Introducing a new paradigm for social change

Our ‘new paradigm’ pulls together a number of ways of thinking that are rarely applied to social change. They have the potential to make the environmental-progressive movement, and faith communities that care about a positive future, orders of magnitude more effective. Orders of magnitude!

In what follows we will discuss the notion of ‘paradigm’, and then go through the elements of this new paradigm. There is a lot of material here, with many ideas that may be new to you. We need the best thinking we can get; hopefully you will see valuable new possibilities.

Our challenge is to inspire mainstream commitment to changing the direction of society as a whole, so that we evolve in society that enables people to thrive while operating within planetary boundaries. Let’s make it happen!


What is a paradigm?

We might think of a ‘paradigm’ as an organised way of seeing the world. This is important, because our actions stem from our way of seeing the world.

A classic illustration of different paradigms is seeing the world as flat, with an edge you could fall off, and seeing the world as spherical. It is said that old maps marked the edge of the world with the warning, “Here be dragons.”

Different paradigms lead to different ways of behaving. Our ecological crisis calls the dominant paradigm of economic growth and exploitation into question. 

Paradigms are not just intellectual ideas

Paradigms are deeply ingrained modes of perception, experiencing and action which are wired into the synaptic connections of our nervous system. As the concept of brain plasticity shows, these connections can change, but usually not rapidly.

We develop our paradigms as children by absorbing the understanding of the world that our parents have, along with influences from school, our peers and the larger culture. This understanding may be questioned when we reach adolescence, especially the religious aspects.

Prolonged emersion in any discipline, whether it be a religious teaching, a martial art, or earning a PhD in one of the sciences, will influence our way of seeing the world… to a degree. There are also idiosyncratic factors. We are born with different temperaments, and indeed, no two brains are identical. Ultimately, each person’s worldview is somewhat unique. Our personal worldviews evolve through the unpredictable confluence of our genetics, temperament, life experiences and choices we make.

The term ‘paradigm’ was popularised by Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He observed that people who had made their careers in a scientific discipline such as physics often found it difficult or impossible to embrace a new way of thinking about that discipline. For example, there is a quote from an American admiral who said, “We will never be able to send a rocket into space. Take it from me; I am an expert in munitions.”

Attachment to our familiar ways of thinking is understandable. Physicists spent years studying their discipline. They train their brain to think in a certain way, and their careers are built on that way of thinking.

Our paradigms are mental maps of the world. Which is to say, they are descriptions  of the world. And as Alfred Korzybski, the founder of General Semantics was fond of pointing out,

The map is not the territory.

The familiar story of the blind man and the elephant illustrates this. Our mental maps are inherently incomplete

There is a story that at the battle of Waterloo Napoleon’s map did not show a sunken road. This proved disastrous when he ordered his cavalry to charge across it.

The story may be apocryphal. But the principle is valid. Important things may be missing from our paradigms, or mental models, and these make a difference.

Grasping the idea that the map is not the territory can help us relax our certainty, become more open to other people’s ideas, and even to fresh approaches to social change.


Not only are our maps not the territory, but we can see the ‘same’ territory in different ways, each of which makes sense.

This classic image from Gestalt psychology illustrates the point. Do you see a young woman or a much older woman? Both interpretations make sense.

In such simple illustrations we can easily switch between one way of looking and the other. But our actual paradigms – our world views – are modes of perception and acting that are inherently not easy to change. This is because they are deeply ingrained in the operation of our nervous systems.

As research psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk puts it:

Attachment researchers have shown that our earliest caregivers don’t only feed us, dress us, and comfort us when we are upset, they shape the way our rapidly growing brain perceives reality. Our interactions with our caregivers convey what is safe and what is dangerous: whom we can count on and who will let us down; what we need to do to get our needs met. This information is embedded in the warp and woof of our brain circuitry and forms the template of how we think of ourselves and the world around us. These inner maps are remarkably stable across time.

This doesn’t mean, however, that our maps can’t be modified by experience. A deep love relationship, particularly during adolescence, when the brain once again goes through a period of exponential change, truly can transform us. So can the birth of a child, our babies often teach us how to love. Adults who are abused or neglected as children can still learn the beauty of intimacy and mutual trust or have a deep spiritual experience that opens them to a larger universe. In contrast, previously uncontaminated childhood maps can become so distorted by an adult rape or assault that all roads are rerouted into terror or despair. These responses are not reasonable and therefore cannot be changed simply by reframing irrational beliefs. Our maps of the world are encoded in the emotional brain, and changing them means having to reorganise that part of the central nervous system.

