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Paradigm Paralysis


Yesterday was a rather interesting day.

I began my day by giving my climate change presentation to a small group of people (seven “peoples” to be exact) from the Department of the Environment of PEI.  The presentation was similar to the one I have used for students and the public, but with more policy, less explanation of how climate change works.  It was a good experience, by what made the presentation memorable for me was that it was the first time (out of seven presentations) that I was challenged by a member of the audience.

The gentleman’s arguments were not about the reality of climate change, or even about the severity and urgency of the problem it poses.  Rather, the man in the audience had issues with the policy recommendations I was putting forward and the mere feasibility of running the world on renewable energy.  He mentioned the usual arguments that many of us have read on various websites and heard on various videos: renewables are intermittent, they require a fossil fuel baseload, and there is no way of storing energy from renewables.  He also argued that a move to renewables would harm the progress of people in the third world, stating that for example, you couldn’t run refrigeration (a critical need for people trying to improve their quality of life) on renewable power.

I did the best I could to convince him that he was wrong.  However, like many people, I come up with my best arguments hours after a debate or an argument.  So, rather than share with you what I actually told, him, here are the arguments I wish I would have said.

First of all, in many parts of developing countries, getting connected to a power grid is still so expensive that the only source of electricity is renewables.  In other words, access to renewables in those parts of the world is actually accelerating the improvement of their living conditions.  Plus, if you are part of the 1.3 million people (mostly in developing countries) that die from the effects of air pollution, I doubt you would consider access to coal-fired electricity an improvement of your quality of life.

Second of all, the concept of running the world on intermittent renewables, using interconnected smart-grids and energy storage systems is not a pipe dream.  It is already being done in parts of Europe.  Economist Jeremy Rifkin calls it the “Third Industrial Revolution”.  Take a look at this video to see what I’m talking about.

(By the way, I recommend you take a look at Jeremy Rifkin’s latest book, “Third Industrial Revolution”.  I’m not done yet, but I love it so far!)

So, if I am ever faced with similar arguments, I’ll have more to say.

But, that wasn’t the end of my day.

Later in the evening, during my university course, we came across an expression that I had never heard before: paradigm paralysis.  According to Wikipedia, paradigm paralysis is the inability to see beyond a current model of thinking.  And as we were discussing the concept, I realized that paradigm paralysis is exactly what the gentleman at my presentation is suffering from… as are many people around the world when it comes to energy.  They cannot see beyond our current means of electricity production.  They cannot imagine a world where our energy needs are met, not by a relatively small number of coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants, but by hundreds of millions of small power plants that use the sunlight and the wind to produce clean energy.  And because of that paralysis, they are slowing our inevitable transition away from fossil fuels.  And what makes me laugh (and cry) is that we already have all the technology we need in order to make the leap.

Don’t get me wrong, it will be incredible challenging.  And it will cost a lot of money.  But, come on!  America sent a man to the moon with 1960’s technology and the need to beat the Ruskies as motivation.  We already have most (if not all) the technology we need, and our motivation is preserving a society threatened by climate change.

So let us get beyond our paradigm paralysis and get our asses to work!

27 Comments leave one →
  1. 2013/01/23 12:36 am

    Thanks for sharing your experience, J. I haven’t come across the term paradigm paralysis before, but I’m going to use it in the future. For starters, I’m going to tweet this link around!

  2. 2013/01/23 2:21 pm

    Thanks for this video from Jeremy Rifkin. Really inspires me to get hold of the book and understand what he means by biosphere consciousness – resonates with my thinking!
    Really like analogy with internet networks with renewable power networks flowing together.

    • 2013/01/23 10:03 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m currently “reading” (as an audio book) his novel “Third Industrial Revolution”. And I must say, he makes it sound like we are only shooting ourselves in the foot (in more ways than one) by not transition to renewables. And the way he details it, it isn’t just a questions of changing energy production – it’s a very holistic approach. Very much worth the read.

  3. 2013/01/24 5:40 am

    Congrats. 🙂 Your first political audience! The way you manage to spread the (green) word is pretty impressive. Please carry on with it!
    Some time ago I heard a podcast on the The Third Revolution, in case you are interested: here is the link:
    I know, I still owe you an article on the EEG. 😦

    • 2013/01/24 5:43 am

      Thank you for the link. I’ll taking a look shortly.
      I’m really enjoying “spreading the word”. I keep telling my wife that if I could do it for a living, I would.

  4. 2013/01/24 5:48 am

    J. The meme that any limit on fossil fuel exploitation will limit growth, and a limit on growth will consign billions of people in less-developed countries to poverty is pretty common within the business and finance world (the world I come from).

