The Elephant and The Mastodon:
On paradigm shifts and bonsai civilizations
“Today, we suffer from an almost universal idolatry of giantism. It is therefore necessary to insist on the virtues of smallness…” — E. F. Schumacher
The environmental crises are gigantic. I am small. How can one person with limited time and resources address such enormous problems in a meaningful way? Focus on the root of the problem — or work toward achievable solutions, small as they may be?
If there is a root of the problem, I have been avoiding it. Instead, my career has focused on how to build small-scale ecological communities from the ground up: rainwater catchment, organic gardens, compost toilets, cooperative business networks — all the nuts-and-bolts of sustainability. But what if I’m wrong? What if my small-scale solutions betray a massive degree of naiveté? There’s no point in pruning a tree if the root is rotten.
In graduate school, we were taught to scale-up our efforts. Take a small solution and expand it. Yet, many of these ecological solutions do not bear scaling up. For example, electric cars. Will eight billion of them solve our energy crisis? Can organic farming regenerate our soils if the number of hungry mouths approaches ten billion? Hydro plants on every river? Wind turbines on every hill?
As a society, are we mistaking more for less? More solutions do not equal less problems. So long as our civilization continues to grow in size, so will our environmental impact.
In any discussion of sustainability, economic growth is the glaring elephant in the room. It looms over the entire environmental movement — clean energy, habitat restoration, regenerative agriculture, etc. On a planetary scale, growth is the justification behind countless decisions. Growth is not a factor, it’s a paradigm.
In Donella Meadows’ 1999-essay, “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” she identifies ‘paradigm’ as the most powerful leverage point to change a system. The growth paradigm therefore represents a critical focal point for environmentalists. At every level of government, every size of business, we must question growth.
Meadows cites a famous computer model from J.W. Forrester’s 1973 book, World Dynamics. Not only does the model demonstrate how major global problems are related, it identifies a clear leverage point: Growth — not only population growth, but economic growth. The lesson is obvious: What is needed is much slower growth, and in some cases no growth or negative growth.
The argument against growth, however, is so antithetical to business-as-normal that even mentioning it promises to be deeply unpopular. No developer, no construction work, no small-town entrepreneur wants to hear that we need to stop building new things. No family wants to be told to have less babies. The message, however well-intended, ends up sounding like someone shouting: “Stop having sex and making money!”
The point is not that we need to stop building new things or having children; what we need to do is stop expanding and start refining. Refinement is the art of making what already exists more beautiful and efficient. A perfect example of refinement is a bonsai tree.
Bonsai is the practice of growing potted plants which are dwarfed by pruning and trained to an artistic shape. A thousand years ago, the first lengthy work of fiction in Japanese, The Tale of Genji, included this passage: “A tree that is left growing in its natural state is a crude thing. It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire the ability to move on.”
The same could be said about our modern civilizations. We are clearly overgrown. Biodiversity loss, deforestation, overfishing of the oceans, and overpopulation all indicate that we have crowded our limited pot — the planet. Despite this, the United Nations — in their infinite wisdom and infinite growth assumptions — continues to list economic growth as one of their sustainable development goals because: “Sustained and inclusive economic growth can drive progress, create decent jobs for all and improve living standards.”
Bonsai as a metaphor describes how the growth paradigm might be re-imagined as a refinement paradigm. A bonsai civilization would refine its existing infrastructure and institutions, limit its population to a reasonable number of educated and trained citizens, and work towards a regenerative relationship with its natural resources. A bonsai civilization would grow more beautiful and functional instead of growing in size. Sounds good, but how do we get there?
The answer is paradigm change. Meadows punts the question of how to change paradigms to philosopher Thomas Kuhn, whose work demonstrates that science does not progress as a linear accumulation of new knowledge, but undergoes periodic revolutions called “paradigm shifts.” To kickstart a paradigm shift, Kuhn advises four strategies:
· Keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm
· Keep speaking louder and with assurance from the new one
· Insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power
· Don’t waste time with reactionaries; instead work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded
Let’s unpack these one at a time, starting with pointing at the failures of the growth paradigm. The two most damning forms of evidence against growth are income inequality and environmental degradation. Income equality has risen in the U.S. over the past 50 years despite increased GDP. This trend proves that economic growth is not spread evenly across the population; instead the rich get richer. The Kuznets Curve (a Nobel-prizing winning graph touted by conventional economists) hypothesizes that income inequality decreases once a nation reaches a certain threshold of development — again, empirical evidence suggests otherwise.
The Environmental Kuznets Curve claims that, as income increases, pollution also increases until a turning point at which the high-income society begins to reduce its environmental impact. Alas, this optimistic view is only wishful thinking. All the large industrial nations continue to pollute — and if they have reduced their pollution, it is only by outsourcing the dirtier industrial and extractive processes to sacrifice zones where communities and ecosystems are ruined in exchange for increased economic activity elsewhere.
