2020 is going to be a very significant year in American politics. And with the March 1st publication of my book, Developmental Politics: How America Can Grow Into a Better Version of Itself, it’s going to be a very significant year for me as well. While I won’t be running for office, I will be conducting a “political campaign” of sorts, as I work to influence politics by speaking and writing to help promote my book in the marketplace if ideas. Developmental Politics attempts to advance a political perspective that is effectively “outside and above” America’s partisan divide. So it may be of interest to briefly recount the story of how I arrived at this perspective.
I grew up in Los Angeles in the Sixties, and at the tender age of 12 became fascinated with the hippie movement that was flourishing at the time. Although I was too young (born in 1960) to join the hippie movement at its height, I embraced the counterculture as an adolescent in the early Seventies. Of all the emergent elements of this progressive culture, I was especially fascinated by the new forms of spirituality that were becoming popular at the time. Among these new expressions of progressive spirituality, I was most attracted to the ones that explored the intersection of science and spirituality, as exemplified by books such as Fritjof Capra’s Tao of Physics, and Marilyn Ferguson’s Aquarian Conspiracy.
By the late Seventies, however, I had become somewhat disenchanted with the progressive counterculture and sought to reenter the mainstream. This shift in my cultural identity started with my embrace of sports, which had seemed “uncool” to me as a teenager. But in 1979 I got into cycling and became a full-time bicycle racer, riding 400 miles a week and traveling to races throughout the United States. Although I had some talent and won some races, after competing against athletic geniuses like Greg LeMond, I began to realize that my real talent lay elsewhere.
At the age of 22 I began thinking about a career. Although I still wasn’t sure “what I wanted to be when I grew up,” I knew that I wanted to make an impact on American culture, and learning how to be an entrepreneur seemed like a good course of study that would put me on a professional track while leaving my options open. At the time (1982), the University of Southern California near my home had recently established an entrepreneur program in their undergraduate business school. So I transferred from Cal State Northridge, where I had been taking classes in the bicycle racing off-season, and enrolled at USC.
The culture of business school provided a sharp contrast to my countercultural past. But even though I was excited about the creative opportunities afforded by the business world, I still felt like a hippie on the inside. As a student I thrived in USC’s entrepreneur program, and in 1983 I won the department’s higher honor for my senior thesis—the Best Business Plan Award. My business plan was for a mountain bike manufacturing company. And I think I won the top prize because my plan was the perfect synthesis of my life up to that point: It combined my new interest in entrepreneurship with the sport of mountain biking, which was just emerging at that time and was still primarily a “hippie sport.”
When I graduated from USC, I had offers of seed money to start the business outlined in my thesis, but the most important lesson I’d learned from USC’s entrepreneur program was that I needed credibility. I wasn’t quite ready to become an entrepreneur at 23, so pursuing some kind of graduate degree seemed like the best way to build the credibility I would need to be a change agent later in life. Among my graduate school options, law school appeared to be the best choice. Although I did not envision a career as a lawyer, I thought a law degree would bolster my credentials and allow me to be economically creative. So in 1984 I was admitted to the prestigious University of Virginia Law School and moved to Charlottesville.
Like business school, law school also shifted my cultural center of gravity. As most of my classmates saw it, we were heirs to the East Coast establishment, and would soon have high paying jobs at elite law firms. While that wasn’t what I wanted, my time in Charlottesville helped me better understand modernist culture—its intense striving and obsession with social and economic rank.
By the time I graduated from UVA in 1987, I had incurred substantial student debt and couldn’t resist signing on with a big law firm straight out of school. Even though I did not intend to practice law long term, it seemed like a good way to become a “finished product” as a lawyer and pay off my student debts at the same time. So after passing the bar, I became an “attorney at law” at California’s largest firm, Pillsbury, Madison, and Sutro in San Francisco. I liked living in San Francisco, but after three years practicing corporate law, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to escape the lawyer career track and began looking for a way out. Providence seemed to intervene when out of the blue I was offered the chance to join a start-up company in Boulder, Colorado. So I jumped at the chance to move to Boulder and finally began my chosen career as an entrepreneur.
This Boulder start-up was an environmentally friendly household cleaning product brand called “Earth Wise.” After its first two years in business, Earth Wise was acquired by Boulder-based Celestial Seasonings tea company, where I became general manager of the Earth Wise brand. Working as a corporate executive at the tea company, I eventually became Director of Corporate Development and General Counsel. But after three years in the corporate world, in 1994 I had a kind of spiritual awakening and realized that the time had come to begin pursuing my higher purpose.
My early attraction to the emergence of Sixties counterculture developed into a lifelong fascination with “renaissances” in general. I carefully studied the times in world history that witnessed periods of cultural florescence. And as a result of my spiritual awakening, I felt called to help catalyze a kind of spiritual renaissance in American culture. So in 1995 I left my job as a corporate executive and founded a start-up company whose explicit mission was to create “cultural artifacts of the spiritual renaissance.” Named Now & Zen, the company’s proof of concept, and biggest seller, was a product I invented and patented—a hardwood art clock called “The Zen Alarm Clock,” which awakened users with a gradually increasing series of acoustic chimes. New Age spirituality was big in the 1990s, and Now & Zen flourished as a company. But by 1999 I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the magical thinking of New Age culture, and its failure to produce the renaissance I had hoped for.
