Brent Cooper

Rise Of The Emergentsia: A Great Mindshift in the Making

Technology itself is not the game changer everyone thinks it is, people are. Dr. Maja Göpel anchors her perspective on global change to sociocultural factors.


This article is the 4th in the profile series on the Rise of the Emergentsia, an open-source community of sagacious speakers attuned to a new stage of global evolution. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 here. 

In the previous article we built up the idea of sense-making with some of its makers, whereas this article puts the sense-making communities to work on the bigger picture. 

Dr. Maja Göpel is a leading intellectual in systemic transformations who writes about the sense-making of coalitions for collection action. Her work invokes worldviews and paradigms that put “humans as sense-making actors at the locus of intentional change.” Unlike other paradigm propositions of sustainable development, this one’s rapid convergence dovetails with many ideas in the Emergenstia.

Dr Göpel is Head of Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Berlin, and scientific advisor for several organisations. She was invited to the Club of Rome for her long-term perspective and focus on systems transformation, contributing to its mission of solving the meta-crisis. In this video, she contends that the old idea of “‘limits to growth’ idea is basically established now,” and the challenge is to move to the urgent question of how to navigate the shift.
Göpel urges that we need to take more risks in the form of ambitious and experimental collaboration.
Though we face great existential risk (as Daniel Schmachtenberger, for example, has made clear) Göpel urges that we need to take more risks in the form of ambitious and experimental collaboration and speaks with metamodern-sounding conceptual juxtapositions like “heroic humility”. The globalisation frenzy of expansive trade and enthusiastic cosmopolitanism has in some pockets settled into a re-affirmation and organisation of local communities (re-)building trust, while still having a planetary scope. As such ‘translocal' ideas are manifesting all over in alter-globalisation movements (such as the Climate March and Extinction Rebellion), adding to a “movement that’s swelling” towards global solutions for local problems, and vice versa (such as homesteading, or community organising). 

Maja Göpel

At a CUSP seminar (2017), Göpel is reinforced by Katherine Trebeck, who sets the stage with some bleak Oxfam data. In the few years since 2014, the balance of global wealth inequality has gone from 85 people holding as much wealth as half the world’s population (which in itself is already atrocious), to just 8 men holding as much in 2017. Trebeck clarifies that the system is not broken, but rather it's doing what it’s designed to do. As she puts it: we’re in a situation of political capture in which “the rules of the game are set by those who have the most resources already." 

The central economic fallacy is conflating GDP with social progress (a mistake that Peter Thiel makes on Eric Weinstein’s podcast). While they do correlate, confusing them leads to neglect of deprivation and inequality. The UK is one of the richest countries in the world (fast declining), yet fails to keep its citizens out of poverty, or properly fund the NHS. Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics' is cited as one perspective to help to overcome this failure by stipulating a “social foundation” and “ecological ceiling”. Trebeck slips in a critique of the self-help industry, blaming it for our obsession with happiness tethered to vain consumption of “consolation goods” (cf. Latouche). As Trebeck suggests, personal happiness is making us collectively miserable, and getting serious about systems transitions requires understanding the net negatives of naïve positive thinking.

This kind of dysfunctional picture is a result of a manifold collective sense-making crisis with trickle-down externalities. It calls for an accelerated systems-change, necessarily based on a paradigm shift. Göpel explains that transformation scholars usually define a shift ex post, rather than before or in transition, though we need the roadmap now. There is lots of talk of "cascading innovation" or "diffusion of ideas”, she laments, but its empty rhetoric simply accelerating catastrophe if it doesn’t foster sustainable development. She theorises that transformation is catalysed by "Sense-Making Actors" who co-create "Productive Processes" which then forms "Socio-Ecological-Technical Systems" (SETS). She calls to intervene on such meta-perspectival level, because "changing the way we think… argue… justify things, is a fundamental high leverage point in how we enact even bigger change.”

