Seven Questions On Which Our Future Depends—Perspective From a Different Kind of Futurist

October 1, 2016 3:15 pm 4 comments

I approach the future differently than most people whose work addresses what may lie ahead. Most futurists focus on new technologies, or possibly on obstacles that might present themselves in our efforts at technological advancement. I see the questions on which our future most depends to be of a more expressly human sort. With regard to new technologies, for example, the critical question ultimately is whether we can find the maturity needed to use what we invent—whatever that might be—wisely. The most important questions ahead have to do with ourselves, with the sophistication we are able to bring to how we understand and act.

I think of the ability to address such questions in terms a more encompassing challenge. We tend to look on modern age institutions and ways of thinking as ideals and end-points—as at best needing a bit of polishing. The concept of Cultural Maturity describes how more is needed—an essential kind of “growing up” as a species. Over the last thirty-five years, I and colleagues at the Institute for Creative Development have worked to make sense of what this necessary “growing up” asks of us.

Cultural Maturity has to do with more than just some positive future we might hope for. The concept describes developmentally predicted changes in how we think and act, changes that, as potential, are built into who we are. It is a formal notion within Creative Systems Theory’s overarching framework for understanding purpose, change, and interrelationship in human systems. As I see things, not just our future well-being, but very possibly our survival, will depend on Cultural Maturity’s changes.

In my writing, I examine numerous critical questions that will be extremely difficult to answer—or even just to frame usefully—without the more sophisticated kind of understanding that culturally mature perspective makes possible. Some of these questions are current front-page-news concerns. For others, it may be twenty to fifty years before we deeply recognize their importance. Below, I’ve distilled my list of such questions down to an essential seven. For each question, posts on this site provide at least initial reflection (see provided links). My most recent book Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future (With an Introduction to Creative Systems Theory) offers more in-depth analysis. These questions are significant not just because finding answers will be essential, but also because engaging them provides one of the best ways to begin developing culturally mature capacities.

1) How do we keep from blowing ourselves up? Combine widely available weapons of mass destruction, an increasingly globalized world, and the clashing of civilizations that reside at different points in cultural development and the result is an evermore dangerous world. Efforts at disarmament are appropriately applauded, but, in the end, they cannot be enough. The nuclear genie is out of the bottle. And while terrorism must be confronted, it cannot be wholly eliminated. Our safety, in the long term, will depend on bringing greater maturity and sophistication to how we understand and relate to conflict. See An End to War As We Have Known It  and Making Sense of Terrorism: What We Too Often Miss

2) How do we avoid making the planet unlivable? Climate change, global industrialization, and the broader effects of growing human population threaten to make the planet a less and less pleasant place to live. In our time, we find growing shortages of clean air and water, diminishing available land to grow our food, and ever-increasing rates of species extinction. It is quite possible that the planet will eventually become unlivable even for us. Avoiding such an outcome will require that we bring greater sophistication—and ultimately wisdom—to our decisions. In particular, it will require that we better take into account systemic complexity and the fact of real limits. It is hard to imagine such greater wisdom in the face of complex choices without the kinds of changes that the concept of Cultural Maturity describes. See Climate Change and Culture’s Big Picture  and Asking Big Enough Questions: The Possibility of Human Extinction.

3) What does it mean to act morally in a world without obvious moral guideposts? Up until recently, culture, like a good parent, provided us with clear rules to live by. Our task was simply to understand and obey those rules. Today, traditional guideposts serve us less and less well. And what has emerged to replace them at best provides temporary benefit. The anything-goes moral relativism of postmodern perspective in the end leaves us rudderless, this in an increasingly complex moral landscape. The postmodern solution reveals its ultimate inability to help us in the way values, today, often reduce to little more than “likes” and “clicks.” Continuing in this direction is not compatible with a healthy future—either a healthy future for individuals or a healthy future for the species as a whole. The concept of Cultural Maturity describes the possibility—and necessity—of addressing moral questions with a systemic depth and nuance that has not before been an option. See Culturally Mature Moral Decision-Making: Its Necessity and What It Requires  and What Cultural Maturity is Not #2: Postmodern Pseudo-Significance .

4) How will the requirements of effective leadership change in times ahead? Trust in leadership of all sorts today is less than it was at the height of anti-authoritarian rhetoric in the 1960s. We could easily assume—and people have argued—that this modern lack of confidence in leadership reflects something gone terribly wrong—broad failure on the part of leaders, a loss of moral integrity on the part of those being led, or even an impending collapse of society. The concept of Cultural Maturity offers a more optimistic explanation. It describes how what it means to lead is changing—and in all parts of our lives, from what it means to make the most personal of choices to what is required to effectively lead organizations and nations. Along with altering how we go about making decisions, these changes invite important reflection about possible next chapters in how we think about governance and structure our governmental institutions. The picture is not all positive. The concept of Cultural Maturity also highlights how we reside in an awkward in-between time in these changes. Too often, today, what claims to be leadership comes close to being leadership’s opposite. But the concept makes clear that moving forward in how we embody and relate to leadership is both possible and essential. See How Changes in What It Means to Lead are Redefining Our Human Task and Partisan Pettiness: An Abject Failure of Leadership .

