Transcending Flatland – Implications of Ken Wilber’s Meta-narrative for Futures Studies
Richard A Slaughter
The dominant futures project in the West is essentially an expression of a late-modern outlook founded on notions of prediction, forecasting and control. While there are certainly other ‘layers’ of futures work, other traditions and ways of knowing, the framing of futures studies has occurred out of a broadly reductionist framework – what Wilber calls ‘flatland.’ This means that current ideologies – economic growth, nature as a resource, cultural hegemony etc – are insufficiently problematised and very frequently seen as natural. Sterile, machine-led, notions of the future remain dominant in popular culture and official thinking alike. Hence there seems to be no possibility of a break with the past, the future is ‘more of the same’ and Dystopia becomes unavoidable. For some time Futures Studies (FS) has needed a wider, richer view. The paper explores how some aspects of Ken Wilber’s work may contribute both to a broadening and deepening of FS, and how the latter can shift its focus beyond the maintenance of the status quo within a taken-for-granted reductionist world view.
The bad news
Those living in the late twentieth century cannot but be aware of the great schisms in their midst: islands of affluence in seas of poverty and despair; technical virtuosity amid global pollution and species extinctions; profound insight into the structure of the universe contrasted with a nihilistic, often angry pop culture endlessly lost in its own hostility and fear. In other words, this is a time of great polarities and severe contradictions. Who can make sense of these upheavals in our categories and ways of knowing? Many offer to do so, but few deliver the goods. We are left searching for an anchor point, a grounding, ways of understanding and action that move us forward beyond the conflict and confusion. They’re not easy to find. Many give up and turn to the false comforts of avoidance, distraction, dulling of the senses and sensibilities, repressing the spirit and the future alike.
Western-style progress has all-but overwhelmed the globe. To many it seems unquestioned, unstoppable, hegemonic, quite simply ‘the way things are.’ But the path to the future that originated in the European Enlightenment and drove the Industrial Revolution, which, in a word, created the modern world, was never fully convincing. From the earliest days there have been protests, counter-currents, critiques and traditions that held out other possibilities, the seeds of quite different futures.
Western industrial civilisation grew powerful because it had discovered instrumental rationality and used it to interrogate nature in quite new ways. In so doing it uncovered the secrets of raw technical power. Its method was science, its language was mathematics and its goal was to remake the earth in our own image. The confidence that accompanied this process was well expressed during Victorian times and given prominence at the great expositions, particularly that held at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. Here the language of progress was writ large. The human race had finally escaped from the shackles of its long and painful history. The dawn of the modern era was therefore one of growth, optimism and vitality. But it was not to last.
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Those who were involved in this process could clearly see the benefits of the emerging new technologies, along with the culture, society and economics that supported them. But the costs of the whole process would take longer to emerge. Where does the tradition of critique begin? It is a moot point. What is clear is that as time went by and social experience accumulated, so the costs of this type of progress became increasingly evident. It was evident to the frame-breakers of the early 19th century whose livelihood was destroyed by the machines and the institutions that they were embedded in. It was clear to Karl Marx when he sat down in the reading room of the British Library and penned his great critique of alienated labour. It was clear to the great American environmentalists of the late nineteenth century – Aldo Leopold, John James Audubon, John Muir and the rest. It was clear to the suffragette movement that demanded votes for women. It was also clear to the critics of colonialist expansionism.
The drawbacks of progress were fully evident to that giant of disciplined speculation of the early twentieth century: H. G. Wells. As time went on so his vision darkened. His A Modern Utopia became, at the end of his life, Mind at the end of its tether. An early warning was sounded in an obscure story by E. M. Forster published in the first decade of the twentieth century. It was called
The machine stops, and it remains a classic to this day, percipient foresight at its best. Lewis Mumford, author of The City in History, began his monumental overview of humankind’s obsession with the machine. Works such as Technics and Human Development, and The Pentagon of Power lucidly described the bargain that humanity had made with its powers of reason and its clever, tool-making abilities. Rachel Carson drew attention to the careless use of pesticides in agriculture in Silent Spring. Academic critiques sprouted rapidly in the post-war years: Ellul, Roszak, Marcuse and others. As the century moved on, so the critique deepened. Foucault and
Habermas added their substantive contributions and critique became intellectually respectable.