    I think this argument is entirely wrong given the potential for economic disruption from the higher degrees of warming. However, it is difficult to counter as you note. However, one resource you can use to push back against this argument is the World Bank’s Turn Down the Heat report that came out in November last year:

    Click to access Turn_Down_the_heat_Why_a_4_degree_centrigrade_warmer_world_must_be_avoided.pdf

    Up to now, there has been almost nothing out of the IMF or World Bank on the implications of climate change for growth (outside a few technical papers). The World Bank has done us all a favour by putting out a report that unequivocally states we have a major problem. I would print out the Executive Summary when you give a presentation and wave it at such questioners while pulling out quotes such as this:

    “A 4°C world is likely to be one in which communities, cities and countries would experience severe disruptions, damage, and dislocation, with many of these risks spread unequally. It is likely that the poor will suffer most and the global community could become more fractured, and unequal than today. The projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur—the heat must be turned down.”

    • 2013/01/24 5:58 am

      Thank you for your insights and the link. I will definitely read it with interest. (Just, not right now because I’m still waking up!)

      I like your suggestion about “pulling out quotes”. I already have the following quote in my presentation: “a 4 degrees C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable.“
      A couple more will definitely not hurt 🙂

      • 2013/01/24 1:45 pm

        Where did you get your quote from? There is so little out there in terms of the types of disruption post 4 degrees of warming.

        The first time I saw a proper treatment of this kind of risk was when the 4 Degrees and Beyond conference was held in Oxford (, but even then I don’t think the risks were given enough prominence.

        Coming fresh to a new blog, one is never sure quite what has been covered and referenced. But just in case, that 4 Degrees and Beyond conference gave rise to a series of articles for the Royal Society. These are available with free access here:

        Really interesting papers.

      • 2013/01/24 10:07 pm

        The quote is from Kevin Anderson who is one of the editors of the issue you linked to! I can’t remember where I got the exact quote from… I think it was on…

  5. 2013/01/24 7:06 am

    When I hear from other parts of the world, I am pretty much concerned about the fact, that you guys still seem to be busy discussing if climate change is really happening. Please tell me if I am mistaken.
    Whereas in Germany and the rest of Europe (as far as I can tell) climate change is hardly questioned any more. And when you take climate change for granted, you are really in trouble, because you have to tell people that they have to change their way of life considerably. That the whole economic and financial system has to be rebuild. …
    I think this is the reason for paradigm paralysis: it is difficult to accept, that everything will have to be changed and most probably not for the better.
    When I went to the Spread conference in November, I had the opportunity to calculate my ecological footprint, it was about 15000. I am vegetarian, I try to buy as much regional and organic food as possible, I am living in a low energy building, I don’t own a car, I travel rather with my bike than by plane. … But still, I was told that I will have to reduce my ecological footprint to 8000 in order to lead a sustainable lifestyle.
    Honestly, I found that pretty disillusioning, because I thought I was already doing much better. And because I know that there are a lot of people out there who care much less about climate change and the environment than I do.
    And I have no idea how those people could be convinced to change their way of living so radically.
    In Germany we are doing pretty good in terms of renewable energy, but our performance is still very poor when it comes to smart grids, to energy-efficiency of houses, to transportation and mobility, to nutrition, etc. etc.
    As I said, I am currently very concerned and frustrated – and I guess this is also the reason why I refrain from writing: I don’t want to spread my currently very pessimistic view.
    And now I did it nevertheless. 😦

    • 2013/01/24 9:52 pm

      Well, like they say, sometimes it’s good to let it out!

      I guess it’s one of those situations where the more you know, the more frustrating it is. Ignorance is bliss! However, I believe that you are on the right track. From what you have described, you make my ecological footprint look like a small tactical nuke! My wife and I carpool, but we own two cars. Our house is very small, but the insulation isn’t the best and we heat with oil and wood (although, my wife is designing our next home and it will be AMAZING!). So, you have much to be proud of 🙂

      Having said that, I understand where the pessimism comes from. Canada’s environment minister just made a statement trying to defend our climate record. He mentioned how Canada was planning to sign on to an international deal in 2015 which would take effect in 2020. I know he is a journalist by trade, but that means he should be able to read! And the “writing on the wall” says that global emissions need to peak ASAP. That man makes me a pessimist!

      But the way I look at it, my job is to try and educate as many people as I can. And I do that through this blog, my presentations and through what I teach my student. It may not be much, but it’s a start.

