Cultural Evolution in a World of Moral Tribes

By Anneke Vo

Many sustainability writers and activists believe that we need a mythopoetic vision – a new story to replace the old – in order to heal and transcend the ruins of industrial civilization. This emerging story relies on an idealistic vision of the convergence of universal human values – the expectation that it is our job as activists to change people at their core to adopt peaceful, eco-conscious and ‘awakened’ values.

While this may seem like a humane, noble pursuit, geopolitical unrest and division continues to exist in a world of moral tribes, underpinned by divergent, seemingly irreconcilable worldviews and ideologies.  According to cultural historian Richard Tarnas, author of Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View, the evolution of Western culture and intellectual history has taken place within a paradoxical context of competing narratives: the myth of progress and enlightened modernity versus the myth of civilization’s fall from unity into separation. These archetypal paradigms are represented in the tension between today’s social movements and major subcultures, and according to sociological research conducted over the last decade they comprise three main groups: Cultural Creatives, Moderns and Traditionalists. (Anderson, S. R. and Ray, P. H., 2001)

Cultural Creatives

SHIFT readers are most likely to recognize themselves in the description of Cultural Creatives, who, clocking in at approximately 50 million of us, tend to be empathic and prosocial, valuing humanitarian and environmental causes over techno-fixes and traditional conservative dogmas. With its roots in the anti-war, civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s and 70s, this emerging tribe of intuitive healers, subversive artists, teachers, systems thinkers, Gaian mystics, culture-jammers, peaceful activists and revolutionaries are the pioneers of a new chapter in global consciousness.

Due to their deep understanding of global interdependence, Cultural Creatives today are at the forefront of the deep ecology movement, the natural, wholefood, organic movement, the attachment parenting movement, the holistic wellness and authentic vulnerability movement, and so on. Eco-conscious and sensitive to injustice, they are concerned with living principled, sustainable lives, rich with purpose and meaning. While new age spirituality advocates transforming the self as a sufficient means for healing the world, and conventional politics champions collective change at the expense of the individual, Cultural Creatives are both self-aware and politically engaged. They are motivated to integrate the need for community resilience with personal growth and self-actualization, promoting both meaningful social change and inner transformation.

Cultural Creatives can be understood as comprising a core group of dedicated, leading activists – 66% of whom are women – and less involved groups of interested supporters, also known as greens and transitionalists. Greens are generally concerned about climate change, social justice, integrative health and ecology. They may be proactive on the logistical front lines of activism, but tend to place less importance on inner psychological, spiritual or existential experience. Like transitionalists, who are still in the process of developing awareness, some may feel torn between their convictions and competing demands. Ray and Anderson’s research suggests a higher correlation between inward soul searching and mindful change-making, as core Cultural Creatives are more likely to contemplate the deeper motivations behind their values.

Moderns & Traditionalists

Moderns and Traditionalists, in contrast, represent the antithesis of Cultural Creative values. Moderns stand for the neo-Enlightenment story of ‘homo economicus’, scientific reductionism, material growth and civilized progress.

Comprising half the US population, Moderns are the largest demographic, engineering the dominant social, political and economic pillars of our current system. Emblematic of the status quo, they are the architects of empires and mercenaries of corporate welfare, upholding established institutions such as big business, banking, politics, the military, mainstream media and the criminal justice system. Moderns tend to be driven by lessons pertaining to the accumulation of power, success, wealth and status – valuing rational self-interest, conformity to established norms and extrinsic motivation above inner-directed ethics and ideals.

Traditionalists are cultural conservatives who represent the far, religious right of politics. This group serves the interests of evangelical fundamentalists, puritan ascetics and lawful militants who tend to be rule-bound, god-fearing, and reactionary to progressive movements. Some Traditionalists may share a common thread with Cultural Creatives through their distrust of corporatocracy, techno-fixes and big government, but for different reasons, such as the belief that secularism is destroying old fashioned “family values.”

Reaching out

Ray and Anderson’s research suggests that Cultural Creative core group efforts might be better spent reaching out primarily to greens and transitionalists who, to some extent, already ‘get it’, as opposed to the 39.7% of Moderns and 15.4% of Traditionalists within the general population.