In other words, while Western culture proceeded on its world-conquering mission, the perception of dysfunctions, costs and dangers also grew. But then modernity seemed to be overwhelmed by a number of brash new disciplines such as structuralism, linguistic analysis and semiotics. For a while it seemed that everything was in question. No over-arching story, ‘meta-narrative,’ was possible. Authority was gone. Values and social forms were all ‘socially constructed’ and hence suspect. How could a society cohere when all of its members were ‘radically de-centred’, problematised, rendered impotent in a blitz of media images and endlessly contested sites? Gender relations became a nightmare for nearly everyone and the family seemed hardest hit.
When we consider such contrasts there seems to be a kind of schizoid division at work. On the one hand there are all the real achievements of a powerful and sophisticated technological culture; on the other are the mounting human and ecological costs of a system that appeared to have lost its heart and any sense of human purpose. It’s no wonder that fragmentation, stress, alienation and fear are so common; no wonder at all that rates of youth suicide are so high or that drug-taking is so common in most technically-advanced countries. The very sense of self in such times is under genuine threat. Questions such as: ‘who am I’ or ‘what are my central needs, purposes’ become very difficult to pose – let alone answer – amidst such turmoil and uncertainty. And over it all the apparent ‘normality’ of everyday life casts a bewitching spell. The sun rises; the lights work; we’re not starving, so what’s the problem?
The problem, in a word, is that Western technological civilisation has, by virtue of its very success and dynamism created a world that teeters unsteadily on the edge of a terrible abyss. Once it looked as though that abyss could be precipitated by a nuclear war. That is still possible, but more likely now is a world devastated by ever-growing human demands and impacts; a world that is mined out, polluted, grubbed up, cut down, modified, compromised beyond the possibility of repair. An awareness of how the human project itself is under threat from its own ‘success’ can be truly overpowering, unbearable – hence the recourse by whole populations to all the strategies of avoidance, denial etc provided by vast and ever-growing industries of distraction. The consciousness of the time is characterised by what I refer to as ‘living in the breakdown.’ By this I mean living in a sense and a reality that something has gone wrong at such a deep level it cannot be clearly articulated, let alone resolved. Where, in all the devastation and lost dreams, can one find succour? The resulting problems for those equipped only with a ‘rear-mirror’ view were identified most clearly by Donald Schon some years ago.
Social systems provide for their members not only sources of livelihood, protection against outside threat and the promise of economic security, but a framework of theory, values and related technology which enables individuals to make sense of their lives. Threats to the social system threaten this framework. (Thus) … a social system does not move smoothly from one state of its culture to another … Something must come apart in order for something new to come together. But for individuals within the system, there is no clear grasp of the next stable state – only a clear picture of the one to be lost. Hence the coming apart carries uncertainty and anguish since it puts at risk the basis for self-identity that the system had provided. 1
This passage accurately diagnoses a key part of ‘the problem.’ There’s a clear sense of what is being lost, but very little sense of what Schon called the new ‘stable state.’ Yet it is precisely here that a well-grounded approach to Futures Studies should be most helpful. So it’s useful to note, and note clearly, that the bad news is only part of the picture, the most obvious part.
The good news: recovery is already under way
The good news is that paralleling all the processes of breakdown outlined above are processes of recovery. Critique, protest and the perception of dysfunction are all starting points for recovery. Women did win the vote. Environmental awareness did spread and become a mainstream concern. A truly vast range of social innovations – from trades unions to alternative technology and permaculture – has sprung up around the world. Futures Studies itself originated in war games and remote think tanks, but today it is a globally-distributed presence with the potential to support a wide range of socially, culturally and economically progressive initiatives.
The realm of instrumental rationality clearly over-reached itself. While the proponents of 3D-TV, universal digital communication and nanotechnology continue on their self-appointed quest, many, many people are waking up to the fact that Western industrial culture was one-sided, that it left out something vital to people and to civilisation generally; that the apparent victory of science over religion was mist-cast and misunderstood; that, at base, there are other ways of knowing, other realities, other potentials to activate; that this is not the end of the road. Though it has been widely overlooked, Dystopia was ever and always only the end of industrialism, not that of the human race.
