A New Consciousness For a World In Crisis

Geopolitical activist Dr. Don Beck shines new light on our greatest global challenges
by Jessica Roemischer

When Dr. Don Beck speaks about our most pressing humanitarian issues, he reveals disarmingly intuitive insights into what often appear to be irreconcilable situations. Having developed and championed Spiral Dynamics—arguably one of the most accurate models of cultural development—Beck’s thirty-year career has led him from corporate boardrooms to government offices to inner-city schools. Most notably, he spent eighteen years traveling to and from South Africa, where he tirelessly committed himself to helping catalyze the peaceful transition out of apartheid.

Willing to risk his own safety to create open channels of communication across highly polarized racial divides, Beck conjured a vision of a future beyond apartheid that played no small role in convincing the de Klerk government to release Nelson Mandela from prison.

In the spring of 2004, Beck established the Copenhagen Center for Human Emergence (CCHE)—the first public institution dedicated to this new paradigm of solution- making, and the next and perhaps most significant chapter of his work.

Beck’s ongoing conviction is that we must understand the fundamental and often widely differing ways in which both individual human beings and entire cultures think about things and prioritize their values. Only then can we address the root causes of social fragmentation and conflict and create a form of global governance that will guide the emergence of a new society in the twenty-first century.

WIE: Why do you feel that the old models of global governance are no longer adequate for addressing the problems and challenges we face?

DON BECK: Since the dawn of civilization one hundred thousand years ago, humans have migrated over islands, continents, mountain ranges, steppes, deserts, and other landforms, and have even escaped Earth’s gravity. We have formed clans, tribes, holy orders, enterprises, and egalitarian communes. There are now six billion of us, and while we are more culturally fragmented than ever before, we are also more interconnected. Everything is both global and local—everywhere.

Yet the models for global governance that we have in the League of Nations, the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and others simply do not have the complexity of understanding to deal with the fragmentation we’re facing. In short, our problems of existence have become more complex than the solutions we have available to deal with them.

While on the surface it often appears that conflicts are tribal or involve competing empires, or ideologies, or even national interests, the real issues are in the underlying worldviews—the deeper human dynamics that can dramatically differ from one culture to another. It is these underlying cultural dynamics that shape the actions and choices we make, that determine how we live our lives, how cultures subsequently form, and why they often collide.

WIE: Can you give an example of how perceiving the fundamental differences between cultural worldviews could change our perspective and therefore the ways in which we endeavor to solve global problems?

BECK: The issues surrounding the Arab and Muslim world are awakening us to the fact that there are very different thought structures and value structures in different parts of the planet, and if we don’t know how to deal with these, it will come back to haunt us.

It already has. For example, we went into Iraq with a disastrous assumption coming from the White House, based on our free-market, multi-party democracy, in which each person is a free and independent agent acting on their own behalf.

We assume that everyone else in the world is like us. And so we entered Iraq believing that democracy would be embraced there—that anybody, no matter who they are, can become anything they want and will do so once given the opportunity.

What this fails to take into account is that a tribal worldview is still very, very powerful in the Muslim world, with the primary emphasis being on the extended family and the intermarriage of cousins. Because these cultures come out of heavy tribal enclaves and power-driven kingdoms, nepotism is almost a civic duty. Even today, the Arab countries are not really nation states, and they are nowhere near being democracies.

The “people of the sand” have not yet developed the infrastructures that would support a one-person-one-vote/majority-rules system. I mean, it’s just insane to think that’s got any chance. At the same time, money has poured into these tribal family kingdoms from the West because of oil, benefiting immensely those in the royal family lineages. And those who don’t benefit become the “Arab street,” and that’s where the anger is generated.

So the real source of terrorism is the brotherhoods that are assaulting the current system, assaulting the patronage and the family heritage of the old order that has kept the commoner out of the booty, and which is keeping fifty million Arab males trapped in archaic kingdoms. And these terrorist brotherhoods are networks, as opposed to regiments of armies. So dropping bombs on them is simply going to spread the problem.

WIE: You have also applied this perspective to the AIDS pandemic in Africa, another major global crisis. Could you speak about this?

BECK: The AIDS pandemic is among the greatest humanitarian disasters we’re facing. In Zimbabwe alone, life expectancy has fallen to thirty-three because of an HIV rate that is among the highest in the world, with one out of three non-elderly adults infected with the virus. While the campaign to reduce HIV in Africa has tended to focus more on the medical aspects of the pandemic, it has all but ignored the cultural dynamics that have in large measure created it.

