Sustainability and Developmental Lines

We often debate large scale change as if it were a subjective preference we could determine through our ideas about the way the world should or shouldn’t be.  That this is getting us nowhere is a painfully obvious fact of our current political situation.  One way out of the impasses of ideological debate is to view change in terms of developmental lines.  Clare Graves’ research, for example, looks into the way that values evolve as strategies to deal with a changing environment.  Less complex environments engender simpler values, while the increasing complexity and dynamics of life leads people to develop more complex values to survive.  Values in Graves’ sense are not moral categories, but are behavioral strategies for survival.  As such they are not fixed, but can and do grow with the times.

The values which helped the tribes survive in the jungles are not viable for life in big cities.  Cities became possible only because of a values infrastructure complex enough to support them.  Just as our values evolved in the past to make the productive coexistence of millions of people in dense populations possible, so they will have to change again to make the life of billions possible on the planet over time.  The problem is that the values which have made life in cities in an industrial phase of our development possible are now the very source of the danger to that life, as its complexity has become greater than they can deal with.

If we use the filter of Graves’ model of a values developmental line to look at the current upheavals, for example in US culture, the debates begin to look less like a struggle between ideological positions than as a confrontation of values of times past with an environment become too complex for them to deal with.  Neither liberal nor conservative ideas about the world are sustainable, and we are watching their struggle to maintain themselves even as they collapse into the dysfunctional forms which characterize the end of their lifecycle.  Our survival demands a whole new kind of moral and intellectual landscape of possibilities, against which the current debates seem irrelevant.

A good map of such a landscape was written by Graves’ two assistants, Don Beck and Chris Cowan,, and, who developed his work into the Spiral Dynamics of our values development.

Today much of the world lives in what they call “blue”, or a mythological consciousness of divine order and authority.  Initially the west added and increasingly the rest of the world is adding “orange” success values oriented around personal happiness and satisfaction, but also around science and technology.  Parts of the west have achieved politically relevant “green” perspectives of our common humanity, and the drive to create communities and grow personally, which incorporate and go beyond their simpler blue and orange predecessors.

What we now face, however, is the need for a jump to what Graves calls “second tier” values. These are value states of second order learning and action, systemic in their orientation, able to see the big picture. and flexible in their beliefs about reality and what it will take to cope with its current challenges.  “Yellow” synergy — web 2.0 — and “turquoise” sustainability are becoming the platform on which we can develop the solutions we need to deal with issues like water, energy, health, poverty and food on a global scale, and which push the political dynamics of nation states beyond levels their designs are able to deal with.

What we are stuck in at the moment is not a technological or an organizational problem, but one of the mental and emotional infrastructure of our beliefs, values, self-concepts and collective sense of purpose.  The cultural wars do not get fought on a level playing field, where equal opinions seek validation against each other in a market place of ideas.  On the developmental level the debates are being carried out on, there are no solutions. However, that is not to say that the debates are just a waste of time.  As Keynes once said, the problem lies not in finding new ideas, but rather letting go of the old ones. What we seem to need is to experience the limits of the values level we are operating on, to become so intensely disappointed with it that we finally let go of it and begin to make the transition to the next levels, where identifying areas of action and getting down to productive work is not so difficult.

There are objectively better (and worse) strategies for dealing with complexity, and the simpler ones will inevitably go the way of all non-vialble strategies in nature.  We have few choices about the direction we need to go if we want to survive the coming challenges.  What we can influence, however, is how long it takes us to get there.

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