In fact, any measurement of quality of life based on GDP is bound to be flawed. For example, ambulance rides typically cost more than $1,000; if we all suffered regular injuries and rode an ambulance every week, GDP would increase.
There is an old parable about a windowmaker’s son who smashes windows in the village at night so his father has more work during the day. The costly replacement of windows is bad for that village because every homeowner would be better off spending their money on constructive (think refinement) rather than reparative projects. This parable dates back to 1850, revealing how long critical thinkers have been skeptical of the logic of economic growth.
Historically, growth-obsessed governments are relatively new. For example, in the England of 1600, the growth paradigm could scarcely have existed. No one knew the nation’s income, or even its territory or population. Scholars identified that the growth paradigm emerged around the 17th Century, roughly at the same time as the Enlightenment. Newton’s apple falling from the tree became as natural as the spread of deforestation across England in the name of progress.
The 17th Century brought many scientific discoveries. One of which was the ‘free market,’ an idea which gained acceptance along with gravity and magnetism as another irrefutable natural law. Economists reoriented their thinking around Progress, rather than cyclical repetition. Instead of round-and-round, it became more-and-more. More for the kings and queens, more for the peasants — who wanted to argue with that? Ironically, early circumnavigations by sailors at that time provided evidence of a round Earth just as the growth paradigm flattened the landscape of economic theory into an endless linear line.
To assume growth is natural is to believe a metaphor — not unlike the bonsai metaphor. The difference is that economic philosophers failed to question whether growth could continue infinitely. They couldn’t see the rapids ahead; theirs was a view of undeveloped continents. Meanwhile the first powerful international banks were happy to ignore limits as the recently “discovered” New World was being exploited for exorbitant sums of wealth.
Fast forward a few centuries and it becomes clear that the growth paradigm is fast-tracking our planet towards a perilous point-of-no-return. Wealth inequality, climate change, mass extinction — I could keep pointing at the failures in the old paradigm until I’m blue in the face, so let’s move on the next strategy for paradigm shift.
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Keep speaking louder and with assurance from the new paradigm
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
- Albert Einstein
According to Kuhn, we must speak louder and with assurance from the new paradigm. Well, what exactly is the new paradigm? Is it already here struggling to emerge? I have suggested Refinement to describe one direction the current paradigm might shift. Allow me to suggest another: interdependence. See, the old way nations operated was by focusing on independence: explore, conquer, outgrow. America is exhibit A. We started as a colony on an undeveloped continent. As soon as we grew big enough, we broke away from England. Hence, the Fourth of July, the day we celebrate our independence.
Two hundred years later, globalization has proven that no nation is truly alone in the world. Pollution and disease on one side of the planet will affect all other nations. Yet we continue to operate as if we are still independent, that our actions have no global impact. This is the paradigm we are stuck in. Somehow the lessons of climate change, refugee crises, and pandemics are not sinking in fast enough. We must recognize our interdependence so we can act accordingly.
Voices from this new paradigm include proponents of ecological economics, the recognition that we now live on a “full” planet. One such voice is that of Joshua Farley, who said, “Perhaps the process of change will be similar to the recognition of anthropogenic climate change, where recent heat waves and storms seem to be shaking the faith of climate change skeptics. However, it will be extremely difficult for many neoclassical economists to abandon their life’s work, and there has been little change in how neoclassical economic theory is taught in universities. To paraphrase Max Planck, advances in economics may come one funeral at a time.”
The voice of young Greta Thunberg could also be said to speak for a new paradigm. A fearless and eloquent climate activist, Thunberg once stated in a speech: “We live in a strange world where children must sacrifice their own education in order to protest against the destruction of their future. Where the people who have contributed the least to this crisis are the ones who are going to be affected the most.”
Thunberg’s views are shared not just by activists but also by multilateral organizations. The European Environmental Agency (EEA) recognizes the need for “growth without economic growth,” to decouple resource consumption and loss of natural capital from basic economic activity. The EEA’s official jargon tends to read so dryly that my eyes glaze over until I come across paradigm-challenging statements such as: “While the planet is finite in its biophysical sense, infinite growth in human existential values, such as beauty, love, and kindness, as well as in ethics, may be possible. Society is currently experiencing limits to growth because it is locked into defining growth in terms of economic activities and material consumption. The imperative of economic growth is culturally, politically and institutionally ingrained.” This is the bonsai approach to a refinement paradigm, expressed in the language of government organizations.
The EEA’s briefings exemplify how the growth paradigm problem is being studied at the highest levels, not just with an aim to understand but also to identify and adopt insights. In the EEA’s words: “Change requires us to address these barriers democratically. The various communities that live simply offer inspiration for social innovation.”