The HIV pandemic in Africa is largely the result of sexual practices that are best understood in terms of the dynamics of underlying worldviews or what we call value systems—in this case, the female tribal system and the male egocentric system. These ways of thinking are not specifically African and they’re not specifically black; they’re not about genetics or geography. They’re value structures.

In the tribal system, women want to give birth to numerous children as their form of social security, and therefore they continue to become pregnant and often contract AIDS from their husbands in the process. They know that many of their children will die, and yet they need their children to look after them in old age as their guarantee of survival.

And on the other hand you have men in the egocentric system, who are driven by a deep need to prove their masculinity, and therefore having AIDS is seen as a sign of their prowess, reflecting the fact that they have probably slept with numerous women and are not using condoms.

To further exacerbate these trends, superstition is highly prevalent in both of these value systems. There’s a common belief, for example, that HIV can be cured if you have sex with a virgin—hence the ongoing prevalence of child, toddler, and baby rape in southern Africa.

Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki and so many of the Europeans who have gone to Africa won’t talk about these issues for fear of being called racist. But these are prime examples of what has to be talked about. It’s not enough to send medical cocktails, which in fact may only increase HIV if these cultural dynamics are not taken into consideration. Why? Because in the context of these value systems, the drugs are seen as an instant magical cure. And people think, “If I can get that magical cure, I can continue my behavior.”

So without the knowledge of culture, the understanding of these value systems or worldviews, the millions or billions of dollars we spend on this crisis won’t address the real dynamics that are creating the pandemic in the first place.

WIE: Do you see evidence, in politics, business, or elsewhere, of the recognition that we must begin looking for new kinds of solutions?

BECK: A conversation I had with the Right Honorable Baroness Amos at the International Development Office in Tony Blair’s government indicated that they are looking for a whole new approach to Third World development and have concluded that it has to happen within governments at the local level rather than through external helping agencies.

And this is not just in terms of a solution to the HIV crisis, but far beyond that. Both the U.S. State Department and the Blair government are redoing their African commissions, asking why they haven’t worked. Other major funding sources are asking this as well.

The U.S. State Department is putting forward a new African initiative where countries now have to compete to receive aid; they have to demonstrate a threshold of responsibility in order to qualify for assistance. In the past, we’d simply write a check out of guilt, or charity, or other motives, such as anticommunism. But now there is a shift to the expectation or demand that these countries achieve a certain level of accountability in their economic, political, and social structures before they can qualify for money. They have to get their houses in order.

The highest expression of humanity is not to label others as victims but to create the insight and the means and the resources to allow them to bootstrap, to rise through the levels of cultural development themselves. And through understanding the cultural dynamics of these countries, we need to demonstrate to them the ways in which they can and must evolve and develop so they can qualify for aid.

WIE: In the examples you’re giving, you’re transmitting the very real sense that unless we embrace a new perspective and implement new kinds of solutions, we may—despite our good intentions—unwittingly exacerbate global problems that could ultimately overwhelm us.

BECK: The entire planet has become a crucible as the fires of conflict, threats from wild cards (unforeseen and potentially catastrophic events), and the rapid speed of change combine to forge levels of turbulence even more dangerous than global warming. But when things get bad enough, solutions will arise out of the milieu. Entirely new solutions will come out of this crisis. We have to, in a sense, almost regenerate brain tissue to reach new levels of thinking.

It’s happened seven different times in human history, and we have no reason to believe that it won’t happen now, but no one knows how it’s going to look. There’s optimism in that, but there’s no guarantee.

It takes crisis, and it takes the failure of our present solutions, to set the stage for the emergence of the new. The fact is that there are six billion of us passing through different levels of consciousness and cultural development, with each step requiring different economic and political models, diverse expressions of religion and spirituality, and tailored approaches to education, health care, and community development.

Whole cultures are passing into new developmental zones, and we can help them emerge, we can help them create self-sustainability. But we need three-dimensional thinking and actual on-the-ground solutions for meshing the third and first worlds, for cutting across racial boundaries, for creating win-win-win situations.

That’s why the two key words for my work, and for my new Center, are human and emergence. Because ultimately, what we’re trying to do is create better ways for six billion earthlings to survive. That is the ultimate bottom line—the health of the whole, based upon an understanding of human complexity and emergence.

In this way, we’re developing the next step beyond the League of Nations and the United Nations. I realize this endeavor has a grand scope, but such is the nature of major paradigm shifts in our culture.

The founder of the Institute of Values and Culture and the Spiral Dynamics Group, Don Beck is also a founding associate of Ken Wilber’s Integral Institute, and cofounder of the National Values Center in Denton, Texas.

%d bloggers like this: