Radicality for Reality: Introduction to a Series

Striking at the root of our socio-environmental crises

Tempted by visions of juicy ripe strawberries this past spring, my family decided it was worth the effort to rescue our neglected berry patch from the thistle, dock, and other plants threatening to overrun it.

As my daughter set out to weed, I offered a shovel, suggesting that she may need to dig up some of the more stubborn plants by the root. “Nah,” she said, I got it” and proceeded to pull what she could by hand.

On the surface, things looked okay. Not long after, though, the weeds were back and appeared to have multiplied.

If you’ve ever tried to pull tenacious plants like these, you know just how persistent and prolific they can be. If you don’t get the root, it’ll send up new plants. Neglected long enough, they’ll produce thousands of seeds and, eventually, many more of themselves.

It’s a familiar story. Treating symptoms without addressing a problem’s root causes not only doesn’t solve the problem, over time it can make things worse.

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” [1] 

Striking at the Root

What does striking at the root mean in the context of the Great Transition — the effort to make systemic radical social changes which move us away from the worst possibilities and toward “a future of enriched lives, human solidarity and a healthy planet” (Raskin et al 2002: ix)?

There are many important roles to play here. The times are calling us to figure out how to best use our unique gifts and circumstances.

Among other things, I find myself called to explore questions of how to go about making systemic radical social change. I am especially interested in the radical aspect of that.

For many, the term radical conjures up images of extreme politics or activism. But here, I’m using the word literally to refer to getting at the root of a thing.

So, what’s at the root of our socio-environmental crises? What would constitute radical change?

Answers to these questions commonly include things like:

• Strategic contractions in our economic system
• Transformation of our energy infrastructure
• Changes in consumption behaviors and lifestyles

These are all fine candidates. And we should be as proactive as possible in re-imagining these systems while we still have some options. But the kind of changes I’m most interested in go deeper.

I’m talking about changes in how we think.

Greater Leverage Through Mental Models

A paradigm is a construct containing a set of (often implicit) beliefs, assumptions, and mental pictures. And, as Donella Meadows famously pointed out, it’s one of THE most powerful leverage points for intervening in a system.

In Angheloiu and Tennant, 2020. Cities 104: September.

That we need a new paradigm is by no means a new idea.

In the face of our interconnected environment, energy, economic, and equity crises (aka the E4 crises) it’s become commonplace to call for paradigm shift of one sort or another.

Whenever I hear or read such demands, I find myself nodding affirmatively. Change how we think in ways that can help bring about and sustain positive change? Count me in.

More often than not, though, these declarations are where people end. The vague call to action leaves us with a sense that something must be done. But what?

What does paradigm shift really mean? How do we operationalize that? What would it look like?

These are hard questions to answer. But they happen to be the questions hounding me right now, so paradigm shift is where I begin.

In particular, the mental models and mindsets I’m interested in involve the tendency in my culture (and perhaps the wider form of modern western civilization) to misperceive who and where and what and how we are in the world.

This confusion is at the root of much of our trouble. Meaningfully addressing our socio-environmental crises, then, means dealing with that.

In other words, we need to get better acquainted with reality and how it actually works.

Getting to Know Reality

The premise here is that, whatever our specific roles in the Great Transition might be, and whatever triage and symptom management is necessary in the meantime, our respective and collective efforts will be more efficacious and their effects longer lasting if undertaken in concert with efforts to get at the root of our problems.

How we think—about ourselves and our relationships with others and the world—are the roots I’m most interested in here. Movement toward a brighter future requires actions informed by mental models better aligned with reality. 

The purpose of this blog is to offer insights and practical tools for changing how we think . . . in the classroom, at work, in our organizations, and perhaps most importantly in our own minds.

In a series of upcoming posts, I attempt to operationalize the amorphous idea of paradigm shift.

I explore questions about what specific aspects of our dominant paradigms need to change, why, and how you can help.

The good news is that we already have everything we need. And with a little motivation, this kind of change can happen surprisingly fast. We just need to do the work.

If you’re up for it, subscribe below and meet me back here from time to time.  Let’s dig.


[1] Thoreau, Henry David. P. 382 in Walden. Pp. 321-587 in In Henry David Thoreau. 1985 New York, NY: Library of America.

*Featured image credit: showcake from Getty Images

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