Stumbling around in the post PhD submission, ‘now-what-to-do?’ wilderness, I have been reflecting on my PhD journey through the terrain of transdisciplinarity and complexity theories (mostly – WTF was that all about?!!). But also on how this journey changed my views on academia, the role of theories and thinking in societal change.
Pre-PhD I must admit to being sceptical. I worried about how three years of research would take me out of my consulting work on climate policy: surely we need all hands on deck in the ‘real world’ at a time like this, this climate crisis is urgent! I fretted.
I also have an environmental activist in the family – and I was very aware of his perspective… got to DO something! Where is the change?
As it turned out, my thesis is very theoretical. About as far away from ‘doing’ as one could get. A colleague commented recently: ‘What we need now in the South African climate and energy space is data, data, data. Not more theory, we have enough theory’.
And yet, as I sat during my PhD (and boy did I sit) – novice philosopher on a hill doing much thinking – I became aware of the extent to which thought has influenced the material and social form of our world. Since Newton and Descartes, the West has adopted some fairly radical assumptions about how the world works (as a collection of disconnected, neutral ‘things’ that are ultimately knowable with sufficient research). The industrial revolution together with great success in modern medical and the natural sciences in the twentieth century added to these, contributing the notions of efficiency, human exceptionalism, progress, consumption and material success. In short, this thinking can be argued to have created the very crises we now find ourselves confronting, such as climate change, and inequality. We have disconnected from our environment, from each other, playing competitive win-lose games in every facet of our society, a form of organisation that is taking us towards self-destruction.
And so it seems that thinking, and work on how we think and how we could think differently, is actually a very big lever for societal change. Indeed, Donella Meadows puts it the top spots in her list of places to intervene in the system, using the words ‘mindsets’ or ‘paradigms’ within which the system itself arises. Admittedly, it’s a very tough lever to budge, and it will likely take much more than just thinking to do so. But thinking has its place, as has the theorist and academic. And possibly even more so now that we are entering a phase of active crisis.