The most striking thing about Cultural Creatives is their coherence as a subculture, according to Ray and Anderson. However, their diffuse mainstream representation and political influence is clouded by the perception that they are alone in their awareness: “No one is more surprised to hear about the arrival of the Cultural Creatives than themselves. Most of them think that their worldview, values and lifestyle is shared by only a few of their friends; they have little notion that there are 50 million of them.” Qualities which often define Cultural Creatives, such as empathy, gentle tolerance, deep relational commitments, strong attachment to values and personal integrity may inadvertently prevent them from organizing politically – directing their efforts alternatively within private practice, philanthropic NGOs, and counter-cultural movements, where bureaucratic rigidities are less prevalent.

Primals & Transpersonalists 

In addition to the three main subcultures, esoteric schools of thought describe two additional groups, which Ray and Anderson have not covered in their research. According to this view, no worldview is necessarily “better” or “worse” – they merely represent different lessons, and thus varying levels of growth, insight and awareness. I call these groups the ‘Primals’ and ‘Transpersonalists’.

Primals encompass members of the indigenous population who are still living in traditional kinship clans or tribes. Their lessons concentrate on primitive survival and living symbiotically with the land. The Primal worldview is soulful and animistic, endowed with an anima mundi of intrinsic meaning and deep communion with nature.

Transpersonalism represents the perspective which theoretically comes after the time of the Cultural Creatives: an ‘old soul’ world which is primarily oriented towards “being” rather than “doing” or campaigning – a time where teaching, harvesting, philosophical questing, compassionate non-attachment, and the transmission of wisdom take higher prominence. While modernity and traditional religion perceive a fundamental separation between self and other, where nature is systematically conquered and objectified for human benefit, primal and transpersonal consciousness views the self as inseparable from the greater whole and mystical wonders of the universe – orienting towards mindful simplicity and radical acceptance.

Paradigm shift

In The Passion of the Western Mind, Richard Tarnas asserts that all paradigm shifts are conceptually archetypal, as well as socio-historical in nature. Every dominant worldview must undergo its own mythic journey or evolutionary path, passing through developmental sequences of gestation, growth, crisis and revolution: “When a paradigm has fulfilled its purpose, when it has been developed and exploited to its full extent, then it loses its numinosity, it ceases to be libidinally charged, it becomes felt as oppressive, limiting, opaque–something to be overcome–while the new paradigm that is emerging is felt as a liberating birth into a new, luminosly intelligible universe.”

Within the Cultural Creative psyche there is a primal self which needs ritual and sustenance, a Traditional self which regulates boundaries and structure, a Modern self which craves independence and ambition, and a Transpersonal self which seeks unconditional love and wholeness. Cultural Creatives need to be aware of the tendency to become too attached and identified with their convictions for they are prone to becoming overcome with despair when their ideals fail to materialize, believing there is nothing to be gained or learnt from engaging different perspectives.

The Modern worldview is approaching its final limits to growth, catapulting itself into obstinate crisis. But before the seeds of revolution and cultural creative gestation can flourish, lessons of the dominant Modern paradigms need to be authentically integrated. Pushing the limits of affluence and self-interest currently serves a specific purpose for Moderns, in the same way cultivating relationships, inner awareness and social justice does for Cultural Creatives. Such labels and characteristics aren’t fixed; they represent an individual’s internal framework, their primary lessons, and evolving journey.

Jung posited that the unindividuated person believes everyone is, or ought to be, like himself, and that people don’t change until they’ve suffered enough. Likewise, some people need to devote their lives to climbing to the top – projecting their views of success and prosperity onto others – before they begin to question why it isn’t making them happy. Industrial civilization is fundamentally driven to preserve its ‘psychological basic ground’, which must experience the psychic death of its individual, social and collective mythos in order to be transformed.

At some point, activists will inevitably confront the sovereignty of conflicting worldviews and their respective self-serving mythologies, underlying the post-modern collapse of Grand Narratives. We needn’t adopt the nihilistic consequences of post-modernism, surrendering as passive voters and consumers, which Noam Chomsky states would be “pointless” for meeting tangible challenges. Rather, the Cultural Creatives’ influence upon the Information Age signifies a thematic shift towards grassroots participatism, eco-psychological re-integration, and the intentional co-creation of culture.

The quest for universal truth is, paradoxically, an emergent, relativistic process, and the imminent epochal meta-narrative we re-imagine will need to encompass a humble, open-hearted acceptance of imperfect plurality.

Further reading: 

  1. Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche
  1. Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind


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