Some argue that we are in the middle of a paradigm shift – a fundamental transformation in the framework we use to make sense of and organize our world.

Since the Enlightenment Era the Western worldview has been linear, causal, mechanistic and deterministic. We believe that through knowledge and technology reality is malleable, to be shaped into humanity’s visions. If we think about it deep and long enough, we will find the mathematical formulae that will capture its workings. Nature is either dominated or cleanly compartmentalized away from ‘economy’ or ‘society’. Positivism created a predominantly materialistic worldview with little place for subjective, qualitative values. It is this worldview that led to the hubris of unquestionable faith in limitless growth and the social and environmental degradation that are a result of it.

In the current age of rapidly accelerating change this old paradigm is increasingly misaligned with what is actually happening and does not help to understand an increasingly complex reality. We live in a ‘VUCA world’ – a world in which volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are the general conditions of situations. Several authors such as Donella MeadowsAlan AtkissonDunphy, Griffiths & Benn notice a shift in thinking, as they move from an analytical to a systems approach. As Kotter and Cohen remark in ‘Heart of Change’: “when an environment becomes increasingly complex, analytics can be misleading”. The analytical approach separates things to understand them; the systems approach looks at something in its context, and views relations, interactions and dynamics for understanding.

Changing a paradigm however, is not an easy thing to do. Meadows: “A paradigm is not only an assumption about how things are; it is also a commitment to their being that way. There is an emotional investment in a paradigm because it define one’s world and oneself”. As such, a paradigm is self-reinforcing. The only thing that changes it is the persistent presentation of facts that do not concur with its premises. Here are examples of the shift, and illustrations of the new vision that is emerging:

We are moving from a linear– a take-make-waste view to circular, close the loop approaches. An example of the first are methods such as Cleaner Production to reduce waste to become sustainable. In the latter, approaches such as Cradle to CradleReverse Logistics or Circular Economy redefine the concept of waste – instead of seeing it as something useless it becomes a resource and input for another technological or natural cycle. The focus is on optimizing the system instead of the elements, and to have a restorative effect on nature’s resources.

There is a move away from competition – solutions are sought through collaboration and relationship building, economic rents by stepping ‘outside of the game’. As even the largest companies find that they by themselves cannot solve the challenges sustainability poses, most have been willing to cooperate successfully with competitors, governments and NGO’s in multi-stakeholder collaborative platforms. See for example the Sustainable Trade Initiative. Funded and founded by the Dutch government, its aim is to accelerate and upscale sustainability in global commodity chains. Initially only six commodity chains were targeted: tropical timber, soy, natural stone, tourism, tea and cocoa. These projects were so successful, that businesses in the Netherlands urged the government to expand the project. In return, over 50 Dutch companies and multinationals are investing €500 million in the period 2009-2015.

Instead of trying to fight the old system, some are simply going around it to create their own, new and value driven ways. In an interview Rob Hopkins explains that he simply got tired of being a Greenpeace activist, being right, and being against, but seldom finding satisfactory solutions. Hopkins then got the idea of working on the solution himself by building self-sufficient communities: Transition Towns.

David Fishwick found that after the Great Recession, his customers could not get the loans to buy his mini-vans anymore. Quite a problem in a debt-driven economy. He decided to loan them the money himself. Fishwick was not allowed a banking license, but is nonetheless operating a successful savings and loans company that caters to the average citizen instead of too big to fail banks.

The authors of Blue Ocean strategy argue that companies that achieve real economic rents (sustained competitive advantage) do so because they “break out of the ocean of bloody competition by creating uncontested market space that makes competition irrelevant”.

Marjorie Kelly explains that in a diverse ecosystem of co-op business models, business starts to generate value for workers and the environment, instead of extracting it for shareholders.

Lastly, systemic sustainable solutions are found through mimicking nature’s wisdom instead of trying to beat it into shape through heat-beat-treat approaches. We start to see man as a part of nature, instead of standing outside of it, as a dominating force. Within the mechanic worldview economic models do not include resources, ecosystem services, or the cost of pollution and waste. In the systemic view we start to recognize that we are a part of the large ecological system of the earth, and that al society’s processes eventually have to yield to it.

Door Elze van Hamelen
Associate The Natural Step