In the 1960s, MIT Professor Jay Forrester created a field called system dynamics by modeling how industrial production systems behaved in response to fluctuating demand. He wrote Urban Dynamics, which attempted for the first time to describe how more complex systems like cities behaved and could be modeled. He and his team created models used by the Club of Rome to research its highly influential 1972 book, The Limits to Growth.
This work, authored by Forrester’s student, Donella Meadows, along with other MIT researchers, attempted to model how the earth’s resources would behave under conditions created by exponential growth of both population and the economy that were happening then (and now.) The basic conclusion was that the Earth’s system had a tendency to “overshoot and collapse.” While the book only explored various scenarios under certain quite limited assumptions, it was widely seen as a clarion call for humanity to change its ways, and it had a large effect on the emerging environmental movement. Rather than an academic exercise, it was widely hailed as predicting our likely future.
Most of that book’s conclusions and predictions were proven wrong over time, many quite wrong, but modeling complex systems remains a valid way to look into the future. Donella Meadows continued to pursue this field during her career. Her most influential work came in 1997, with the publication of a short essay, “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” which described nine ways in which we could try to make changes in complex systems and predicted their likely consequences.
Her conclusion: the most effective leverage point in any system is to engender a “paradigm shift,” i.e., change “the mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises.”
In modern society, for example, there is a mindset that continuous economic growth is a good thing, no matter what the environmental consequences. Many have commented that unlimited growth in a finite system is “the ideology of a cancer cell.” An emerging mindset proposes creating instead a paradigm called the “circular economy,” in which we replace our need for unlimited growth with a mindset that calls for reducing our demands on the earth and recycling our waste outputs.
Paradigm shifts happen all the time, often without our initially knowing it. In science, Thomas Kuhn first articulated this phenomenon in 1962, with his seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn pointed out that in science, old theories and perspectives hang on until the accumulated evidence that they no longer work is overwhelming; at that point they are rapidly abandoned for new theories.
Sometimes this process happens quite quickly. Consider, for example, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, both special and general, which took fewer than 15 years from first publication in 1905 to a definitive proof in 1919, and which upended Sir Isaac Newton’s physics, which had held sway over scientists for more than 200 years since his Principia (Principles) was first published in 1687.
Or consider the theory of continental drift, widely accepted today, which displaced the theory of fixed continental landmasses in a relatively short time in the 1960s, although it was first proposed in 1915 by Alfred Wegener. Any kid who ever looked at a globe could easily guess that South America’s east coast and Africa’s west coast were joined at one time, since they fit together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. But no scientist at the time could understand how it could possibly have happened, as established theory said that continents were fixed in place. The great Alaska earthquake of 1964, magnitude 9.2, firmly established this theory, according to Henry Fountain's book, The Great Quake (2017).
What outmoded paradigms are still influencing our mental models of sustainable futures? If we want to change our present course, we first have to acknowledge that it may be our toxic ways of thinking that are more important to remediate than toxic wastes in the environment.
As Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves.”