We use the word paradigm loosely these days. A reformulation of a toothpaste becomes a paradigm shift in dental hygiene. Which isn't what Thomas Kuhn meant when he spoke of paradigms in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). I read it as a teenager and my thinking changed irreversibly.
What Kuhn meant by a paradigm shift can be illustrated by the emotional and political shocks that ricocheted around Europe when it was first mooted that Earth revolves around the sun. Today's equivalent of that disruptive new world view is not hard to find: it has been evolving for half a century.
The idea is that our capitalist economies – based on the assumption that we can consume at the rate of three planets-worth of natural productivity (EU average), five planets (US) or six planets (the forecast for Abu Dhabi) – are unsustainable. Either we will hit the wall or develop breakthrough types of capitalism, incorporating sustainability considerations of how different forms of capital – human, intellectual, social and natural – are valued, priced and managed.
All of this coursed through my mind as I toured London's Science Museum. One object sticks in my brain – James Lovelock's electron capture detector. The science it enabled shook the chemical industry to its foundations, demonstrating how dangerous chemicals were spreading through the environment. Next Lovelock evolved his Gaia theory, looking at Earth as an integrated system responding to human impacts rather like an organism might.
We were looking at how breakthroughs in science and technology are now exhibited. I am part of the Friends of the Lovelock Archive, raising funds for an exhibition of the scientist's decades of research.
What makes all this so relevant is that Gaia theory looks set to become an overarching element of the scientific, political and economic environment in which new technologies develop, including genetic engineering, nanotechnology, geoengineering and artificial intelligence.