My Climate Risk Interdisciplinary Learning Group
12 February 2024; 13:00-14:00 GMT
Presenter: Vandana Singh
Vandana Singh is a professor of physics and environment in the Department of Environment, Society and Sustainability at Framingham State University, in Massachusetts, USA. A theoretical physicist by training, she has been working for over a decade on a transdisciplinary, justice-centered pedagogy of climate change at the intersection of science and society. She is a member of the scientific steering group of My Climate Risk, and facilitates the MCR Education working group. Her book, Teaching Climate Change: Science, Stories, Justice, is available from Routledge in January, 2024.
Paper to be presented
Title: Reviewing the relationship between neoliberal societies and nature: implications of the industrialized dominant social paradigm for a sustainable future.
Author: Bogert, et al. (2022)
Link to paper: https://ecologyandsociety.org/vol27/iss2/art7/
Given the relaunch of our February session as the My Climate Risk Interdisciplinary Learning Group, it was particularly apposite that we welcomed Professor Vandana Singh from Framingham State University in Massachusetts, whose interests include transformative learning in the sphere of climate change. Professor Singh shared with us the key highlights of Bogert et al’s paper: “Reviewing the relationship between neoliberal societies and nature: implications of the industrialised dominant social paradigm of a sustainable future”. We were warned at the outset that to work in this area often means being out of one’s comfort zone, as so often happens when we embrace transdisciplinary projects. Using examples from the chosen paper and her own experience, Professor Singh discussed how the dominant social paradigm (DSP) that we tend to take for granted as members of an industrialised and neoliberal society, can bring about environmental degradation and social inequality. The paper defines a paradigm as a society’s collective view on social, economic, political and environmental issues, or a framework of social rules, beliefs, values and limits that dictate how people should live their lives. According to the authors, the characteristic aspects of the DSP include the following attitudes toward nature: mastery, utilization, detachment, romanticism and certain kinds of stewardship; it further argues that solutions and actions that emerge from this paradigm cause further ecological destruction and social inequality. When we look at nature through the lens of this DSP, it becomes a resource or commodity, that can be substituted by other things, as per current economic thinking. An example of this given by Professor Singh was a government plan to replace part of the Great Nicobar Island Biosphere Reserve in India, a tropical island forest ecosystem, with a transnational port, township, and military base, to be ‘compensated’ by a plantation in landlocked India 2500 km away. This clearly shows the injustice of our current socio-economic paradigm.
Bogert et al looked at twelve different paradigms, ranging from a completely anthropocentric approach to an eco-centric perspective. The value of this categorization, according to Professor Singh, is in highlighting the importance of underlying paradigms, so that we recognise that our taken-for-granted concepts emerge from a paradigm, a socially constructed framework that can be changed. The DSP has longevity due to the media and power structures who benefit from preserving the status quo, but once we move past this paradigm blindness, we can see that it is just a socio-scientific construct of (often) unexamined assumptions that are universally accepted as the norm. According to Professor Singh, the DSP of neoliberal societies is likely influenced by the Newtonian Paradigm, which is a mechanistic, reductionist view of the world, giving the illusion of an orderly, clockwork universe that can be controlled from the outside. However, the Newtonian paradigm has a limited domain of validity; in physics, this paradigm fails at the scale of the very small, the very large, the very fast; it is also of limited usefulness beyond a certain level of complexity. Thus, the universe is not Newtonian, and therefore the misapplication of the Newtonian perspective outside its domain of validity (for example in economics, medicine, climate solutions) is problematic. This gives what Professor Singh alluded to as a fatal mismatch, for example when we consider the economy to be the universal superset and society and nature to be disjoint subsets (this is implied in market-based solutions such as bringing Nature into the stockmarket through creating an asset class for Nature). By shifting the framework of our society, to acknowledge nature as all encompassing, within which economies and societies are embedded, we can better address our social-environmental problems. It is only in this way that we can find long-term solutions to climate change, rather than reductive answers that distract from the root of the issue.
However, moving from our current DSP to something new, means that we have to recognise that other paradigms exist or can be created. Professor Singh suggested that this way of thinking could be initialised by hearing stories from marginalised communities, such as the Swinomish Tribe who think of the sea creatures that they harvest as being relatives (rather than resources) that they nurture and in turn are nurtured by. Through learning from real-life stories, speculative fiction and speculative futurism exercises we can move towards eco-centrism, which will require fundamental changes in how we think about all parts of life, even including moving away from the concept of linear time. At the heart of Professor Singh’s teaching philosophy lies the need to view cogitation as co-agitation, a way of “stirring the water together”.
