Kuhn Cycle, Prescience

Click a node to read about it.

Also called the pre-paradigm stage, Prescience is the pre-step to the main Kuhn Cycle. In Prescience there is not yet a model of understanding (the field's paradigm) mature enough to solve the field's main problems. The model may be close. It may be promising and thus be attracting plenty of followers. But it's not yet a real science that works. Because it doesn't quite work it's a prescience. (Note - "Prescience" should be "pre-science.")

This is where environmentalism is today. The field has squarely identified its topic of interest: solving the environmental sustainability problem. But all the field has managed to do so far is define the problem to solve, as done so well by The Limits to Growth in 1972.

For awhile the field of environmentalism felt it was not in its Prescience stage, but Normal Science. Here's a little story about how wrong that feeling was:

In the 1970s it looked like the problem was well on its way to solution. The 1972 Stockholm Conference drew 114 out of 132 members of the United Nations. The conference went extremely well: 1

Many believe the most important result of the conference was the precedent it set for international cooperation in addressing environmental degradation. The nations attending agreed they shared responsibility for the quality of the environment, particularly the oceans and the atmosphere, and they signed a declaration of principles, after extensive negotiations, concerning their obligations. The conference also approved an environmental fund and an ‘action program,’ which involved 200 specific recommendations for addressing such problems as global climate change, marine pollution, population growth, the dumping of toxic wastes, and the preservation of biodiversity.

A permanent environment unit was established for coordinating these and other international efforts. [This later became] the United Nations Environmental Program [which was] was formally approved by the General Assembly later that same year and its base established in Nairobi, Kenya. This organization not only coordinated action but monitored research, collecting and disseminating information, and it has played an ongoing role in international negotiations about environmental issues.

The conference in Stockholm accomplished almost everything the preparatory committed had planned. It was widely considered successful, and many observers were almost euphoric about the extent of agreement.

Fast forward to today. An article in The Independent in the UK on November 26, 2011 had this to say about the biggest environmental sustainability problem of them all. This shows how environmentalism is still in its Prescience stage after all, because it's unable to solve its central problem:

Deadlock looms over CO2 cuts as Durban summit begins

...pessimism is in the air as the world community comes together again on Monday to try to negotiate a new deal on climate change.

Entrenched disagreements over renewing the current climate treaty, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – between China and India on the one hand and Japan, Canada and Russia on the other – look likely to produce a stalemate at best, and at worst, a collapse of the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa.

The dispute over Kyoto, essentially an argument between rich and poor countries about who does what to combat global warming, brought the 2009 Copenhagen conference to within a whisker of complete breakdown.

The argument was only prevented from wrecking the conference at Cancun, Mexico, last year by the trick of "parking" the issue. But now it can no longer be delayed because the Kyoto treaty runs out on 31 December 2012. Developing countries, led by China, now the world's biggest carbon emitter, and India, now number three, want Kyoto renewed because it commits them to no action of their own, while imposing binding emissions cuts on industrialised states.

Yet some of the industrialised nations increasingly see this as unfair – America, the world's second-largest carbon emitter, was the first to do so and pulled out of Kyoto in 2001 – and a group of three major economies, Japan, Canada and Russia, have stated they will not sign a renewed Kyoto under any circumstances.

The looming deadlock is all the more critical because the latest figures on CO2 show emissions soaring above what anyone contemplated four years ago, when the last report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was produced. Global CO2 emissions in 2010 reached 33.51 billion tonnes, up from 31.63 billion in 2009 – an increase of nearly 6 per cent, believed to be the highest-ever percentage increase year on year.

What went wrong? Today in 2011, almost 40 years after the Stockholm Conference, the sustainability problem is nowhere near to solution. The global ecological footprint continues its seemingly unstoppable growth, now at about 50% overshoot with no sign of leveling off, let alone turning downward.

What went wrong? The answer is straightforward. Environmentalism is in its Prescience stage. According to Thomas Kuhn this is normal. It's where all new fields start.

How can environmentalism advance to the Normal Science step, where it will be capable of solving its central problem?

By finding a paradigm that works. There is no other way.


(1) Source: Environmental Encyclopedia, Second Edition, 1998, page 1054.

Browse the Glossary
Previous Next
Getting the Big Picture of the Kuhn Cycle in a Hurry

It's all in one place. Read the Kuhn Cycle. Then you can see the critical role the Prescience step plays. It's where all new fields start. If they never develop a paradigm that works, they stay there and eventually become irrelevant and disappear. If the problem they were working on was important, it's taken up by an existing field or another new field.

For a longer view of the Kuhn Cycle see A Model in Crisis: How Civilization Is in the Model Crisis Step of the Kuhn Cycle.

What The Death of Environmentalism Had to Say About Prescience

A hard hitting, widely read 37 page document, The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World, confirmed in 2004 that environmentalism had failed. Page 10 bluntly stated that:

We have become convinced that modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live.

Page 11 painted a grim picture:

The truth is that for the vast majority of Americans, the environment never makes it into their top ten list of things to worry about. Protecting the environment is indeed supported by a large majority — it’s just not supported very strongly. Once you understand this, it’s much easier to understand why it’s been so easy for anti-environmental interests to gut 30 years of environmental protections.

Do the authors have an alternative that would lead to a new paradigm that works? On page 33 they give it a try:

If environmentalists hope to become more than a special interest we must start framing our proposals around core American values and start seeing our own values as central to what motivates and guides our politics. Doing so is crucial if we are to build the political momentum – a sustaining movement – to pass and implement the legislation that will achieve action on global warming and other issues.

According to our analysis, this won't work. Better framing is a better way to tell the truth. That's what environmentalism has been doing all along. It's the central strategy of the problem solving process they use, Classic Activism. It has not and will not work.

Finally on page 34 we see:

Environmentalists find themselves in the same place today. We are so certain about what the problem is, and so committed to their legislative solutions, that we behave as though all we need is to tell the literal truth in order to pass our policies.

This is correct. Telling the truth is exactly what the movement has been depending on to solve the problem. It doesn't work because it does nothing to resolve root causes.

We agree with central conclusion of The Death of Environmentalism, that "environmentalism... must die so that something new can live." It's the field's present paradigm that must die. That is Classic Activism. "So that something new may live" is Analytical Activism.

Our Most Popular Pages

These average 9 minutes. They give a quick introduction to the Dueling Loops model and how it explains the tremendous change resistance to solving the sustainability problem.

The most eye-opening article on the site since it was written in December 2005. More people have contacted us about this easy to read paper and the related Dueling Loops videos than anything else on the site.

Why are large for-profit corporations so dominant? What are the side effects? What's the root cause of corporate dominance? What's a solution that would work?

The answers are all here.

Do you every wonder why the sustainability problem is so impossibly hard to solve? It's because of the phenomenon of change resistance. The system itself, and not just individual social agents, is strongly resisting change. Why this is so, its root causes, and several potential solutions are presented.

The most astonishing short read (7 pages) on the site, if you've never heard about it. The memo was written in 1971.

Sending your message. Please wait....

Thanks for sending your message! We'll get back to you shortly.

There was a problem sending your message. Please try again.

Please complete all the fields in the form before sending.