Navigating the Transition

Navigating the Transition - Future

21st April 2015

By Chris Thomson

Guest Writer for Wake Up World

The world is shifting rapidly towards a new global paradigm. It is replacing modernity, which is well past its sell-by date. Although no one can say exactly what the new paradigm will be, some of its features are already apparent. It promotes a healthy balance between spirit and matter. It has as its central purpose the nurture of all human beings and the wise stewardship of this planet. And at is heart is the idea and practice of “spiritual wealth.”

There is a scene in the movie Dances with Wolves where the Lakota are discussing the invasion of white people into their country. The tribe’s holy man, Kicking Bird, captures the mood of the meeting when he says: “The whites are a poor people, but there are too many of them.” When he says “poor”, he does not mean they lack money or material things. He means they are spiritually poor. And although Kicking Bird knew that the Lakota were skilful warriors, he also knew that the whites used modern weapons, superior numbers and devious means to get what they wanted. Of course, that was just a movie. Yet the fact is that modern weapons, superior numbers and devious means were indeed used to overcome the indigenous peoples of North America and take their lands from them. That brought disaster. When “white” culture overcame them, dependency, depression and addiction became common.

The experience of the North American tribes has a lot to teach us. If Kicking Bird were alive today, he would not be surprised to learn that dependency, depression and addiction are common in “white” society. He would almost certainly attribute this to spiritual poverty and he would probably wonder how the modern world has managed to survive so long without destroying itself and everything it touches. We are no different from the original inhabitants of North America. When there is spiritual poverty, we, too, suffer a range of problems. However, since we seem to value the material higher than the spiritual, we tend to assume that the big problems of our time have material solutions, rather than spiritual ones. This is no doubt why we give so much importance to money, material things, and economic growth.

It is very clear that money and material things alone will not solve the world’s problems. Indeed, there are many who believe that the relentless pursuit of money and things may be a major cause of our ills, and that the solutions lie instead in replacing spiritual poverty with spiritual wealth. This is a complex issue, and it is by no means easy to prescribe a way forward, but it is helpful to examine the nature of the current global paradigm, modernity, because it was modernity, in effect, that defeated the tribes and brought spiritual poverty. Understanding what modernity is and what its roots are may help us to understand the way to deeper, sustainable solutions to our problems. And it will give us some useful insights into the nature of the new, emerging global paradigm that is now replacing modernity.

“We look to Scotland…”

There was a time when my home country, Scotland, punched well above her weight in inventiveness. Many of the things that we now take for granted had their origin in Scotland or with Scots who lived elsewhere (e.g. Alexander Graham Bell).  The list is long and it includes television, refrigerator, microwave ovens, tarred roads, pneumatic tyres, telephone, golf, soccer, the steam engine, radar, modern banking, antisepsis, antibiotics, quinine, fax machines, logarithms, and iron bridges. Scotland’s inventiveness is fairly well known. However, what is not so well known is that much of the intellectual basis for modern society was developed in Scotland, during the Scottish Enlightenment (roughly 1740-90). Of the personalities involved, Adam Smith and David Hume are perhaps the best known, but there were many others who led the way in economics, science, medicine, and governance. It is difficult today to appreciate just how influential Scotland was in those days. Her intellectual leadership was so powerful that the French thinker Voltaire was moved to write: “… we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation.”

Although thinkers and pioneers from other countries were also involved in the Enlightenment, Scotland was a major contributor to what we now call “modernity”, namely the ideas, values and beliefs that have shaped the modern world. Few would deny that modernity brought many benefits. It gave us modern economics, modern government, modern medicine, modern education and modern science. There is no doubt that for a long time these things made life better and easier for a large number of people.

However, something has gone very wrong. We have just come through the most destructive century in human history, in terms of damage to each other and the planet, and the present one has not begun well. As the 21st Century gets under way, wars are raging on three continents, inequality within and between nations is grotesquely high and rising, mental and emotional illness are epidemic, and nature and the planet are more seriously threatened than ever. There is a growing sense that the current way of doing things – namely modernity – is well past its sell-by date. There is also a sense that all attempts to make modernity work better (politicians call this “modernising”) will, at best, bring only temporary relief.  What we have long assumed to be the roadmap to progress may turn out to be the roadmap to nowhere. Using modernity and modernising to try to solve our problems is like trying to use petrol to put out a fire. The economics, medicine, science, education and politics ushered in by the Enlightenment served us well for a long time but, in many important respects, they are no longer fit for purpose. We have reached the point of diminishing returns. This does not mean that we throw the baby out with the bathwater – there are many things about modernity worth keeping – but it does mean engaging in a fundamental exploration of why things are going so wrong. So let us go back to the roots of modernity, to try to understand why it is causing so many problems.

