How to leave the Anthropocene — Fostering sustainability requires us to challenge our stories and paradigms

Our stories and paradigms matter for sustainability. To change paradigms, we need to change our stories. And vice versa. To change our stories, we need to change paradigms. If we want to change our story, and move toward a more sustainable lifestyle, we also need to challenge the social paradigm we are living in.

Paradigms

The imprint and impact of humankind on natural systems and processes have turned us into a geological agent. This has led to the current epoch being termed the Anthropocene, a time during which human actions are collectively shaping the state of Earth’s system. Our Dominant Social Paradigm has been a crucial determinant in creating this situation.

The latter paradigm refers to the thought patterns, beliefs, and values that are dominant in a society, and are used to describe reality. Social paradigms are a vital part of society, because they present cultural information that is passed from generation to generation. This information guides our behavior and expectations. In all areas of life — be it politics, research, or practice — social paradigms influence how problems are defined and addressed, including what is considered realistic, legitimate, and effective. In sum, paradigms impact every level of existence: from the micro at the private level; the meso and macro at the public level; and the mundo at the global level.

To address the challenges of the Anthropocene, and move beyond it, it is thus crucial to understand and address social paradigms.

The Dominant Paradigm in the Anthropocene

In today’s Modern World, we follow what can be called the mechanistic paradigm to address many of the challenges of the Anthropocene.

The mechanistic paradigm, which is considered to be endemic to Western civilization, is based on a fundamentally dualist and atomistic view of life that values individualism and independence above all. As the name suggests, the basic idea is that the world functions as a machine. Enlightenment thinkers including Isaac Newton, Immanuel Kant, Rene Descartes, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Francis Bacon developed some of the core tenets of the mechanistic paradigm, which is based on separation and dualism. They developed a way of looking at the world that compares it to a clock.

In their book, Psychology for Sustainability, Britain Scott et al. note that within our Dominant Social Paradigm:

“Economic growth is always good (and always possible), human beings should use natural resources however we can for our benefit, individuals have the right to develop land for the purpose of accumulating personal profit, and science and technology will solve any problems that may arise as a result. This set of axioms is labeled ‘dominant’ because it has been pervasive among people in Western societies for the past few centuries, and continues to be endorsed to varying degrees by many people today”.

Because of the separating dimension of the Dominant Social Paradigm, it is also referred to as a Dualist Philosophy, and, according to Jason Hickel in his book, Less is More:

“Dualist philosophy is responsible at a deep level for our ecological crisis”.

Within the Dominant Social Paradigm, systems are reduced to their constituent parts and analyzed in terms of mechanical interactions. Nature is understood to be an object — a resource — for people to exploit. The capacity to shape the world through technology underpins notions of progress, creating a culture of individualism and industriousness.

Today’s sustainability challenges can thus be seen as a result of our disconnection to self, others, and the more-than-human.

A paradigm for reconnecting to self, others, and the more-than-human

Fostering a paradigm of interconnectedness, or a so-called relational paradigm, can help us to counteract the current situation. This paradigm contributes to understanding inner and outer transformations towards sustainability in the Anthropocene. It emphasizes the role of inner transformation as an inherent part of transformations towards sustainability, and explicitly highlights the intra-action, mutual dependence, and co-constituency of inner and outer transformation. Phenomena such as climate change are not something that are ‘out there’ or ‘external’, but instead are an inherent, constitutive part of our inner dimension. Hence, inner and outer dimensions are subject to an ongoing, non-hierarchical dynamic process of intra-action.

These inner and outer dimensions are not clearly distinguishable, but co-constituted. Paying attention to inner and outer dimensions in isolation is, therefore, inadequate. While the well-being of systems depends on the quality of relationships, any exploration of inner dimensions within sustainability science must go hand-in-hand with addressing institutional structures, the social context, and any associated politics and power dynamics. At the same time, our personal, inner stories shape our collective stories, and the related institutional and political landscape we are living in.

The implication is that sustainability goals, such as the international Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are more effectively addressed by focusing on the quality of the relations between the goals and, at the same time, engaging in nurturing inner qualities and transformation. By defining hierarchies of interventions, past systems thinking and sustainability models fall prey to the same kind of thinking that it aims to overcome, such as claiming causality, linearity, and predictability. In other words, if we change our mental models, social and ecological transformations will follow.

Facts and truths are inextricably tied to the vocabularies and paradigms that scientists use to represent them.

A re-conceptualization of inner and outer transformation is presented in our Inner-Outer Transformation Model. It provides a roadmap for future systematic research, policy and practice, and measures at individual, collective and system levels that are grounded in a relational paradigm. Such a new heuristic to approach systems change is crucial.

How can we live relationally?

Adopting a relational paradigm can be troubling, as it challenges the Dominant Social Paradigm. To overcome these challenges, specific transformational capacities and qualities must be developed. As our work, and the Inner-Outer Transformation Model show, this encompasses our ways of knowing, being, and acting in the face of socioecological realities. It requires a lifelong learning process of un-learning many of our habitual ways of paradigm-ing (in the Western, industrialized world), and calls for institutionalized facilities and spaces to nurture this process.

By enquiring what sustainability challenges can tell us about our ways of knowing, being, and acting in the world, we have the potential to re-paradigm our relationships to ourselves, each other, and the more-than-human world. Facts and truths are inextricably tied to the vocabularies and paradigms that scientists use to represent them. Paradigms create worlds, and this may thus prove to be a powerful path towards a flourishing future.

Seeing through this lens of relationality and interconnectedness expands our consciousness and awareness. It exposes the power of changing our own stories as a lever for changing paradigms and systems.

As our work shows, changes in stories require a change in paradigms. But, similarly, changes in paradigms require us to change our stories. As Christopher Ryan says in his book, Civilized to Death:

“We tell stories about what happened, but, just as often, the stories we tell determine what happens. Narrative becomes paradigms”.

Individual actions that question the status quo and experiment with new ways of relating are thus crucial to collectively breaking out of our internalized patterns of being, thinking, and acting — if they actively challenge the ‘isms’ that underlie sustainability, such as consumerism, materialism and racism — and are guided by intrinsic values and capacities that help us reconnect.

Authors: Christine Wamsler and Jessica Böhme

For more information see https://www.contemplative-sustainable-futures.com, https://www.jessicaboehme.com, our joint research articles on relationality and sustainability, relational education and relational lifestyles, and related publications and projects: Mind4Change, TransVision and ActivateChange.

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Christine Wamsler

Professor, Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS). Founder and Director of the Contemplative Sustainable Futures Program. Mind&Life Fellow.