This paper explores whether inventions and technologies can be “civilized” such that their embedding in our social, biological & economic fabric leads to the flourishing of all life on our planet in ethical, thriveable ways. The paper also explores the power of “story” to disseminate the wisdom that Spiral Dynamics can offer and thus assist the unfolding of consciousness.
The Past – The Story of Easter Island
It was mid-morning and adjunct professor Patrick Snyder was engaged in a discussion with several students during class.
“But Professor, surely human ingenuity will be able to address these so-called environmental problems you are talking about. And besides, when the environment gets scarce, the free market will take care of things.”
Patrick looked at the student. He was a tall clean-shaven fellow with a baseball cap and a crisp sweater with the logo of the university on it. Patrick had heard the arguments many times before in his classes. Whenever he tried to wake up his students to the global environmental problems the world was now facing, he would get three typical responses. One was shock and amazement, from a fairly minor group of students who were able to grasp the magnitude of the problems that included climate change, water shortages, extinction, and loss of topsoil. To Pat, these issues were not isolated. They were all part of the same problem, which was a belief system that did not include the awareness and understanding of Earth’s ecosystems – the cyclical, process-oriented nature of life on Earth.
Then there was a group of students whose only goal was to graduate as fast as they could to start making money and pay off debt. Many of them worked 20 to 30 hours a week trying to make ends meet and every morning Patrick saw them shuffle in, hollow eyed from lack of sleep. Being aware of the continuing budget cuts and tuition hikes these kids had to face, Patrick could not blame them. What surprised him, however, was the complacent attitude that they displayed. Somehow, they passively accepted their struggles as inevitable and something each of them had to face individually. Perhaps, they were simply trying to make it through.
The third group would plainly deny environmental problems or have an unshakable belief that they could be “fixed.” The student who had spoken earlier belonged to this group, as did many of today’s political and business leaders. They were still operating in what was often called the old Descartes paradigm, which propagated that the world and everything in it could be separated out into individual objects for analysis, and problems could be fixed one at the time, usually by inventing some type of smart technology.
The group that couldn’t understand these links, was the group that Patrick tried to reach. He gave the student with the baseball cap a smile and said, “Thank you for your contribution. Those are good points that warrant further exploration. In fact, what I have planned today is to tell you a story that shows that it’s not unthinkable that humans can destroy themselves by clinging on to certain beliefs and ignoring the effects of their actions on their social and natural environment.”
Patrick walked over to his backpack that was sitting on a chair and took out a book which he held up to see. The title read A Green History of the World, The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. He took a swig of water from his bottle and sat down on the desk letting his legs dangle. He cleared his throat and began.
“The story is about the fate of Easter Island. The small island in the Pacific, famous for all those mysterious huge statues. Easter Island is a small island and one of the most remote, inhabited places on Earth. It lies in the Pacific Ocean, 2,000 miles off the west coast of South America and over a thousand miles from the nearest inhabitable Island in the South Pacific. Yet, despite its seeming insignificance, the story of Easter Island is a story all of you need to hear.
This story isn’t one of lost civilizations, but a striking example of the dependence of human societies on their environment and of the consequences of irreversibly damaging that environment. It’s the story of immigrants who, starting from an extremely limited resource base, constructed one of the most advanced societies in the world given the technology they had available. But, the demands placed on the natural environment of the island by this development were enormous and when it could no longer withstand the pressure, the society that had been painfully built up over the previous thousand years came down with it.
The first European to visit the island was the Dutch Admiral Roggeveen, onboard the Arend, or Eagle on Easter Sunday, 1722. Hence the name of the island. Eight months before, he had set sail with three ships and over 200 men from the Netherlands. The expedition was funded by the Dutch West India Company and its goal was to find the legendary Southern Continent, a landmass believed to lie somewhere in the southern Pacific Ocean.
On Easter Island Roggeveen found a society in a primitive state with about 3,000 people living in squalid reed huts or caves, engaged in almost perpetual warfare and resorting to cannibalism in a desperate attempt to supplement their protein intake. What amazed and intrigued Roggeveen and later visitors was the evidence, amongst all the squalor and barbarism, of a once flourishing and advanced society. Scattered across the island were more than 600, massive, skillfully carved stone statues, on average over twenty feet high. It was a mystery how those people could ever have been responsible for such a socially advanced and technologically complex task as carving, transporting and erecting the statues.
