PCDForum Column #69, Release Date February 1, 1994
by Willis W. Harman
Most of the debates on how best to address global problems such as
environmental degradation, climate-change, the punctured ozone layer, and
poverty fail to see them as symptoms of a more fundamental systemic condition.
We would easily see the absurdity in the situation of a patient who implores his
physician to heal him, but insists that the doctor not interfere with his
drinking, smoking, eating, or sexual habits or his stress-producing attitudes
toward work. Yet we do something similar when we admit the seriousness of our
unsustainable modern way of life and insist that the cure be sought without
disturbing our beliefs that:
- technological advance, economic growth, and material progress are the
sufficient goals of modern society;
- economic logic and values will lead to socially desirable decisions;
- individuals are linked to society through jobs;
- increased consumption of goods and services creates jobs, and hence is good
- the North-South, rich-poor gap will be resolved by accelerated economic
growth in the South; and,
- the Western materialistic, reductionistic scientific worldview provides a
satisfactory basis for guidance of individual and societal decisions.
Yet it is becoming increasingly evident that our committed adherence to
these beliefs is a fundamental cause of our collective crisis.
Ken Wilber has noted that the worldviews of practically all other societies
have embraced a very different core set of ideas, sometimes called the "perennial
wisdom." According to this wisdom, the world of material things is embedded
in a living universe, which in turn exists within a realm of consciousness, or
spirit. Things are not cannot be separate; everything is part of a "great
chain of being." It has been a peculiarity of modern Western society that
it restricted its official knowledge system, science, to the matter end of this
ontological continuum (where things are physically measurable), and to "upward"
causation. With that restriction came a faith that all phenomena are governed by
inviolable, quantified "scientific laws." This faith unleashed the
power of modern science (basically, to create manipulative technology), but also
left science inherently unable to deal with the non-physical especially anything
having to do with our experience of consciousness. This resulted in modern
society’s fundamental confusion about such important matters as values,
meanings, aesthetic sense, ultimate human desires and motivations, spiritual
yearnings, and our relationship to the rest of the natural world.
There is growing evidence that a fundamental cultural change may be underway
in the Western world. Its most fundamental characteristics include :
- An increased emphasis on the connectedness of everything to everything.
- A shift in the locus of authority from external to internal.
- A shift in the perceived location of cause from external to internal.
For several decades we have seen a widening group of people making personal
changes based on a sense that our thoughts create our own realities and are thus
a cause of what happens to us; that each of us can find at the inner core of our
being a deep sense of purpose; that if we trust, and operate as much as possible
from unconditional love, the universe in mysterious ways seems to support our
endeavors; that it really works to live as though all experience is a source of
learning neither to be deplored nor exulted. It seems to be the exciting
prospect before us that first individuals and small groups, then organizations,
then finally whole societies might shift to such a basis. This would open up
wholly new ways for approaching the goals of living in harmony with nature,
eradicating hunger and poverty, building societies which encourage development
of the highest potentialities of human beings, and achieving global peace with
justice. It is as impossible to imagine the ultimate impact of such a
dramatically revolutionary worldview shift as it would have been impossible in
the early 17th century to imagine the characteristics of the modern world.
However, we still find it difficult to think about the elements of the
resulting crisis in whole-system terms; to recognize business and the economy as
parts of the greater global ecological system, and to acknowledge the
ineffectuality of attempting to patch up a system which requires more
fundamental change. Ironically, more fundamental changes to address the roots of
the crisis are not inherently more difficult or costly than proposals for patch
up. The major barrier is our psychological resistance to accepting a more
Willis W. Harman is president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, 475 Gate
Five Road, Suite 300, Sausalito, California 94965 and a contributing editor of
the People-Centered Development Forum. This column was prepared and distributed
by the PCDForum based on his writing.