeks to pay living expenses.
Home price inflation is a major problem in our current paradigm and in some ways is related to all the other negative characteristics of the paradigm. Paradoxically enough, the wealthy have for years had a solution to asset inflation. They get together and form clubs (whether golf, social, or otherwise), make a capital membership deposit, and hold the value of their capital assets constant. They behave as if they were a family. The latest movement is to do the same with expensive, vacation homes in highly-sought locations.
It is now time for the "vast middle ground of people who are open-minded" to do the same. While we can start with vacation properties, the general concept can be utilized for year-round residences as well. I've been thinking through aspects of a club of this nature -- as has been chronicled on this blog. I'm close and am now working on the legal structure. Stay tuned.