Modernity has its roots in the worldview of modern science. At the heart of this worldview are some apparently self-evident truths:

  • The universe and everything in it, ourselves included, is physical.
  • The universe and everything in it can usefully be regarded as a mechanism, a machine.
  • The universe has no intrinsic meaning. A lot of things happen by chance.

This worldview persists despite profound discoveries in physics and biology that suggest that the universe is non-physical as well as physical, that it is anything but a machine, that it is rich in intrinsic meaning, and that “chance” may lie only in the eye of the beholder. The fact is that classic science worldview has become so powerful and influential that all metaphysical, religious and philosophical claims that contradict it tend to be rejected or put into a box labelled “Interesting, but not to be taken seriously”. The science worldview rules our lives in more ways than we probably realise. It profoundly influences what we believe, what we value, how we behave, and how society is structured. Yet if, as science seems to insist, the universe began suddenly for no reason (the so called “Big Bang”) and life on this planet emerged by chance, then the world that science wants us to believe in must be intrinsically meaningless. The fact that this statement, as part of that world, must also be meaningless is little consolation!

A life without meaning is a bleak life indeed. For many people today, the search for meaning has become little more than a desperate attempt to try to solve the seemingly endless problems and crises that we create for ourselves. It is as if the modern world consists of two disconnected halves. One half is constantly creating problems (in practice, this is the majority of us) and the other half is constantly trying to solve them. This is as true for organisations and countries as it is for individuals. Just think how many people are involved these days in “problem-solving” jobs. The list is long. It includes doctors, nurses, police, social workers, therapists, coaches, counsellors, lawyers, politicians, authors of self-help books, and many local and national government workers. The more we think about, the more people appear on this list. A very large number of people in the world today rely for their income and job security on a huge and predictable supply of problems for the foreseeable future. It begs the question of what they would do in a problem-free world. The uncomfortable fact is that, in a culture devoid of deeper meaning, there is nothing like a good crisis or tragedy to give people a much needed sense of purpose. In this context it is interesting to reflect on the growing status of the emergency and security services over the last 30 years. I think that one of the big unintended consequences of modernity is loss of deeper meaning. The implications of this are far-reaching because everyone needs meaning in their lives. If they cannot find it in their beliefs or values or work, they will look for proxies, such as drugs, endless shopping, or video games.

Modernity is also characterised by loss of wisdom. If science rejects the accumulated wisdom of the ages in favour of its own empirically derived body of knowledge, then, since science is the dominant form of knowledge today, wisdom is consequently devalued. In non-modern societies, people are content simply to know things without feeling that they have to prove them. And they are content to be guided by their wise elders. Our modern obsession with evidence means that we end up having to prove everything, even the blindingly obvious, and we no longer have the tradition of wise elders to guide us. We should not be surprised that, with wisdom pushed to the margins of our lives, we have become the most dangerous and destructive form of life on the planet. No other species behaves as we do. Nor should we be surprised that older people, who in non-modern societies are respected for their wisdom, have also been pushed to the margins, many of them right out of sight into care homes. A traditional society values the wisdom of its older people and of the group. A modern society produces the cult of the young and the individual. In a traditional society, people wise up. It seems that modern societies have a tendency to dumb down. Just to be clear, I am not advocating that we abandon science. Far from it – science has given us much to be thankful for. But I am saying that we need to be very alert to science’s tendency to kick useful traditional wisdom into the long grass.

Like all indigenous peoples, the Lakota had their problems, such as hostile neighbours and occasional hunger, but they lived what many today regard as ecological, sustainable lives. They took from the environment only what they needed for food and shelter, and they left the environment as they found it. How many of us today could put our hands on our hearts and say that this is how we live?  Too many of us take far more than we need and too many us of leave behind a mess. As we know, when modernity overcame the tribes (and indigenous peoples elsewhere), they became dependent on governments for handouts and were no longer able live in harmony with each other and the planet. I suspect that another unintended consequence of modernity is loss of ecology.