The Body Keeps the Score p 129

So – paradigms are not just ‘intellectual ideas’ or abstract philosophies. They are patterns of neurological organisation that include thoughts, feelings, emotional investment, memories and aspirations which are shaped by our experience, and in turn shape our experience. There is much more to changing our deeply ingrained ways of perceiving and acting than just words.

Paradigms can change

It has been said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Nevertheless, the reality is that our brains are always changing. Even ‘old dogs’ are adapting to the reality of growing older. And some folks are lifelong learners and creators. It is a matter of our willingness to learn and change.

When we are introduced to a really new way of thinking – a new paradigm – it is unlikely that we will understand it at first. We have to engage with it. This is because it takes time for our brain to develop the new neural connections that enable us to grasp and apply the new way of thinking.

Hence the value of rereading books that introduce new ideas.

When it comes to developing new skills, we have to train. Whether it’s learning to do advanced mathematics or martial arts, we have to practice sufficiently for our nervous systems to develop new patterns of coordination.

Changing paradigms is the most influential leverage point in human systems

People’s behaviour is based on their paradigms. As systems thinker Donella Meadows pointed out, affecting people’s paradigms is the most influential leverage point in any human system (except for inspiring people to think for themselves).

Meadows describes this in her influential essay called Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. She ranks the relative influence of different kinds of interventions. She put rules, regulations, and things you can measure low on the scale. At the top she put the thinking that generates policies, rules and regulations – which is to say, people’s paradigms.

Here is an adaptation of her idea.

In terms of transformative social change, the point of expanding people’s mental maps is to prepare people to support leadership for constructive change.

Training in disciplines that develop collaboration skills can be part of our personal journey to becoming the kind of people who can create and enjoy a life-affirming culture.

A unifying goal: transitioning to a life-affirming culture

From time to time it occurs to people that the environmental-progressive movement, with its millions of groups, could be more effective if we collaborated.. Typical proposals are to cross-fertilise ideas; support each other; or come up with some project to collaborate on.

Given the logistics of trying to understand what millions of other groups are doing, the project of cross-fertilising ideas and supporting each other does not look very feasible.

When it comes to projects, typically leaders either argue over which kinds of projects to support (because each thinks their project is important, which is true), or they agree on local projects. However, local projects, as valuable as they are, do not actually change the larger dynamics that are driving ecological destruction.

Some think it is unlikely that the environmental-progressive movement can ever be unified in the sense of forming some kind of super-organisation that has agreed-upon policies and focuses on specific campaigns. Importantly, we do not need to. It is sufficient for us to align towards a common overarching goal, and devote a portion of our efforts into seeding that goal into mainstream thinking.

One way to express such a goal is:

The task of our time is to transition to a life-affirming global culture, rather than continuing on our present course of ecological self-destruction.

Transitioning to a life-affirming culture! This goal stands in contrast to economic growth as a defining goal for our time.

This graphic indicates some of the elements of a life-affirming culture.

‘A life-affirming culture’ it is an umbrella term that encompasses the values and practical actions of most if not all of the environmental and progressive groups. It provides a healthy alternative to economic growth as a guiding goal for our time.

Going beyond specific issues

We can celebrate that there are, literally, millions of groups that care about climate change and other environmental and social issues. However, mostly they work on specific issues. They do not yet have a vision of changing our society so profoundly that protest, for example, becomes unnecessary. So, let’s get this conversation going!

The delivery system

The unsolved problem for the environmental-progressive movement is:

How do we get out of our own thought bubbles?

How do we go beyond preaching to the converted?

It’s one thing to have great ideas. But how do we seed them into mainstream thinking?

Well, the good news is that there are millions of groups that care about environmental and social well-being. Mostly the members of these groups pay dues, sign petitions, and sometimes protest. We can amplify our combined influenced by orders of magnitude by inspiring many of the members of these groups to act as citizen-educators, and providing tools to make them effective.

Each member of these groups has their own network of friends and business colleagues, as well as their larger social media networks. And many are leaders of businesses or organisations in their own right. The staff and members of these institutions also have their own broader networks. The combined networks of all these people is massive. We reach into every level of society.

Improving brain functioning: Map, intention, and modus operandi

The Israeli movement educator Moshe Feldenkrais had a theory about how to improve brain functioning. Feldenkrais practitioners demonstrate that it is useful by helping kids with cerebral palsy, people coming from stroke, and people with ordinary back problems move better.

The theory can be generalised to improving any skilled behavior. And although the applications can be endlessly varied and imaginative, the theory can be boiled down to three essential components:

  • People’s mental maps,
  • Their intentions, and
  • Their ways of carrying out their intentions (modus operandi)

In addition, people have psychological drivers. Some are caring and compassionate. Others are distorted through factors such as child abuse, wartime trauma, ideological conditioning, addiction to money, and severe economic destress. These distortions affect both our perception and our actions.

