Brain Dropping #60
Paradigm shift. Definition of paradigm: “A theory or a group of ideas about how something should be done, made, or thought about.” Remember in the fifth grade, how we giggled when we learned that Columbus was ridiculed for thinking the world was a globe, and that he could reach India by sailing West? We laughed out loud at the notion, held by many so-called wise men of that era, that the world was flat and that the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria ran the risk of falling off the edge – if they weren’t eaten by sea monsters. My fifth grade teacher, had a huge globe in front of the room that could be spun around faster and faster. So, even at the age of ten, we could detect and reject an old, outworn paradigm about the nature of the world. But changing paradigms, which enmesh our brains and limit our ability to think differently, can be very difficult – and even lead to violence. In the United States the inferiority of people of color, one hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, is a paradigm which still shackles the thinking and emotional life of tens of millions of our citizens.
Destructive paradigms abound in foreign affairs: American Exceptionalism stands out. In religion: Insane fundamentalism prompting the slaughter and torture of non-believers, and the subjugation of women. In American domestic policy the paradigm, still held by the power elite, that there is a distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor profoundly affects the social safety net.
Perhaps the most dire and harmful paradigm of the modern era, seemingly cast in stone, is the idea of sustainable progress and limitless economic growth. This idea is the sine qua non of neo-liberal capitalist thinking. It inexorably drives us toward the depletion of vital resources and the destruction of the planet. The metrics used by proponents of growth to quantify progress are deeply flawed and give a distorted valuation of the costs. The Gross Domestic Product is a particularly faulty measure. It adds up the total value of goods and services provided in a country during one year. This is a specious barometer of a society’s economic health as it discounts the “externalities” – the spoiling of the environment and the disparities in living conditions among the population. For instance: The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound actually increased the GDP for the United States that year because of the jobs created in cleaning up the mess and rescuing animals trapped in the goo. The negative costs of the destruction to the natural environment were never factored in. A more honest and accurate accounting system is the emerging Genuine Progress Indicator which counts environmental and social conditions in evaluating a nation’s quality of life.
In the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan they have initiated a GNH – a Gross National Happiness indicator to measure the quality of life or social progress in more holistic and psychological terms rather than the purely economic terms of the Gross Domestic Product.
Surely, some more humane method of measurement is essential if we are to understand clearly the true nature of our society and our place in it. To the vast majority of the American people the record breaking rise of the New York Stock Exchange is a meaningless indicator, despite the triumphal crowing of the one percent.