How do humans need to grow to meet the challenges of our time?

Jonathan Rowson
Jan 5, 2017 · 12 min read
Image for post
Image for post

Yes, I agree, we are living in a time of acute crisis. Nonetheless it feels churlish to start the analysis there. Most people who read these words enjoy full healthy lives in developed countries where we have the luxury and privilege to write and reflect, rather than merely scrambling to survive.

There are deep problems with the world, to be sure, but we have made progress in many ways, and humanity gets a lot of things right. As far as possible we should try to contribute in a spirit of gratitude and controlled urgency, not hysteria. The point is to protect what we value by understanding why it is imperilled.

Maintaining a viable world for billions of human beings was never going to be easy. In the early 21st century, after a few decades of globalisation, it’s important not to get too distracted by a destructive referendum in the UK or an unimaginable President in the US. Such things matter of course, and their ramifications could be literally deadly, but they still feel more like symptoms than causes. If you step back from the canvas you see a myriad of cracks stretching across civilisation. They need our attention because most cannot be papered over:

· Pending Ecological Collapse. Climate change is the nexus of systemic risk to food, water and energy, and yet the mitigation required calls for a literally incredible transformation across societies.[1]

· Acute Democratic Stress. Levels of trust in politicians and political institutions are increasingly low[2]

· Recurring Economic Instability. Global economic and financial system seems chronically vulnerable to shocks.[3]

· Widespread Social Fragmentation. Pervasiveness loneliness and deteriorating mental health is the norm.[4]

· Pervasive Cultural Narrowing. Online media tends to reinforce biases rather than challenge them.[5]

· Stealthy Data Imperialism. Personal data is highly concentrated and mostly used for commercial gain.[6]

· Runaway Technological Disruption. Robotics, synthetic biology, blockchain technologies, ‘superintelligence’, 3D printing (etc…) destabilise our most basic foundations.[7]

· Ambient Spiritual Confusion. We lack shared axioms, rituals and norms to shape purpose and meaning.[8]

· Random Terrorist Threats. It is difficult to feel fundamentally safe, especially in major cities.[9]

This is not a counsel of despair. Some of these issues are urgent existential threats. Others are consistent with the perennial human challenge to adapt. Some challenges will come to a head quickly, some are more gradual and many are as yet unknown. When you take them together it’s clear we face huge intellectual, ethical and spiritual conundrums, and it’s not at all clear how we should think, feel or act in response. So why does it still feel subversive to suggest we may have to radically alter course? (I mean radical here in the literal sense of ‘forming the root’).

Let’s set aside for a moment whether our ‘enemy’ is neo-liberalism or neo-nationalism and think instead about what we actually *want*. What kind of world can we reasonably hope to live in, and what would be ideal, given the chance?

I’m with those who believe we have to rethink the normative foundations of our social, economic, political and cultural life, and I suspect we are now in the (relatively) silent majority. A particularly impressive case for this kind of transformative approach was recently presented by Jeffrey Sachs in a keynote lecture at the LSE:

If you feel a bit antiheroic at the sight of the word ‘wellbeing’ in the video snapshot you have my sympathy, but fear not, this is different. Sachs offers the familiar critiques of neoclassical economics but also gives a detailed connection between the design of the economy from first principles and a fairly detailed vision of human development and flourishing (eudaimonia)including the case for development as flourishing.

The key point of emphasis is to link economic success to wellbeing, but not as a utilitarian preference-maximising notion. Rather, wellbeing can and should be thought of as a preference cultivating notion with an implicit theory of state responsibility for human virtue development built in to it. (If you watch right to the end you can see Lord Layard give a short response, and my impression is that he didn’t ‘get’ this fundamental distinction which is a huge challenge to his ne0-Benthamite worldview).

I took away two underlying principles that have been heard before but bear repeating again and again.

  1. We don’t have to be neutral about ‘the good’ — we can build a world that has ethical foundations that dare to go beyond letting everybody ‘satisfy their preferences’. (The Philosopher Derek Parfit, who recently died, argued that this idea — axiomatic to the economy — didn’t even make sense).
  2. Humans grow. We need to be kind to ourselves certainly, but we can and should try to get better morally, intellectually, interpersonally, intra-personally. We don’t stop changing in early adulthood. There is a deep sense of meaning and fulfilment in attempting to close the gap between our actions and our ideals. Throughout the lifespan there is a path to find, create and follow, even if development is uneven, and you will often go astray.

Both these points chime well with Perspectiva’s work on the centrality of the development of human consciousness (our evolving capacity for empathy, insight and perspective taking) in designing viable futures. The economic critique is conventional, but not enough is said about the epistemic, ethical and spiritual foundations of the alternative vision.