Understanding these aspects of behaviour enables us to devise interventions to improve them.

Mental maps

In childhood our maps are restricted to the world we experience. As we mature, our maps expand.

In this new paradigm for social change we aim to expand people’s maps in two ways.

  • First, we aim to enable folks to grasp that current ecological trends will have disastrous consequences that affect us all. And to not just ‘know’ this, but to have a ‘holy shit, this is real moment’, if they are not there already.

This, of course, is what the School Strike for Climate and Extinction Rebellion folks are trying to do. It is a critical step, because fear of the consequences looming disasters provides a compelling reason to change.

There are many factors to be concerned about in addition to climate change. And concern is important. Concern (read fear) can be a motivation for transformative change. Our communication tool Looming Disasters is a tool to bring home to people the reality of our existential emergency.

Here is a link to the slide deck.

  • Secondly, we aim to expand people’s mental maps so they grasp the major drivers that make environmental and social problems worse. Kitchen Table Conversations is our tool for this.

The diagram below shows the major drivers that increase the amount of stuff we produce and consume, and therefore increase CO2 emissions and other environmental damage. It is one of the Kitchen Table Conversations modules. (In practice, we do not present it as a diagram. Rather, we present each idea one at a time, with plenty of time for conversation about each point.)


We have already mentioned that the predominate intention for most countries in our globalised civilisation is economic growth. Economic growth requires continuously increasing industrial production. This leads to ever-increasing environmental damage.

A useful intention of this time is to transition to a life-affirming culture.

Modus operandi

As mentioned, our ‘modus operandi’ is about how we go about accomplishing our goals. Neurologically, our modus operandi are patterns of coordination in the central nervous system.

To play on the old story of the blind men and the elephant, it is one thing to see elephant, it is another thing to understand how the elephant moves.

The phrase modus operandi calls our attention to our way of accomplishing things. How do we go about accomplishing our intention?

In terms of social relations, there are two primary ways of accomplishing things. Cultural historian Riane Eisler calls them partnership-respect relating and domination-control relating.

Two primary styles of modus operandi: partnership-respect and domination-control

Domination-control: Think of the millennia long history of military conquest, empires, patriarchy, slavery, bullying and indeed child abuse.

Partnership-respect: Think of parents who encourage their children to follow their own line of development; workplaces that give both autonomy and responsibility to their staff; and Gorbachev and Reagan negotiating to reduce nuclear weapons.

This graphic contrasts these two modes of relating:


These modes of relating produce similar outcomes – either benign or hurtful – at every level from childbirth to global governance.

Much of Western history has been characterised by domination-control relating, with empires, wars, economic exploitation and patriarchy. However, as mentioned there is a growing cohort of ‘cultural creatives’ who instinctively embody partnership-respect values.

Currently the United States and other countries invest massively in nuclear weapons and in unstoppable nuclear weapon delivery systems. The new thrust is to militarise space.

Nuclear weapons have the potential to destroy most of life on Earth. As science-fiction writer Arthur Clarke noted, it comes down to this:

Any highly developed technological civilisation that develops weapons of mass destruction will destroy itself unless it evolves an ethos of collaboration for the common good.

Evolving a collaborative society that operates on partnership-respect values is not merely an abstract utopian ideal; it is essential for our future survival.

As an example of the power of mindsets and goals, imagine the difference if American foreign policy, instead of waging a ‘War on Terror’, was devoted to reducing the circumstances that create terrorists.

Population growth

All of life inherently has an urge to reproduce, and we humans are not an exception. Organisms typically reproduce to the limit of their food supply, unless they are constrained by natural factors such as predators.

In terms of sheer biomass humans are the most successful top predator on Earth – for the moment. As the following diagram indicates, humans, our livestock, and the cropland used to support our livestock have expanded to such an extent that other large mammals have little room to live. Many have gone extinct.


There is more to it – a grim litany of declining freshwater supplies, topsoil loss, insect decline (e.g. pollinators), and declining fish stocks. Many people, recognising this, advocate a vegan diet. As our demand for meat products declines, land would be released for re-wilding.

However, we are in ‘overshoot’ now, using more resources each year than nature can regenerate. It’s like our bank account declining faster than we can top it up.

Improved industrial design and agricultural techniques can stretch our resources temporarily. But ultimately they are useless if we don’t adapt to live within planetary limits, and population growth continues.

Some young women, appalled by the prospects of runaway global warming, ecological collapse and nuclear war, choose to not have children. Others, liberated by education and job opportunities, also choose to not have children.

