People often ask how I have managed to remain inspired after 40 years. Civilization is in trouble and there is a way out. That is inspiring enough for a while, but it is the insights into how that way out works that have kept me going. Below are some of the formative experiences from which those insights emerged.
My enthusiasm for cultural evolution dates back to childhood. My mother had studied anthropology and geology. At bed time, she read myths and legends to us from around the world. I suspect also that, before I was aware of myself, I assimilated from her a sense about non-renewable resource depletion.
As I came of age in the early 1970s, we had just been through the shock of the first oil crisis and the publication of "The Limits to Growth." People were beginning to talk about a variety of natural resource and pollution issues. Those studying the situations said that if we didn't address these issues, they would eventually become serious problems. That their predictions have today come to be frequently reported news, amplifies my ongoing concern.
With an early awareness of problems, I wanted to help. The following episodes shaped a plan for doing so. They are presented to illustrate the plan.
My elementary school was five blocks from home. I found a shortcut between the houses, providing a direct route that I walked four times a day for most of six years. At one point along the way, there was a place where I could either go down a driveway or take a sidewalk. Both routes were about the same length and both started and ended at the same places. Some days I took one, some days I took the other.
At one point, I became curious as to why I would take the one and not the other, or take the other and not the one. I decided to try to take the one I didn't take. This led to various efforts to act from a state of nondeterminism (tho I'd never heard the word). I would try to approach the place where the two paths diverged without a prior sense of which I would take. During many attempts to take the path I didn't take, my mind would flip between the options a dozen times in the last moment, but no matter how many times I tried, by the time I got to the other side of the street, I had always taken the path I took. Sometimes it was the one and sometimes the other, but it was always the one I took that time.
What I gathered from the experiment was an appreciation of the fatalism/free will dichotomy. While, after the fact, things always turn out the way they have, that eventual reality is influenced by choice. Years later, I came to know Hank Woods who explained to me the "random walk" - letting each moment inform one's next move. When one loosens up and lets circumstance take over from preconceived plans, fascinating things happen. My early experience made this easy to grasp and the process has brought me many helpful acquaintances, projects and insights.
Incarnating as a human being
My family moved from Winnipeg to Montreal during Canada's centennial. Expo 67 was in full swing and my new room had its own door to the outside. It felt very cool to be able to come and go without passing though my family's space.
I was 16 and exploring everything that came to my attention, seeking to know the world I was finding myself in. One day as I explored, I found a skull.
It was a human skull with all the indicative formations of teeth, jaw, nasal cavity, high forehead and the big cavity that houses the brain – that hallmark of Homo Sapiens. Within that skull were a hundred billion nerve cells, each capable of connecting with many hundreds of others in countless different ways – a cluster of neural networking capable of recognizing patterns, comparing them and reproducing them as memories for consideration later in life. A totally awesome biological tool. The skull that I discovered was on my shoulders. I was one of these incredible human beings! The realization struck me as hugely significant and I dropped back onto my bed, where I had been sitting, in sheer amazement.
Thanks to my formative exposure to different cultures I paid attention to articles about prehistoric humans and learned about how different cultures organized their lives and communities in vastly different ways. Each culture had learned to provide for its basic needs through its own spectrum of world views and customs, assembled over multiple generations of experience, thought and experimentation -- all products of the same basic potential for our minds and hearts to comprehend and take action.
While cultures sometimes become calcified in dogmatic beliefs, most of them have evolved over the ages. Each generation of young humans organizes the potential of their brains to continue their culture's knowledge, language, customs and beliefs, and to pass them on to their own young. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of different cultural forms, all maintained by different arrangements of nerve connections within practically identical bio-computers (if I can use that term without diminishing the as -yet-unparalleled biological tool mounted on the shoulders of each one of us).
Of all the world's cultures that have shepherded their people through the millennia, many still remember the wide variety of cultural items that served them before cheap energy and industrialization took over. And we are fully capable of developing new ones as needed.
To be clear, a cultural item is any sort of item that is shared in a society. They range from: the knot with which we tie shoes and the lullabies sung to help babies sleep, through practices of religions, meditation and conflict resolution, to the latest electronic gadgets. Technology is the knowledge of techniques. All cultural items qualify.
