by Elizabeth Sawin, Climate Interactive, April 2019
We spotted a great Twitter thread* a couple of weeks back, by Dr. Beth Sawin (@bethsawin), she was exploring how we sometimes find it very difficult to recognise what to others are really obvious signs that something isn’t quite right (e.g. with the climate). We wrote to Beth to ask her if we could reproduce her thread as a blog post. She kindly agreed, so here it is:
A thread about sea level rise, paradigms, and systems thinking or about why so many people might look less panicked than you might feel.
I just read "Heaven or High Water" about shopping for real estate in Miami. How is it that, with streets already flooding on sunny days, people are building, buying and selling pricey real estate that will be unlikely to live out its lifetime high and dry?
Here's what struck me about the people described in the article: they weren't 'just' in denial. It was almost as though, even dressed up in their fancy realtor outfits, but with rubber boots to slog across the flooded sidewalks, they almost weren't seeing the rising water at all.
They reminded me of myself, of all the times where I couldn't see something because my mental model made no room for it to exist.
Like the time we were lost driving on back roads (I was the navigator). I kept saying things like, 'hmm, that lake on the map isn't here anymore, must have been a beaver dam was removed.'
Or the time I wondered, “why are there urinals in this women's room?” You can guess where that ended....
Or, like one of my favorite Gary Larson cartoons, the pilot to the co-pilot in the cockpit: “Say, what's that mountain goat doing way up here in a cloud bank?”
Say what's all this water pooling at my feet, in a city of glamor, glitter, progress, and luxury?
The Far Side cartoons and embarrassing personal stories of cognitive dissonance are amusing, but is there more here? Might we be collectively driving along by a map that doesn't actually fit the territory, with increasingly dangerous results, but not quite able to recognize it?
You can't work on sustainability for years without wondering about these things, and my colleagues and I sometimes turn to Thomas Kuhn's work on the Structure of Scientific Revolutions for a framework to think about them.
In Kuhn's observations (about the history of scientific theories) high confidence in a theory of how the world works (he called that a paradigm), limits people's ability to see the ways in which the paradigm doesn't explain the data (evidence from instruments or observations).
That's me, so sure I'm on one road that I literally can't see that I am traveling another road altogether.
The more deeply a group of people believe something – “market forces, engineers, the government, will fix it”, “we live in the best possible way today”, “economies always move towards progress” - the less likely they are to be able to take in evidence to the contrary.
Conversely, the weaker the confidence in a paradigm becomes, the easier it is to detect the things that don't fit. Kuhn called these contradictions, these things that wouldn't be happening if the paradigm full matched reality, anomalies.
The missing beaver pond, the urinals in the women's room, the goats in the cloud bank, the need for rubber boats to show property to prospective buyers, these are all anomalies.
The weaker the confidence in the paradigm, the easier to see the anomalies, which decreases confidence even more. Which in turn allows more anomalies to be perceived, which further weakens confidence, and so on.
You can see how this process, once started, can snowball. Once the chinks appear in the dominant beliefs about how things work, the process builds on itself. The fall of in confidence can happen fast.
If you are looking for - working for - transformation, processes like these, that feed on themselves, are interesting, aren't they? Especially the part about them happening fast, near the end of the period of high confidence in a paradigm.
The dying of a paradigm is a collective process, but people move along it at different speeds. You may be able to take in anomalies your partner, your boss, your best friend cannot, at least not yet.
Understanding this offers a source of compassion and understanding. Not everyone can see what you can.
It also offers a reason for humility. Some people will surely see anomalies that you can't, at least not yet.
That's why the advice to center the leadership of marginalized groups in our movements is good systems thinking to my mind. Anomalies are more pervasive if you are part of a marginalized group and people who experience anomalies see more than others can.
Anomalies are showing up bigger, stronger, harsher than ever, with every tenth of a degree of increase in global temperatures. They are easier to see than ever before, but still not always comfortable to name.
It takes courage. It takes the decision to trust the truth of your own experience, even if you see/feel/understand something most everyone around you does not.
But it's worth it to name them. Just doing that changes you, allows you see more, and more clearly. And every anomaly called out is a little seed crystal of self-reinforcing change, helping us all see more clearly.
You can find the original Twitter thread here.
What is particularly interesting for The Glacier Trust, is Beth’s advice to ‘center the leadership of marginalized groups in our movements’ because they are better positioned to recognise the anomalies of a system. In the context of Nepal and climate change, the anomaly is that the economic system that promises to alleviate poverty through GDP growth, might in fact be the system that is creating poverty through inequality and climate change.
*For those unfamiliar with Twitter: Twitter used to be somewhere where people made a quick point or observation using 140 characters or less, this is a ‘tweet’. This limit has now been doubled to 280 characters, because people wanted to say more. What we’re seeing a lot more of now are entire ‘threads’ of tweets. A thread is a succession of tweets on the same subject. These are sometimes ten or fifteen tweets long and give a longer take on the issue of the day/hour/moment. Every now and then a brilliant thread pops up. Trouble is, unless you have an awesome archiving system, it is soon lost to ages. You also might miss it completely if you’re not on Twitter that day!