If we add loss of deeper meaning, loss of wisdom and loss of ecology to a worldview that insists that everything is physical, we should not be at all surprised that we live in an era of unprecedented materialism. Our economics, our politics, our education, our healthcare and our culture are steeped in material values and in the behaviours that flow from these. We and the planet are paying a high price for this. We do not care for things we do not value. It is a short step from materialism to “economism”.

Economism is the tendency to view the world through the lens of economics and to believe that economic considerations rank higher than all others. Economism is clearly evident throughout our culture and it is a strong influence in business and political circles. It is significant that some people today refer to countries as “economies” or even “markets”, rather than as societies, and that, when reporting natural disasters, some news channels mention the value of property damaged before they mention the number of people killed or injured. In non-modern societies economics is a means to an end. It is in service to some greater purpose. In contrast, the modern world has made economics the end itself, in the sense that perpetual economic growth seems to be the central purpose of most countries today. This is reflected in the growth ethic of the business world and in the widespread belief that happiness is to be found through having more money and possessions. If economic growth really is the central purpose of the modern world, then we are in deep trouble, because it is a purpose that has no heart and soul and it does not reflect our humanity.

Now, if it is true that our fundamental beliefs are basically materialist, then our idea of what constitutes “progress” is bound to reflect this. The main indicator of “progress” in the modern world is economic growth. China, for example, is considered to be doing well, simply because her economy is growing fast. In contrast, Japan, whose economy has not been growing much, is considered to be in trouble. We live in an Alice in Wonderland world of topsy-turvy values. Not only is economic growth thought to be desirable in itself, it is seen by many as a universal panacea that will eventually cure poverty, disease, unhappiness and many other ills. The reality is that there is nothing intrinsically desirable about economic growth. It simply means that we spent more money this year on goods and services than we spent last year. It does not tell us anything about the desirability or quality of these additional goods and services. It does not tell us anything about the human, social and environmental costs of providing them. It does not tell us anything about income distribution and social justice. Most important of all, it does not tell whether we are getting happier, wiser, and healthier and more fulfilled, which is surely the point of it all. The principal measure of economic growth – GDP – treats the good, the bad and the ugly as if they were all good. So long as money legally changes hands, it counts towards GDP. If there is more crime to be dealt with, more divorces to be processed, more pollution to be cleaned up, more illness to be treated, and more debt to be serviced, then all of this counts towards economic growth. In fact, nothing boosts growth more than a war or a natural disaster. Since GDP growth gives us the impression that things are going well when they may be going badly, most people continue to believe that economic growth is not only desirable, but indispensable.

Far from being a universal panacea, the relentless drive for economic growth may turn out to be a universal problem, because it brings with it pressures, values and behaviours that damage people, communities and the planet. For example, there are pressures to work harder and to consume more. That causes stress and illness, as well as debt and family breakdown. There are pressures to exploit and cut corners in the interests of making profit. That causes injustice and corruption. There are pressures to acquire money and possessions illegally. That causes crime. As for the planet, it should be abundantly clear by now that it cannot tolerate the pressures that we human beings are putting on it. None of this is to suggest that the modern world is all bad. Kicking Bird would no doubt agree that it has given us many good things. He liked Kevin Costner’s telescope, for example. However, he would be concerned at the following comparison:

Paradox of Modernity

Spiritual Poverty

By marginalising wisdom and removing deeper meaning and ecology, modernity has unwittingly created a spiritual vacuum. As a consequence, many people feel that something big is missing from their lives. They may not be able to put this into words, but they feel an empty space inside them that cries out to be filled. They experience this as anxiety, discomfort, insecurity, despair, or a sense of pointlessness. Understandably, they try to fill the emptiness, and they do this in a huge variety of ways. They eat too much, they shop until they drop, they watch a lot of television or play a lot of video games. They rush around doing too much (no surprise that being busy is regarded as a virtue today), or they use sex, drugs and alcohol as pain-killers. These behaviours, worrying in themselves, often lead to alcoholism, obesity, addiction, depression and suicide and other symptoms of spiritual poverty. So long as there is a spiritual vacuum, people are likely to continue to behave in these ways. At best, government policies provide some temporary relief. However, by focusing on material growth and ignoring the causes of spiritual poverty, governments often make things worse.