5) How will the characteristics of love change in times ahead? This question might seem primarily of a personal sort, less pertinent to big-picture cultural well-being. But it is relevant to what relationships of every kind will require of us in times ahead. It also has powerful implications for our understanding of what it ultimately means to be an individual. While the modern age romantic ideal represented a powerful step forward from what came before it—having love’s choices made by one’s family or a matchmaker—it can’t be the last chapter in love’s story. Culturally mature perspective makes clear not just that further chapters in love’s story lie ahead, but that what we have known is not really what we have assumed it to be about. We’ve thought of romantic love as love based on individual choice. More accurately it was “two-halves-make-a-whole” love. We made the other person our completion. In a sense we have not known before, love’s next chapter challenges us to engage love as whole beings. The concept of Cultural Maturity describes how a related kind of change is reordering relationships of every sort. It also describes a more basic change implied in this new picture, how our times are challenging us to rethink the nature of individual identity. This more basic change fundamentally alters what it means to choose and ultimately what it means to live purposefully. See Understanding Today’s Radical New Chapter in the Story of Love  and The Myth of the Individual .

6) What Will It Mean to Use New Technologies Wisely? Technological innovations will be key to future advancement. But just as important, if we are to have a healthy and survivable future, we need to more effectively assess benefits and identify potential unintended consequences. These might seem like wholly technical tasks, but, in fact, they take culturally mature perspective to carry out with the sophistication the future will require. At the least, we need to be more comfortable with limits that may exist to what it makes sense to do. It is our modern age tendency to treat technology as a god. If we continue to do so, our profound capacities as tool-makers could eventually be our undoing. “Technological gospel” thinking leaves us without the maturity of perspective needed to apply new technologies wisely. See The Key to Artificial Intelligence Not Being the End of Us and What Cultural Maturity is Not #1: Techno-Utopian Delusions .

7) How must we rethink the concept of progress if our actions are to in fact take us forward? Progress as we think of it in modern times describes an onward-and-upward trajectory of increasing individuality and material achievement. This definition has served us well, but it cannot continue to do so going forward—for multiple reasons. Beyond the fact that it is not environmentally sustainable, it should prove less and less successful at giving our lives a sense of purpose. Compelling pictures of advancement going forward must better take into account the full measure of human needs—not just individual accomplishment and material accumulation, but also human relationships, creativity, the health of our bodies, and our larger sense of connectedness in life. And there is more, though fully grasping the implications requires some conceptual stepping back. A Creative Systems Theory concept called “The Dilemma of Trajectory” describes how continuing on as we have would severe us from aspects of who we are that are critical to being human. If this conclusion is accurate, it is not just that clinging to progress’s familiar definition would be unwise, doing so has stopped being option. Our future depends on defining progress in more systemically complete ways. See A New Story for the Future: Confronting Our Times Crisis of Purpose  and How Cultural Maturity Becomes “The Only Game In Town” .

There are other questions that I didn’t include only because they might seem too abstract and philosophical—a bit too “ultimate.” But if our concern is the long term, they become at least as important. For example, there is the question of how we best understand death and our relationship to it? I’ve argued that a new, more mature relationship to death will be essential to health care’s future. I’ve also described how the implications for medicine are only one way revisiting this most basic of questions will alter daily life. See The Profound—and Essential—Implications of a New Maturity in Our Relationship with Death . Another ultimate question requires more detailed culturally mature concepts to usefully answer, but it begs for mature perspective: How do we best understand the historically conflicting perspectives of science and religion? Addressing this question is important not just so we can get beyond tedious, unproductive arguments. Learning to think more systemically about this particularly basic example of conflicting truths helps us learn to hold truths of every sort in more complete and encompassing ways. Creative Systems Theory’s overarching view describes how, beneath the surface of history’s often highly polarized beliefs, the relationship between the material and spiritual has always ultimately been complementary. It also describes how, while appreciating a larger picture is something we are only beginning to be capable of, it will have growing importance in times ahead. See Science and Religion in my recent book Quick and Dirty Answers to the Biggest of Questions. A last questions also requires new kinds of concepts, but it gets at what is ultimately most important: What will it mean to fully realize our human contribution? Creative Systems Theory proposes that what makes us unique as creatures is the audacity of our toolmaking, meaning-making—we could say simple “creative”—capacities. It also proposes that what will most determine the health of our human future—and with this, how fully we will make our contribution realized—is the degree to which we can bring a new, more overarching kind of awareness and depth of responsibility to our toolmaking, meaning-making lives. The concept of Cultural Maturity describes this essential step forward. See Humanities Necessary Growing Up: The Concept of Cultural Maturity  and Creative Systems Theory—Addressing the Challenge of Culturally Mature Conception (An Introductory Overview).

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