Part 1. The Path to an Ecological Future for Humanity
As Yogi Berra observed, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” We chuckle, but as systems fail all around us, if we are not able to envision a path to a sustainable future, our young species will not become successful ancestors. As for the emergence of an ecological culture? We are living the question. We are co-creating the future from the bottom up.
Collective Consciousness Meets the Collective Unconscious
We have witnessed two overarching trends over the past 150 years that now characterize the emergence of two influential subcultures within societies around the world. They function as agents of change and appear to represent opposite and sometimes opposing ends of the spectrum of human consciousness.
First, the emergence of what Marshall McLuhan dubbed the Global Village, made possible by breakthrough electronic technologies and communication systems that detribalized traditional cultures and nation states by opening our minds to the awareness of “others.” Teilhard de Chardin coined the term “noosphere” to describe the collective consciousness created by participation in global communications media. Buckminster Fuller called it “our airway of knowing nowness.” First the telegraph, then the mass media of radio and television, now the Internet and social media have all amplified and personalized our collective awareness of others and the environment. Wherever you live, there are groups of people of varying sizes and interests who actively participate and network in the global village. They are keenly aware of new opportunities and the need for change in the status quo.
Second, the emergence of spiritually based subcultures, made possible by the discovery of the Unconscious Mind. Freud and Jung opened our awareness to the shadow side of consciousness — dreams, feelings, emotions and their roots in the collective unconscious. Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth brought this deeper understanding of our human consciousness to a wide audience. The attraction and prevalence of practices designed to heal and integrate our relationship to our physical body, to be mindful, to live more authentically in community, to reconnect with nature, to simplify, etc. exemplify this trend.
It’s in that convergence of spiritual people becoming active and active people becoming spiritual that the hope of humanity now rests. ~ Van Jones
The quote from Van Jones succinctly frames this hope for a path to the future. It’s conditioned by the convergence of activists, informed I believe by the Collective Consciousness, and spiritual people, inspired by revelations embedded in the Collective Unconscious.
This essay argues that these agents of change are coming together to create a new ecological culture. The evolution is emerging locally as it creates the conditions and infrastructure for reinventing our food system, our economy, our governance, our legal system, and indeed every aspect of the global consumer culture. Most of you reading this already participate in what thought leaders call the “Great Transition.”
Culture Vs. Consciousness
Speaking of the Great Transition we face, here is a narrative that distills the essence of transition communities over thousands of years.
I was surfing the Net researching the origins of the coronavirus when I stumbled upon the work of husband and wife team, Bret Weinstein, a philosophical evolutionary biologist, and Heather Heying, also an evolutionary biologist with a deep background in anthropology and social systems behavior. I stayed up way too late fascinated by their Zoom presentation and conversation with Princeton professor Robert George. Titled “Culture Vs. Consciousness: A Core Human Tension,” they argue that biological evolution and cultural evolution operate by the same principles.
Watch it here. The first 30 minutes covers their formal presentation with slides.
In biological evolution and ecological systems creatures evolve by adapting to the environment and finding a niche in a web of mutually supporting relationships. But cultural evolution? We humans have adapted to the process of transition between environments without settling into any particular niche. Weinstein and Heying offer an impressive case study to illustrate their thesis.
Their presentation details the journey of the Beringians, a tribe of ancient people who were forced to move when the waters of the Bering Strait separated Alaska from Asia. The professors recognize this as an astounding experiment in the evolution of human cultures. The Beringians adapted their original culture from Alaska through North, Central, and South America, from coast to coast, in hundreds of cultures that reinvented agriculture multiple times, invented writing, astronomy, built cities, pyramids, and much more.
This amazing story frames their model that pits culture — the creation of stable traditions — always in tension with consciousness, that imagines new opportunities for change. Not shy about generalizing an analogy, the authors label those who adhere to cultural traditions as Conservative and those who seek change as Progressives.
Fast forward to today, Heying and Weinstein see the existential crises we face in the 21st century as either a dead end for humanity, or a gateway to something not yet known.
By incorporating “consciousness” into a model of cultural evolution and adaptation, their work can be seen as complementing other big picture thinkers who have explored the elusive nature and evolution of consciousness. I will offer examples, and make a case that human cultures around the world are already evolving, adapting and actually reinventing our human futures. Often in response to the vapid, soulless materialism of the global consumer culture, artists, scientists, environmentalists, political activists, religious leaders (even the Pope), and “cultural creatives” are creating tension with their traditional cultures. Polarization and conflicts oscillate between authoritarian resistance to change and progressive desires for democracy, social justice, reconnecting with nature, and the creation of diverse, local, ecological cultures.
Another husband and wife team, sociologist Paul Ray and psychologist Sherry Ruth Anderson, wrote a prescient book in the year 2000 called The Cultural Creatives: How 50 million people are changing the world. The authors describe the majority of Americans as either “traditionalists” who identify as politically conservative, religious, and resistant to change, and “modernists” who tend to be success oriented, secular, materialistic, and pragmatic. The “cultural creatives” represent a gradual evolution of people who no longer fit into these categories . The authors characterize them as “open to change, like to travel, see nature as sacred, identify with green values, and view relationships as important.”
In 2000, the authors observed that this new demographic of 50 million adults had emerged since 1985 and were being largely ignored by the mainstream culture. They offered a thought experiment: what if 50 million people with the values of the cultural creatives were all suddenly located in a half dozen midwestern states? The mainstream press, they suggested, would be in a frenzy interviewing the inhabitants to understand their values and what it means for the future.
Two decades into the 21st century, we can see the continued evolution of those who identify as environmentalists, support feminism, recognize racism and white privilege, tend to be spiritual but not necessarily religious, are more financially secure, interested in personal growth and are often activists who support reform movements.
A Third Force
Cultural creatives have not yet coalesced into a unified force with a clear agenda for the future, but they are emerging as what Kalle Lasn, founder of Adbusters and the Media Foundation, recently identified as a Third Force. As the traditionalists age and become increasingly irrelevant, and modernists realize that business as usual (neoliberal economics) is causing income inequality and the climate crisis, a third force with a post political, new economy, eco-aware consciousness could be the foundation for a new culture, an evolutionary leap that supplants our unsustainable consumer societies.
To succeed in reinventing our human future(s), the disparate approaches embedded within such a third force, already present and emerging, will likely need to come together in what David Bohm called Coherence; i.e., a new culture of shared meanings that bind societies together. If this occurs before the existential crises result in a “dead end for humanity,” the cultural creatives could be the bridge that supports a “gateway to something new.”
The divisive status quo today represents the dead end for humanity. The Ayn Rand inspired, anti-government ideology of Republicans in the US has counterparts in other countries, as does the Democratic Party’s commitment to Center Left policies overseen by corporate interests and reliance upon public private partnerships delivering government services. Both approaches are not only ineffective, but unable to address the needs of the majority of people, signaling the need for systemic, structural changes that reclaim democratic institutions freed from corporate influence.
Today, poll after poll documents that the progressive agenda is supported by “we the people” and by wide margins. Further, the collective consciousness already knows how to address climate change, income inequality, how to regulate monopolies, get money out of our electoral system, how to transform the industrial food system, etc. Yet we remain stuck. If cultural creatives are to succeed in becoming a unifying Third Force offering a gateway to something new, the dragon that must be slain is the global consumer culture. Part 2 probes more deeply into the underlying assumptions or worldview — the Consciousness — that characterizes the global consumer culture.