In contrast, some politicians and property developers staunchly advocate population growth.

Economic growth

If we connect the dots, it becomes evident that devotion to economic growth is destroying humanity’s life-support system. This is because, like population growth, economic growth requires ever-increasing resource use, and the resources we can use in a year already exceed what the planet can renew.

One way or another humanity will end up with a steady-state economy. The likely trajectory will be continued economic growth followed by collapse. We are already in a ‘great unravelling’.

The alternative trajectory is that through a combination of realism, enlightened self-interest, and compassion collectively we commit ourselves to transitioning to a steady-state economy.

There is a message here that people need to get their head around:

The age of economic growth is over.

It’s time to design for descent.

An extended think tank to design for descent

There are individuals and groups who are working on designing such a descent. This is good.

However, they have no clout. They are not the ones who would be carrying out the change, no matter how insightful and brilliant their designs. The ones who will carry out the relevant policy, once there is public will, are the government of the day. And to do so they will need massive public support.

So, we may envision an extended think tank – perhaps ten days or two weeks… whatever it takes – where leaders from all political parties, NGOs, business leaders, and aboriginal leaders… along with ecologists, scientists, artists, marketers and a sprinkling of housewives and young people, convene to design a phased descent to a steady-state economy that operates within planetary boundaries.

Even though this should be a global conversation, for one country such as the US or Australia to have a go at this would be ground-breaking

Whole system change

As this cartoon indicates, we have a globalised system that is devouring the Earth.

Arguably, the system will not change unless people want it to change. Which brings us back to mindsets and goals.

The predominant goal for our globalised civilisation is economic growth. The predominant mindset is based on domination-control and consumerism. This is not viable.

There is a saying:

To change the system change the thinking.

Not easy. That’s our job!

Strategic thinking for transformational change – a dark example

The Koch brothers are billionaires who were instrumental in transforming America into the polarised country we see today. Starting in the 1970s, the Koch brothers saw themselves as social change agents.

What they mean by ‘social change’ and what we mean by ‘social change’ are very different. They wanted a world of low taxes, few social services, minimum government regulation of business, and no environmental protection laws. In other words, a society that would allow them to operate as unimpeded ruthless businessmen.

It was clear to them at the time that their values would not be acceptable to a majority of the American public. It was also clear to them that for their agenda to become predominant, they had to shift people’s mindsets.

They had a four-strand strategy.

The first strand was a focused goal. They phrased it as ‘liberty and small government’. Their followers would have interpreted ‘liberty’ as meaning free from tyranny. For the Koch brothers themselves it meant freedom from government regulation.

This goal, of course, was appealing to many of their business colleagues. Even though some of these businesses may have been competitors, they could certainly agree on the goal of low taxes and minimal government regulation.

The second strand was to fund bright intellectuals to make their philosophy intellectually respectable. The first think tank they started is the famous Cato Institute. These intellectuals made the case for individualism and small government, and published their ideas in order to reach other intellectuals, some of whom would become influential in making policy.

The third strand was to create and fund grassroots organisations to espouse their values and worldview, and also tap into the membership of fundamentalist religious groups. They realise that in order to have political power they needed ‘boots on the ground to sell ideas’, not just candidates.

Selling ideas! This fits with Donella Meadows’ insight that the most influential leverage point in any human system is in people’s worldviews, or paradigms. They recruited a multitude of groups to champion more or less the same message: jobs, growth and liberty. Hearing the same message from many different sources made the message more convincing.

The fourth strand was to fund week-long seminars on their libertarian philosophy for young lawyers who might become future judges and politicians.

The strategy and tactics used by the Koch brothers are brilliantly described in Jane Mayer’s Dark Money.

The Koch brothers wanted to transform public consciousness. That shaped their strategy. So far as I can tell, very few people in the environmental-progressive movement have a conscious aim to transform the society. Our efforts are largely devoted to winning specific battles, often in the form of protest.

Even though the environmental-progressive movement does not have the financial resources of the Koch brothers, we have two of the important elements of the Koch brothers’ strategy:

  • First, we have brilliant writers such as Paul Raskin, Riane Eisler, Jean Houston, Charles Eisenstein, David Korten and others who articulate the vision and practical actions of a life-affirming culture. Our intellectual base is robust.
  • Secondly, as mentioned, we already have millions of ‘grassroots’ groups. These are the environmental and progressive groups, businesses, and faith communities that care about a healthy future.

We showed this diagram earlier:

But there are three things the Koch brothers had that the environmental-progressive movement does not yet have:

  • The intention to shift the culture as a whole.
  • A unifying goal to work towards.
  • An integrated strategy for affecting mainstream thinking.