We humans have the capacity to organize our biological circuitry to accommodate a culture that will secure the world. The 7th Generation Initiative, to which I've committed, exists to collect, study, develop and teach any ideas, information, technologies and customs that can be useful for securing long-term well-being in our rapidly changing times.
Living a Cultural Transformation
The place where I found myself as my adult senses took over was a community farm near Algonquin Park. Some friends and I had caught the "back to the land" inspiration of the late 1960s and found a hundred acres with a house, a good well and a full set of barns, for forty-three hundred dollars. Dollars were worth a lot more in those days, but it was still a super deal.
We planted a big garden and then, as summer approached, the people I'd moved up with said that they were going back home to help some friends with a big party. They were from Woodstock, New York and I didn't see them again for six months. With a big garden to manage and an empty, except for me, house, I agreed when another group asked about moving in. And so they did.
I was reading in my room when I heard sawing. My new friends were cutting the legs off the dining room table. In just a few days I went from eating meat and potatoes at table and chairs with knives and forks to eating vegetarian cuisine with chopsticks, sitting on the floor. I was stunned.
At one point I went to one of the barns and pondered the big shift I had just gone through. That is where the fact really sank in that there were very different ways in which different cultures provide what they need. With myriads of cultures to select from, we could easily assemble a set of cultural items that could shepherd our species through the ages ahead.
With such notions playing in my mind, I recollected an experience from before I left home. This brought it all together.
A Secret of the Sphinx
The son of some friends of my parents had come to stay with us while he got settled in Montreal. Somewhat older than myself, he introduced me to a variety of interesting things. In particular, he suggested that I look inside myself. In spite of having a front row seat from which I could observe being human, it had not occurred to me to do so directly. My friend put on some soft music and I sat quietly looking inward. I looked for a long time.
We have few words in English for describing inner life. The calm and broad connectedness that comes with being present and fully perceptive without internal comment was an experience that didn’t settle in till years later. What struck me profoundly was an image that arose. I found myself standing at the foot of the Sphinx. I looked way up at its enormous head and began to rise, higher and higher until I was level with its eyes, looking in. Then I felt myself being absorbed by those eyes, taken in and turned around so that I was looking out at the world -- through the collective consciousness of Egypt.
The impression it gave me of people having a collective consciousness has never faded. In my studies since, I have seen a number of accounts that point to the existence of such a collective presence:
- In his study of the human psyche Sigmund Freud identified the Id. Our Id is the part of our selves that absorbs the values and customs of our society and moderates our behaviours when our egos want to step outside the boundaries of what is considered appropriate or safe. Such cultural conscience is part of society's shared existence.
- Teilhard de Chardin wrote about the noosphere, the layer of consciousness that surounds the Earth much like the biosphere. While the biosphere consists of innumerable organisms taking in nutrient elements, processing them and passing them on to other creatures, the noosphere has as many points as there are people, all taking in ideas, processing them and sending them back out where they can influence the thoughts of others. One of the effects of this process is an evolving conventional wisdom – that which is held by society to be true or proper.
- In Rudolf Steiner's book, “The Mission of the Folk Souls,” he wrote about how, before the transportation era, the Germans had a different national character than the Spanish, or the Americans. It is still largely true. As cultures began to blend due to extensive international activity, these Folk Souls gave way to a Time Spirit. In Steiner's day the Time Spirit was that of mechanized industrialization. Enormous gains were being experienced as nations informed by this spirit expanded such techniques, influencing everyone where they were applied. Were Steiner alive today, he would notice a new Time Spirit on the rise. The old Time Spirit of industrialization, although still endowed with great power and momentum, is lacking in new inspiration. The inspiration of the ascending Time Spirit is widespread, provided by those who recognize the social and environmental challenges that stand between the present and a satisfactory world for today's young.
- Recent findings about epigenetics is providing a scientific foundation for the notion of cultural evolution. In his book "The Biology of Belief" Bruce Lipton describes how our genetic make-up actively responds to experiences within the lifetime of the experiencer, enabling the new details to be passed on as genetic traits to their offspring, along with such information from all previous generations.