The first inhabitants of Easter Island arrived sometime in the fifth century and were what we now refer to as Polynesians. Long ago, they had started out from somewhere in south-east Asia, to colonize the Pacific and New Zealand, where they are called Maoris. They were excellent sea farers and made their long voyages in huge double canoes, joined together by a broad central platform to transport and shelter people, plants, animals and food. On Easter Island, they discovered a world with few resources, but with dense forests and several small lakes with fresh water. They soon found that the climate was too severe for most of their semi-tropical plants such as breadfruit and coconut, which they had brought on their large canoes, together with chickens and stowaway rats. Thus, the inhabitants were, restricted to a diet based mainly on sweet potatoes, chickens and fish. As the population slowly increased the forms of social organization familiar in the rest of Polynesia were adopted. The basic social unit was the extended family, which jointly owned and cultivated their land. Closely related households formed lineages and clans, headed by a chief who had both governmental and religious authority. Settlements were scattered across the island in small clusters of peasant huts with crops grown in open fields. Social activities were centered around separate ceremonial centers, that included large stone platforms, similar to those found in other parts of Polynesia and known as ahu.
What made Easter Island different was that food production, keeping chickens and growing sweet potatoes, was not very demanding and there was plenty of free time which could be spent on ceremonial activities. The Easter Islanders engaged in elaborate rituals and monument construction. The level of intellectual achievement of at least some parts of Easter Island society can be judged by the fact that a number of those ahu have sophisticated astronomical alignments, usually towards one of the solstices or the equinox. At each ahu they erected between one and fifteen of the huge stone statues that survive today. It is these statues which took up immense amounts of labor.
The statues were carved, using only obsidian stone tools, at one quarry. They were fashioned to represent in a highly stylized form a male head and shoulders (see Figure 1). On top of the head was a type of hat of red stone weighing about ten tons that came from another quarry. The most challenging problem was to transport the statues, each some twenty feet in length and weighing several tens of tons, across the island and the then erect them at the ahu.
Patrick looked around the class and asked: “So, how do did they do that?”
One young lady raised her hand, “Did they have horses to pull them?”
“They wished, but all they had were chickens and rats,” Patrick answered, and the class chuckled. Lacking any oxen or horses, they had to rely on human power to drag the statues across the island using tree trunks as rollers. They also must have invented and used ingenious rigs to set the statues upright with ropes and counterweights.
The population of the island grew steadily from the original small group in the fifth century to about 7,000 at its peak in 1550. Over time the number of clans would have increased and also the competition between them. By the sixteenth century hundreds of ahu had been constructed and more than 600 of the huge stone statues. Then, when the society was at its peak, it suddenly collapsed. – Why? What was the cause of the collapse and the key to understanding the so-called mystery of Easter Island?” asked Patrick, making sure he made eye contact with the group.
No one answered. Patrick decided not to lose the momentum: “It was the massive environmental degradation brought on by the total deforestation of the island. Enormous quantities of timber would have been required for logs to roll the statues across the island and to erect them. More wood was needed for housing, making canoes, firewood, and so on. As a result, by 1600, the island was completely deforested, and statue erection was over, leaving several stranded at the quarry.
Obviously, the deforestation of the island was not only the death knell for the elaborate cultural life. It also had other drastic effects on practical, everyday life. The shortage of trees forced them to abandon building houses from timber and live in caves or flimsy reed huts. Canoes could no longer be built and only reed boats incapable of long voyages could be made. Fishing was also more difficult because nets had previously been woven tree bark strips. Removal of the tree cover also badly affected the soil of the island, which would have already suffered from a lack of suitable animal manure to replace nutrients taken up by the crops. Increased exposure caused soil erosion and the leaching out of essential nutrients. As a result, crop yields declined. The only source of food on the island unaffected by these problems was the chickens.”
The social and cultural impact of deforestation was equally important. It literally shattered their belief system, their Gods and their Truth, if you will. The inability to erect any more statues must have had a devastating effect on the belief systems and social organization and called into question the foundations on which that complex society had been built. There were increasing conflicts over diminishing resources resulting in a state of almost permanent warfare. Slavery became common and as the amount of protein available fell the population turned to cannibalism. One of the main aims of warfare was to destroy the ahu of opposing clans. The magnificent stone statues, too massive to destroy, were pulled down. When the islanders were asked by the visitors how the statues had been moved from the quarry, they could no longer remember what their ancestors had achieved and said that the huge figures had been live walking giants.
