How do you know you are in the middle of a paradigm change? It is a question that really struck me in watching the media coverage of the COP26 conference in Glasgow. And it is increasingly more relevant for a variety of reasons – because it is going to shape much, much more than just how we heat our houses and power our industry.
So today I wanted to talk about Galileo, Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping point theory, and Rethinkx. Bear with me as I try to explain coherently….
In 1633, the astronomer Galileo became the focal point of a debate that is not unfamiliar to us even now – scientific observations vs. literal interpretations of the Bible. He believed the earth revolved around the sun; the Church believed the earth was the unmoving centre of the universe and that everything revolved around it. Galileo was put under house arrest for the rest of his life because he was not seen to have acceptably recanted his views.
So it was a debate about how to see the world – a debate about interpretations of data. And essentially, it seems to me, that is where we are now on climate change – is it real, or is it not, and if it is real, how bad is it. Which of course determines what we think we need to do next.
What is interesting about Galileo, for me, is what his story tells us about how paradigm change happens. He was essentially the tipping point for a major change in how we saw the world working. He was not a lone voice – he was building on a body of work done by many others. In essence, he was a popularizer of those ideas, and that was why the Church acted against him – to preserve its paradigm, its view of the world.
Malcolm Gladwell spelled out this process in his book The Tipping Point, 20 years ago. “The Tipping Point is defined as the moment of critical mass, the threshold, and the boiling point. It is the point when everyday things reach epidemic proportions. There are three distinct characteristics of epidemics – contagiousness, the fact that little causes can have big effects, and that change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment.”
Rethinkx thinks that we are at that tipping point – not just on climate change, but on five fundamental sectors of the economy – energy, information, transportation, food and materials.”We are on the cusp of the fastest, deepest, most consequential transformation of human civilization in history,” it says. The Great Transformation is what they call it, and they say that it is of the magnitude of our shift from foraging to cities and agriculture 10,000 years ago.
Their perspective is one that resonates with me – intelligent optimism. They quote the late Hans Rosling, who also looked at data and saw it differently than most people do (see the Gap Minder): “You have to be able to hold two ideas in your head at once. The world is getting better, and the world is not yet good enough.” And they say that the age that is coming is the Age of Freedom.
“Within 10-15 years, everyone on the planet could have access to the ‘American Dream’ for a few hundred dollars a month,” they say in their book. “For the first time in history, poverty could be overcome easily. Access to all our basic needs – food, energy, transportation, information, and shelter – could become a fundamental human right. Armed conflict, often driven by the need to access and control scarce resources, could become largely unnecessary.” But this isn’t predetermined – it will depend on our choices in terms of our Organizing Systems.
The two men behind Rethinkx, Tony Seba and James Arbib, met at a military think tank session that was exploring the geopolitical implications of the disruption of energy and transportation. They heard topflight analysts talking about how renewable energy would take decades to break through into the mainstream, as if all change was merely gradual – and they were dumbfounded.
They were seeing disruptions, not transitions, and they were convinced that these disruptions would move ahead exponentially by triggering feedback mechanisms that would drive rapid change. So they set up their own independent think tank. And their predictions have been proven right, over and over again.
In 2005, Tony put together a virtual portfolio of 15 companies inventing and implementing disruptive products, platforms, and business models. That virtual portfolio had grown by 2,500% or 25% a year by February 2020. In the same time period, the Dow Jones grew by 296% and Nasdaq by 437%.
Of Covid, they say, it has pulled the curtain off our current fragile models of production and governance – and the 2020s will be the most disruptive decade in history.
They have published a book, Rethinking Humanity, which you can buy or download for free from their website. I urge you to do so – this is a book you need to read, if you want to grasp the paradigm change that we are facing now. They spell out the tipping points, the opportunities, the choices, and the consequences of failure. And that is useful knowledge, whatever our individual circumstances, because we have rarely if ever had such a useful guide to the nature of the choices that we face as our paradigm shifts around us.