A Brief History of Everything, Shambhala, Boulder, Colorado, & Hill of Content, Melbourne, 1996, pp 339 + xvii
For several decades evidence has been mounting that the worldview upon which the industrial system – and hence the entire modern world – is built, is defective. In earlier times critics of progress could be silenced or ignored. But that is no longer the case. With each passing year the global system is sending increasingly clear messages to humanity. The signals of stress and over-use suggest that we should moderate our collective impacts, develop a greater respect for natural systems and moderate industrial exploitation with long-term stewardship – all of which are easy to discuss but almost certainly impossible to achieve within a taken-for-granted industrial worldview.
Such signals are mostly overlooked by conventional business-as-usual thinking in commerce, government and education. But those who are paying attention know that we do not live in ‘usual’ times. The prevailing short-term thinking has one very major benefit to those who use it: it allows them to ignore the significance of global signals and the near-future outlook. What both are saying with great clarity and force is something like this: ‘stop, think; find a new set of principles upon which to erect a notion of ‘the good life’ or watch the whole system decay into the greatest mess the world has ever seen’. 1
At first sight such a view is startling and even depressing. But it only remains that way if we do nothing and merely drift fatalistically into an ever deeper civilisational crisis. A major difficulty is that in an age of pluralism, multi-culturalism and post-modernism, the sense of a ‘grand narrative’, or view of ‘the way things are’ has almost disappeared. Yet what Bloom provocatively calls the ‘schools of resentment’ may themselves be in decline. Post-modernism is not as monolithic nor as authoritative as its adherents once believed. 2 What does this have to do with the work under review? In a word, everything. For over 15 years Ken Wilber has been carrying out an increasingly impressive epistemological rescue operation that, properly understood, has the capacity to help us move beyond the breakdown of a particular cultural matrix to an outlook that vastly improves our prospects for a livable future.
Wilber is not a futurist. Rather, he is a grand synthesist. His work ranges widely over science, psychology, sociology, spirituality and religion. Many others have trawled these waters and found a variety of treasures. But Wilber’s grasp is truly cosmic in scope yet, remarkably, fully grounded in the realities of everyday life. Those who doubt it need look no further than Grace and Grit; the immensely moving and tragic account of his wife, Treya’s, premature death from cancer. 3
Wilber’s opus Sex, Ecology and Spirituality lays out many aspects of his perspective in great and compelling detail. Unfortunately only the most dedicated of scholars are likely to read its 600+ pages. 4 A Brief History of Everything is an elegant solution to this problem. Here is an accessible ‘map’ of the larger work, a ‘map’ which is clear, concise and profound. It is structured around a dialogue that the author has with himself. For this reason I was initially put off and passed over the book. But when I returned to read it for purposes of review, this initial reservation dissolved. The device allows the author to ‘interrogate’ himself and to sketch out a framework of understanding that is breathtaking in its depth and breadth. I can do no more than sketch in some of the main elements.
Wilber’s account is based on the notion that there are four ‘quadrants’ of development. One covers the interior development of the individual; each person’s own unique inner world of feeling, emotion, thought and vision. A second covers the external, or physical, development of the individual. Here is the familiar story of science, biology, body and brain function. Next is the interior development of collective social being from the earliest stages, through the present ‘rational’ period and beyond. Finally there is the stream of external collective development, the physical/social process which leads through the various stages of social evolution. This may sound abstract, but the triumph of Wilber’s work is that he has searched so widely and so thoroughly that what stood before as a confusing tapestry of contending ideas and perspectives here stands revealed in a near-universal perspective. In other words, he gives due credit to those innovators and authorities in many fields, each of whom strove to bring forth particular insights, and weaves these into a greater whole.
Not everyone gets away unscathed. He strongly critiques those who would employ modernist strategies to escape from our present civilisational crisis. Instead of using the ‘descended’ frame that elevates rationality to the highest status and, in so doing, creates the ‘flatland’ of modern life, Wilber asks us to question the frame itself. He shows that evolution advances by incorporating earlier stages, preserving key elements of them, but then transcending them in novel ways. He therefore re-introduces a notion of hierarchy which has been highly unfashionable, to say the least, for many decades. One of Wilber’s important and original contributions in this grand and comprehensive vision is to show that deep ecologists, systems theorists, ecological decentralists and others are surprisingly wide of the mark. Hence some familiar names are taken thoroughly to task.
According to Wilber the path ahead is not through the further development and evolution of rationalist thought, not through a one-sided and over-powerful system of science and technology and not by a return to more primitive stages of social organisation. Rather, it lies in escaping from – or rather, transcending – the ‘flatland’ imposed on us by three hundred years of reductionism and epistemological ignorance. It lies in acts of recovery in each and every domain: the recovery of a deeper sense of self, of higher, transcendent, ways of knowing, of states of social being that go beyond the merely rational, and so on. In Wilber’s words: ‘we cannot build tomorrow on the bruises of yesterday … This means a new form of society will have to evolve that integrates consciousness, culture and nature, and thus finds room for art, morals, and science – for personal values, the collective wisdom, and for technical knowledge’ (p 336).
The key is integration: the attempt to see things not in isolation but as interconnected in a structured, evolving way. Wilber’s thinking is a world away from old-fashioned ‘holism’. In his terms, evolution within each of the quadrants is driven by spirit, which is inherent in the universe. It is significant that within the ‘flatland’ of late industrial culture, ‘spirit’ has seemed to be an empty and useless category. But Wilber’s highest praise goes to those individuals and traditions who have considered differently; to the nondual Buddhist and advaita Vedanta traditions and to modern sages such as Sri Aurobindo, Sri Ramana Maharshi and Tibetan lamas.
I have long wondered whether, at the end of the 20th century, the hegemony of instrumental rationality can be tolerated for very much longer. I am coming to doubt it because the escalating social and environmental costs are too great. Wilber too is keenly aware of the growing risks that attend each evolutionary leap forward. Essentially what he offers us is a challenging, sensitive and intelligent framework for dealing in depth with the intractable dilemmas of late industrial life. It is a rich gift to a world in stress and peril. I therefore recommend it without reservation – particularly to those futurists and others who still believe that industrial-era values, coupled with science and technology, represent a viable path to the future. Manifestly they do not, and this impressive work shows why.
- R. Slaughter, The Foresight Principle: cultural recovery in the 21st century (Praeger, Westport, Connecticut, & Adamantine, London, 1995).
- H. Bloom, The Western Canon, (Harcourt & Brace, New York, 1994).
- K. Wilber, Grace and Grit, (Shambhala, Boston, Mass, 1993)
- K. Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (Shambhala, Boston, Mass, 1995)
Published in Futures 28, 8, 1996 pp 793-795