In very many places around the world a new synthesis has been taking place. It looks freshly not only at Western culture, but also at other cultures, and understands that there are very many options, choices, strategies and so on, from which to re-fashion viable views of the world. This ‘worldview problem’ has preoccupied perceptive people for some time. The question has been, OK, so we know we need to reconstruct a truly post-post-modern culture, but how do we do it? How do we discern and assemble the pieces? How can they be induced to cohere? Such questions have awaited a new ‘meta-map,’ a new structural account of ‘where things fit.’ Such a map would have to have certain systemic features that convincingly integrated human existence with what we know of the wider universe. While it goes without saying that any such map would be socially constructed (and hence liable to all the tests of validity and truth that could be applied) it would perhaps form the foundations of different modus operandi. Clearly this is a tall order. Who would have the confidence and breadth to attempt such a task? Some have tried. But the gift of synthesis, coupled with inadequate motives, has led mainly to dead-end theorising or exploitive pseudoreligions. In fact, any starting point within a particular culture, a set of values from that culture, a biography that was specific and individual would seem to mitigate against a truly universal view.
A solution, however, may be beginning to emerge. What if an individual gifted with the ability of clear-eyed synthesis and appropriate (i.e. transpersonal) motives were to venture beyond the ego, the personal and the particular? What if that individual were to garner insight from a wide range of sources, give honour where it was due and then assemble the results in a way that could be readily understood? What if some of those sources tapped the most profound insights available to humankind and made them available in a form that addressed the dilemmas and contradictions of the time? Would that not be helpful?
Aspects of Wilber’s account
It is difficult to even begin to do justice to Wilber’s account, so I will here mention only a few key concepts and ideas. It must be emphasised that the reader should consult the original before drawing hard and fast conclusions. The central theme is the evolution of consciousness and depth in the universe, both of which are manifestations of spirit. Each stage of evolution is held to involve a creative emergence in which one stage transcends and includes earlier ones. Two key concepts are those of ‘depth’ and ‘span.’ The former refers to vertical layers of existence, the latter to the lateral elaboration of elements on a particular level. Hence there are always fewer bodies than cells, fewer cells than molecules, fewer molecules than atoms, and so on.
Wilber takes up Arthur Koestler’s notion of the holon which is both a whole and a part. It leads to the notion of holarchy, the nested hierarchy of life, consciousness and meaning. Through a brilliant analysis of a variety of individuals and traditions of enquiry, Wilber argues that Western culture mistakenly assumed that rationality was the culmination and the end of evolution – whereas in this view it is simply a stage that may be transcended (and included) in due course. The world of modernity, of industrialism, was constructed on a pattern that extinguished vertical distinctions and reduced them to the rationalistic interlocking elements of what he calls ‘flatland.’ Here is a key to the many industrial era pathologies that have plagued our century. In Wilber’s words:
Instead of an infinite above, the West pitched its attention to an infinite ahead. The vertical dimension of depth/height was ditched in favour of a horizontal expansion, and emphasis not on depth but on span… An ‘other world’ of any sort was thrown over; and the eyes of men and women settled steely on the horizons not above but in front of them, settled coldly on this world, and this world, and this world again. If salvation could not be found on this small Earth, it could not be found at all. 2
Later he adds:
In short, depths that required interpretation were largely ignored in favour of the interlocking surfaces that can simply be seen … valueless surfaces that could be patiently, persistently, accurately mapped: on the other side of the objective strainer, the world appeared only as a great interlocking order of sensory surfaces, empirical forms. 3
The consequences were devastating. Individuals and cultures were stripped of inner meaning and the external world (including the global ecology) was rendered into a set of things, mere resources. Consequently the world of modernity was built on an illusion: the illusion that only half of reality mattered: the external, objective, measurable part. In human terms, the achievement and the disaster of the modern world is the disengaged ego. The cry ‘no more myths’ led to the abandonment of any possibility of further development and to the ‘disenchantment’ of self and the world. In other words, what Wilber calls ‘the big three’, that is the world of ‘I’, that of ‘we’ and that of ‘it’, became dissociated each from the other. In this view, the great task of post-modernity is to re-integrate them.