- Rupert Sheldrake experiments and writes about Morphic Fields – fields of information that are created by the experience and actions of various entities, which, like a collective memory, inform each different entity as time advances. For example, the theory goes a baby goose born and raised in the far north knows which way to go for the winter by tapping into the morphic field of gooseness. More impressive is the Monarch Butterfly, which takes four generations to cover the 2500 miles between their Summer and Winter homes, yet they will spend the winter in the very same trees that their ancestors had occupied.
Not claiming any absolute truth about these phenomena, Sheldrake also points out how scientific discoveries are frequently made nearly simultaneously in different places. More remarkably, when scientists are trying to understand new compounds by studying how they crystalize, crystallization can be difficult to achieve. When it does occur, however, it becomes easier for other laboratories to achieve crystallization. Could a morphic field be developing as part of that new substance's reality?
Emerging from Sheldrake's work is the story of "The 100th Monkey." <www.hundredthmonkey.net> As the story goes, monkeys were being fed sweet potatoes on the beach of a Pacific island. At one point a young monkey got the idea of dropping the potatoes, along with the sand covering them, into the water. The sand fell away and the potatoes were much more pleasant to eat. Other monkeys in the troop learned the technique and started practicing it. At a certain point, which the story identifies as happening when the 100th monkey learned the trick, monkeys on other islands spontaneously started to use the same technique. As it applies to the need to shift resolutely toward sustainability, the next person you talk with may be the "hundredth monkey" needed for that understanding to be recognized by most of humanity.
The next person you talk with may be the "hundredth monkey" needed for the understanding of sustainability to be recognized by most of humanity.All these various ideas suggest that humankind, in addition to consisting of billions of individuals, also has a collective nature. If that nature is presently experiencing problems, the work of all the different people who address those problems moves our species on toward more effective ways to endure. By empowering the agents of such evolution, and by offering the new vision to those who have yet to see it, we can accelerate the process and minimize the trouble we experience. Indeed, on occasion, I imagine a fundamental shift in direction enabled by a cultural "Aha!" moment after which our society as a whole will start reorganizing how we do things to accommodate ourselves, and all other life forms, within our planet's limits.
Forty years into my study of cultural evolution and associated educational work toward sustainability, it seems to me that legitimacy is at the root of fundamental change. Humans cooperate in countless ways. We are so dependent on our societies that belonging is rooted deep within our beings. Without a society (culture) we would not even have language or concepts to think with, let alone food and shelter readily available to trade for our efforts.
The price of belonging is to accept the value system of one's society. With the present goal of perpetually expanding economic activity, we have learned that to be good humans, our duty is to earn and spend as much money as possible. In contrast, as we come to acknowledge our planet's limits, that value has to change. Moving forward, good humans are those who: live lightly on the Earth; gather their satisfaction from what they can do with life (rather than with stuff); and who manage their parts of the material world in ways that respect the needs of the generations who will follow.
To help accelerate the transformation, the 7th Generation Initiative is putting forward a question that points out this critical choice: Is it best for members of society to maximize production and consumption, assuming we will overcome planetary limits through innovation, or is it best to live lightly, enjoy life and manage the material world in ways that we know can serve for countless generations? It is a Question of Direction.
With each individual whose attitude shifts from the material consumption value system to the life-based one, the conventional wisdom tips a little bit. When enough people make that shift, the field of human experience will take on the new attitude and then, in our millions and billions, people will base their actions on the new value system, in order to be good, to belong and to secure our species' place on this planet.
So that's what inspires me. Humankind may yet consciously evolve a mature culture capable of enduring on this wonderful, tho finite planet.
You are invited to join in the process of tipping the conventional wisdom in the direction of a sustainable future. There are some easy steps you can take to start:
- Learn more about cultural evolution and options for a better world. We have produced a mini-course on Shifting Society's Goals that you can find out about at:
- Share the basic Question of Direction with your family, friends, acquaintances and others. Simple materials to help with this are described at:
- Each of us has a unique life experience from which we are capable of seeing the world in ways that no one has ever done before. Become familiar with the basic challenge of our times and the goal of long-term well-being.
By focusing on your aspiration to help, you will find ways to incline the balance to tip further. You may even come up with something that has never been thought of before – something that can help us all.