Many changes happening around us remain unclear. We need better names and stories for them.
By Joe Brewer
May 27, 2016
The human mind needs clear concepts to make sense of the world. When a chronic problem has not been properly named, we are unable to think clearly about it and figure out how to solve it.
There was a time when people got sick for no apparent reason. Microscopes hadn’t been invented yet and no one could see the invisible forces that brought suffering and death to loved ones. Then along came Louis Pasteur who — through a series of clever experiments — came up with the Germ Theory of Disease, giving a name to the tiny bacteria that were too small for the eyes to see.
Some things are just too small to perceive with the naked eye. Other things are so big (and move so slowly) that we cannot perceive them directly either. It took a careful study of folds in rocks in many parts of the world before it was possible to create a concept for Plate Tectonics, the idea that the continents of the Earth float on liquid rock as they move about on the surface of a planet-sized pool of churning fluids.
These scientific discoveries were slow to arise because they didn’t fit with everyday explanations about how the world works — what cognitive scientists today would call Semantic Frames — the invisible (and previously unnamed) patterns of human thought that give rise to our understandings of the world around us.
The world today is filled with problems that have no names. Each is in need of conceptual clarity for human minds to be capable of grasping their core logics. I have been writing extensively these last few weeks about the Global Architecture of Wealth Extraction to give a concrete name to the exploitative patterns in economies that create poverty and inequality around the world. This has included a naming of the mental disease that is “late-stage capitalism” and clear descriptions for the Story of Poverty Creation that my friends at TheRules.org have been writing about for several years now.
These efforts were motivated by my studies in human cognition. As I learned more about how the mind works (and the need to have proper names for things in order to deal with them effectively), I saw many social problems that have either been named incorrectly on purpose (thanks to misinformation campaigns by vested interests) or have not yet been adequately understood (because this process of “naming and framing” is itself not widely known by communicators working on social problems).
But there is a bigger problem that has yet to be named.
The world is going through a transformation unprecedented in its 4.5 billion year history. We are seeing a convergence of patterns unlike anything that has ever come before. And so we are unable to name it. This lack of a proper name is what makes it so difficult to talk about global warming; why it is so hard to build upon social movements like Occupy Wall Street; and how each new election cycle brings with it the same tired narratives about political candidates who will save us from whatever plight we perceive to be happening around us.
Hillary Clinton seems to think we need a strong female leader in the White House. Donald Trump calls for an authoritarian approach to get rid of all the undesirables. Bernie Sanders tells us it is time for political revolution. The interesting thing is that each of these storylines brings with it a kernel of truth. But none feels quite adequate — our feelings are still ambivalent and unresolved — because the real problem has not yet been named.
Similar patterns can be seen in the current upheaval of the status quo in Brazil, or the uprisings in recent years across Spain, Greece, Tunisia, Mexico, and many other places. We are seeing people refuse to accept their cultural programming. They are “going off script” and doing things differently. This is a natural consequence of stories that are misaligned. Elite groups say and do one thing, populist movements say and do another.
Yet none is (so far) able to name what is really going on.
Humanity is now grappling with life on a finite planet. We have succeeded so monumentally that we now must live within the ecological constraints of the Earth. This has never happened to us before.
Our ancestors spent more than 100,000 years living in small bands in equatorial Africa. Some of them ventured out into other continents and evolved new ways of organizing their societies around livestock and farming that gave rise to city-states and empires. Among those cultural innovations came dominance hierarchies for the invention of elite classes, standing armies, accountants and bankers, and eventually a wholesale system of imperial conquest.
That all happened roughly 8,000 years ago. And in the intervening time between then and now, many an empire has risen and collapsed. But none was able to achieve the ultimate prize of planetary conquest and domination. None that was, until the Neoliberal capitalist system (with its robot-like corporations programmed to chew up living systems and convert them into profits) which rose to power slowly over the last few hundred years and accelerated to reach its apex in the late 20th Century.
This problem that has not been named is The Great Transition Beyond Empires. We now have to choose between two metaphors for our planetary civilization — we can be a cancer that kills its host or a butterfly that arises transformed from the mindlessly consuming caterpillar. But it is incumbent upon us now to collectively choose before the choice is made for us by the cumulation of decisions made in the past. There are consequences for inaction in times like these.
This Great Transition has brought with it the struggles between secular values and religious traditions. It has created the conditions for unprecedented numbers of people migrating from place to place. It has shifted the climate system of the Earth away from its 10,000 year period of relative stability (what geologists call the Holocene). It is what we are experiencing as mass poverty, declining prospects for economic prosperity, and the breakdown of institutional forms for business, government, education, science, and all other major domains of social life.
I share this name to give historic perspective to the challenges now confronting humanity. Any who seek to solve problems during this period of history must make a conscious effort to question their assumptions. The world of yesterday had its own rules. But those rules are changing now. And we must see exactly how they are changing if we want to operate with credible assumptions for what the future will hold.
In a recent Technotopia podcast interview, I explored the consequences of exponential change as it comes forth on multiple fronts at the same time. There will be disruptions and turbulence all around us. And only those who have a mental grasp of the scale and pace of this change will be able to navigate it successfully.
My hope in writing this article is that it brings a little more clarity to a naming process that is not-yet-complete. I have only named a few pieces of something so big that no individual mind can fully comprehend it. We must also organize ourselves into collectives who combine knowledge and translate it into wisdom and insight for others around them. This is what many of my colleagues and I are doing with the birthing of a Cultural Evolution Societyand the launch of Culture Design Labs. Many others are doing their own things at similar scales.
But we must all take care to make the concepts clear. There is much more naming to be done before this multi-decade transition comes to an end. And so far, the problem we are dealing with is only partially named.
Onward, fellow humans.
Joe Brewer -- I am a change strategist working on behalf of humanity, and also a complexity researcher, cognitive scientist, and evangelist for the field of culture design.