      • 2013/01/27 6:18 am

        Hahaha! I was not fishing for compliments, I just wanted to express that I have no idea what I could do to in addition to what I am already doing to HALVE my ecological footprint.
        —Good luck for your new home! I am sure it will be amazing!!! 🙂

  6. 2013/01/24 10:23 am

    Amen. We need to get it together and get to work.

  7. 2013/01/24 10:25 am

    Perhaps I should re-name my Blog and call it “the irrational pessimist”.
    Sorry for being so emotional.

    I am even not sure if I made my point clear enough.
    What I wanted to say is: perhaps we are still discussing climate change because it is such a big challenge that it is easier to deny it than to find ways how to deal with it.
    Easier to deny it than to accept that Business as usual – perhaps with some renewables for a better consciousness – is not really an option.

    And now, I will give you a break!

    • 2013/01/24 9:57 pm

      No worries. I actually understood. And if anything, I would ray you are a “rational pessimist”! But, I’d stick to Mind Nature and Society. It rolls off the tongue better!

      As for the problem with the lack of climate action, I respectfully disagree. I believe the problem isn’t with the size or complexity of the challenge. The problem is caused by those that stand to profit (either directly or indirectly) with the status quo. That is why I love the fact that Bill McKibben and the people at are trying to take the fight to the oil and gas industry.

      • 2013/01/27 6:13 am

        Yes, you are probably right when it comes to “mighty” people like politic and economic leaders who only think in terms of re-election and profit.
        I referred to the people on the street, to voters and consumers.

  8. 2013/01/26 2:00 pm

    … and there is no way of storing energy from renewables

    That’s such a strawman. Excess energy can be used to pump water up so that it can be released (generating hydroelectric power) when needed.

    • 2013/01/26 8:14 pm

      I completely agree. And even if there was no way of currently storing energy, we should look at it as a technological challenge, not an obstacle that can’t be overcome.

  9. 2013/01/26 8:48 pm

    J and Silke. Having named my blog “The Rational Pessimist” just a quick word on how I see the pessimism. I’m pretty pessimistic now that we will keep to 2 degrees of warming unless we get really lucky on climate sensitivity (ie it comes in at the very low end of the IPCC range). But we are not talking about a binary outcome here: 2.5 degrees is very different from 3, 4, 5 and (God forbid) 6 degrees. So while the fight to keep 2 degrees looks pretty desperate, there is still all to play for over the higher levels of warming (some optimism here Silke).

  10. 2013/01/27 6:08 am

    Hey there,
    Wow, this thread is now so full of information, I will need some time to digest…
    re Rifkin: On friday, I’ve read the Rifkin book, and I really liked the first 60-something pages for giving a concise summary of what needs to be achieved to build a low carbon economy – but mainly for its optimistic undertone, which reminded me of the very positive “getting things done” mood during the SPREAD conference in November.
    (The last 200 pages of the book are crap, but see yourself.)
    re Storage: As you might already know, there seems to be some progress re wind gas (hydrogen made from renewables) recently. Rather promising development as we already have a functioning gas infrastructure.
    re Optimism: I am pretty optimistic when it comes to the natural science/ technology side of the coin, I think that we are able to slow or even stop global warming sometime. … but when? in 50 years, in 100 years? And what is going to happen in the meantime?
    As you might know, I am a sociologist (part-time psychologist) and what concerns me much more is the question what will happen when public opinion switches from ignorance, agnosticism and denial to awareness, shock and horror?
    But hey, let’s hope that humanity proves to be intelligent and adaptive this time.

    • 2013/01/27 5:43 pm

      re Optimism: I am pretty optimistic when it comes to the natural science/ technology side of the coin, I think that we are able to slow or even stop global warming sometime. … but when? in 50 years, in 100 years? And what is going to happen in the meantime?

      I’m sure that many people think the same way; humans are, by nature, optimists. And I think this is part of the problem: too many people still think there is no urgency, and they are quite happy to kick it into the long grass. We either act now — not in 50 or 100 years — or, quite simply, we go up in flames.

      • 2013/01/30 5:29 pm

        Yes, I totally agree. We have to act now. But even if we do act now, the impact would only be measurable in 50 or more years. The wicked thing about global warming is that there is no instant gratification. And we are all Pavlov’s dogs, I am afraid.

      • 2013/01/31 7:45 pm

        Pavlov’s dogs indeed. Especially in this day and age! That is why I believe that it is important to get this generation’s children involved (and mad!).

      • 2013/02/02 9:29 am

        it is important to get this generation’s children involved (and mad!)

        Good luck prising them away from their beloved smartphones… (irony, or wot?)

  11. 2013/02/03 1:11 pm

    Pedantry. I did a post about a year ago on this topic; ie, why young people aren’t angry as hell:

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