Figure 5.1. The four quadrants
Meta map for a renewed worldview
Wilber’s gift of grand synthesis has produced a framework that clearly points beyond the dilemmas sketched above. Matters are made much clearer by his use of four quadrants: a simple division between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ on one axis; and between ‘individual’ and ‘social’ on the other. (See Figure 5.1) It sounds too simple. But each quadrant is used to trace the process of evolution in that particular field. So what we get are four parallel processes, each intimately linked with the other of: interior-individual development; exterior-individual development; interior-social development and exterior- social development. In Wilber’s words, ‘the upper half of the diagram represents individual holons; the lower half, social or communal holons. The right half represents the exterior forms of holons – what they look like from the outside; and the left hand represents the interiors – what they look like from within.’ 4
Figure 5.2 outlines the stages of development in the four realms as drawn from the work of many different observers. ‘The upper right quadrant runs from the centre – which represents the Big Bang
– to subatomic particles to atoms to molecules to cells to neural organisms to triune-brained organisms. With reference to human behaviour, this quadrant is the one emphasised by behaviourism.’ 5 The upper left quadrant ‘runs from the centre to prehension, sensation, impulse, image, symbol, concept and so on… With reference to human beings, this quadrant contains all the ‘interior’ individual sciences (among other things), from psychoanalysis to phenomenology to mathematics.’ 6 The lower right quadrant runs through the stages of galactic and planetary evolution. With reference to humans it ‘then runs from kinship tribes to villages to nation states to (the) global world system.’ 7 It also incorporates the physical realms of architecture, technology etc. Finally, the lower left quadrant outlines the interiors of social systems; that is their culture, values and worldviews. The latter range from what Wilber calls the ‘physical-pleromatic’ stage to the ‘mythic, rational and centauric’ stages. 8
Figure 5.2 Some details of the four quadrants
A major point of the approach is to carry out a detailed diagnosis of the modernist path to our present day ‘flatland’, a path that involved repressing or dissociating much of the left hand side of this account. But the key implication is that the story does not end there. It also provides the basis for some well-grounded suggestions about cultural recovery: the reintegration of the ‘big three’ and the further development of new stages beyond those already achieved. This is partly why Wilber’s work is so rich in implications for Futures Studies.
Grounds of cultural recovery
The above is but a partial summary of a very broad, deep and inclusive account of individual and collective development over a long period of time. Yet it provides a basis for some suggestive insights about the possible grounds of cultural recovery. I will here touch briefly on five general aspects before exploring some of the implications for Futures Studies. First, Wilber’s account reestablishes a vertical dimension that was lost during the modern period. In his words:
once the weight of the Big One is lifted from the shoulders of awareness, the Big Three jump instantly back into focus, and interior depths once forbidden to serious discourse … now unfurl before the mind’s inward eye: the surfaces are not surfaces at all, the shadows hide something else. The appearances don’t just reveal, they conceal: something other is going on. 9
Second, he clarifies the sources and resolutions of modern pathologies. They are associated with different types of arrested development, corresponding to each of the levels of evolution. For example, a key pathology of the industrial period is the ‘disengaged ego.’ While the ego is seen as a tremendous step forward from more primitive stages, its tendency to move from separation to dissociation leads on to many of the self-indulgent behaviours of our age.
Third, he carries forward the work of the great technological sceptics of our age, writers such as Lewis Mumford and Jaques Ellul. After commenting (yet again) on how the process of industrialisation reduced the world of ‘I’ and ‘we’ to that of ‘it’ (what he calls the ‘Big One’), Wilber writes:
I trace a large part of this dissociation and resultant emphasis on the Big One (of instrumental/objectivist rationality) to the strong influence of industrialisation and the machine mentality… the techno-economic base supported instrumentalpurposive activities, and in a way out of all proportion to the instrumentalpurposive rationality that did in fact build it: a positive feedback loop that sent calculative rationality spinning out of control, precisely in the avowed purpose of gaining control. 10
Fourth, he re-established the centrality of human agency and human aspiration. For example, he notes that: ‘as for the coming transformation itself, it is being built, as all past transformations have been, in the hearts and minds of those individuals who themselves evolve to centauric planetary vision.’ 11
Fifth (and this theme is treated more fully below) he suggests what must be considered the most promising ways ahead for an age in which long-term, systemic ‘solutions’ have been few and far between. Put briefly, this means understanding and refusing the modernistic ‘flatland’ in all its many guises and manifestations, and then clarifying and pursuing further stages of personal and social development. One of the distinguishing features of this approach is that it is a world away from less well-grounded accounts. The path ahead is not all sweetness and light. For example: ‘contacting the higher self is not the end of all problems but the beginning of the immense and difficult new work to be done.’ 12
Implications for Futures Studies
Since FS has long sought to provide high quality guidance about ‘pathways into the future’ the implications for it are many and profound. Much mainstream futures work has been as solidly embedded in the traps and limitations of ‘flatland’ thinking as have other fields. Futurists have arguably been ‘fussing about in the world of time, looking for the timeless.’ All have sought to offer guidance, but on the basis of radically limited maps and a single privileged (Western) way of knowing: instrumental rationality. ‘In the kingdom of the blind …’ etc. Yet the account given here can potentially move FS and its practitioners into a new phase of development. In what follows, I attempt to summarise some of the main implications.