Moreover, I would add a third point, developed more fully in a separate post called The Unrecognised Genius of Jean Piaget which is this: any viable alternative vision has to be inclusive of humanity as such, and scientifically grounded. By ‘scientifically’ here I don’t so much mean facts, but a vision of sufficient complexity to hold the world together has to cohere all the way from ontology (what there is; what’s real) to epistemology (how we know) to ethos and ethics (how we live). It’s not going to work to say “here are some new values - let’s work with them.” The alternative has to have what Gregory Bateson calls ‘aesthetic unity’ — it should look and sound and feel whole and beautiful, with space for everyone, including the space for incommensurate values and optimal conflict.

Sachs doesn’t go there as such, but he concedes there are risks of authoritarianism and in-group biases when it comes to taking a view on the good life or proactively shaping norms. However he suggests (rightly I believe) that this is a lesser risk when the norms in question are inclusive and tolerant by design, and more honest than a state that remains apparently neutral to the good, taking human preferences as simply given, and yet looks the other way while advertising runs riot, addictions take hold and our social and ecological fabric unravels.

Perhaps most striking of all in the talk is that while Sachs draws heavily on Aristotle, he also quotes liberally from Jesus and Buddha without any sense of deviance or inconsistency. While watching I was reminded that in their celebrated book How Much is Enough?(2012) Robert and Edward Skidelsky present a detailed description of the good life and a rationale for its various elements as an alternative vision to modern capitalism, but in the penultimate paragraph, without forewarning they write: “Could a society entirely devoid of the religious impulse stir itself to pursuit of the common good? We doubt it.”

This point chimes with arguments from a range of thinkers, not least Rowan Williams, Michael Sandel and Martha Naussbaum who writes: “Public culture needs something religion-like … something passionate and idealistic if human emotions are to sustain projects aimed at lofty goals… Mere respect is not enough to hold citizens together when they must make sacrifices of self-interest.”

How can I put this? I think we need to take this point very seriously indeed.

Yes, religion is problematic in various ways, but the wholesale rejection of religion or the relegation and displacement of religion to an imaginary private realm is even more problematic. Our public life seems ambivalent to our interiority and we have become ignorant about a whole dimension of human experience. That dimension is not ‘belief’ as such, but rather a commitment to cultivating our inner lives, to recognising the interest and value of others, and combining them in a meaningful and rewarding way.

Yet this neglected feature of our current problems is something we struggle even to talk about. I did what I could to address the challenge by leading a two year inquiry into spirituality at the RSA, leading to the final report: Spiritualise: revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges. (A short overview can be viewed below).

One of the main things I learned from the inquiry was that many people who accept the diagnosis above tend to be much too quick to think that you can supplant religion with a more nebulous notion of the spiritual and fill the same gaps of meaning and purpose and solidarity and ritual and myth and…need I go on? It’s not that easy to reinvent the wheel.

However. It is perhaps worth beginning to unpack the connections between political challenges and spiritual life in general because we won’t re-enchant or re-norm the world through anything that looks reactionary or feels coercive. First, let’s show the value of experiences, practices and communities as such, and then, as people become more receptive, you can choose your favoured vantage point and say: “Well if you want some broader context for those things you now value, here are some myths and stories about who we are that mean a lot to me, and some of them might even be true.”


It is noteworthy that at a time when we struggle to uphold the idea that the truth might be sacred, reality is still invoked to undermine hope and chastise idealism. It’s a kind of epistemic bullying, of knowledge and reality as a function of power rather than truth. “Get real!” they say, in a thousand different ways, but mostly as a call for conformity, not awakening.

And yet, at its best, spiritual life is fundamentally about a deeper engagement with reality, a turn towards the confounding fullness of life, not an attempt to escape it. The idea that a renewal of progressive politics broadly conceived might require ‘a spiritual turn’ is therefore about courage, about squaring up to those neglected features of reality that have untapped political potential.

One way to get real is to consider Neal Lawson’s excellent analysis on the existential threats to social democracy. Many believe in a beneficent state that arose from an alignment of class, governance and the cold war, when politics was national and industrial. But this state is clearly failing to adapt to a global and post-industrial world.

Part of the solution, Lawson suggests, is that we need a more visceral appreciation for values and activities that are not materialistic. We can still love our homes and our gadgets, but we need to dethrone consumption as our lodestar and touchstone. That means fostering passion for the time rich, relationship rich, experience rich and purpose rich lives we want to live.

But we have heard this before. Neoliberalism endures because we persistently underestimate the semiotic power of money, the emotional logic of capitalism, the social logic of consumption, and the political logic of economic growth. Neonationalism grows because we persistently underestimate the lust for identity, simplicity and clarity as a response to ambient complexity.

In what then can we place our hope?

In 2014 I made an extended case for why we need a deeper engagement with those features of reality — love, death, self and soul — that crash through the ambient delusion: that make us feel where our priorities truly lie.