Our discussion began with a question about how we can translate classroom learning on fundamental paradigm shift to societal changes. Professor Singh recognised that politics and mainstream education encourage the status quo, but that given the failure of leaders to resolve our problems we need to turn to more grass roots initiatives, like the many hundred marginalised groups around the world who are currently being networked together as part of a “Global tapestry of alternatives”. It was noted that conventional education can often restrict creativity, but that exercises such as speculative futurism, in which students are encouraged to rethink from the very essence of meaning can help to free the imagination from the trap of ‘paradigm blindness’.
One suggestion was that the tension between different social frameworks could be exploited as an entry way to change. Professor Singh pointed to the example of the word for nature in Hindi, ‘Prakriti,’ which means the primary source of the essence of all life, thereby including humanity within its definition, rather than separating man and nature. Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics was raised as one example of an economic paradigm shift in which the space for human flourishing lies between the boundaries of the Earth system and that of a just social foundation, through which all people have the right to equity in access to basic needs and justice. Thinking of possible futures in the “doughnut” between the boundaries helps people to reimagine what the future could hold and destroy the notion that the DSP is fixed. Speculative fiction, allows people to be immersed in a different reality, which can often have implications for their lives in the real world. For example Isaac Asimov’s story “Nightfall” introduces a society on a planet with six suns in which daylight is the norm and the night that falls every 2000 years becomes an inescapable challenge to the dominant paradigm, and a motif for insecurity and chaos. Professor Singh was keen to share her belief that well-chosen stories can have the potential to examine and shift paradigms.
Consumerism was identified as the root of many of the problems we face today, but group members were keen to know how we can help students to understand what it means to live beyond this culture. The importance of remembering that society was not always founded on consumption patterns in this way was discussed. Students often think of buying “stuff” to make themselves feel happy, but part of teaching about alternative paradigms, according to Professor Singh, lies in helping them to experience a deeper sense of wellbeing and happiness than can be provided by material goods. This involves changing the classroom culture in profound ways. In this respect, it is imperative not to label people as good or bad based on their roles in our consumer society, as with paradigm shift society has to be responsible for ensuring that people are not left behind but can develop new skill sets. It was mooted that often a retreat from consumerism is looked at as a step backwards in development, but this is not the case as can be seen from the beliefs and practices of Indigenous Peoples, such as the example of a group of village women in India who have regenerated their forests. By weaving the old and the new into a tapestry of what is best for us and the rest of nature, we can look forward to social wellbeing and ecological harmony.
But do we have time to transform the way society works before we can start to tackle climate change? To state that we don’t have time to first change the paradigm and then work on climate is to fall into the linear time fallacy. Shifting the paradigm is only possible through engagement with action, and action can be both just and efficacious only when it emerges from a paradigm that ‘fits’ the problem. Thus, there is a mutuality between the two. Paradigm shift and action against climate change can work in a feedback loop where actions taken are helping to evolve society and changes in the DSP are leading to long-term, fundamental climate solutions. Professor Singh used the vivid analogy, that our current neo-liberal power structures are like a ship heading for a waterfall. If we are to escape the current dragging us toward inevitable catastrophe, we might need to use the ship’s engines (the current paradigm) temporarily to change the direction, but in the long term the DSP will not serve us, and we must abandon it. To do this will require use of our collective intelligence to embrace changes at a local and global scale and knit together our best initiatives within and between scales. Professor Singh left us with the inspiring idea of a weekend of brainstorming conversations around the world, during which we map the systems, social and biogeophysical in which we are embedded, and look for ‘intravention points’ where we can respond nonlinearly to the changes underway. By renegotiating the relationship between modern societies and the rest of nature, we can critically re-examine taken-for-granted concepts from the DSP (e.g. ‘natural resources,’ ‘ecosystem services’) and bring forth better concepts, ideas, solutions, and actions that move us toward the eco-centric paradigms in Bogert et al’s paper.
Vandana Singh’s recent book, Teaching Climate Change: Science, Stories, Justice (Routledge, January 2024) elaborates on her pedagogical approach. https://www.routledge.com/Teaching-Climate-Change-Science-Stories-Justice/Singh/p/book/9781032278599
 An example of this is Indigenous scholar Kyle Whyte’s notion of Time as Kinship chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://kylewhyte.seas.umich.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Time-as-Kinship-April-2021.pdf .