Paradigm Workers Unite! ...Or Not
January 31, 2020
By: Jonee Kulman Brigham
I’ve been meaning to write this essay since about 2011, when I first coined the phrase “paradigm worker” as a way to describe how artists were part of systems change. I’d been reading an article by systems analyst and thought leader Donella Meadows called “Places to Intervene in a System.” In it, she describes “… places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.”
Meadows outlines the role and limitations of various strategies for change starting from her lowest leverage point “12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).” She notes that the list represents general tendencies, and that there are exceptions for different conditions, although the order is based on her long-term observations from systems modeling. The whole list and the explanation of each strategy is interesting, but it is this item that most drew my attention:
Near the top of the list was: “2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises.”
My world was changed. With the idea that “paradigms are the sources of systems,” as she also said, I suddenly healed the divide between my desire to make a difference in the world and my desire to make art. Art and culture have always been tools for paradigms—whether to retain them or challenge them. I was called to environmental work and I had been trying to help the environment with numbers - from lower leverage points like doing energy analysis or writing guidelines for sustainable buildings. Meanwhile, I “indulged” my desire to make environmental art. Now, with a more holistic view of how systems change, I saw that they were both part of the same effort. Instead of art being a personal indulgence, it had a legitimate and important place in the environmental work of the world.
Of course, the idea of art trying to influence society is not new, but it’s often portrayed as an add-on or a supplemental strategy to the “real” work of change in areas of technology, science, or policy. Some may resist the idea of art as a tool for change, fearing it will cheapen artistic expression or be used in propaganda--both of which can happen. To me, recognizing the power of art just means it should be used in an ethical way. Art and stories have power and demand responsibility. This responsibility exists for all paradigm workers: artists, designers, teachers, philosophers, and anyone who asks questions and dreams into the future.
How does one actually change a paradigm, though? Meadows refers to science philosopher Thomas Kuhn who advises that we can change paradigms by pointing to the flaws in the old ones and promoting the strengths of the new ones. Artists are good at challenging old ways of thinking, tapping into emotional knowing, and leaving us in a fertile state of ambiguity. For example, in “Ice Watch,” a public artwork by Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing, twelve blocks of ice, transported from melting glaciers in Greenland were placed in the form of a clock in a public plaza outside the Paris climate negotiations in 2015. They provoked a visceral emotional response to the phenomena of melting glaciers as well as amplifying the passage of time in which to act. Artists are also good at creating visions of new narratives and possibilities. Again, Eliasson is also a leader of “Little Sun,” a company and campaign about how little changes can make a big impact and promoting the distribution of small solar lamps to those around the world who do not have electricity. Sometimes a single image can change the world, or at least our world view. When astronaut Bill Anders took the photograph, "Earthrise," the world saw a new vision of the Earth: small, fragile, living. All the individuals and countries blurred into one planet.
With all that our fragile planet faces, it would be tempting to unite all the paradigm workers together and get them on the same page, pushing forth a new agenda that could address climate change, or any other grand challenge. To the extent that there is consensus science, and common frameworks like the Paris Climate accord this may help progress. But the remaining diversity in approaches and emphasis seems inevitable and perhaps this is a good thing. For there is one place of even higher leverage than paradigm change that Meadows describes.
“1. The power to transcend paradigms.”
If paradigms are the sources of systems, then the power to transcend paradigms, seems to be how systems retain the ability to evolve-even in their paradigms. Nothing stops innovation like everyone agreeing with each other. Sometimes merely aligning direction is seen as a compromise after uniting behind full agreement fails. But full agreement might be overrated and undesirable.
In “Blessed Unrest,” Paul Hawken describes the multitudes of small efforts by grassroots groups and NGOs all across the globe, working in similar general directions but not in a unified way. Similar ideas, with diverse ideologies. He compares them to our body’s immune system, with its parallel cooperative and loosely coordinated efforts that can create impact without the rigidity and vulnerability of a single center of control.
So, while it is good that many paradigm workers of the world are moving in a similar direction toward climate action and other grand challenges, it may be best that those paradigm workers converse and exchange but refrain from uniting as one. Perhaps a more healthy and realistic call to action is: “Paradigm Workers Align!” If Paul Hawken is right, this process is well underway and diverse groups of paradigm workers are building momentum as they heal human society and the planet, --not as one, but as many, all together.
Eliasson, Olafur. “Little Sun.” Little Sun, https://littlesun.com/.
Hawken, Paul. Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being, and Why No One Saw It Coming. Viking, 2007.
Kuhn, Thomas S., and Ian Hacking. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Fourth edition, The University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Meadows, Donella H. Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. The Sustainability Institute, 1999, http://www.donellameadows.org/wp-content/userfiles/Leverage_Points.pdf.
Poole, Robert. Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth. Yale University Press, 2010.
Zarin, Cynthia. “The Artist Who Is Bringing Icebergs to Paris.” The New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-artist-who-is-bringing-icebergs-to-paris.
©Jonee Kulman Brigham