Our idea for the members of environmental-progressive groups to act as citizen-educators by communicating with people they know and with their larger networks about the overarching goal of transitioning to a life-affirming culture, and what it will take to accomplish it. To the extent that we can take us to scale, this is how we can affect mainstream consciousness.

Many of the things the Koch brothers have done, such as mobilising a multitude of organisations in a common cause, and getting public intellectuals to talk up their cause, the environmental-progressive movement could do without a big budget. One shift would be for public intellectuals to go beyond analysis of specific issues and overall trends, and began talking about whole system change and transitioning to a life-affirming culture.


A thinking sequence called SCAN FOCUS ACT is frequently used in a corporate reinvention process called DesignShops. It provides a valuable expansion of the thinking usually done in the environmental-progressive movement.

DesignShops have been used for forty years by large companies with really tough problems. Sometimes the survival of the company was at stake and they needed to come up with a fresh approach in order to keep the company alive.

DesignShops were created by Matt and Gail Taylor. Matt had worked with architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and understood the whole process in architecture from conception to completed building. His construction business was based on getting projects done ahead of schedule and under budget by bringing everyone involved together to think through the project before they started. This is eliminated enormous waste and counter-productive effort.

Gail was so successful as a creative primary school teacher that her students scored two years above grade level. She accomplished this by organising her classroom so that her kids could follow their own curiosity.

Matt reports that in the 1970s he decided to pull his head out of his construction business and take a look at what was going on with the larger world. What he saw was a world beset by environmental problems. He commented:


I foresaw that the time would come when our environmental problems would be so severe that they could only be solved by a new order of collaborative thinking between business, government and civil society. I thought that the means to facilitate such collaboration did not exist, so we developed DesignShops.

At the core of most three-day DesignShops (they are always tailor-made) is a process of SCAN – FOCUS – ACT.  All three steps are critical to skilled business and architectural planning. However, they are rarely integrated into the thinking of environmentalists and social activists. Let’s look at the three elements.

In SCAN you take the time to develop a big picture overview of your situation. Faced with a challenging problem, even though it may be tempting, you don’t immediately jump to solutions. Rather, you take the time to consider the situation from many different angles.

For example, in architecture this could include considering the nature of the site, the needs of the client, the style of surrounding buildings, zoning laws, and the budget.

This leads to the FOCUS phase where you identify a clear goal. In our architecture example, preliminary sketches are considered, and one is selected.

In the ACT phase you work out in detail how to manifest your goal. For example, the building is designed in detail, so the builder and tradespeople know what to do.

In other words, everything is thought through from initial conception to the practicalities of how to execute it. People leave DesignShops with well thought out action plans that they are committed to executing.

How might this process apply to social change?

Well, the first step, SCAN, is to develop a big picture overview of our situation. If we take ‘the big picture’ to include global environmental trends and their drivers, then this cartoon, as mentioned, sums up the situation:

It’s not pleasant, but to be realistic we have to include the possibility of nuclear war.

The conclusion is that to have a hope of a viable future we have to change this whole system. As mentioned, there are brilliant writers who describe our situation very well. Among others, they include:

Riane Eisler Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future
David Korten The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community
Charles Eisenstein The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible
Paul Raskin Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead

It is not necessarily easy to think at the level of changing the whole system. This is why Kitchen Table Conversations were developed. They make thinking about whole system change to a life-affirming culture mentally manageable.

Some people would rather get stuck into practical actions than think about the big picture. This suits their temperament better. And we certainly need practical outcomes. We need to ramp up the good things are already going on.

However, this is not an adequate theory of change by itself. Some people suggest that focusing on local action will be sufficient. But the way our current industrial-economic system currently works the good things we achieve are being overwhelmed by the operation of the larger system. All major environmental trends are getting worse.

It’s like the familiar image of the Titanic. We may be planting beautiful gardens on the sundeck, but if the captain (the big end of town) has us headed full steam ahead towards the iceberg we we’ll all go down together.

So, we are all in the same boat – which is to say, the same spaceship Earth! Headed towards the falls, the thing to do is to turn the ship around.

The key leverage point, as Donella Meadows observed, is affecting people’s mental models and goals. If we accept the goal of transitioning to a life-affirming culture, and the need to change the whole system, then our FOCUS can become:

Inspiring mainstream commitment to doing everything required to pull up from our ecological nosedive, and transition to a life-affirming culture.

The rationale for this was given by an Australian politician who commented:

We politicians cannot get too far ahead of the people.

While local action can create valuable local changes, changing the big picture drivers such as economic growth and corporate influence on governments requires prior thoughtful public will. Without it, politicians championing policies such as intentionally slowing the economy to preserve the environment cannot gain traction.