If modernity is indeed the main root cause of the spiritual poverty that is widespread across the world today, what can we do about it? What can we do to reverse the downward drift into even more materialism? There is no easy answer to this. However, I do think that it is possible to outline some of the general conditions that will favour the emergence of spiritual wealth.

Value Older People

Older people have been pushed to the margins of modern society, while the young occupy centre stage. That is very obvious in the media. Some television programmes, for example, give us the impression that older people have been airbrushed out of existence. Far from being seen as our main source of wisdom, older people are often portrayed as a burden on society or merely as a market for retirement services. Is it any wonder that so many of them feel unvalued and isolated? In too many instances, it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy that as one gets older, one gets less healthy, more dependent, less valuable and, for all practical purposes, invisible. In some countries people as young as 60 are considered to be “old” and many actually expect to be on regular medication. This is particularly true in the USA. The fact that so much potential is being lost as older people are marginalised is one of the tragedies of our times. We could, if we wished, enable the emergence of a vast amount of wisdom and spiritual wealth simply by raising the status of older people and bringing them to centre stage. That would have a profound effect on all of us.

Bring Back True Education

In its original sense, education is all about bringing out the best and uniqueness in each one of us, even if that means we end up questioning prevailing beliefs, values and behaviours. It is about helping us to realise our potential, including our potential to be truly human. However, although we continue to use the word “education” to describe what happens in schools, colleges and universities, there is not much true education around these days. To a large extent, it has been replaced by its opposite, schooling – which is the process of shaping people to believe and follow prevailing beliefs, values and behaviours. Although there is a lot of talk, by politicians and others, about the importance of education, one is left wondering whether they are talking about a preparation for life or a preparation for work. If “education” is mainly a preparation for work, then we have a serious problem, because it means that our schools and universities are producing people with skills and knowledge for working in the global economy, but they are not producing people with wisdom and maturity for living well in the world. There are, of course, some notable exceptions, but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. The fact is that true education enhances and enables wisdom, meaning and ecology. Schooling seems to restrict them. Insofar as schooling is the prevalent mode of “education” in the modern world, humanity is being restricted on a massive scale. That is a global tragedy. There is an urgent need to promote true education.

Encourage Self-Reliance

One of the hallmarks of modern societies is their overdependency on business, government and experts for goods, services and knowledge that, in many cases, individuals and communities would be better providing for themselves. As a rule of thumb, dependency is unhealthy, while self-reliance is healthy. The Lakota and other tribes were self-reliant, empowered communities. They were living cultures, rather than vicarious cultures. They did things for themselves, rather than having things done for them. They recognised the central importance of basic human capacities, such as caring, growing their own food, cooking, healing, educating, creating, and entertaining, and would not dream of having these things provided as commodities and services by government and big business. History has shown us that, as soon as the tribes became dependent on the US Government for the basics of life, they began to decline rapidly. Insofar as modern society is overdependent on business, government and experts for the basics of living, it is “poor in spirit”. One way of enabling spiritual wealth would be to encourage as much self-reliance as possible. In practice, this would require a new economics.

Adopt New Economics

Modern economics clearly ranks money and property higher than people and nature. If you doubt this, then just consider the amount of attention paid to people and places with money and property and the amount paid to those without. This is in complete contrast to the Lakota and other non-modern societies. Their value-systems enabled them to live healthy, dignified lives, in harmony with nature and each other, whereas too many of us live unhealthy, undignified lives, often in conflict with nature and each other. So, why on earth are we so attached to an economics that causes so much disharmony and conflict? We are attached to it because its myths are powerful, and because these myths are skilfully advocated by government, business, academia and the media. Simply stated, the myths are:

  • The market knows best. It should not be interfered with, and it should rule as many aspects of our lives as possible.
  • Private ownership is more efficient, therefore more desirable, than public ownership.
  • Capital is a virtue and deserves the lion’s share of the rewards. By contrast, labour is a cost and that cost should be kept to a minimum.
  • The economy must never stop growing. Therefore all of us need to be ever more competitive and work harder and harder. That will never stop.
  • New technology will enable us to circumvent threats to the environment without having to change our behaviour very much.
  • The rising tide will lift all boats. Thus, economic growth will eventually reduce material poverty and inequality and alleviate problems that are assumed to have their roots in material poverty, such as crime and disease.

