by Paula Williams
Dr. Williams wrote her dissertation on “The role of social paradigm in human perception and response to environmental change.“ She is the director of UAA’s Office of Sustainability. Her previous post on this topic appears here: http://prosperouswaydown.com/williams-not-economy-paradigm/.
If not a stupid paradigm, then, as previously described, what might a smart paradigm include?
Many people who live in societies that embrace the western industrial dominant social paradigm don’t subscribe to that paradigm in whole or in part. Many realize, or sense, that our current paradigm threatens our ability to survive long-term. Our current paradigm tells us that the economy must continuously grow; that the role of government is to enforce contracts and keep it’s regulatory hands off of business; that technology will save us, particularly from our environmental sins; that humans are the most important forms of life; and that competition is the best way to manage systems and people.
Because this paradigm shapes the way most people think about how the world works and even shapes our living space (for example, with an emphasis on roads and driving) it won’t be easy to change. But since not changing it will clearly impact whether we survive into the future and what future life for our children and grandchildren will look like, changing the paradigm, or trying, is a moral imperative. First we need to consider what a new paradigm should look like.
There are many different paradigms to choose to live by. Humans lived on this Earth without significant impact for eons. We can use paradigms that have supported human and ecosystem health over thousands of years as examples from which to build a new and more resilient paradigm.
The paradigms that have supported long-term human adaptation and survival have some common characteristics – they use or used myth, ritual and mores to enforce limits of the biophysical system (ecosystem) on human actions, enhance the understanding that humans are embedded in (not separate from) their ecosystem, encourage humility and caution of human activities and foster respect for (not dominance of) the animals and plants that make up the ecosystem in which we are embedded. These paradigms support the recognition that there is no separation between humans and their environment and that every human action generates a response from the ecosystem and has consequences. They require reverence for what the Earth provides to us; what we are now calling “ecosystem services.”
One of the best examples of a successful paradigm is the Bali water temple structure described by Lansing and Kremer in American Anthropologist (1995) or, less accessibly, in Maximum Power: the Ideas and Applications of HT Odum. Balinese water temples are an example of ecological engineering; “those cases where the energy supplied by man is small relative to the natural sources but sufficient to produce large effects in the resulting patterns and processes” (H.T. Odum, 1962).
The water temples range from mountains to seacoast and were the Balians’ solution to the problems of sharing common resources (in this case, land and water) described by Garrett Hardin in Tragedy of the Commons. On Bali, farmers were motivated to plant rice continuously and use as much water as they needed for their crop to maximize their return. Other farmers had the same goals. However, the limiting factor was water – there was not enough to supply all the farmers all the time. Also, continuously planting rice results in an explosion of the populations of pests that feast on rice. The most effective means of controlling the pest population is for all farmers to suspend planting rice at the same time so pests starve.
The temple system included symbolic ritual activities such as food offerings to the Goddess of Crater Lake and other deities. Due to the rigorous social coordination orchestrated through the water temples, led by temple priests, pest levels were minimized and water sharing optimized in the rice paddies. As a result, for over a thousand years, the system maintained a delicate balance, allowing farmers to plant land that remained fertile because it lay fallow for periods of time, and to control pest populations.
During the Green Revolution, the Indonesian government convinced farmers to use fertilizers and pesticides and to abandon the water temples. The government pressured farmers to plant rice as often as possible and ignore the irrigation schedules of neighboring paddies. The first production increase was short-lived as water shortages and pest infestations reduced rice production much below levels obtained with the water temples. Despite, and because of, massive application of pesticides, insects evolved, became resistant and prospered.
Although the farmers wanted to return to the water temple system, the government resisted until Dr. Lansing collaborated with ecologist/computer modeling expert Dr. James Kremer to study various crop management scenarios. Incorporating historic rainfall data into their computer models, they demonstrated that the water temples were far more effective at maximizing yields and reducing pest infestations than the government’s policy. The government then encouraged farmers to return to using the water temples.
This is only one example of a different paradigm that has worked for at least a millennium; there are many others. In India, research on groves considered to be sacred by communities suggests that these areas are particularly rich in biodiversity and other ecosystem services that are essential for survival of the community (see, e.g., Bhagwat, et al., 2005; Gadgil, Hemam, & Reddy, 1998; Waghchaure, et al., 2006). The links between people, their social institutions, and the physical environment are complex, diverse and redundant in these communities. Additionally, people living in these communities appear to use social institutions to enhance and increase these links and to manage their behaviors in relation to the ecosystem (Berkes, et al., 2000).
Berkes (1998) describes a story of caribou hunting in a resource-dependent community in Canada. Caribou had been absent from the community for over a decade. When the caribou returned, they migrated close to a road and were easily accessible. The local people harvested more caribou than they needed. The following year, the caribou did not return to this area in great numbers. The elders of the community explained to the people who, because they had disrespected the caribou by taking more than was needed, were punished by the caribou who did not offer themselves to be eaten. People living in the western world might scoff at this as a misunderstanding of caribou population and migration patterns.
In this example, a social institution was used to remind people of the link between humans and caribou and the results of overuse of the caribou. This illustrates an understanding of the role of humans in this complex socio-economic system. It also illustrates use of social institutions to mitigate the impact of humans on the environment. The interactions can be understood as a complex system, with the need to manage human actions as they impact the environment, rather than managing the environment to meet human needs.
Paradigms that work are adapted to local social and economic conditions, not to scales as large as (most) countries and especially not to scales on a global level. These paradigms require humans to have an intimate knowledge of the workings of the ecosystem in which they are embedded. Obviously, this requires abandonment of our myth that we are separate from nature. It also requires that we carefully observe, which means that we live woven into our ecosystem.
What that also means is that answers to how we develop a new paradigm can have only broad outlines, not specific answers because each paradigm will have to be uniquely adapted to its ecosystem. Specific adaptations to a southern United States ecosystem will not work in the north. It means that people will have to reacquaint themselves with their local ecological conditions and adopt strategies that balance what their ecosystem can offer with their social goals.
On a broad scale, a social paradigm that makes us more resilient will require us to recognize that we are part of a complex system and that we may never understand the intricate interconnections and responses of all the parts of that system. In turn, this dictates that we should be humble; that we are cautious of our abilities and the unintended and potential long-term consequences of our actions. It will mean adoption of the precautionary principle and looking long-term into the future rather than just next year or the next five years. Very importantly, it will require that we acknowledge that there are limits to what we may do, and that we strive to understand and remain within those limits. To foster our resilience, a new paradigm will require an understanding that socio-economic and ecosystems are intricately connected and creation of closer links among us and our ecosystems. We must acknowledge that we are not separate from nature, but an integral part. Perhaps when we are better connected, we will be glad knowing that we are woven into the web of this beautiful world.
Ed. note: Additional reading on ecological engineering:
Mitsch, William J., and Sven E. Jørgensen. “Ecological engineering: a field whose time has come.” Ecological Engineering 20.5 (2003): 363-377.
Odum, Howard T. “Scales of ecological engineering.” Ecological Engineering 6.1 (1996): 7-19.