1. The cultural diagnosis and metaperspective.
Before saying anything about the future, we must first know a great deal about the past and present. Wilber offers us a cultural diagnosis par excellence. It is one that permits us to see with unprecedented clarity where we are in the historical process and, indeed, where that is situated in the wider macro process of cosmic evolution. This is no mean feat. In this view we can clearly understand why Western culture became unbalanced and dangerous; we can also understand the sources and resolutions of its many pathologies and traps, both individual and collective. The diagnosis of ‘flatland’ is clear enough for us not merely to think and reflect and dream of better futures; we are also better empowered to act to create them.
The sensitive synthesis of ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ perspectives, the due credit given to theorists, scientists, spiritual pioneers and others from many cultures and traditions provides us with a true metaperspective which, while obviously socially constructed, systematically reflects features of the world, its diverse cultures and people. In other words, this is not another act of cultural appropriation based on limited and partial interests. Not long ago post-modernism had seemed to deny authority, coherence, structure and meaning, rendering our collective work on the present and future problematic at best. But the account outlined here takes us beyond the sophisticated mind / image games and relativistic traps of post-modernist theory. It therefore constitutes an act of epistemological recovery. In other words, the framework gives access to – not a new – but a renewed world story, an account of reality that makes intrinsic sense, gives real hope and inspiration, provides multiple pathways into a livable future beyond Dystopia, the vast and sterile empire of machines (see below).
2. The critique of systems, ecology, chaos theory
One of the main developments in futures methodology has been that of systems thinking. This seemed to provide us with new tools and ways of understanding our world. But Wilber makes it clear that the systems approach took the ‘flatland’ view as its frame of reference and instead of providing solutions, locked us even more firmly into that diminished frame. Hence, ‘depths that required interpretation were largely ignored in favour of the interlocking surfaces that can simply be seen … valueless surfaces that could be patiently, persistently, accurately mapped …’ 13 This was not a step forward for ‘the holistic flatland world left no point of insertion for the subject with depth … and thus arose what has been called the central problem of modernity: human subjectivity and its relation to the world.’ 14
What Wilber calls the ‘Eco’ camps fared similarly. The earlier representatives of this tradition – from Rousseau to Whitman – yearned for a unity with nature, indeed a communion with it. But later proponents could not resolve the contradiction of how people who were supposed to be part of nature could also be differentiated from it: part of, and not part of it, as it were. Wilber comments:
instead of seeing that differentiation is the necessary prelude to a deeper or higher and emergent integration, it was seen, in all cases, as a disruption, a division and destruction, of a prior harmonious state. The oak was somehow a violation of the acorn. And in this confusion … all true critical edge was lost, because the cure for the actual dissociations that had indeed beset modernity was mistakenly thought to be a regression to a state prior to all differentiation whatsoever. 15
‘the Greens … like Marxists … wander in the biomaterial dimension, cleaning up the distortions they find there, which is admirable and noble, but end up merely stuck there, with no integrative possibilities of deeper awareness, higher embrace, wider vision or genuine release …’ 16
From these brief comments it is clear that systems thinking and ecological perspectives can be clarified by separating what they can usefully aspire to achieve and what they cannot. The same reasoning would apply to chaos theory. Much has been made of its new language, concepts and metaphors. However, in the light of the above it is clear that chaos thinking is another example of what Wilber calls ‘subtle reductionism,’ the use of materials derived from the ‘right hand’ realm of ‘It’ and the illegitimate reading of those upon the ‘left hand’ sectors of ‘I’ and ‘We.’ Since different phenomena following different rules apply in each of the quadrants, it is a mistake to generalise across these distinctions. 17
