Columnist Johanna Neumann: Thinking anew, acting anew

  • A portrait of Galileo Galilei. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection

Published: 8/14/2019 6:00:46 PM

Changing worldviews was never easy. In 1610, Galileo Galilei stumbled upon a finding that would change his life and the world. As he watched and recorded the patterns of Jupiter’s moons, it became clear to him the wide-held belief, or paradigm, that the Earth was the center of the solar system, didn’t hang together.

Galileo’s findings corroborated those of ancient Greek astronomers, but their observations failed to budge the paradigm for thousands of years. Eventually, enough evidence, amplified by the power of the printing press, piled up to change public consciousness, and the paradigm shifted.

There are parallels between Galileo’s time and ours.

The paradigm for most of human history has been that scarcity rules our lives. Lack of resources dogged our ancestors daily. Parents fretted over whether they could gather enough firewood to keep their children warm. Farmers worried if their harvest could sustain every hungry belly.

In a testament to human ingenuity, such material scarcity no longer defines modern life. In fact, technological progress has made it possible for us to produce material wealth unimaginable to our forebears with less work than ever before.

But our paradigm has not shifted to align with our new reality. The food industry produces more food than we need. It can grow only if we waste a lot of the food we buy and eat more than is healthy.

The oil industry’s products are contributing to climate change, resulting in a movement toward conservation and efficiency and a shift toward renewable sources of energy. The oil industry can grow only if we use more oil to produce more plastic, which is contributing to another ecological crisis. And on it goes.

Meanwhile, things that actually make us happier and healthier — doing meaningful work, spending time doing things we love with those we love, being outdoors and moving our bodies — get short shrift. The sooner we align our paradigm with the actual reality of our existence, the sooner we’ll be able to solve some of the biggest problems facing our planet, while unlocking the potential of this remarkable moment in human history.

Being stuck in an old scarcity paradigm for a few more decades, centuries or, heaven forbid, millennia, as was the case for the astronomers who were “woke” might not be a big deal if it were harmless. But it’s not.

Our society’s practices of producing absurd quantities of commodity crops, oversized homes, single-use plastics, unnecessary gadgets, and of planning obsolescence into devices is fundamentally challenging our Earth’s ability to provide truly essential resources like clean air, clean water and healthy soils.

One need only look to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report or the recent United Nation’s report detailing that 1 million species face extinction to know we don’t have decades, let alone millennia to change our ways.

Consider the case study of agricultural production and distribution: In a time when we didn’t produce enough food, agricultural methods that produced higher and higher yields regardless of other impacts could potentially be justified. Today, farmers produce 1.5 times as much food as we need to feed everyone on Earth, and they do it with much less human toil than we used to. Food production is rife with problems, including distribution to those who need it most, but scarcity is not one of them.

Yet you can tell scarcity still dictates the conversation because some companies argue that they need to apply potentially cancer-causing chemicals like Roundup or jeopardize medically important antibiotics by giving them to perfectly healthy livestock to expand production. Our future selves will look back on those practices with head-shaking disbelief.

Not only is our focus on overcoming scarcity creating serious problems, it is also distracting us from solving the actual problems that need to be addressed. Under a new paradigm, our best minds could work on securing a livable climate and healthy global ecology, harnessing clean renewable energy, devising elegant circular economies and exploring a restructured relationship with work and money, now that so much labor can be automated.

Many parts of our society are already nibbling at our future potential. Universal basic income is in the conversation of presidential debates. The craft movement — whether it’s spoon carvers who meet online gathering to share their techniques to create gorgeous wooden spoons or potters shaping functional and beautiful pottery that will last for decades if well cared for — is alive, well and growing. But on the grand scheme, these ideas remain fringe when they could be solidly mainstream.

Underlying much of the polarization, intemperate tone, and disdain for compromise in modern politics is the insufficiency of the old paradigm to explain our modern conditions.

In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew.”

Galileo’s night sky showed him that the old paradigm was dead. When you look around, you will find that the same is true today and realize that the time has come to “think anew and act anew.”

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at

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