Communities that live simply — does that sound familiar? Two hundred years ago, such communities were deemed ‘primitive’ by colonialists. Now modern Europeans study them with new appreciation for their longevity. Readers of Ishmael, the 1992-philosphical novel by Daniel Quinn, may remember the distinction between two types of societies: the Leavers and the Takers. So-called primitive cultures tend to leave their environments as they found them; their homes and livelihoods exist in harmony with nature; they persist for thousands of years without causing significant environmental harm. Whereas history’s Takers are the civilizations that seem to extract from their environments at a rate which ultimately results in collapse (think: deforestation on Easter Island or desertification of Ancient Mesopotamia).
Needless to say, there is no joy in the ironic reversal of oppressing these “primitive” cultures only to return, desperate for their insights as we approach the precipice of collapse. As permaculture educator, Brock Dolman, often says, “We are on the brink of a 10,000 year-old discovery.” But who can carry the message of the discovery to the public? This is where Kuhn next paradigm-shifting strategy comes into play.
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Insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power
One example of a leader from a “community that lives simply,” is O-é Kaiapó Paiakan, a member of the Mebêngôkre people in the Kayapó tribe of Brazil. If the future is female — and I believe it absolutely must be — Paiakan epitomizes the trend of women stepping into leadership positions in what have been traditionally male-led spaces. Since becoming village chief, Paiakan has focused on the legalities of protecting Indigenous territories and how to confront structures of power who are challenging their rights. She also created an educational space for tribal women. Her bravery is exceptional in opposition to the Bolsonaro administration and Brazil’s congress, who have aligned with agribusiness, mining and, timber sectors.
Some of the loudest new-paradigm voices are those of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led effort to fight climate change. The Sunrise Movement has launched high-profile campaigns aimed at endorsing The Green New Deal and electing politicians who support climate justice. Putting youth at the forefront of the environmental movement is a potent strategy. But how much power do youth actually have? To insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power, we must examine what are the actual places of power, regarding growth. While banks and financial institutions wield great power regarding economic growth, it is women who ultimately hold the power to decide on population growth.
Indeed, empowering women is key to controlling population. The Fair Start Movement takes a human-rights approach to family planning — which is known as reproductive justice. In a nutshell, The Fair Start Model promotes smaller, sustainable, and more equitable families so that we can all invest more in each child, right from the start. Of course, smaller families means less births. Here we find ourselves in the territory of the abortion debate. Without sidetracking this essay into controversy, let’s consider the wider context — our changing world — in which an abortion takes place. Does the pro-life crowd think about overpopulation? Are pro-choice folks motivated by environmental concerns? I won’t attempt to answer these questions here, but it seems that the decisions on both sides tend to reflect individual ethics rather than awareness of global problems.
If economic growth is the elephant in the room during conversations about sustainability, then population growth is a mastodon looming over the entire building. The global population passed the one-billion milestone around 1804 — since then we have multiplied eightfold in only 218 years! This growth rate equals 85 million people per year, or 12,000 more people every hour. The U.N. predicts Earth will be home to over 11 billion people by 2100. Of course, this is only a prediction.
“Pro-natalist” is a term for people who encourage increasing the human birthrate. I find this perspective astonishing. Yet pro-natalists often claim that without increased birthrates, certain ethnic groups will soon go extinct. Even billionaire, Elon Musk, tweeted in 2021 that he believes “birth rate collapse is the biggest threat to human civilization.”
So, what are the true intentions behind pro-natalist messages?
As far back as 18 BC, reproduction was encouraged and made mandatory. The laws of the Roman Emperor Augustus penalized not having children and offered benefits to families with three or more. In 2022, Russia began offering a medal and $16,000 to women who have ten children. China recently incentivized increased birthrates as well. Military might and a larger tax base may explain the rationale behind such pro-natalism. Whether the result is a ‘greater good’ is another question altogether.
What makes population growth so worrisome is its relation to the consumption patterns associated with economic growth. For example, despite evidence that the United States has nearly flatlined at 335 million people, five percent of the global population, Americans continue to consume 24 percent of the world’s resources. What this means is not all population growth is equally harmful to the environment because not everyone has the same access to resources. It’s true that some of the poorest nations in the world have the highest populations. In Donella Meadows’ words: “poverty causes population growth causes poverty.” However, there is a sad history, rife with racist overtones, of Western thinkers pointing fingers at the large populations of Asian and African countries, who in turn are justified in pointing back at the West’s voracious consumption patterns.
So, whether consumption is the mastodon and population is the elephant hardly matters now. It’s just the semantics of trampling over things while remaining too large to mention in polite conversation. We might as well say globalization is the pygmy mammoth in the room. The big picture is that humanity continues to grow in multiple, complex ways that do not bode well for the future of life on this planet.
