11 May 2006

Of Paradigms, Oil, and the End of the World

It saddens me that some hacks in the 80's decided to appropriate the Kuhnian concept of 'paradigm' for a bunch of bogus business-speak. They've soiled the concept, and I'm not sure it can be cleaned up again.

But it's an important idea, nonetheless. For me, the basic key is this: all the facts and rules about the world look different from one within one paradigm compared to another. Is the earth the center of the universe? Depends on whether we're talking pre- or post- Copernicus. Can a tax cut increase economic growth? Depends on whether you look at it from within the supply-side economic paradigm. (The answer prior to the 1980s would have been an unequivocal 'no'.)

I think I have the best 21st century example to explain paradigms – technology. Have a non-Tivo owner ask a Tivo owner, what Tivo is all about. Most Tivo owners will say something like this, 'well, at first glance it is like a digital VCR'. This 'it's like' is crucial. I translate it as follows: the Tivo owner is saying, 'well, from within your non-Tivo paradigm, the Tivo will appear to be a digital VCR, but once you start to use a Tivo you'll experience a paradigm shift and realise that it's not really that at all'. Non-Tivo owners also have a standard series of questions about Tivo (usually about watching one thing live while doing something else), and they are totally relevant and significant questions from within the non-Tivo paradigm, but they make no sense in the Tivo paradigm. In the Tivo paradigm, one does not watch live television.

The problem with prognostications about the oil peak is that they are making predictions about what the future holds from within this paradigm, when, undoubtedly, what the future holds is a shift to some other paradigm.

This is what happens when we run out of a primary energy source - we switch to another one. And we don't know what the logic of the economy, the environment or world politics will look like in that new energey paradigm - because we aren't in it. But every paradigm shift has rewritten all the rules (that's what paradigm shifts do).

Now, will the paradigm shift be smooth? Probably not. Will it kill millions of people? Maybe. Will it result in environmental devastation that takes hundreds of years from which to recover? Still, maybe. Will it come too late, such that we destroy the world entirely? I suppose that's possible, but it doesn't seem likely.

What we need is a way to see our way to the new paradigm, while we extend the 'friendly' terms of this one as long as possible. What a banal conclusion: I'm calling for massive energy conservation and massive investment in alternative energy sources. But the longer we invest resources in this energy paradigm, as if it's the only one we're ever going to live in , the more we increase the chances that it will be the last.

(Side note: as I was finishing this post, Rebecca asked 'whatcha writing about' and I said 'Paradigms'. She responded, 'I was just putting together a blog post in my head about paradigms in response to Paul's post on oil'. Thus, A) Rebecca wants some credit for this post, and B) our wireless network seems to be working quite well today.)

1 comment:

Liz said...

From the TiVo users perspective, was it better to live in the VCR paradigm just because it ensured that we could live the way we were living? I've been thinking about this a lot lately in terms of conservation and alternative energy.

Also, it seems like a life with alternative energy may be the paradigm shift. It involves an entirely new was of interacting with the modern world. Hopefully, anyway.