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Essential Shifts Interview: Don Beck

Essential Shifts Interview: Don Beck

Visionary: Don Beck

Spiral Dynamics Integral provides a powerful, multi-leveled mapping of culture, values, and consciousness. In this interview, the leading practitioner of this work, Don Beck, shares his insights about how we can more effectively meet different cultures with solutions appropriate to their "memetic codes." He ranges from discussing AIDS in Africa to why Scandinavian countries are operating from more complex codes to how these value systems play out in U.S. politics. You’ll learn about Red, Blue, Orange, and Green codes, as well as the emergent integral vision that can integrate (and work effectively) with them all. Too often, we apply our solutions out of context in a way that creates more problems. With the environment literally heating up, it becomes even more imperative that we better understand the value-tectonics of today and harmonize the developmental needs of billions of people operating from different codes.

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Institute of Noetic Sciences: I want to welcome everyone to the program today. We are very fortunate to have Don Beck with us today. He’s been described as a philosopher-activist for the 21st century. He’s behind the book called Spiral Dynamics, which is probably the single most comprehensive and useful mapping of consciousness onto larger processes, organizations, countries, and collective dynamics. I’m personally very excited by the work that he has done everywhere from the Middle East to South Africa and corporations in the US. So, welcome to the program, Don.

Don Beck: Well, thank you, Steve, very much.

IONS: Great. So what we are doing here is getting the angle of a lot of different folks on the biggest shifts of our time, and since Spiral Dynamics is one of the most comprehensive mappings, maybe you could talk a little bit about how you see the state of the world from the Spiral Dynamics angle.

DB: Well, there are always two points of view about that. What one point of view says is that we are simply setting up the conditions for a major shift, so rather than doom and gloom, Chicken Little thinking, one could say these are simply symptoms of deeper problems, tectonic-like shifts, and we’d best understand that.

The other point of view, of course, is quite negative: that we have more fragmentation today than ever before. Ironically we are more interconnected, but the complexity of our world has outstripped the complexity of our solutions. So we are in that cusp, we’re in that gap—and since I live on the positive side of life, I think that we will ultimately sort it out.

IONS: Great. So maybe you could give a little background on the Spiral Dynamic terminology as we go through the interview. What’s your three-minute pitch on Spiral Dynamics as a map?

DB: It’s really about human nature based on the work of Clare W. Graves, who became interested in how human nature changes, and did a lot of the research and tracking of that process. So rather than simply announce what is next, his interest was the master trend-maker. What is it that creates new systems, be they economic, political, religious, educational? So, it was an attempt to find those deeper codes. And, from our side, looking at eight of those codes that his research identified, and that we likewise over the last 30 years have been able to see. Then, by dealing with those codes (just like dealing in the human genome project with what we call memetics, which is simply a word for value systems), by dealing with the human memome, that is with these deeper world views, and focusing on them rather than surface level behaviors, then one has for the first time, I think, Steve, the insight in order to subdue and reduce some of our very serious problems at the surface level.

So in South Africa we redefined the issue out of race and out of ethnicity into these value systems. Today in the Netherlands in dealing with the Islamic problems we could show the Dutch it’s not about culture in terms of what they thought, but one of these deep codes. And in the Israeli-Palestinian process we overlay our maps on top of that, and one can begin to see why the Oslo accord didn’t work and what might be the basis for a fresh initiative. So basically we identify deep value systems. We show how to create change processes around eight different kinds of change. And so we can add precision to the conversation about change—or, in your case, about shift.

IONS: So what you’re pointing towards is really that there is not just one big paradigm shift under way, but that there are lots of paradigm shifts underway, and people are moving from one dominant operating system to another, in parallel. So there are different parallel tracks operating all over. Right?

DB: That’s right and so there are different futures for different folks, and there are six billion earthlings who are passing through these different layers/levels simultaneously.

And because most of our models, as you know, very well tend to be one-size-fits-all car-washes, we are unable to see this diversity, and we create global systems—be they at the UN or our national groupings or NGOs—constantly moving into these settings with some very fragmented, ad hoc, piecemeal approaches that simply don’t have the leverage to handle the kind of world that we have created for ourselves.

IONS: So maybe if you could go into not all eight levels, but where’s the main action, the three or four value systems that are predominant right now, and really where they are grinding against each other.