What can we learn from the story of Easter Island? Against great odds the islanders painstakingly constructed, over many centuries, one of the most advanced societies of its type in the world. For a thousand years they sustained a way of life in accordance with an elaborate set of social and religious customs that enabled them not only to survive but to flourish. It was in many ways a triumph of human ingenuity and an apparent victory over a difficult environment. But in the end the increasing numbers and cultural ambitions of the islanders proved too great for the limited resources and the society collapsed to a state of barbarism.
For the last two million years, humans have succeeded in obtaining more food and extracting more resources on which to sustain increasing numbers of people and increasingly complex and technologically advanced societies. But have we been any more successful than the Easter islanders in finding a way of life that doesn’t fatally deplete the resources that are available to them and irreversibly damage their life support system?” (Pointing, 1991)
Patrick shut the book with a bang and put it out on the table beside him. “Let me give you your assignment. I want you to look up and study the principle of the ‘ecological footprint’ and do the online exercise to calculate your own. See you next week!”
The Future – Guiding Questions for Evaluating Emerging Technologies
Like Easter Island the Earth has only limited resources to support human society and all its demands. Like the islanders, the human population of the Earth has no practical means of escape. For the last two million years humans have succeeded in obtaining more food and extracting more resources to sustain increasing numbers of people and increasingly complex and technologically advanced societies. But have we been any more successful than the islanders in finding a way of life that doesn’t fatally deplete the resources that are available to us and irreversibly damage their life support system?
While some of us see the need for greater awareness, new belief systems and associated behavior change, the majority of people continues cutting real and metaphorical trees. Many do this, because they have no alternative – When you’re in survival mode, the greater context evades you. Others do it because it brings them perceived wealth, status and power. On top of that are our constructed economic and financial belief systems that inherently demand ever-increasing returns. This brings us to technology. Most technologies are designed to boost this process; faster, cheaper, better, while externalizing societal and environmental costs. These technologies are often referred to as sustaining technologies.
To continue the metaphor, we have to keep cutting trees and learn how to do it faster and more effectively. That is not to say that we don’t plant trees, however we plant most so they can be cut as soon as possible. This may not sound as bad as clear-cutting, but it is nevertheless destructive. The plantings get optimum doses of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Ground cover plants (weeds) that would take up precious nutrients are killed off. Such forests are nothing but plantations; virtual dead zones because no other life is possible, yet they yield faster and cheaper results. Figure 2, below, shows two posts with tree rings of yellow pine: new vs old pine.
Beyond the sustaining technologies are the disruptive technologies. These don’t just do things faster and more effectively, but also radically different, hence, disruptive. A disruptive technology is one that displaces an established technology and shakes up an industry and associated business model or produces a ground-breaking widget that can create a completely new industry. Examples of current, major disruptive technologies include: Robotics, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Advanced genomics, Genetic engineering, Cloud computing, Blockchain, and Hyperloop.
Novel, disruptive technologies often lack refinement, have performance problems and appeal to a limited audience (early adopters) and may not yet have a proven practical application. But, in this day and age, adoption is fast. This is what makes these technologies both exciting and potentially dangerous or even lethal, because, we are often still forming our perspectives from older, less evolved paradigms that have no use for context, nor for indirect effects. Additionally, these effects are now likely to be much more powerful and global. Easter Island has become Planet Earth.
We are only beginning to get our minds around how such inventions likely can disrupt existing industries, cultures and our lives. Formulating the effects of massive disruptions is one thing. Beyond that, lies the unknown unknown. Moreover, some of these technologies have the potential to spin out of control (e.g. artificial intelligence) or may do irrevocable damage to our Earth’s life support systems, (e.g. genetic engineering and advanced genomics). We will have to evolve our abilities and structural support systems to evaluate such new technologies to make sure the disruptions are beneficial. This implies forming our perspectives from a more-contextual worldview.
So far, I have deliberately avoided using Spiral Dynamics terminology. The reason is that I want to exemplify the power of story as a method to reach people where there at, which is, of course, what Spiral Dynamics (SD) aims to do also. Except that stories can reach people more experientially and directly entering our deeper meaning making processes in ways that factual reporting can’t.
In SD terms, the unfortunate former inhabitants of Easter Island probably operated from a belief system that was Purple with some Red and then collapsed into Beige. Today, the push for economic growth is likely to come from healthy and unhealthy Orange (with Red). Yet the effects remain the same. Using the SD model, the reason is obvious: lack of Green and Blue. In the case of the Islanders, they hadn’t reached either meme yet, whereas modern-day Orange, has become toxic. It sees Green and Blue as impediments or uses Blue as a tool to enforce laws and strengthen (fundamentalist) mindsets that are to its advantage. Bringing back healthy Blue would be key, but only after full embrace and understanding of Green and its associated ecological systems and contexts. Thus, coming from Second Tier.