Kate Raworth, author of ‘Doughnut Economics'

This is the essence of Göpel’s expansive open-access book The Great Mindshift: How a New Economic Paradigm and Sustainability Transformations go Hand in Hand (2016). Different ideas and agendas can “emerge from interests and power games” but worldviews and paradigms are the “soft factors” that shape how one understands the world. In an interview by fellow Emerge network members, Göpel shares an answer to a basic question of her book, which is "why do we keep on going in a non-sustainable direction?" Part of the answer is path dependence but more important is how power works, drawing on her training as a Gramscian and the idea of “hegemony”, the intractable dominance of one group over another, or more specifically in this case the dominance of a paradigm over other possibilities.

The neoliberal story is persistent because it reinforces a status-quo that privileges its main proponents, creating a strong feedback loop. It’s an abstraction that suppresses our cognitive dissonance and enables blind-eye turning to its destructive effects. Her main conviction is that sustainability is not even possible in the current paradigm, which must be changed. Although Göpel is not the first to call for it, she frames the call to action in terms of ushering in “a second enlightenment". This angle has deeper research and resonance behind it than other proponents of enlightenment renewal, such as that of Steven Pinker, who seems defiantly skeptical of existential risk and believes in a viable and desirable neoliberal future. 
We are undergoing another paradigmatic transformation not unlike that of the 19th century.
According to Göpel, the second enlightenment is characterised by four major turns:
  1. Progress is to be measured by SETS benchmarks over capital gains and productive output. 
  2. We must procure sufficiency for people rather than push the limits of efficiency. 
  3. Prosperity must be reframed in terms of human needs being met, not more consumption choices of want. 
  4. Economics must be rooted in terms of degrowth or a steady-state operating within planetary boundaries.

Besides Gramsci, Göpel’s other main inspiration is Karl Polanyi’s idea of The Great Transformation. We are undergoing another paradigmatic transformation not unlike that of the 19th century, which was achieved by both industrial and intellectual-moral advancements on the part of capitalists and progressives, respectively. In this respect, Göpel is a leading light in the Emergenstia that is answering the call to shepherd the current transition, most crucially to set the thresholds of sustainable development within planetary boundaries. The closing sentiment of Göpel’s book is simple but profound: namely that is more important to map where not to go than to chart a precise path forward.

The Great Mindshift opens with the observation that after three decades of transformational aspiration from global leaders, the language of change is unsurprisingly becoming more mainstream and radical. In this spirit, Göpel calls for maintaining a persistent vision and incremental (radical) change began yesterday, not an overnight revolution starting tomorrow. We are running out of time though, and this new social and sociological ‘imaginary’ is urgently needed. Surely for some people the change in worldview will be profound and shocking at first, a personal revolution, but the real change will only occur as we collectively commit to that new ideal future. 

“Economics must be rooted in terms of degrowth or a steady-state operating within planetary boundaries.” Photo: Pixabay

Göpel sums of the tagline of her book as “radical incremental transformation strategies” and the last chapter focuses on “transformative literacy” to achieve them. She argues “worldviews” and “mind-sets” are pivotal for macro change to occur, which means grappling with “futures literacy and the acknowledgement of mental path dependencies.” Following Gramsci, hegemony keeps paradigms static, but “collective will” based on a common worldview is what can overturn them. The new viable “social myth” is a not a naive utopia or educated speculation, but a higher synthesis that Gramsci calls a “concrete fantasy.” 

Michael Brooks speculates that hegemony operates like a “kinesthetic sense of an irrational fear of an obvious change we should pursue” and argues (along with Richard Wolff) that we need to form counter-hegemonic progressive political alliances. Action research, grassroots organising, and political activism all play essential roles in great transitions. 

