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2.2.1 Paradigms and Discourses in Societies

Although various scholars have described multiple paradigms when seeking to explain the human–nature interface (e.g., Cohen 1976; Colby 1991), I focus on the dominant social paradigm (DSP) and the new ecological paradigm (also called the new environmental paradigm) (NEP). Sustainable development emerged as part of a paradigm shift from the DSP and displays elements of both the DSP and the NEP.

The DSP has been the main belief system in most parts of the Western world for at least two centuries with one of the earliest references to it in Pirages and Ehrlich (1974). This paradigm involves political, economic, and technological dimensions (Shafer 2006). Politically, limited government intervention, private property rights, liberty, and economic individualism are stressed. Unlimited economic growth is seen as achievable and free enterprise promoted. Supporters feel that science and technology can solve any human problems including those resulting from environmental degradation. Nature is valued as a resource for humans who have domination and humans are assumed to be exempt from the laws of nature. There is strong support for the status quo and faith in future material abundance and prosperity. Traditionally, organizations embracing this orientation often wasted resources, did not seriously consider their environmental impact, protected the environment only to the extent outlined by regulatory requirements, and emphasized technological solutions to environmental problems. They responded to environmental issues mainly for compliance reasons, rarely had a comprehensive environmental policy, and had environmental goals unlinked with other management goals.

Over the past few decades, the NEP emerged as an outgrowth of the fundamental conflict between continued economic growth and ecological sustainability (Shafer 2006). The NEP was supported by the growing US environmental movement in the 1970s and reinforced by several large environmental disasters. For example, in one of the world's largest industrial disasters, the 1984 gas leak at the Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, resulted in thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries and forced the chemical industry to use risk communication to regain its legitimacy (Chess 2001). NEP supporters think unlimited growth within a finite ecological system is impossible, feel we are approaching the limits of ecological sustainability, and believe we must learn to live in ways redesigned to avoid ecological catastrophe. They challenge the belief that we humans have the right to modify the environment as we desire and do not believe we can solve all environmental problems even if we develop new technologies. They support greater restraints on free enterprise, private property rights, and the pursuit of economic individualism.

Dunlap et al. (2000) developed a widely used scale used for measuring individuals' values in terms of these paradigms. Action Plan: Seek out and complete this scale. Scale items illustrating the DSP include “People have the right to modify the natural environment to suit their needs,” “The balance of nature is strong enough to cope with the impacts of modern industrial nations,” and “People were meant to rule over the rest of nature.” Scale items illustrating the NEP include “Plants and animals have as much right as people to exist,” “The balance of nature is very delicate and easily upset,” and “Despite our special abilities, people are still subject to the laws of nature.” Five dimensions are measured including the realization of limits to growth, antianthropocentrism, the fragility of nature's balance, the rejection of exceptionalism, and the possibility of an ecocrisis.

Paradigms are reinforced, challenged, and changed at the societal level through

communication including media coverage of environmental, economic, and political issues, political activity within governments (e.g., lobbying, speeches on the House and Senate floor, the wording of legislative bills), education, and dyadic communication (e.g., conversations, arguments, debates, or questioning). We see the paradigms clashing (historically in favor of the DSP) in media accounts partly because conflict is one of the common media framing devices for environmental issues (Cox 2013). Often a false dichotomy is created. Key Point: Be aware of false dichotomies; new perspectives can bring new opportunities.

 
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