Given the global, interconnected nature of today’s reality that would be Turquoise. (I am leaving a discussion on the merits of Yellow out for brevity.) While we are still in early explorations of the Turquoise worldview the spiral dynamics and integral communities seem to agree that Turquoise is holistic, recognizing a single, global, dynamic organism with its own collective mind, where Self is both distinct and a blended part of a larger compassionate whole. These words seem fitting for an attempt to address the global issues of today. A new technology, system or, in fact, all of our actions would have to enhance the flourishing of this “organism.” This requires a keen inner awareness and new skills in perspective-taking and sensing.
Bringing the discussion back to the evaluation of technologies, some guiding questions are:
- Who is likely to use it under what conditions?
- What are the potential key impacts of this technology and how do they interrelate with existing and unfolding realities?
- How can key impacts best be monitored?
- Would this technology pass an ethics test?
- Is this technology readily adjustable and adaptable when conditions change, and if not, can it be unplugged and decommissioned?
- Does this technology allow for additional unexpected, emerging novelty?
- Can this technology be integrated in other technological and non-technological systems (humans, society and other life, geo-bio flows)?
- Does this technology further connectivity between minds in an open, transparent and non-hierarchical way?
While the last few questions might require a second-tier center of gravity, the first four or five questions are plain, hard-nosed Blue, indicating how important healthy Blue is. Of course, the big question is what institutions will handle this type of evaluation and have the power to enforce? For now, I leave this question to you as an invitation to explore.
Technology can help in furthering evolution, connectivity, learning, and collective intelligence and action if used wisely. It can also destroy and become very dangerous if abused. Disruptive inventions can bring changes that are not what we want (e.g. massive job loss from self-driving trucks). Furthermore, new disruptive technologies may now be so powerful that they can spin out of control. (e.g., Artificial Intelligence, or in escaping GMO-life forms that start breeding and change (read collapse) global ecosystems.) Let’s hope these scenarios turn out to be far-fetched and we will flourish.
Yet, there is a poignant reason that the collapse of a global Easter Island should be of particular interest to Integral and Spiral Dynamics practitioners. And that concerns the key tenet of both models – evolution. If we don’t get a handle on run-away economic growth, unhelpful innovation and disruptive technological breakthroughs to guarantee that these benefit the Turquoise Whole, evolution will halt and there will be no more economy, no society, no art or culture, no more Integral or Spiral Dynamics Conferences either.
So, how do we evolve to a level of consciousness that can handle the complexities of today’s world, or in other words, how do we get to Turquoise fast? I strongly believe that embracing a certain subjectivity will help us here. When I carefully probe into what is being asked for, I can’t help but sense how magnificent that single, global, dynamic organism with its own collective mind is. There is so much beauty in that image and the feelings it evokes. Over the years, we have worked hard to give Spiral Dynamics a more solid, data-based, academic foundation, and rightfully so. It’s what’s needed to get the attention of power players from first tier. But to reach their hearts, we will have to use more creative methods. Methods that are more feminine, surprising and subjective, such as art and story that will paint and speak the pictures and sounds of the Whole and offer people increasing glimpses of what’s possible.
 Pointing, C., 1991, A Green History of the World, The Environment and the Collapse of the Great Civilizations, Penguin Books, ISBN 0 14 01.7660 8.
 Diamond, J., 1995, Easter’s End. Discover Magazine, Aug., 1995.
About The Author
Michiel Doorn: I have a Dipl-Ing. (M.E.) degree in Geosciences from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. I am particularly skilled in sustainability strategies, incl. smart cities and the circular economy. I was also an Adjunct Lecturer and professor at two major universities in the United States and the Netherlands, teaching classes in entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility and environmental ethics.
My passion is to facilitate profitable change toward more functional, resilient, sustainable practices, always from a holistic, systems perspective. I am also a Thomas Berry scholar and have written two books on cosmology and our mutual relationship with the Earth as a living, knowing and numinous ecological system. The introduction to the latest book, an anthology in Dutch, was written by Ervin Laszlo. I am honored to be the new chairman of the Leap into Life Foundation (https://leapintolife.nl) dedicated to increase the quality of life in “developing” societies. Based on true principles of fair chain, shared economy, Spiral Dynamics insights and learning by doing. Leap into life learns from and builds on healthy Purple communities so they can help themselves.