However, my sense of being called to participate in a cultural renaissance had not abated, so I began looking for fresh forms of cultural emergence. This search for an authentic renaissance eventually led to my discover of integral philosophy. And in 2000 I was invited to join Ken Wilber’s newly formed Integral Institute. I was initially part of the Integral Institute’s art branch, but later became involved with the Institute’s business branch, working with Wilber and others to discern an integral approach to the world of business.
By 2002, however, I began to realize that I couldn’t work with Wilber and that I had an independent contribution to make to integral philosophy. So I left the Institute on good terms and started working on a book, which was published in 2007 under the title: Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution: How the Integral Worldview Is Transforming Politics, Culture and Spirituality.
Ever since the publication of Integral Consciousness, integral philosophy has been the primary focus of my working life. In 2012, my second book, Evolution’s Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins, was published. And then in 2015 Quest Books published my third book: The Presence of the Infinite: The Spiritual Experience of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. Although these next two books were primarily about spirituality, they laid the foundation for much of the content of Developmental Politics.
While integral philosophy sheds new light on numerous subjects, at this time in history its most needed contribution is in the realm of politics. Recognizing the political potential of this new philosophy, I felt moved to try to use its insights to help improve America’s broken democratic process. So beginning in 2013 I joined with some colleagues in the integral movement to found the political think tank on whose website you are reading this blog post.
As described in the “About Us” section in the menu link above, the Institute for Cultural Evolution focuses on political problems that are either being caused or exacerbated by America’s ongoing culture war. As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, our think tank’s integral or “developmental” perspective attempts to position itself “outside and above” America’s existing partisan factions, which means that its political stance is neither left, nor right, nor centrist.
Besides myself, the leaders of the Institute for Cultural Evolution now include: Whole Foods founder and coauthor of Conscious Capitalism, John Mackey; education entrepreneur and host of The Daily Evolver podcast, Jeff Salzman; journalist and author of Evolutionaries, Carter Phipps; serial tech entrepreneur John Street; and philosophy professor and coauthor of Integral Ecology, Michael Zimmerman.
Initially, the Institute focused on the problem of global warming. By 2012 climate change had become a highly partisan and deeply divisive issue in American politics, so this seemed like a good place to start. But after working on the cultural dimensions of climate change for close to two years, it became evident that America’s failure to address global warming was actually the result of another wicked problem—the problem of hyperpolarization. And this problem has been the main focus of the think tank ever since.
Between 2014 and 2016 the Institute convened a series of small invitational conclaves on hyperpolarization which brought together influential thought leaders on both the left and the right. The participants in these conclaves included prominent luminaries such as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, PBS’s Firing Line host Margaret Hoover, controversial scholar Charles Murray, The Breakthrough Institute’s Ted Nordhaus, Reason magazine’s Nick Gillespie, MoveOn.org founder Joan Blades, Log Cabin Republicans founder Rich Tafel, and Daily Beast editor-in-chief John Avlon, to name a few.
In addition to convening conclaves, we also gave lectures, wrote scholarly papers, published op-eds, received philanthropic grants, and gained recognition in numerous mainstream media outlets. Yet by the summer of 2016 my colleagues and I realized that we needed a substantial book that would explain our developmental perspective and demonstrate its potential to help ameliorate America’s dysfunctional political condition. The writing of this book has accordingly been my full-time job for most of the last three years. Developmental Politics distills our learning and describes the new approach to politics and culture we have worked out over the course of this past decade.
So with the forthcoming publication of this book on March 1, 2020, I’m “going into politics”—to publicly advocate for a new politics of culture. Although I anticipate pushback from partisans on all three sides of America’s ongoing cultural conflict (postmodernism, modernism, and traditionalism), I firmly believe that the emergence of the integral perspective can help bring about America’s political renewal.
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Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts - richard feynman #ecomodernism2019
"Nuclear is too expensive and we can't solve the waste problem!"
"We can run the whole country on variable renewables eazypeazy. All we have to do is build a massive low cost national supergrid!"
Why again does anyone still take @NaomiOreskes seriously? https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-09-11/climate-change-false-assumptions-nuclear-power-fossil-fuels
"Not matter what good news we are seeing, [we think] that things are bad and they are going to get worse ... there just seems to be a kind of entrenched pessimism," @carter_phipps of @InstituteforCE says.
Do you agree?
Listen to #RNFutureTense for more.
Michael Skelly set out to build a giant extension cord to bring cheap wind power across the country. What he needed was a better grid. https://www.wsj.com/articles/building-the-wind-turbines-was-easy-the-hard-part-was-plugging-them-in-11561176010 via @WSJ
Jo Coburn: “Mehdi, how would you describe the state of US politics?”