The Cycles of Life

Polina Silakova‘s third post in our Emerging Fellows program explores Spiral Dynamics in the context of the ouroboros as a symbol for the cycles of life. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Ouroboros – a snake eating its own tail. In many ancient cultures across the globe, this symbol represented the infinite cycle of renewal of life, a rebirth of the Earth, the continuous development of consciousness. We got used to the renewable nature of the world and learned how to benefit from it. Over centuries, humanity has been focussing on getting better, faster, more efficient – taking everything we do to the next level. In a search for better life, we tamed many types of energy, speed and even time, thanks to the advancements in health care. What is the driving force that makes us continuously strive for more, creating demand for overly saturated markets and often unnecessary exploitation of Earth?

Apparently, the answer may lay in Darwin’s Evolution by Natural Selection. Canadian evolutionary psychologists ran multiple experiments which demonstrated the link between the natural selection modules that help species survive in the wild and our consumption habits. Survival module, sexual selection, kin selection, and reciprocity – all these mechanisms from the jungle still exist in our casual lives and are covertly guiding our behaviour in grocery stores and shopping malls. They help us make the “safest” choices as dictated by the millions of years spent in a continuous fight for survival. Examples of this might be purchasing several flavours of the same type of food instead of one (to make sure we won’t die in the event of it being poisonous), buying things that make us look more attractive (to be selected by a sexual partner with more promising genes), or acquiring possessions that help a desirable group identify us as a part of their tribe. Eventually, we often end up with an amount of stuff far beyond what we need.

If this behaviour has been in our genes for generations, does it mean that as consumers we will always be primarily guided by these instincts? Maslow addresses this in his “Theory of Human Motivation” where he links our motivations to the needs we have in a particular point of time or stage of life. But allegedly, Maslow himself admitted that another theory does a better job of explaining the psychology of human development. In contrast to his focus on an individual, Graves’ theory of Spiral Dynamics explains the social and psychological development of a person and humanity in general.

This data-based approach to psychology charts the transformation in values and worldviews that humanity went through to the present, and the ones emerging. Initially, eight levels (later updated with additional one) represent different ways of how people think about things and respond to the world around them. They suggest that as the challenges we face change, so does our response to them, supported by the evolving consciousness. Like in a video game, upper levels, emerging in the context of new challenges, prompt different ways of thinking and worldviews that did not exist before.

No level is better than others and all of them coexist at any point in time. For simplicity, each level was assigned a colour. For this conversation, the most interesting is a shift between the two levels in the mid-upper part of the spiral: orange and green. Orange is about striving for success, competition, autonomy, working for abundance and reward. Think capitalism, Wall Street, show business or battles for “likes” in social media. Tired of the egocentric orange, following it, green is open to collaboration and inclusion. It values harmony, empathy, and sensitivity and becomes environmentally conscious. Some estimates suggest that worldwide for every person with green attributes there are about three people with orange attributes.

We also see lots of pseudo-green happening in the orange world with some companies using sustainability and CSR messages more as marketing tools, rather than being truly guided by these values. What matters is that at the end of the day, together with the actions of those genuinely concerned about the future of the planet, this might be slowing down the speed of destruction in the age of Anthropocene.

The question remains though, which will happen quicker: will we collectively break-through to the next cycle of human consciousness or cross a biophysical threshold to a point of no return? How much of our own tail have we eaten already? And do we need a disaster – a problem of the next level of complexity – to activate our next cycle of consciousness?

© Polina Silakova 2018