Drawing on the “multi-level perspective” of ‘niche / landscape / regime’ (micro, meso, macro) throughout her book, Göpel argues “changing this paradigm would be one of the most powerful leverage points for transformational changes in development.” In doing so, she adds to the framework two more levels: mini (me & you) and meta- (narratives, worldviews, paradigms). In one figure, a complex emergent relationship is displayed in which clusters of actors in each level interact with all others, reflexively generating higher orders of emergent change. The meta-frame provides the scaffolding for all moving parts to change together.
With all the existential risks piling up, the need for a critical mass is clearly everpresent.
Göpel goes further to provide specific map fragments of the new paradigm, such as Max-Neef’s fundamental human needs, a flow chart she constructed illustrating a new economic model that values well-being (based on Elkins, and Constanza et al.), and a diagram of the three types of transformative literacy (futures, institutional, environmental). Given the overflowing anomalies in dominant modes of explanation, she argues that a decisive Kuhnian paradigm shift needs to take place over the next 10-15 years, being driven by this meta- worldview. 

While we have faith in the ability of people to transform with proper support, current political systems stack the deck against both ordinary people and elites steering the ship (the Titanic, perhaps). That is to say, according to W. Russell Neuman in The Paradox of Mass Politics (1986), “[p]ublic ignorance and apathy seem to be the enduring legacy of twenty-five hundred years of political evolution”. The paradox of mass politics is essentially like the democratic deficit, or in his words, “the gap between the expectation of an informed citizenry put forward by democratic theory and the discomforting reality revealed by systematic survey interviewing.” Göpel brings us a long way to breaking through such paradoxical blocks.

In Göpel’s book, “[s]ustainable development is the 21st Century’s wicked problem.” Even with the right plans and management, Göpel writes, the transition is still a “thorny challenge”. It would seem then we have to be willing to get a little cut up, but not fighting back so hard that it deepens the wounds. The logic of 'normative incrementalism' - the consensual convergence towards a collective ideal (like conflict resolution) that is otherwise disincentivized (such as by realism, game theory, paradoxes) - is intended specifically to overcome such impassable horizons. 

“Like a cosmic event such as a total eclipse or comet passing, our attention is rapt by the signs of changing times.”

The good news is that everyone in the Emergentsia understands they are (co-)contributing to the emergence of the new paradigm, and that only through such a collective intelligence can we overcome wicked and thorny problems. As such, Göpel’s “reflexive ontology” remains open to new worldviews united by a shared sense of the crumbing status-quo, as “vested intellectual interests” break free before economic ones, “inspired by an emerging imaginary that there are indeed alternatives.”

We are constantly learning that we may be further along than we thought, while simultaneously realising the rest of the world may also be further behind than we hoped. Every so often, perhaps once in a lifetime or maybe even just a few times in the history of our species, the opportunity to change the paradigm arises. Like a cosmic event such as a total eclipse or comet passing, our attention is rapt by the signs of changing times, alignments, and the call to reimagine the world. And with all the existential risks piling up, the need for a critical mass is clearly everpresent. 
Technology itself is not the game changer everyone thinks it is, people are.
Throughout Göpel’s book is much more compelling prose and detailed diagrams articulating the path of paradigm shift; more than I can possibly compress here. She argues with force for the need to all be joining coalitions pushing for that tipping point to a successful sustainability transition. Technology itself is not the game changer everyone thinks it is, people are, which is why Göpel anchors her theory in sociocultural factors, because “even when we are talking about global transformations, the source of intentional change is human thinking, feeling, and acting.”

As Göpel argues for our turning point, she writes: “Human history-making is an emergent process of co-creation and political struggle, compromise and domination.” Her future-making, by contrast, suggests that we must change the default settings of our emerging civilisation and shift the paradigm. Our challenge is to engage in political struggle in the present to co-create a world where vested interests never again trump the best alternatives.
Words by Brent Cooper
Brent Cooper is an independent political sociologist, filmmaker, and Executive Director of The Abs-Tract Organization, a research and media project to educate on abstraction, metamodernism, and related topics.