It follows that an implicit critique of FS itself emerges from the above. In this view, the dominant tradition of futures work is actively complicit in re-inscribing aspects of the past and present upon the emerging future. Since it was born in ‘flatland’, i.e. the taken-for-granted world of post-war modernity, it was imbued with interests typical of that time from the beginning; interests in forecasting, prediction and control. These fitted well with the ideology of economic growth, the pursuit of technical power and the push for global hegemony. But the dominant empirical / analytic tradition was blind to its own limitations and biases. In Wilber’s terms: ‘each structure weighs carefully the evidence that it can see … The hermeneutics of any world space is closed and perfectly evidential for that world space.’ 18
Hence mainstream futurism was, and remains, essentially part of the Modernist project. But in the larger frame that Wilber provides, we have a basis for sorting the wheat from the chaff, for looking at different constitutive interests, for seeing when futures expertise becomes a slave of the market, the economy and the transnational corporation. In this view, the commercial popularity of some ‘big name’ futurists becomes something of an embarrassment for it is their incorporation into the present catastrophe-prone productive and distribution apparatus of late industrialism, late capitalism, that provides them with their bloated fees and their million-dollar lifestyles. This is not simply a disguised expression of personal or professional envy. I take it as axiomatic that such interests are wholly and completely bound up with the ‘flatland’ world that Wilber and others have so thoroughly critiqued. In other words, futures expertise that is uncritically put to such uses is regressive and unhelpful, not progressive and useful. The only constructive option I can see for those working in such contexts is to work for the transformation of the old, still-influential, modernist power structures, not their maintenance and further growth, for the latter leads directly to the abyss.
3. Re-defining the central purposes of FS
If FS is at all concerned to ‘map the future’ or ‘plot viable pathways’ or ‘create positive scenarios’ then Wilber’s perspective is clearly foundational in its implications. For in this view, it is obvious that we cannot discern a way ahead based only upon the tools and methods of the ‘right hand’ quadrants; the world of ‘It.’ Yet most of the standard tools of FS – i.e. those based on data, statistics and instrumental reason – spring from this region. Similarly, the long-established preoccupation of popular culture with images, gadgets and machines does not, in any way, provide viable options for the future. The familiar refrain about how ‘exciting new technologies are about to transform our lives’ is a persistent, but deeply inadequate, reflection of the continuing dominance of ‘flatland’ interests and imperatives. Were it otherwise, then the continuing much-vaunted extension of technical sophistication would be seen more as a functional defect of the industrial worldview, or at least as a process with costs as well as benefits – technology as a two-edged sword that ‘gives’ openly and with full fanfare and ‘takes away’ only later through concrete social experience of the costs.
While there are certainly different traditions, worldviews and paradigms in FS, it seems to me that mainstream work still remains very bound up with ‘the exciting world of the technological future.’ Yet in Wilber’s perspective, this completely misses the point. Depth, resonance, significance and meaning are not available through technology, or at least only marginally so. They’re available through the progressive refinement of the instrument of knowing itself, i.e. through the capabilities and perceptions of each individual person. In this view, the central purpose of FS is not to serve the already-powerful, not to explore the horizontal explorations of ‘flatland,’ the barren landscapes of the technological ‘wonderland,’ but to illuminate ways beyond limited and instrumental interests altogether to shared transpersonal ends. This involves identifying ‘escape routes’ from ‘flatland’ and helping to facilitate the re-integration of ‘the big three’: the ‘It’, the ‘I’ and the ‘We.’ The purpose and goal of this work is precisely to facilitate personal and social evolution beyond the present mental-egoic, capitalist-hegemonic, technical-narcissistic stage to higher stages of personal development and the corresponding new stages of civilised life. In other words, this is a project for the progressive realisation of human and cultural potentials that have so far only been realised in a patchy and haphazard way.