These days I reach for the German concept of Bildung, which has philosophical roots in Hegel, Schiller and Von Humboldt. There is no easy equivalent in English because Bildung captures several ideas that need to coalesce to make sense of each other. It is about the patterns of personal change that are driven by the need to change society in particular ways. It is more than Gandhian injunction to be the change you want to see in the world because it is as much about responding and learning as it is about self-creation. The following online summary of Bildung is remarkably lucid:

“Fulfilment is achieved through practical activity that promotes the development of one’s own individual talents and abilities which in turn lead to the development of one’s society. In this way, Bildung does not simply accept the socio-political status quo, but rather it includes the ability to engage in a critique of one’s society, and to ultimately challenge the society to actualize its own highest ideals.”

Bildung helps to give structure to the idea that the key to societal renewal is spiritual growth because it’s a kind of ‘stimulus-response’ relationship.

In this spirit of stimulus-response, as an early playful taxonomy that will no doubt grow and change over time; here are five ways people are seeking spiritual growth as a response to societal trends.

First off there are the ‘Psychedelic Pragmatists’. Organisations like The Psychedelic Society are responding both to the rise of mental health problems and the lack of political vision. They are interested in the political generativity of ecstatic or transcendent experiences, expressed as heightened ‘states of consciousness’ where connectedness and bliss are prominent (and safe).

Only after you’ve ‘been there’, they suggest, do you realise just how screwed up our society is. There is a growing body of evidence about the surprisingly common reporting of spiritual experiences, and clinical evidence about their therapeutic value. There is always a risk of course, not least of fetishising the experience and going back for more rather than using it to better ground oneself in the world. But here’s a good conversational gambit: What if getting real means getting high?

Second, there are ‘Mindful Moderates’ responding to smart phone addiction, reckless consumerism and the ambient advertising that fuels it. The existence of The Mindfulness Initiative helps to highlight the politics of attention; partly what Tom Chatfield calls ‘the attention economy’ — the monetisation of our eye movements, but mostly what political theorist Matthew Crawford calls ‘the attentional commons’ — the need to fight for a precious resource that is uniquely ours, and insist on our ‘right not to be addressed’.

Third, ‘Developmental Democrats’ are responding to societal complexity with a focus on maturational development. For them, people need to grow in their capability to think systemically and generate suitably ‘clumsy’ solutions in response to ‘wicked’ problems like climate change. The perceptual (how we see) and epistemological (how we know) changes reflect ‘stages of consciousness’; this is theoretically well developed terrain and empirically solid (if varied). Key theorists include Bob Kegan, Ken Wilber, Frederic Laloux and Clare Graves. My new organisation, Perspectiva hopes to give this idea an institutional home.

Fourth, ‘Therapeutic Technocrats’ emphasise the centrality of emotion, responding to the futility of indignation, self-righteousness and the breakdown of social trust. Psychosynthesis, psychodynamic therapies, psychoanalysis and analytical psychology are all in this space. The claim here is that we need to develop emotionally to get beyond personal defensiveness and psychological projection, which are arguably key limitations of a conventional left wing world view. As Charlotte Millar once put it: “There is a lot of ego in victimhood.”

Fifth, ‘Religious realists’ are responding to the lack of institutional leadership in the public realm and for the common good. The other four groups are their unmoored allies. Where are the institutional forms, historical narratives, and established norms and rituals to give such change processes a real chance of taking root? The report Something More poses this question well. Religion has plenty of baggage of course, but it has been trying to connect personal change and political change for centuries. It would be foolish not to learn from it.

These five forms of personal change — in consciousness, in attention, in maturation, in emotions and in institutional support — are responses to lack of political vision, rampant consumerism, social complexity, futile indignation, and the erosion of the public realm respectively.

So I believe there is hope for people who feel we need to reimagine the whole world. And the next time somebody tells you to ‘get real’ politically, invite them to this larger reality.

@Jonathan_Rowson is Founding Director at Perspectiva — a new research institute in London building the intellectual foundations for a more conscious society.


[1] UNFCC (2015), Conference of the Parties, Twenty-first session, Paris 30 November to 11 December 2015,

[2] OECD (2015), How’s Life? 2015: Measuring Well-being, OECD Publishing, Paris.

[3] Luyendijk J (2015) How The Banks Ignored the Lessons of the Crash. The Long Read, The Guardian, 30 September 2015,

[4] Cacioppo and Patrick (2008), Lonliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, W. W. Norton, New York and McGilchrist (2012), The Divided Brain and The Search for Meaning, Yale University Press, New Haven.

[5] Viner (2016), “How technology disrupted the truth”, The Guardian, 12 July 2016,; and McPherson, et al (2001), “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks”, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 27, pp. 415–444, DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.27.1.415

[6] Pasquale (2015), The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information, Harvard University Press, Cambridge and Lanier (2013), Who Owns the Future?, Simon & Schuster, New York.

[7] Harari (2016), Homo Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harvill Secker, London and Bostrom (2014), Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[8] Rowson (2014), Spiritualise. Revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges, RSA Action and Research Centre,

[9] Institute for Economics and Peace (2015), Global Terrorism Index 2015,


Systems, Souls, and Society.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store