DB: Well, right now we are seeing what we call our third level system: egocentric, predatory, express self impulsively, “to hell with others”—moving into the fourth level system: that absolutistic, one right way, ideology, -ism. With 50 million Arab males making that particular shift, this means they’re not moving into the First World system here. They’re moving into some kind of one-size-fits-all ideology, and if that that vacuum isn’t filled by something positive, it could be filled by something that’s toxic in terms of a jihad system. So the future of the Third World tends to be a Second World good authority, as opposed to the very complex codes that we know here in the First World.

IONS: So we get into some trouble when we try to overlay our own next step onto others’ next step.

DB: Oh, you’re very right. And you were one of the first people to really recognize, I recall years ago, what we were trying to say. And to us it’s so clear, and if we can turn our kaleidoscope and look thru this new lens, then many apparently difficult issues like HIV infection, and why Africa has not developed, and why the US and Europe seem to be on different tracks, then we could find with amazing clarity what the deeper conflicts are really about. And, in addition, what kind of technology, what kind of solutions, what kind of scaffolding can be used in order to find the ways to manage (if that’s the proper term) this kind of movement.

IONS: That’s fascinating work. So if you go back to the third level, the "express self," your color code is red. I like the colors because it’s an easy way to remember! So then you go into the blue, which is more the fundamentalism or one-right-way, and then what’s beyond that?

DB: That’s when modern entity hits in, and that’s a shift out of sacred into secular. And there are large segments of Arab thinking, like in Dubai, that are really trying to make that move. From our side, the real conflict isn’t the West versus the Islamic world, as in the Huntington thesis. The real conflict is within the Islamic world, between the ideologists and the pragmatists. And, if you know about European history, we went through that, and it was bloody. So, if we could have seen that on 9/12 and dealt with that particular great divide, I think we’d be much better off today than we are.

IONS: So to some extent there is a necessary process for a whole culture to change its center of gravity?

DB: Yeah. You know if we had a Margaret Mead sapient circle, a global group who could read this and see these dynamics, we could mobilize all of our resources, and then like a laser beam integrate the lines and synergize everything that we have available—home, church, school, law enforcement, NGOs, foundations. We would truly have a global strategy that dealt with these steps in stages, versus those (and you know I love all of them) who talk about wisdom and globalization and world citizenship, but aren’t getting down to the real problem, which is the fact that there are billions of people passing through these different zones simultaneously.

IONS: So it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for the vast majority of folks.

DB: No, it isn’t. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and South Africa was the first test case, and it turned out to work extremely well.

And so what we’re finding is other groupings today who are beginning to say, “Yes, I think maybe we’ve missed something. We’ve been trapped in our flat-landedness, not able to see verticality." And certainly the Dutch today, and the Germans, and the French for sure, are now beginning to recognize that when they opened the door for immigration it wasn’t the skin color or the ethnicity or the food choice that was the problem, but bringing in different value structures that often became like a virus that exploited the host. And consequently there are niches of people today around these artificial boundaries that make it very, very difficult for these complex systems to continue to emerge.

IONS: So, if we continue: we’ve got that third level red, that fourth level blue, fifth level expression at the orange level which is more secular. And then moving into green, right?

DB: Yes, post-modern green. That’s the projection of materialism and elitism and the attempt to impose egalitarianism over the entire species and insisting that people be accountable. And after three decades of that we are finding a lot of people now are beginning to move out of it and are moving into a more integral perspective. And we think after that will be cosmopolitanism. So now we are beginning to write some of the codes of that next system from pre-modern to modern to post-modern to integral and then to cosmopolitan, realizing that there are billions of people moving along that track, and so we have to manage those different stages simultaneously. And there’s no reason in the world why we can’t do that.

IONS: And, as I understand it, that integral perspective is not as wedded to a particular one-size-fits-all. It’s really honoring the different perspectives on their own terms.

DB: That’s when a major shift occurs, in imposing one particular kind of solution onto a flex-flow understanding—that what’s next for large parts of Africa will be some kind of red-to-blue transition. That’s why so many churches, Pentecostal especially, are being very effective, and the Church of England simply doesn’t have a clue. I know this sounds pretty ostentatious, but what we’re trying to say is it’s possible in our global scanning devices (and we work with John Peterson, you know, at the Arlington Institute with some of these approaches in our new Center for Human Emergence) that, if we had that insight, then we could begin to mobilize all the global resources and focus these like laser beams, in education and healthcare. But as long as we attempt to impose solutions out of our more complex systems, and penalize people for not being bright enough to do it—as often World Bank and other organizations have done—then we are creating this mess for ourselves. And so when things get bad enough (and I think we’re getting pretty close to that), that’s when new thinking emerges. So, thank God for our problems, because that’s what wakes us up to the fact that we have a lot of new wine out there but we’re still using a lot of old wine skins.

