Rethinking Wealth and Progress—And Its Essential Relationship to Today’s Crisis of Purpose (A Cultural Maturity “Thought Exercise”)

[This new section in the Cultural Maturity blog briefly introduces a key theme or claim from one of my recent Creative Systems Theory–related works presented so as to provoke reflection. This post draws most specifically on Hope and the Future: Confronting Today’s Crisis of Purpose.]


In my book Hope and the Future, I address how our wellbeing as a species will depend ultimately on a fundamental redefining of wealth and progress.  Our modern age definitions are so familiar that we tend not to question them. Wealth is the accumulation of material assets. And progress is new inventions and economic growth. The book proposes that if we don’t question these definitions—and question them fundamentally—the consequences will be dire. 

The concept of Cultural Maturity and its conceptual underpinnings in the ideas of Creative Systems Theory help put the task in perspective. It turns out that thinking about advancement as we have with our most recent chapter in culture’s story is not in itself a problem. In its time, it has benefitted us. Our familiar definition of wealth has been closely tied to our modern concept of the individual. And defining progress as we have has been central to the achievements of the Industrial Age and the great power of modern economies. But the theory makes a radically consequential claim. While our familiar definitions of wealth and progress might seem logical, they are products primarily of how we have thought in times past. With the concept of Cultural Maturity, the idea that our times challenge us to engage an essential new chapter in the human story, it makes clear that they cannot continue to provide benefit going forward. 

When I want to help a person get at what more is needed, I will often first engage them at a personal level. I will ask them to talk to me about what creates meaning—”wealth” in the largest sense—in their individual lives. Most people mention money, but most recognize too that beyond a certain point money is less tied to meaning than one might think. Invention, too, generally has a place—people like their gadgets. But most people recognize that other things are ultimately as important, or often much more important: one’s family, one’s friends, one’s community, one’s felt relationship with nature, one’s creative and intellectual pursuits. 

People doing this exercise are often surprised to find that a significant mismatch exists between what they have described as most important for a meaningful life and many of their day-to-day choices. I may joke with the person as they confront this recognition, pointing out—only partly tongue in cheek—that this sort of discrepancy would seem to be almost the definition of insanity. When working in therapy, this recognition can result in people making major life changes.

We can engage this same kind of inquiry in relation to how, more collectively, we think about advancement. When we do, it becomes hard to escape that our current world circumstances reflect a related kind of mismatch. Too often today we hold to outmoded definitions wealth and progress that exclude much that is in fact most important to us. Just as we appropriately think of an individual who makes choices that are not in keeping with what the person finds most important as deranged, the implications are huge. 

This recognition again becomes obvious if we simply look at what creates meaning in our lives—in this case in our shared experience as humans. And Creative Systems Theory lets us be more specific. It describes how taking the modern age narrative beyond its timeliness today threatens to distance us from much that most matters to us in fundamental ways. (The theory calls this The Dilemma of Trajectory.) And it delineates multiple ways in which the result could be not just decidedly painful, but our undoing as a species. (See the concept of Transitional Absurdity.) 

While the importance of rethinking wealth and progress for humanity’s long-term wellbeing becomes obvious with reflection, we are left with the question of the degree doing so has more immediate implications. I suspect the significance is much greater than we imagine. In my role as a psychiatrist as well as a futurist, I find myself more and more reflecting on this greater significance.  

Today, we find ourselves confronted by all manner of social concerns that can seem impervious to intervention. I think most immediately of  increasing rates of depression, suicide, and addiction. Our modern epidemic of gun violence provides another example. There is also how, most everywhere we look, we confront worsening levels of poverty and homelessness.

With each of these concerns, while we sometimes find effective patch-work solutions for the short term, useful long-term answers escape us. I suspect the reason is that they all parts of a much larger challenge, one that cannot ultimately be separated from that task of rethinking advancement. Creative Systems Theory calls it our time’s Crisis of Purpose.

I introduced my recent book Hope and the Future by describing therapy work with a young man who had attempted to hang himself. It became strikingly clear in our conversations that the hopelessness he felt was only in limited ways personal. It was more about the state of the world. He described having a hard time thinking of a future he would want to be a part of. The aspects of therapy that most helped him involved asking together what a meaningful human future might look like, exploring how we would need to rethink the human story to get there, and him asking how he in his life might contribute to that new story. In some way they had to do with addressing today’s Crisis of Purpose.  

Creative Systems Theory proposes that today’s Crisis of Purpose is a reflection of the need to engage the essential “growing up” as a species that it describes with the concept of Cultural Maturity. Today we stand in a awkward, in-between time, straddling realities. We experience a Crisis of Purpose because the values and ways of thinking that effectively served to create meaning within modern age realities no longer benefit us. A time’s definition of wealth and progress functions as its compass point for making choices. Without a guiding direction appropriate to our time, we are left rudderless, adrift all too often in a sea of distraction.  

How do we best think about needed new measures for wealth and progress? The central recognition is that they must be of a more systemic, more whole-box-of-wax, sort. They must more effectively capture all that contributes to human meaning. 

In every part of our lives, more systemically conceived measures of advancement are becoming essential. More systemically inclusive measures will be required, for example, if we are to successfully assess the benefits and risks of new technologies. (Without them we have no way to know what ultimately we are to call benefit.) More systemically inclusive measures will similarly be critical to making good environmental decisions. (It is only through them that we can appreciate how impoverished further environmental destruction would leave us.) And, certainly, more mature and systemic measures for wealth and progress will be necessary if we are to effectively address the ever-widening gap between the world’s haves and have-nots. (Ask about benefit more consciously and we begin to better recognize how such disparities are not just ethically troubling, but risk destabilizing societies and putting everyone’s well-being in peril.)

We are left with the question of just how we go about learning to think about what matters in such more systemic and complete ways. Creative Systems Theory puts the task in developmental terms. It describes how defining wealth and progress in material/technological terms can be understood to follow naturally from the objectivist/materialist kind of cognitive organization that gave us modern age thought. It calls the kind of cognitive organization that becomes possible with Cultural Maturity’s changes Integrative Meta-perspective. Integrative Meta-perspective involves at once more fully stepping back from, and more deeply engaging, the whole of our human complexity. The needed more systemic values and ways of understanding follow naturally from it. (My upcoming book Rethinking How Think: Integrative Meta-Perspective and the Cognitive “Growing Up” On Which the Future Depends will address this reordering in detail.)

If our concern is the long-term wellbeing of the species, no task it more important than coming to define wealth and progress in more complete and ultimately life-affirming ways. And if how I am thinking accurately about more immediate concerns such as addiction, suicide, gun violence, and homeless, the task is not just some far-off matter. The courage we bring to redefining wealth and progress in our time will be what most determines whether the choices we make today are sane and ultimately provide benefit.    


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