Aric McBay: Proponents of a chiefly educational strategy often assert that persistent work at building public awareness will eventually result in a global “paradigm shift,” which will dramatically change the actions and opinions of the majority. The term paradigm shift comes from Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but it’s inapplicable to our situation for a number of reasons. Although the phrase gained usage in the 1990s as a marketing buzzword, Kuhn wrote explicitly that the idea only applied to those fields usually called the hard sciences (physics, biology, chemistry, and the like). A paradigm, he said, was a dominant system of explanation in one of these sciences, whereas “a student in the humanities has constantly before him a number of competing and incommensurable solutions to these problems, solutions that he must ultimately examine for himself.”51 Scientists trying to use equations to explain, say, orbital mechanics, can come to agreement on which theory is best because they are trying to develop the most accurate predictive equations.52 Social sciences and other fields do not have this luxury, because there is no agreement on which problems are most important, how to evaluate their answers, what kinds of answers are the most important and how precise they should be, and what to do when answers are arrived at.
Because of these differences, Kuhn argued that the true scientific paradigm shifts always lead to better paradigms—paradigms that do a better job of explaining part of the world. But in society at large this is not true at all—dominant worldviews can be displaced by worldviews which are considerably worse at explaining the world or which are damaging to humans and the living world, a phenomenon which is distressingly common in history.
Furthermore, Kuhn argued that even when a much better paradigm is supported by strong evidence, the scientific community doesn’t necessarily switch quickly. Scientists who have been practicing the obsolete paradigm for their entire careers may not change their minds even in the presence of overwhelming evidence. Kuhn quotes Nobel laureate Max Planck, who said that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”53
Even worse for us, Kuhn and Planck are assuming the people in question are genuinely and deliberately trying to find the best possible paradigm. Doing this is literally a full-time job. Do we really believe that the majority of people are spending their free waking hours trying to gain a deeper understanding of the world, trying to sift through the huge amounts of available information, trying to grasp history and ecology and economics? The very idea of a paradigm shift assumes that the majority of people are actively trying to find large-scale solutions to our current predicament, instead of being willfully ignorant and deeply invested in a convenient economic and social system that rewards people for destroying the planet.
Indeed, part of the problem with “education” is that it’s not only leftists who do it, and it’s rarely unbiased. Studies have shown that on the right wing, more educated people are less likely to admit the existence of global warming.54 This is probably because they have more sophisticated rationales for their delusions.
But let’s pause for a moment and take the most optimistic (if somewhat mangled) interpretation of Kuhn’s concept and assume that a beneficial paradigm shift is going to happen, rather than a worsening shift in dominant politics and worldviews. That shift would require abundant evidence that the dominant culture—civilization—is inherently destructive and doomed to destroy itself along with the living world. Since we can’t do multiple experimental run throughs of a global industrial civilization, for many people the only inescapable empirical demonstration of the dominant system’s fundamental unsustainability would be the collapse of that system. Only at that point would the majority of people be seriously and personally invested in learning how to live without destroying the planet. And even then, those people would likely continue to insist on their outdated worldview, until, as Max Planck observed, they die, resulting in a further decades-long delay beyond collapse before a beneficial paradigm was dominant. This means that even in the most optimistic and reasonable assessment, a “global paradigm shift” would be decades too late.
Derrick Jensen: There are three answers. The philosophical answer is that we can’t know the future. We can never know whether some action will be useful. We can pick what we think are the most effective actions, but that still doesn’t guarantee any given act will succeed. What we can know is that if this culture continues in the direction it’s headed, it will get where it’s headed, which is the murder of the planet. There are already casualties, and they’re called the salmon. They’re called the sharks. They’re called the black terns. They’re called migratory songbirds. They’re called oceans, rivers. They’re called indigenous people. They’re called the poor. They’re called subsistence farmers. They’re called women.
The second, historical answer is about the way resistance movements work. You lose and you lose and you lose until you win. You get your head cracked, get your head cracked, get your head cracked, and then you win. You can’t know when you start how many times you have to get your head cracked before you win. But the struggle builds on struggle. It has to start somewhere and it has to gain momentum. That happens through organizing, it happens through actions. And it happens through victories. One of the best recruiting tools is some sort of victory. And you can’t have a victory unless you try.
And now the pragmatic: we are horribly outnumbered and we do not have the luxury to throw away our lives. How can we be most effective? We have to be smart. Choose targets carefully, both for strategic value and safety. And we have to organize. A lone person’s chance of sparking a larger movement is much lower than that of a group of organized people.
Whatever actions a person takes (and this is true in all areas of life) need to count. Many of the actions being taken right now are essentially acts of vandalism, as opposed to acts of active sabotage that will slow the movement of the machine. So choose. How can you make your actions (and your life) have the most significance in terms of stopping the perpetration of atrocity?
All those who begin to act against the powers of any repressive state need to recognize that their lives will change. They need to take that decision very seriously. Some of the people captured under the Green Scare knew what they were getting into, and some of them made the decision more lightly. The latter were the people who turned very quickly when they were arrested. One person turned within five seconds of getting into the police car. That person probably didn’t seriously consider the ramifications of his actions before he began. The Black Panthers knew when they started the struggle that they would either end up dead or in prison.
Finally, we have to always keep what we’re fighting for in sight. We are fighting for life on the planet. And the truth is, the planet’s life is worth more than you. It’s worth more than me. It is the source of all life. That doesn’t alter the fact that we should be smart. We need to be very strategic. We need to be tactical. And we need to act.
Did John Brown throw away his life? On one hand, you could say yes. His project ultimately failed. But, on the other hand, you could say that it set up much greater things. Did Nat Turner throw away his life? Did members of the revolt at Sobibór throw away their lives? On one hand, you could say yes. On the other hand, you could say that they did what was absolutely right and necessary. And something we must always remember is that those who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising had a higher rate of survival than those who didn’t. When the whole planet is being destroyed, your inaction will not save you. We must choose the larger life. We must choose to do what is right to protect the planet. It is our only home.