4. Re-defining pathways ahead
Paradoxically, the ‘beacons’ into this more refined, developmental future are not ‘futuristic’ at all. For it is the great explorers of the inner world, with its elaborate structures of consciousness, that are the key to more highly evolved futures; ‘the great mystics of the past (from Buddha to Christ, from al-Hallaj to Lady Tsogyal, from Hui-neng to Hildegard) were, in fact, ahead of their time, and are still ahead of ours.’ 19 So, while the world’s media, and the greater part of the futures literature, continue to be preoccupied with external dangers, external developments, Wilber (and the nascent tradition he represents within FS) is pointing across the widely misunderstood divide (not boundary) to the inner world, the other ‘half’ of reality. Here is the key, he is saying, not there, not where it is most often sought.
For Wilber, the possibilities for further transformations of human life and culture come from inner work, daily practice and not mere intellectualism stuck within its own heady isolationism. 20 Yet this transformation is certainly developing ‘in the hearts and minds of those individuals who themselves evolve to centauric planetary vision.’ Such individuals play a key role, they:
create a ‘cognitive potential’ in the form of new worldviews … that in turn feed back into the ongoing mainstream of social institutions, until the previously ‘marginalised’ worldview becomes anchored in institutional forms which then catapult a collective consciousness to a new and higher release.’ 21
Let me here reiterate that such a view is most emphatically not explored in a breathless gush of ‘New Age’ enthusiasm. New stages of development presuppose their own forms of work, their own achievements and their own distinct pathologies. Further stages of individual and social development are not just abstract potentials because they are founded on structures of consciousness beyond those of the mental-egoic level. This is one of the distinctive features of Wilber’s account: he is not writing merely as a rational intellect. He has a rational intellect and it is used to great effect, but it is moderated with a deep insight into higher forms of consciousness that can only arise from personal practice and the direct experience that emerges from it. In other words, the mark of this work is that it exemplifies the vision logic and transpersonal awareness of which it speaks.
So in this view, ways forward, as noted, will need to reintegrate the ‘big three’ and in so doing, to balance out the ‘eye (or way of knowing) of the senses,’ the ‘eye of reason’ and the ‘eye of contemplation.’ 22 I see this as a central challenge for FS, not merely a marginal or transient comment. I also want to stress that this account is in no way deterministic. We could fail. The human experiment on Earth is indeed imperilled. Moreover, the civilisations ahead of us cannot be pre-specified in any detail; they are emergent potentials of more highly evolved forms of consciousness. Thus ‘these higher structures (psychic, subtle, causal, nondual) are simply potential world spaces, pre-ontological world spaces, that are given only in deep form, not in surface manifestation.’ 23 This means that there is indeed much work to accomplish. As ever ‘we have to make the future that is given to us.’ 24 In this respect, a familiar topic in FS is given new meaning.
Hence the central project of FS can be re-framed and re-constituted, taken beyond the detritus of modernity and post-modernity, re-situated in a larger, truly re-enchanted, universe resonant with purpose, meaning and spirit. It follows that futures workers can join with other workers and traditions to move out of the confined epistemological, ontological and technological spaces of the late-industrial ‘flatland’ to explore a new synthesis of the big themes of ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘it.’
Conclusion: transcending flatland, or, the most interesting futures …
Wilber’s analysis gives cold comfort to those futurists who have learned to market their insights and ply their trade within the limited boundaries of late industrialism, with all that that implies. It suggests that at worst they may be working against our shared best interests (i.e. through the continued dominance of ‘flatland’ rationality) while at best they may be agents of transformation. Yet it’s difficult to see how the latter can be operationalised without each individual making their own emergence from ‘flatland’ thinking and action. On the other hand, it provides inspiration for those who have known for a long time that the route to a livable future was not just by the door marked ‘instrumental reason, technology, progress.’
What Wilber essentially offers is a broader, higher and deeper frame than the default model we have been used to. It challenges us to lift our eyes, and our aspirations, from the measures of success, wealth and wellbeing that have become ‘normal’ in these late industrial, highly abnormal, times. As noted, the perspective offers a decisive rejoinder to all those who think that the keys to the future will be found via genetic engineering, the Internet or nanotechnology. It links the central project of FS with all those widespread and progressive forces that are attempting to recover from three centuries of industrial overkill and expansionism; forces that are seeking to re-spiritualise their world and recover its oft-obscured inner dimensions.
