Our 21st Century Challenge

The basic thrust of our time is the movement from
an egological to an ecological consciousness.
– Matthew Fox

As I write this, it is Sunday morning. Last night, I spent a couple of hours cleaning up the mess caused by yet another flood of water in the basement of our home. This is the second time in as many years that an unusually dramatic storm has pummeled our area with unprecedented amounts of rainfall; enough to cause serious flooding in our neighborhood.

Granted, it is not as dramatic as Katrina or the Tsunami of 2005, but it is becoming a regular occurrence in a region where “This has never happened before in my lifetime” is now a common phrase.

While the scientists and politicians continue to debate whether or not climate change is real, the rest of us seem to be left cleaning up the mess from the “storm of the century” that has now become almost a weekly event somewhere on our planet.

As some authors and commentators have suggested, we as a human species now face the most critical phase of our evolutionary development. Will we turn around the seemingly human-induced altering of Earth’s natural processes in time to undo destructive climate change?

In this post, I want to reflect a bit more on how our growing understanding of ourselves as an evolving species offers both challenge and hope in this moment.

In an earlier post, I referred to the work of Abraham Maslow, who proposed a theory of human psychological development based on the changing presence of needs. His schema notes that as individuals, we move through four phases of psychological development. From the very beginning of my learning of these stages of individual human psychological development, I have believed that they also apply to our collective development as societies, and as a human species.

Maslow observed that we each begin life faced primarily with the needs associated with survival. Our physical need for the basics of oxygen, water, and food must be met or we will not live to develop to the next stage.

Likewise, as with every living species on Earth, our initial need as a species was to survive. During our early emergence on the planet, our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers, foraging in the wilderness for the food and water needed to survive, undoubtedly at first they also existed quite naked to the wind, rain, heat or cold.

Maslow suggests that if as human infants we are fortunate enough to acquire what we need through our caregivers, we progress in our psyche to the next stage of development marked by the need for safety and security. So, too, our human ancestors eventually were able to learn new technologies that would help them to build adequate shelters to protect them from the elements and other dangers.

The next phase Maslow describes is one in which we experience a primary urge for what he called “belonging,” the experience of knowing ourselves as part of a group, and through that sense of belonging also entering into the experience of giving and receiving love.

On a larger scale, humans collectively began to meet our need for a sense of belonging by developing tribal cultures. Eventually, these would take on a very large scale as we evolved collectively into city-states and nations.

Maslow suggests that once secure in our belonging, we individually are able to enter into a phase marked by the need to express our own self worth. In this phase, we begin to acquire knowledge and exhibit our abilities. We begin to develop confidence and self esteem as we gain respect from others. We also seek to be associated with others for whom we hold respect.

Developing a sufficient supply of food through the development of agriculture appears to have allowed us collectively as humans to reach this phase of development. The existence of more dependable and abundant food supplies offered the possibility of free time on the part of some to continue to learn about our environment and to develop more advanced technologies. The more we learned, the more advanced our technologies became, and the more “progress” we were able to make as a society.  Access to resources within the environment also was critical to where and how this development happened.

Finally, as individuals, we hold the potential to reach a stage that Maslow calls”self-actualization.” In this stage, if all the conditions for the previous stages are met, persons begin to direct their knowledge and abilities toward giving back to the community. Persons at this stage often may be considered “wise;” they seem to be able to make choices out of a sense of the big picture and to be concerned with the common good over self-interest.

Though many single human beings throughout recent history appear to have reached this phase of development, it appears we do not know yet if humans collectively will reach this phase.

Stephen R.Covey, in his book, The 8th Habit, summarizes these four stages of human development described by Maslow in four simple phrases, identifying them as our need:

  • To live
  • To love
  • To learn
  • To leave a legacy.

Presently, our Earth is disastrously affected by human groups who continually strive to meet needs associated with survival, security, belonging, and self esteem. At its worst, this has been and is expressed as tribal and societal dominance or terrorism, supported through the development of and our skill with more complex and dangerous weaponry through our evolution as a species to date.

It also is evident that a part of this cycle is the consumerism that has taken hold in many parts of the world, where technological development has freed us from earlier needs.

This present phase of our human development has been evolving for a very long time, but in our day appears to have reached its peak with the warnings we now hear of the impending destruction of Earth’s potential to sustain life through our individual and collective ego-ic cravings.

As Covey suggests, the question we face today both individually and collectively is whether or not we will make it to the next phase of development. Will we leave a legacy to future generations?

Today, there is only one legacy that matters. It is now clear that in our time, that legacy has become defined as any future at all for those who will come after us. Will the legacy we leave be a ruined planet, or one that will continue to sustain Life for future generations?

Can and will we turn our focus from meeting our ego-ic needs, which now has reached a collective level sufficient to destroy Earth’s capacity to sustain Life?  Is there any hope of this?

How we will collectively make this transition is still unknown. Some suggest, however, that it will happen when enough individuals make the leap to the next phase. This idea, I think, provides some hope. It means we can all begin to do our part.

We each can begin to turn the focus of our lives toward the individual choices necessary to leave the legacy of Life to future generations.

My desire is that in some small way, writing this blog each week is helping me in that effort.

Fox, M. (1985) Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen. Sante Fe, NM: Bear & Co. p. 18

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