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Issue 6 | Dec 2010
Believing Is Seeing

Could the old adage “Seeing is believing” have it backwards?

Increasingly, we’re learning that we humans see our world through a paradigm, as Donella Meadows reminded us in her seminal article, republished in the first issue of Solutions. A paradigm boils down to our “great big unstated assumptions,” she wrote, “or deepest set of beliefs about how the world works.”

These core assumptions determine what we can see and therefore what we believe is possible, so “Believing is seeing” might be a more apt and useful adage for our time.

To be serious about moving toward solutions, our journal must work to shift society’s mindset. So how do we enable ourselves and others to see through a new lens?

Meadows tells us that we can “keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm.” But, since we humans aren’t likely to abandon the old until we can glimpse the new, Solutions can offer a new mental landing place to explore, once the dominant mindset begins to crack.

In these pages we can carefully examine, and debate together, key metaphors—asking whether they crack or reinforce the dominant lens. Could even a favorite like the “limits to growth” metaphor, long associated with Meadows herself (and featured in the March-April issue), actually be diverting us from the new, encouraging us to see our problem as the fixed quantities in nature that we’re overrunning rather than as humanity’s disruption of nature’s regenerative power? One focuses us on quantities (less or more); the other, on processes (harmonious or disruptive). Do our metaphors seem to provide us with answers, or do they prick our curiosity, making us want to dig even deeper?

Metaphors are carried in stories, which we then carry inside, forming our mindset.

Stories are critical because, at least since Aristotle described humans as “political animals,” it’s been widely appreciated that we are deeply social: we take our cues from one another. Now, though, neuroscientists are finding evidence that we help shape each other moment to moment by means we’d never before imagined. “Mirror neurons” in our brains, discovered in the mid-1990s, fire as if we ourselves were actually performing the actions we’re only watching. Several new studies show that these nerve cells are activated not just by watching actions, but also by hearing and reading about them.

As Solutions readers encounter stories about people stepping into new roles and taking new risks, they are themselves, on some level, experiencing this type of courage. What power our stories can have.

We strive in every Solutions story to make causal connections tangible. This is especially apparent in the “Benton Harbor Grows” article in the March-April issue as well as in the July-August “Future of Appalachia” issue, in which food and forest ecology and human ecology are woven together. In the Benton Harbor story, after the draining of the city’s wealth by forces of economic concentration, the city’s residents had the courage to shift from the paradigm of powerlessness to seeing the resources literally under their feet and beginning to build a more democratic economy.

In all this, Solutions can strengthen our backbones, helping us cope with a hazard in our social nature. We evolved knowing that being expelled from the tribe meant curtains. No wonder breaking with the pack is still scary as hell. So, then, what do we do in this moment, when the Earth’s balance hinges on how fast more and more of us can do just that: split from the hyper-tribe? We look, quickly, for the embryonic new tribe to take us in!

To imagine that we humans can go it alone is dreamy. To truly break with the old, we need to find new tribes. And the Solutions website, with such features as “Perspectives,” “Visionaries,” “Community,” “Idea Lab,” and “Your Solutions,” is a tribe-building exercise par excellence.

The empowerment value of allies can even be measured: University of Virginia researchers found that when students with heavy backpacks were placed at the bottom of a hill, those with a friend by their side judged the hill to be significantly less steep than those standing alone. The closer the bond, the stronger the effect. Solutions can help to build a community of fortifying allies.

Finally, our Earth’s biggest enemy today may be widespread despair itself—our feelings of powerlessness to bring about solutions, even as they are coming into focus across so many disciplines. The old, dismissive, “I’m just a drop in the bucket” problem is the challenge. Since buckets fill up really fast on a rainy night, being a drop is only a problem when we can’t see the bucket we’re filling. Solutions can help us build and see those buckets, the pattern of deep change to which our individual and group efforts contribute. That is power.

In the end, though, Meadows calls us not just to crack failing paradigms or help shape more life-serving ones. She calls us to become aware of our own paradigms and hold them lightly, in a sense: “It is in this space of mastery over paradigms that people throw off addictions, live in constant joy, bring down empires, get locked up or burned at the stake or crucified or shot, and make impacts that last for millennia.”

May Solutions become a home for just this kind of mastery.