Which brings us to ACT. It’s one thing to have a comprehensive analysis, and with it a goal worth working towards. But what then? How do we go beyond our own thought bubbles and seed the goal of transitioning to a life-affirming culture into mainstream thinking? How might we mass produce the conversations and thinking that will shift the culture?

As mentioned, we have a greatly underutilised resource: the members of the millions of groups that care about environmental and social well-being.

Mostly such folks pay dues, sign petitions, and occasionally protest. Some do practical action. What if we could inspire them to talk with our friends, neighbours and business colleagues about the goal of transitioning to a life-affirming culture, and we provide tools to make such conversations effective?

Then we would have a means of bypassing mainstream media, and catalysing the conversations and thinking that are the necessary precursor for the really large transformative changes we need.

Kitchen Table Conversations are our primary communication tool to enable people to grasp whole system change to a life-affirming culture. Other tools can be used.

We call people who conduct such conversations citizen-educators – but it’s not about education in the controlling way that many people have experienced it. It’s more a collegial exploration to connect the dots and grasp the big picture – and people are already aware of many of the dots.


The three DesignShops phases are SCAN FOCUS ACT. Once we have done our SCAN, it may be helpful to ask: What’s needed now? This leads to our leverage point – the Focus you want to give energy to.

The DesignShop folks call the final phase ACT. It actually means: Design for action.  Work out how to make the new FOCUS work.

The complete process of SCAN-FOCUS-ACT is rarely done by people in the environmental-progressive movement. Academics tend to stay in SCAN; They are great at analysing the problem.

Many activists tend to bypass SCAN and jump right into action. They go for solutions. Solutions are important, but focusing solely on solutions neglects the fact that we have to change the whole system.

Whatever we advocate, it’s not enough just to ‘have a good idea’. ‘Calls for action’ become useful when we create a way to act on them. In other words, thinking through everything required to make them work… and then organising the needed commitment and resources.

One implication is that most conferences, World Café discussions, panel discussions and lectures about climate change are relatively ineffectual for two reasons:

  • They rarely, if ever, get to the level of whole system change.
  • they mainly preach to the converted, and they do not enrol their audience in a cohesive movement to shift public consciousness.

From the standpoint of catalysing a movement to shift the culture, any gathering that talks about climate change is an opportunity to also ask the audience to be citizen-educators.

The purpose of Inspiring Transition is to catalyse a movement that inspires people who are normally thought of as ‘followers’ to become leaders in their own right.

Evolutionary Catalysts

Cultivating emotional well-being is as important as technological changes in changing from our current course of ecological self-destruction.

We may call people who devote themselves to raising the general level of emotional well-being evolutionary catalysts.

Raising the general level of emotional well-being is important for its own sake. But it is also important because environmentally destructive policies are created and carried out by people who are not in touch with the aspect of themselves that is caring and compassionate.

Which is to say, environmentally destructive policies are carried out by people who have been traumatised to some degree. At our core we are all decent people. But unresolved trauma can lead to behaviours that are destructive.

A significant portion of the population, in every socio-economic class, have been traumatised to some degree while growing up. Many people have been able to resolve trauma through deep meditation and through psychotherapy.

The good news is that there are highly effective techniques people can use for themselves to resolve their own emotional issues (if they are so motivated). As we resolve emotional issues our natural decency and caring emerges.

Devoting some of our effort to raising the general level of emotional well-being is a contribution to the evolution of a life-affirming culture. One role for evolutionary catalysts is to introduce people they know to such techniques.

Another role, for those in positions of influence, is to change organisations so as to reduce stress and bullying, and allow their staff greater autonomy.

Who might become an evolutionary catalyst?

Because they are comfortable with introspection, anyone who has done some kind of ‘inner work’ through deep meditation or psychotherapy can act as evolutionary catalyst. They do this by introducing people to techniques to resolve their own emotional trauma. In doing so, they are not acting as psychotherapists, but as trainers.

Here are several books about psychological self-help techniques that are readily teachable:

  • Garry Craig and Donna Eden The Healing Power of EFT and Energy Psychology
  • Jay Earley Self-Therapy
  • Barry Kaufman To Love Is to Be Happy With
  • Andrew Gaines Inner Work

Inner Work  is a manual of techniques that we can use for ourselves and introduce to others. The first technique is to introduce the concept of the Witness or Observer Self – the part of ourselves that can observe what we do without judgement. The capacity for self-observation is an essential first step. We have to notice that we have a problem to work on.

Just as we can invite people to spend an hour with us having an in-depth conversation using Kitchen Table Conversations, likewise we can informally introduce people to these techniques. It doesn’t take long.