Equally, Wilber’s account gives heart to all those who believe that individuals matter, that what they do (or fail to do) has real consequences. The path of social innovation is not hard to see. It runs from the clear understanding of particular individuals, their commitment to whatever form of practice that will elevate their consciousness from the mental-egoic to that of vision-logic and beyond. From here the outputs of higher-order engagement are expressed in social innovations of many kinds, inner and outer. This has long seemed a productive output of successful futures work – inventing the future ‘from the ground up’, as it were. This perspective confirms that insight to be correct. But the context within which it can be operationalised is vaster than we may yet have grasped. 25
It follows that the most interesting futures are not those that spring from one or two of the four quadrants, but from all of them. It is easy to imagine futures in which vision-logic, the transpersonal realm and those beyond it were never achieved; easy because the Dystopian consequences have been clearly displayed in books, films, TV, computer games and so on. In this context, the continuing emergence of powerful new technologies could only lead to what I have termed ‘a continuing disaster’ because the ‘It’ world contains no principle of self-limitation. If left to itself it will engulf human cultures and the world they are located in, just as countless Dystopian novels have depicted.
But if we shift the scene, change the parameters, a different world picture emerges. In a world where the ‘average level’ consciousness was close to the vision-logic stage or above, the powers of new technologies would be seen in their wider context. Raw technical power would be reined in because it would be clearly understood that such power, taken alone, was entirely defeating of the human project, and the spirit animating both. In other words, the most interesting futures are those in which human and social evolution matches that of scientific and technological development. One term for this is ‘transformational futures.’ The latter should not be seen merely as ‘flaky’ notions to be dismissed by hard headed realists. The latter only need to look carefully at the ‘high-tech wonderland’ (the ‘It’ world) with clear-eyed awareness to see within it structural limitations and the seeds of its own decay. Yet beyond all the pathways of despair and breakdown lie futures that are qualitatively different and which hold out quite new human and cultural options. As I’ve noted elsewhere: ‘when a right relationship is re-established between people, culture and technology a whole new world of options emerges. This is the key that unlocks the future, takes us beyond the collapse of industrialism, moves us decisively beyond the abyss, proves that there can indeed be ‘light at the end of the tunnel.’ 26
Here, then, is a new context for futurist expertise and aspiration. It is a challenging outlook. Such a world would not necessarily be any easier than the present one to live in. It would contain many new options for good and ill. But it would certainly be a new stage, a new challenge, beyond the ruins of industrialism and late modernity. The central task of FS could therefore be to map the parameters of that re-enchanted world and to bring many more people into an active engagement with their own potentials in a vastly expanded and infinitely more subtle universe.
Notes and references
1. Donald Schon, Beyond the Stable State, Temple Smith, 1971.
2. Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: the Spirit of Evolution, Shambhala, Boston, 1995, page 410.
3. Ibid. page 418. 4. Ibid. page 121.
5. Ibid. page 121. 6. Ibid. page 122.
7. Ibid. page 123. 8. Ibid. page 123.
9. Ibid. page 420.
10. Ibid. page 417.
11. Ibid. page 197.
12. Ibid. page 496.
13. Ibid. page 418.
14. Ibid. page 431. 15. Ibid. page 448.
16. Ibid. page 196.
17. Ken Wilber, Eye to Eye: the Quest for the New Paradigm, Shambhala, Boston, 1990.
18. Ken Wilber op cit 1995, page 376.
19. Ibid. page 253.
20. Ken Wilber, On the New Age, Kindred Spirit, 3 (10) 1996, pages 45-47.
21. Ken Wilber op cit 1995, page 197.
22. Ken Wilber op cit 1990, note 17.
23. Ken Wilber op cit 1995, page 314.
24. Ibid. page 191.
25. For a rare and outstanding example, see Duane Elgin, The Awakening Earth, New York, Morrow, 1993.
26. Richard Slaughter, The Foresight Principle: Cultural Recovery in the 21st Century, London, Adamantine, 1995, page 173.
Published in Futures, vol 30, No 6, pp. 519-33, 1998 and in R. Slaughter, Futures for The Third Millennium, Prospect, Sydney, 1999, pp. 341-357. Also as chapter 5 of To See With Fresh Eyes – Integral Futures and the Global Emergency, Foresight International, Brisbane, 2012.