Sea Change — Clarity and Hope in a Chaotic Time

This is the first in an ongoing series of posts on the key elements of the animating idea of this blog — Cultural Evolution. Watch for posts with the "Sea Change" heading.

The following 7 points summarize the hypothesis.

It's the slow but inexorable movement of our dominant values toward a closer fit with our ever-evolving understanding of the real world...toward a closer fit with reality.

Our world is indeed changing progressively...
Today, we are witnessing dramatically accelerated cultural evolution on a scale seldom seen. And most people don’t realize it’s going on. It’s easy to miss if you attempt to track global dynamics by means of the news media. There, the news tends to be mostly bad.

From the latest senseless act of violence to the violence of war…from the callousness of unfairness to the poor, the hungry, the jobless, the homeless to the systematic denial of universal human rights...and from the denial of anthropogenic climate change to the steady degradation of our eco-systems...

The apparent story of our times seems all too often to be utterly disheartening.

But the real story is much more complex and more hopeful. In a nutshell...
Our dominant values are moving toward a closer fit with Reality, and the evolutionary values-shift is most evident along three lines: Peace, Justice, and Sustainability (or, as often abbreviated these days, P, J, S).

A bit of elaboration:
  • P: Peace and non-violent conflict resolution
  • J: Social and economic justice and universal human right
  • S: Ecological sustainability.

Two Waves
We need to understand the phenomenon of Cultural Evolution in terms of Two Waves:
  • A declining wave representing older “top-down” cultural values, assumptions, predispositions, ways of seeing, and behaviors.
  • A rising wave, representing a new, emerging, “bottom up” values, ways of seeing, and behaviors.

How can we identify and understand genuine “new wave” value-shifts? Those who come to the idea of accelerated cultural-evolutionary value shift (“Sea Change”) for the first time often have difficulty distinguishing between real new wave patterns and other phenomena, including declining older wave dynamics and backlash. One typical question is, “if the new wave is so promising, how do you explain fundamentalism (or increasing social incivility, or confusion about what it means to be an American, or terrorism...or Trumpism)? These questions represent misunderstandings of the two-wave model, to be sure. But they are reasonable concerns and they need to be addressed.
The following sections offer hints for recognizing the evolutionary “real thing” and examples that help to distinguish the good from the bad or the merely inconsequential.

A cultural evolutionary value shift offers at least three clear benefits.
  • Second, the new wave brings increased Awareness of Interdependence. As society grows more complex at the local, regional, and global levels, real cultural progress is inexorably linked to understanding that every system is interdependent with every other. Most modern advances in science, medicine, geopolitics, ecology, education, and city planning – to name but a few interesting areas – are directly related to deepening understanding of interdependence. Just reflect on the fact that not so many years ago, most educated people were relatively unconcerned about any possible mind-body connection. And how many of us knew even twenty-five years ago, that the tropical rain forest was intimately bound up with the world’s weather patterns? The author predicts that future generations will remember the 20th and 21st centuries as the period of the re-discovery of the complex web of existence celebrated by the ancients.
  • Finally, a sea change brings a dramatic increase in Integral Knowing, that is, the reconnection of the four most important domains of human understanding: the personal, the cultural, the scientific, and the social scientific. Again, not so many years ago, these approaches to knowledge were exclusive, uncooperative, and even dismissive of one another. Today, huge impediments to real integration remain, legacies of the older wave; but the movement toward interdisciplinary understanding is apparent on every side. Gradually we’re starting to understand that to address any of the major issues of our age – from peace, to justice, to ecological sustainability – demands the profound engagement of every major mode of knowing with every other.
It can be argued that eddies emerge, persist, and dissipate in the course of cultural transitions of every sort and scale. However, the energy and complexity of cultural resistance to change increases in direct proportion to the human uncertainty, insecurity, alienation, humiliation, and anxiety over power that is produced by a particular cultural shift. The greater the cultural disruption resulting from declining older patterns and ascending newer ones, the stronger the eddies will be, and the more dangerous.

When the rhythm of a smoothly flowing stream is disturbed, eddies can emerge. These are temporary whirlpools that roil the water in their immediate vicinity without really affecting the prevailing flow.
In a time of major evolutionary culture change, when prevailing patterns are challenged and disrupted, the life experience of individuals and groups is disturbed in a deeply felt “emptying” of the familiar and “filling” with the new. If the perturbation affects a sufficient number of persons or groups or challenges significant concentrations of power, a major counterflow – an eddy – can form. In culture, as in nature, there is no change without resistance.

One of the most fascinating of Thriving’s many original motifs is the contrast between two groups with very strong reactions to the idea that ours is a time of major cultural advance: the Yeasayers and the Naysayers.

  • The Yeas include activists, spiritual seekers, cutting-edge thinkers, and change agents.
  •  The Nays comprise many who are culturally confused or apathetic, others who are angry about perceived threats to their identities, and still others (more insidious) who lash out when changing values threaten their wealth and/or power.
One could almost argue that one mark of a genuine evolutionary step is that the Yeas embrace it and the Nays reject it. That’s perhaps a bit simplistic, but it’s a fact that the Yeasayers tend to recognize genuine new wave shifts, while Naysayers tend to react strongly against them. E.g., changing attitudes toward race, class, gender, sexual preference, the Earth, social and economic justice, universal human rights, non-violent conflict resolution.

Note the difference between those who celebrate the notion that we’re living through something of an “enlightenment” and those who either never notice or reject the idea out of hand.
Today, nothing could be clearer than the array of Older values vs. Newer.. Remember that the Newer is almost always the child of the older. Cultural Evolution does not mean throwing away older values. It means realizing them more fully, at a deeper level, in a manner consistent with our better and better understanding of reality.
But because there’s always a lag, it’s possible to miss the tectonic shift. First we see more clearly, then we reorder our priorities, and, finally, we reshape our institutional structures.
Philosophers tell us that some people ground their ethical decisions in the pursuit of “the Good,” while others try to cleave to the well-defined and unchanging principles of “the Right.”
·      It’s worth nothing that evolutionary thinkers tend to base their positions on gradually changing views of what is Good – intentions, courses of action, outcomes, etc., while reactionaries are more likely to argue from notions what is Right, with a strong appeal to religious, philosophical, or cultural absolutes.
·      It’s hardly surprising that as cultures evolve, ideas about the Good change much more quickly than certainties about the Right.

Take these four markers of the cultural evolutionary process to heart. They capture the essential dynamic.
  • The Flux
    Life goes on as usual, changing, evolving, and turbulent. We tend not to notice that there is a prevailing flow. (Things are "tending," and if we look carefully, we notice that the flow is progressive.
  • Anomalies
    More and more often we notice patterns that don't fit with our prevailing expectations. Our prejudices are not supported by our experiences. We are surprised by outcomes we hadn't anticipated. Anomalies highlight the inadequacies of old models, old biases, and old stupidities. And their multiplication is the essential harbinger of an age of change.
  • Sea Change
    Gradually, we begin to realize that our dominant assumptions are changing, that our prevailing values seem inadequate to our times, and that we are, astonishingly enough, evolving.
  • Eddies
    And then the backlash arises. Those whose worldviews are challenged or even shattered by newer notions, values, and behaviors fight back. Confusion, identity crisis, and manipulation by the powers that are...all these contribute to a virulent backlash. It's a counter-cultural whirlpool that I call an "eddy." And it is an ultimately pointless protest against the dynamic stream of cultural evolution.