It doesn’t make sense to do this with people who are not open. But if they are, this can be a great gift. As we resolve our emotional triggers, we gain increased access to our innate capacity for love, caring and compassion.

Supporting young parents

Prevention is better than cure. A key leverage point for evolving a life-affirming culture is to raise kids without traumatising them.

Local governments would do well to put resources into supporting young parents in bringing out more of their nurturing site and less of their punitive side with their kids. There are already programs that do this.

For example, Boulder Colorado has a volunteer Community Parenting Center all where experienced parents support new parents. Twelve years after the program started teenage crime rates were markedly lower compared with previous years. Many other such programs exist.

Training in partnership-respect skills

Our challenge is to embed partnership-respect relating in every aspect of our lives from childrearing to global governance as ‘the way things are done around here’. We do well to train to get better at partnership-respect relating. Disciplines that are useful for this include:

  • Improvisational acting
  • Tai Chi, Aikido and Judo
  • Non-Violent Communication and Conflict Resolution

As parents, we can learn techniques such as Parent Effectiveness Training and other techniques that enable us to be authoritative, but not authoritarian with her children.

Organisational change

If we are managers and supervisors, we can learn how to shift from authoritarian command and control to a coaching model of leadership.

If we are politicians at any level we can champion policies that promote environmental and social well-being.

Embracing a positive goal such as transitioning to a life-affirming culture can spark renewed commitment, and generate possibilities to contribute to healthy change that we might otherwise not have thought of.

The grim history of childhood trauma, and how childrearing has been improving

The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused.

Lloyd de Mause, The History of Childrearing

Decades ago historian Lloyd de Mause, who was also a psychoanalyst, questioned the common view that mothers always love their children. But how would we know? He reviewed all the written records from Greco-Roman times to the present which give us some idea of what parenting was like, and therefore what the experience of children would have been.

His conclusion was dismal. By today’s standards, until recently virtually all children in the West were criminally abused physically or sexually.

There is no need to go into the detail of the grim catalogue of evidence, but a few highlights are indicative. The Greeks and the Romans routinely practised infanticide. In mediaeval times mothers who could afford to sent their children off to wet nurses, knowing that the quality of care was so terrible that they were likely to die. Kids were ‘wrapped in swaddling clothes’, which means they were tightly bandaged to a board so they couldn’t move, and if they had rashes from being wet with urine, or had lice, too bad. It was torture.

In the 1700’s some upper-class mothers in England and America chose to nurse their own children. We know about it because they wrote letters to their friends describing how pleasurable it was. But these mothers were terrified of the feistiness of their children; the children were routinely beaten to keep them subdued. In America even into the 1800s there were professional beaters who would go from household to household, and corporal punishment is still legal in some states in Australia.

So, we are looking at a millennia-long history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compounded by wars, intermittent starvation, and violent patriarchy.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that childrearing has been getting better, and we have a large cohort of ‘Cultural Creatives’ – people who raise their children respectfully, are not obsessed with making excessive amounts of money, and care about the environment.

In The Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams playing the role of the teacher encourages his students to follow their own path. This is an example of what deMause calls ‘helping mode’ parenting, where children are supported in following their own path of development.

In the movie, one of the students who wants to be an actor commits suicide because of the pressure from his ‘socialising mode’ father, who insists that he should become a lawyer or a doctor.

In addition to helping mode and socialising mode parenting, de Mause identified four other parenting styles, with infanticidal parenting being the most traumatic. Every society today has a mixture of styles of parenting.


Why is this important?

The value of raising emotionally healthy children does not need to be justified.

Nevertheless, it is relevant to think about the social consequences of abuse. One is that, as shown by the reaction to the 9-11 attacks, people all too readily go to war without considering a measured response.

Another is that the ruling elites (yes, these folks have been abused as well) ignore the looming disasters of current environmental trends, and, unable to be satiated, suck as many financial resources to themselves as they can. They keep us persistently on course to disaster.

No doubt you can think of others.

What to do about it?

An important aspect of the path to a viable future is that ‘those who care’ use our influence to establish policies that support emotional well-being. These include funding programs that coach parents in how to bring out more of their nurturing side rather than their abusive side with their children; organising schools to support children’s curiosity, initiative and creativity; changing workplace cultures to reduce or eliminate bullying; eliminating poverty pockets, and giving people tools to resolve their own emotional triggers.