IONS: Interesting. So to move to the second question we’ve been asking folks: What do you see as the most essential shifts that are required for us to go to the next level? Just think of that broadly. We have this sort of chaotic, messy interaction between lots of different values here. Is there a way that we can ratchet it up to a more harmonious flow between them, either planetarily or even as just more of American or North American culture?

DB: Well, we’ve been working for a long time on a large-scale systems change, and we now have the ten conditions for that to occur. Rather than simply announce that people need to change, then we begin to look at who has the capacity for this more complex thinking. To what extent have they solved previous problems? Do they now have dissonance? There is a point at which insight occurs almost like a check list. And what we’ve observed over the last six months, especially with the growing interest in Spiral Dynamics, is that it is an insight model. It allows people to objectify history and see why in different epochs of time people thought in different kinds of ways. But those same kinds of thinking are alive today, as we've gone back to the future or forward to the past in the same generation. And so to us the major breakout occurs when we can begin to see though this new lens this kind of complexity, and recognize that these are deep human codes, and people have a right to be who they are. So rather than saying everybody has to look up and be more complex and embrace new consciousness and spirituality, we’re also saying that what many reject as earlier systems must have density. So, rather than trying to cut off our past, our point of view is so different from others, we want that healthy purple animistic system, or healthy versions of that red predatory egocentric system, or healthy versions of that blue absolutistic system—not to try to wipe out these steps and stages, because when we do that we really create chaos for ourselves, but begin to show how these systems can express themselves in healthy versions.

IONS: Right. So an example might be that red might find expression in healthy competitive sports or a gang warfare kind of thing.

DB: Oh yes—and the arts, jazz for example. There are all kinds of versions of them. It’s when any of the systems becomes imperialistic and attempts to shut out the others that the spiral suffers, and we create blockages. And large numbers of people’s expectations are raised, but there is a lack the capacity to fulfill them, and this becomes the seedbed for terrorism.

IONS: Say a little more about where you see the center of gravity right now, and what are the shifts in modern western culture at the moment?

DB: We've been tracking, and we do a lot of research. We see two directions. One: we’re in a progressive state after 9/11, and many who are really on the cutting edge are now backing up. Many are learning how to do business or beginning to think in a fifth-level orange kind of way, become private consultants and other things.

Others are trying to launch ahead into what is next, realizing that the sixth-level green system that served them so well and felt so good simply can’t handle the nature of our problems today. We are really beginning to see this, and this is especially true in the Netherlands, where we had over 900 people on March 31 come to our sessions. There are quite exciting things going on there. Whenever we’ve done our global scanning we find that the value system peaks in Scandinavia, and certainly among the Dutch. So I think cutting-edge models can very well come out of that particular milieu. That’s one of the transitional elements, while many others in South America, Venezuela, and Bolivia, and maybe next Mexico are beginning to revive almost a new Marxist mindset. And we just got back from India where we found the same thing happening. All the success in business has simply increased the gap, and there are more Maoist-Marxist movements occurring in India today. So we are not out of the woods yet by any means.

IONS: Will Marxism necessarily be located at a particular level or could there be a green expression, and then there’s the lower expression?

DB: Yes, for sure, but in all cases it tends to be anti-orange. As we are finding out in Venezuela, there are forces that are mobilizing in most of South America around the Cuba type of model. When you have a large number of left-behinds or have-nots and you see suddenly the bright lights of affluence, that’s what raises expectations. And we certainly saw that happening in India: a new policy just announced by the Prime Minister, and we’ve been asked to help on it, is affirmative action for the untouchables—which I thought would never happen in our life time, but it has to. As certain elements gain more affluence, the gaps widen, and when those gaps begin to widen that’s when we begin to see the revolutionary spirit begin to be fostered. And sometimes when that can access weaponry of the more complex value systems, like nuclear-tipped missiles or various kinds of horrible beasties from laboratories, it means that the entire planet today is threatened. And so that’s why it’s critical that those people interested in truly global solutions look very carefully at what they are recommending and then begin to search for the kind of complex models that can deal with the reality that exists. And we certainly can do this, and the sooner the better.

