Saturday, November 27, 2010

Defining new paradigms

Many of the presentations cite:
  • sustainability
  • the precautionary principle
  • methods of prevention
  • limited consumption
as the means by which ecological economics can create a positive outcome to environmental degradation. However, I wonder how much of this is utopian thinking and how much is based on a presumption of widely held values (left unsaid and undefined).

As to the first, I don't know how best to address utopian thinking. However, as to the second, this is a topic that I have discussed with compatriots before. The value of human life is one, for example, that many share, and forms the basis of the (somewhat apparently redundant) Hypocratic Oath. Such a shared value is so ingrained in our mindset that the concept that one should sacrifice the lives of others in order to save oneself (or others) sounds quite anathema to many of us.

Such a shared value set as the importancde of individual life underlies the basis of Western Liberal democracy: that individuals are all important in the running of a nation ties directly back to this shared value of the inherent importance of each human life. (That the Hypocratic Oath exists at all speaks to the possibility that a world that didn't share this value existed, and could exist again.)

However, this shared value runs so deep that it cannot be questioned, partly because we don't think of it as a case with more than one option and also because its negation creates too many unsavory options that we shy away from it when we recognize the nature of our choice to do otherwise. When faced with the possibility of having to choose one life over others - effectively sentencing the unchosen to death - we fall to pre-determined procedure and/or congratulate those who 'sacrificed' themselves (choosing to use the active rather than the passive construction of,'those who were sacrificed').

In his book, The Honest Broker, Pielke presents the scenario of a tornado barrelling down on a town as a case in which decision-making is clear-cut: head to the nearest basement to wait out the storm. However, the problem comes with the thought example in which only a handful of people can go into the shelter. Under such a condition, the decision as to who can survive, and who is left to the storm, becomes difficult because it cuts across many of the socialized assumptions (and maybe these are also in-built ones, too) that we have.

In Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, the main character is counselled that (to paraphrase) 'sometimes the truth that is a lie is harder to accept than the lie that is the truth.' This simple statement speaks to the difficulty of trying to change paradigms when speaking to the society in general. Concepts that have become comfortable, although known to not 'work' as it is supposed to, cannot be overthrown so easily, especially if there is no operational alternative that is also popular. For this reason, working within academia, ecological economics (or most any interdisciplinary prusuit) is unlikely to be quickly adopted, even though practitioners of base disciplines understand tghat there are 'problems' with their system; if the currency of any new discipline is paltry - few journals, few well-recognized names, small coffers, few professional organizations, etc. - then the currency of an interdisciplinary pursuit is even more paltry - competition within possibly vast (in history and geography) institutions for recognition of non-standard methodologies and unorthodox philosophies.

Incriminating the the dominant paradigm - while a good exercise in schadenfreude - is as prodictive as railing 'against the failing of the light' at dusk. Instead, it could be more productive to present the strengths of the new methodologies viz the failings of the dominant one.

Furthermore, the attacks against the dominant paradigm's presupposed shared values leaves one open to attacks against one's objectivity (or lack thereof), since the shared values of the dominant paradigm are usually subsumed within, and are insinuated throughout, the practice of that paradigm: it forms the basic building blocks (the foundational assumptions) of research, and the mounting levels of publications only reinforce the implicit (and peerceived to be inherent) paradigmatic assumptions of the discipline.

In some very practical ways, therefore, it is important for a new interdisciplinary approach explicitly define its underlying assummptions (those that will likely become subsumed into the discipline as it matures). This much makes a sort of sense: one cannot claim objectivity without having a set of assumptions and rules against which to be measured in terms of loyalty to and consistent use of them. However, in some ways, one is undermined by the very tool of definition that one wishes to use: language.

Words carry meaning, both at a society-wide scale as well as between societies (evoking Churchill's insight that the US and the UK were two countries separated by a common language) and between languages. 'Society' can, of course, refer to different groups, and doesn't always have to refer to civil societies, but can refer to academic societies (such as the dominant paradigm society and the new paradigm) as well as between academic and civil societies. Both of these latter relations are important to consider with groups dealing with defining values related to the environment.

Terms referring to the environment often carry social definitions that carry with them associated assumptions of a desired state, which can easily lead to accusations of presumed/desired outcomes or apparent agency in nature and, therefore, non-objectivity. Similarly, terms may be shared between disciplines, and its understanding in an interdisciplinary manner must be carefully managed, especially if working with disciplines that both use the word but with different definitions.

In sum, concepts often highlighted for ecological economics (or any other minor discipline interdisciplinary pursuit) need to be studied in terms of their inherent presumptions. In addition, in my opinion, they should be defined in a manner indepndent of the dominant paradigm, lest they are seen merely as reactions against or comparisons to the dominant paradigm (this was one of the arguments as to the problem of the name 'Women's Studies' as opposed to the non-comparatory 'Gender Studies'); one cannot supercede that to which one defines oneself as comparison.

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