We are at an evolutionary cusp

We are at an evolutionary cusp both socially and politically. We have just looked at the psychological dimensions of this: the challenge is to develop sufficient emotional maturity and well-being so that taking care of people and the planet simply becomes ‘the way things are done around here’.
Another dimension is the millennia long pattern of wars and empire, pogroms, slavery and economic exploitation.
The development of agriculture enabled large populations, and with this in time came the rise of ‘strongmen’ who created armies, invasions, and empires. We have a history of war after war, with ever more deadly military weapons.
Today the United States, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, France, Great Britain and Israel have nuclear weapons, with associated hypersonic delivery systems that are unstoppable. It is well-known that a nuclear winter following an atomic exchange would end most of life on Earth.

What can we say about the people, sometimes called ‘hawks’, who drive the funding and policies that feed the development of such weapons? Surely no sane person would actively pursue policies that have a high probability of ending life on Earth? Alternative policies, based on caring for our collective well-being, are not in their repertoire of thinking skills. And nor are they compatible with their emotional make up. ‘Hawks’ are not merely people who happen to have aggressive policy positions; they are mentally disturbed.

But, it’s not just the elites. Many (though not all) traumatised people at every level of society support hawkish policies. Trauma tends to promote aggression. And trauma limits our capacity for constructive imagination.

In this context, investing resources in supporting psychological well-being is as important as technical changes in taking on the challenge of global warming and other disastrous environmental trends.

It is worth noting that there is another factor as well. Even ‘poor’ people in affluent Western countries benefit from militarism. Empire delivers resources back to the home country. So there is an economic reason to support militarism. The thing is, the attitudes that support militarism also support destructing the environment, and the consequences are beginning to kick in. War may follow. Again, this is why we should mobilise public will to design for descent.


We have reached a point in humanity’s long evolutionary journey where caring for our common well-being has become essential.


Marketers know the value of getting your brand, or meme, seen everywhere.

The environmental-progressive movement does not have a common brand, or meme. Rather, we have a multitude of groups each competing for public attention. The public hears a cacophony of voices.

In contrast, the businesses and financial people who comprise ‘the big end of town’, although they may compete commercially, do have a common meme which is promoted incessantly to the public. You have heard the meme so often from politicians and the press that you may take it for granted – which is the point. Their meme is economic growth.

Devotion to economic growth is the basis for economic policy around the world (along with a certain amount of corruption), and the general public accepts this as an appropriate goal for our society.

Given our evolutionary crisis, a more appropriate goal is to transition to a life-affirming culture. From the standpoint of marketing, how might we seed this goal into mainstream thinking?

Well, the answer is straightforward: talk it up at every opportunity, through whatever means is available. Let’s get our meme seen everywhere!

There is a grim historical precedent. Roman Senator Marcus Porcius Cato ended every speech, no matter what the topic, with, “And Carthage must be destroyed.”

Public intellectuals through their blogs and lectures can not only introduce the meme, they can go further and encourage their audience to take responsibility for shifting public consciousness by acting as citizen-educators. Public intellectuals can refer folks to the Inspiring Transition website for ready-to-use communication tools.

Businesses can tell the story of how their work contributes to the evolution of a life-affirming culture on their websites. They can also put plaques and flyers in their business premises.

You get the idea. Many tactics are possible.

Of course, the meme on its own is not sufficient. People need to think through what is involved.

Summary of elements of the new paradigm

Modes of thinking that are integrated into this new paradigm include:

□ Donella Meadows Leverage Points: Places to intervene in a system.

□ Insights into the neurology of improving skilled behaviour pioneered by Moshe Feldenkrais. The tagline is: We help good brains work better.

□ Breakthrough techniques in the fields of psychotherapy and energy psychology that enable people to rapidly resolve emotional issues.

□ The DesignShop process of SCAN>FOCUS>ACT for thinking through complex issues to the point of action.

□ The idea of ‘solving the right problem’ from the world of creative problem-solving.

□ The Natural Step principles for working out whether a company or a nation is ecologically sustainable or not.

□ Design techniques from Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute for reducing energy demand.

□ Insights from effective marketers.

□ The recognition that the members of the millions of groups that care about environmental and social well-being are a hugely untapped resource for transformative social change.

□ The goal of ‘transitioning to a life-affirming culture’.

 As Donella Meadows pointed out, the most influential leverage points in any human system are people’s paradigms and goals. These are the levels we work on.

Inspiring Transition


Inspiring Transition is a platform to support thought leaders and citizen-educators.

It is not an organisation in the usual sense. There is no central group that directs what people do. Individuals and groups that participate act as autonomous agents. We are aligned through the common overarching goal of inspiring mainstream commitment to transition to a life-affirming culture, and in our recognition that communication to improve people’s thinking is the key to success.


Aligned, the environmental-progressive movement can be vastly more powerful than we ever envisioned. Or so we may suppose. Let’s put it to the test!