IONS: I was intrigued by what you said about the Scandinavian and particularly the Dutch peaking at a higher level. What is it that happened there that allowed their values to accelerate into this healthier expression?

DB: Well, I’ve been tracking the Dutch for12 years, and I think it’s excellent education; I think it’s world travel; I think it’s having most of their problems in existence met because of the general affluence of the culture. I think a sense of urgency today because of the Islamic threat, as you very well know, and the fact that they live in a polder, sort of like New Orleans—inside a saucer with dikes around them, so global warming becomes a major factor.

I think these are some of the dynamics that are beginning to express themselves in the Netherlands. As I say, my colleague there Peter Merry and I are quite impressed with the rapid movement that we’re seeing. I found the same thing in Denmark, by the way, in Copenhagen, and certainly in Norway. Wherever you have societies that have been affluent and are finding that their models of egalitarianism and collectivism with
very high taxation aren’t meeting their needs. Like in Sweden, where our teams are redesigning the entire educational system, where they realize that they bought off too much on permissiveness in education, and not insisting that children learn discipline and learn skills. All these things are happening in societies impacted by the post-modern world view. Of course, the point here is there is no final stage; there is no ultimate Utopia. Every new solution produces new problems. It’s just today that we have so many people passing through these different zones at the same time, and we simply have yet to create in our education and in our healthcare and geopolitics the models for managing or leadership, for guiding how in the world we can put all these things together.

IONS: Interesting. So how about the United States? Where do you see the United States right now in this tectonic shifting of value systems?

DB: Well, obviously with the so-called blue-red state conflict (and those colors are really reversed from how we use them), we have a GOP party that’s been heavy blue-orange, one-right-way Puritanism with affluent kind of materialism which is its center of gravity, and we’ve had a democratic party that has historically put together the heavy red victimization and shut-out with the more egalitarian liberal to form its political core. We’ve had these two political parties, and I think what we’re seeing, and even Tom Friedman has been writing about it recently, is evidence of maybe a third party starting to form.

IONS: Yeah?

DB: Yeah, I think that could very well happen and happen pretty quickly.

IONS: How do you see the current accelerated global challenges environmentally
as impacting this whole scene?

DB: Oh, I think there are all kinds of wild cards here, and very dangerous wild cards. I think we’ve been fooling around too long and enjoying the success of our parents and grandparents, and living off their hard work and largesse, and we simply haven’t paid the kind of attention that we should have to our habitat. Rather than early on develop full core press solutions, now we’re trying to dribble one solution and then another.
I think it will take a major wake up call in order for us to really get down to what the real issues are about fossil fuel and about peak oil and how in the world a billion Indians and lots of Chinese are going to pass through some of these same affluent zones that the West has already enjoyed. They want their two motor cars and indoor plumbing, and how the planet earth is going to survive that kind of shift I think is one of the most serious questions that we all confront. So there are major breakouts of serious trouble all over the planet, and as long as we simply try to use fire extinguishers jumping from one problem to the next, and can’t build a long term view, then we will find ourselves victimized. That’s why I love that quotation about “it’s time to build the new model as opposed to joust with windmills.” So maybe there’s enough energy around the work, of so many connected to where you’re working, and Shift magazine, who after all the summits and gatherings that they have finally say, “Well, we’ve been talking about these things for a long, long, long time. Why haven’t we found solutions?” So maybe at that point there will be a major shift.

IONS: Actually, I’ve been circulating this idea of having a "next blueprint" conference. So it would be more getting down to brass tacks, like how do we create a next blueprint for our society? We have our founding documents, as magnificent as they are, and the guiding vision was created 230 years ago in a very different world. So how can we create a blueprint for a way of interacting that honors the complexities of the spiral, that encourages people to grow and expand, and such that we’re situating ourselves in the environment in a new way? It’s a very deep and interesting question.