If globalization is the pygmy mammoth, then it can be tracked by immigration patterns. Immigration offers a clue to how states think — and act — about population and its relation to economic growth. With its 41 million immigrants, the U.S. is the largest magnet for international migrants. Around 150 million more people say that they would migrate to the U.S. if they had the opportunity. However, U.S. immigration laws are restrictive and outdated. Census numbers show that the U.S. population increased by ‘only’ 22.7 million (7.4 percent) between 2010 and 2020–2 percent less than the previous decade. George Mason University’s Justin Gest argues for doubling immigration to make the U.S. 166 million people larger in 2050 than it would be without any immigration. He contends this increase would make the country more ‘productive’ and ‘richer’. The question is for whom?
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Don’t waste time with reactionaries; instead work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded
As the final strategy for shifting paradigms, Kuhn emphasizes the importance of being selective about who our movements attempt to reach. A spectrum of people exists in every society: radicals on the far ends typically cling to their ideology and remain close-minded. Thankfully, the radicals are few while the moderates are many. The majority reside in the middle ground. This claim acknowledges that democratic change is achieved by majority vote. The flipside is that the status quo may be sustained as long as the majority are subdivided into feuding groups. The current war of information (which includes a nationwide gutting of local news sources) has facilitated the fragmentation of our society, allowing the status quo to persist. Divide and conquer — an old playbook.
There is no tried-and-true playbook to shift paradigms. But it’s helpful to imagine, step-by-step, how the process might take place. So here goes: Efforts to shift the paradigm succeed in communicating the old paradigm’s failures; voices from the new paradigm speak with assurance and find positions of power; finally, the nuts-and-bolts of how to shift the paradigm are written into policy. Throughout this process, reactionaries stomp their feet, shake their heads, spend billions on misinformation, and manipulate politicians (maybe even subvert democracy itself). But they fail in the end — perhaps in unexpected fashion. Instead of a dramatic climax, old-paradigm leaders become obsolete; their voices fade; their followers retreat to remote corners of the internet; they go the way of the dinosaur while the rest of us move on. The majority comes to realize what is right and votes it into law.
A nice thought exercise — no doubt patience and perseverance are needed to weather the storm of paradigm shifts. Meanwhile, climate change is literally storming down on us.
“For want of something to do we keep slaying our small dragons as the big one waits.” — Charles Bukowski
A pragmatic reader might wonder what are the exact policies which could be voted into law to pivot away from the growth paradigm? Can capitalism can continue without growth? Green economists argue that it can, if technological innovation enables “absolute decoupling” in which G.D.P. can grow while carbon emissions decline. This is precisely where the circular thinking arrives back at the beginning: how can more of anything save us from too much? It’s crucial here to remember that we no longer have the luxury of watching economists debate environmentalists for another decade. The environmental threat is so real, so imminent, that we must adopt environmentally sound policies even when we’re uncertain how they will affect the long-term rate of growth. To answer the pragmatic reader’s questions about which policies: start with the Paris Agreement.
As a final point, we must examine a key assumption regarding paradigm shifts: whether the middle ground of the public actually remains open-minded. Social media opened up a Pandora’s Box inside every phone and personal computer, allowing sophisticated forms of propaganda and extremist thought to reach people who are generally unprepared to defend themselves. Remember even Harvard PhDs can be duped into joining cults. Social media functions as an information distribution network unlike anything humans ever experienced. Yes, it has connected the world. But it has also divided us by using algorithms to determine our personalities and exploit them. We have to remain open-minded but we also have to remain wary of the messages that bombard us on these platforms — we cannot allow ourselves to become too certain that we are right, lest we become close-minded.
For those who want to throw a wrench in democracy, social media is perfect tool to divide and confuse the public. As we are seeing now, the U.S. has been cleaved into multiple political tribes — the paradigm cannot shift without a majority to vote its politicians and policies into law. Recovering from this polarization will be key to unifying the vast middle ground. Often, the first step is listening to our close friends and family members who have drifted away due to extreme beliefs. When we can ask questions and sincerely listen, we can begin to repair the schisms that the war on information has created.
This essay was meant to embody the bonsai metaphor in format: a succinct piece intended to underline the importance of addressing economic growth and population growth. Instead, the word count swelled as I sought to touch on many of the factors related to these gargantuan subjects. Besides women’s empowerment, I mentioned no clear solutions — although I did introduce two possible directions for paradigm shift: refinement and interdependence. We must work to refine our civilization rather let it continue to overgrow. We must act with the awareness of our interdependence on other nations and the natural world. Each of these ideas deserves its own essay, even its own governmental agency.
As I said, the environmental crises are gigantic. I am small. How can one person with limited time and resources address such enormous problems in a meaningful way? Speak up. Each voice adds to the momentum of the paradigm shift. Enough small, interdependent people care. Let’s keep being honest with ourselves about where to direct our efforts — away from growth.