These are the principal myths. The reality is very different from the myths. In reality:

  • There is growing inequality within and between nations. The rising tide is lifting the luxury yachts much faster than the small boats.
  • Important aspects of our culture are being dumbed down in the interests of creating mass markets. Many cherished parts of our lives are being commercialised in the interests of profit.
  • Our value-system encourages and rewards personal ambition and selfishness, so why are we surprised that crime, stress and dishonesty are on the increase?
  • The natural environment is more seriously threatened than ever.
  • To cap it all, we have political and other institutions that tend to put the interests of the economy and business before the interests of society as a whole.

All of this is disempowering and dehumanising. We urgently need to adopt an economics that values people and nature higher than money and property, and that is empowering and humanising. As it happens, a New Economics has been emerging for decades, but a fuller description will have to be for another article.

Beyond Modernity

There are many who believe that the price of modernity is too high and that it is time to bring meaning, wisdom, and ecology into our lives, and to find ways to go beyond materialism. As we do this, I believe that we shall find that we are simultaneously creating a new kind of economics, a new kind of education, a new kind of healthcare, a new kind of science, and a new kind of politics. It is impossible to predict exactly what they will be, but they may look something like this…

The new economics will be about enhancing people and planet, rather than exploiting them. At the heart of the new economics will be wisdom, meaning and ecology. It will bring with it new kinds of relationships, new kinds of businesses, and new kinds of institutions. The new economics does not mean that we will not have things to do. There will always be plenty to do. But it does mean that we will be much less likely to overdo!

The new education will be about bringing out the best and uniqueness in each individual, rather than schooling them to believe certain things and to behave in certain ways. At the heart of the new education will be the development, in children and adults, of wisdom, meaning and ecology

The new healthcare will be about self-reliance, rather than about overdependence on experts and technology. Medical treatment will be the exception rather than the rule, because the main focus will be on staying healthy. There will be much less need for doctors, drugs and hospitals, partly because fewer people will be getting ill, but also because our knowledge and understanding of the human being will change profoundly

The new science will be about applying the whole of the human being to the search for knowledge, rather than just the physical and intellectual parts, as at present. Science of the physical will continue to give us much that is useful. However, in the new science, knowledge of the physical will be complemented by knowledge of the non-physical, and that will give us a fuller, richer understanding of the world. The new science will reflect wider, deeper forms of knowing and the additional knowledge that flows from this. It will literally be a “science of the whole” because it will integrate the physical with the non-physical and the material with the spiritual

The new politics will be about the return of power to people and communities, rather than having power concentrated in the hands of politicians and the wealthy. At the heart of the new politics are two ideas – the idea that most power stays at the local level, where it belongs, and the idea that everyone has something useful to say and contribute

None of the above will be easy. People will not willingly give up the habits of a lifetime, and many in power will resist tooth and nail. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, engaging in the kinds of changes I am suggesting here will be the most difficult thing we ever do. Transformation may seem attractive in theory. In practice, it is often messy and painful. Yet if we want to preserve this planet and survive and prosper as a race, we have no choice but to change fundamentally. That may take a generation or two, but we have to start somewhere.


I am aware that I have covered a lot of ground at some speed. My intention is simply to draw attention to the fact that modernity is no longer a health-producing or happiness-producing culture, if indeed it ever was. It has had the unintended effects of marginalising wisdom, meaning and ecology and creating spiritual poverty. If we are ever hope to solve the many problems of the world today, then we have to replace spiritual poverty with spiritual wealth.

Of course, this will mean different things for different people. One thing it means for me is the need for all of us to become much more intelligent, in the fullest sense. In my book Full Spectrum Intelligence I outline how we could train ourselves to become much more intelligent. If enough of us did this, it would be a very different world. It would be a world rich in spiritual wealth.

Previous article by Chris Thomson:

About the author:

Chris Thomson has worked as a lawyer, economist, researcher in Chinese, and as a director of think-tanks in Scotland and the USA. He now works as a writer, therapist and course leader. He is organising two new courses: “A Course in Intelligence” and “Less is Better”. His book Full Spectrum Intelligence: A Practical Course on Behaving Wisely and Well (Changemakers Books) was published in 2014.

Chris lives in Catalonia, and also gets to the mountains as often as he can. He can be contacted via email at: [email protected].


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