DB: Our own Constitution, in terms of our mapping, is at that fifth-level compromise-driven code, and it has worked extremely well for us. I’m not so concerned about structure as I am with the kind of content and thinking within those structures. I don’t think the UN itself needs to be reformed; it just needs to know what in the world is going on, and how to mobilize its resources. I see a lot of energy around the work of Jean Houston and others that are really recognizing that particular verticality. I just don’t know if our “from-the-left/from-the-right” adversarial model has the complexity in it that we’re going to need. And just exactly what form that new model will take…I think is pretty premature, but I do know that the best way to even approach that is to ask what kind of functions need to be performed, rather than sit around and draw different models and so forth.

But once again I say I’m pretty optimistic that what we’ve done in the past is simply the result of our collective thinking back when we had different kinds of problems. And I’m not willing to throw out any baby with any bathwater at this stage, or begin to add on layers of complexity on top of the earlier systems. That seems to be the best way. And probably the best example of that is Singapore. It has moved in a very wise fashion through a number of these layers and levels without jettisoning any of them. So maybe there are crucibles around—even South Africa can be one—where humans are beginning to form these new alloys. If we had the kind of organization that could scan for these kind of solutions and make them available to the rest of the world, that would be a good thing for sure.

IONS: So, in terms of things that would really help promote and facilitate this shift, it’s sort of a centralized scanning and advisory…not so much a think tank, but a consulting tank.

DB: We have formed what is called the Center for Human Emergence, and we have nodes in the Netherlands, Australia, Copenhagen, Jerusalem, London, Washington—and that’s what its purpose is, to find these models—and then again, with John Peterson, to do the kind of memetic mapping of the planet so we can see these kind of undertows that are shaping surface conflicts. If we had had this technology we could have seen Iraq so clearly, and could have predicted the kind of trouble that we have today—and then, by being able to build the scaffolding, build the solutions. To me this holds the best prospect for beginning to find the insights, because a lot of people are working on how change actually happens. But there is just so much naïveté around that word "change." What kind of change? So maybe, as I say, as our problems deepen and we try our older solutions, they simply don’t produce results. That’s what Clare Graves said—“The window’s open for insight and for more complex thinking to emerge.” And, Steve, we’re just seeing today so much evidence of that right now going on around the world.

IONS: Great. Well we kind of covered the third question which is how do your work and current passions fit with the larger shift but maybe folks want to connect more with your work or workshops, where would be a good place to point them?

DB: Well, it’s self-promotion, I guess, but we have a large number of people working with us—about four thousand people in our constellation today. It’s based on the original work of Clare W. Graves, and now 30 years of field testing in some very difficult places. So we are simply trying to get others to begin to see the huge possibility within this more complex thinking system, and we also learned that it’s not something that one can market. It occurs in the minds of people when a certain crisis point is reached and there’s a search for new thinking and that seems to be happening right now.

IONS: You do have a series of different workshops that people can get steeped in this world view and…

DB: Oh yes, we are at, or the new place is, and this is probably going to be our primary entity because we can bring together the work of so many others who may or may not like Spiral Dynamics, but they are working in the field of emergence. And so we are able to rally all these different voices together because that, in a sense, is what we need to be able to do.

IONS: Beautiful. So glad you’re doing that work. Well, the way we’d like to close is with a few personal recommendations for the people who are tuning in here. What are some of the most important things you think they each can do personally to create positive change and be part of this evolutionary wave.

DB: Well, one thing I’ve been saying recently about the famous Gandhi quotation, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” is that’s certainly a wonderful concept, but we’ve added, “What if the change that we want to see in the world is not good for the world?” So maybe it’s time to do the change that the world needs done, whether at personal micro-levels or working on much larger projects. There are certainly tipping points in the lives of everyone, and who’s to say that one’s butterfly wings that are fluttering that have implications across whole domains will ultimately be more impactful than others? One can never make that judgment. So I think it’s time for good hearts and committed souls and high levels of mutual trust and respect. And what humans can do is just magnificent—and, to me, it’s time for us to do it.

IONS: Well, amen to that! I completely agree. So I think that brings it to a close. Are there any parting words or anything that feels unsaid?

DB: Well, I guess one my favorite sayings, which I guess I’m infamous for is, “No more prizes for forecasting the rain; only prizes for building the ark.”

IONS: That’s terrific. All right Don, I’m so glad you could take time out of your obviously very busy schedule to spend some time with us here today, and really help illuminate the larger patterns that are shifting in the world.

DB: Well, thank you, Steve, very much.

IONS: All right! Take care.

DB: Bye.

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"The Essential Shifts" Interview Series

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