Integral Activism in the Social Commons

by Duane Elgin -

Einstein said that if we cannot explain something simply, then we don't understand it. 

So, a core question is: 

What does 'integral' mean, in simple terms, for our world in transition -- in less than 400 pages of text and 20 hours of explanation?

Is there a simple, universal, emotionally powerful, 'integral narrative' that can be told? Or, is integral theory so divided by levels, quadrants, colors, stages, tiers and states that it is not possible to develop a simple narrative of the transformation it seeks to portray?

In a sentence, one integral narrative that I see is a collective shift now underway from thinking consciousness to an emerging reflective or witnessing consciousness. 

Specifically, humanity's immersion in a world of television and mass media is implicitly communicating a message that we can witness and observe what is happening virtually anywhere in the world. Now, with the Internet, we are discovering that, not only can we watch, we can also participate by making our voices and views heard in myriad ways. 

Although just emerging, a reflective or witnessing consciousness is visibly blossoming in the world. For example, with the Arab Spring and Occupy, we see solidarity among people around the world in a consciously shared sense of dignity and desire for democracy that transcends other differences.

From my perspective, the 'integral commons' is our shared consciousness, our collective consciousness. 

In turn, the primary vehicle for either awakening or distorting and hypnotizing our collective consciousness is the mass media. 

For the majority of humanity, television is our collective witness -- our vehicle for shared observing. 'The whole world IS watching!' In the U.S., we watch more than a billion hours of television a day! And TV time is not going down as Internet time goes up.

If we want to change the world, then it is vital that we: 
1st) change the dominant story in a way that includes the entire Earth and human family and
2nd) challenge the 'story machine' of mass media to tell stories of promise and opportunity. These are immensely difficult undertakings. 
Only an authentic challenge to the viability of the human species could provide the impetus for such changes--and that is exactly what we face today.

First, Change the Story: 

Virtually every forbidden topic imaginable has been covered on television, except for one. The last taboo on television is television itself -- and how it is profoundly biased toward high consumption lifestyles that the earth cannot sustain. In the U.S. the average person sees more than 25,000 commercials a year on TV. 

Commercials represent far more than a pitch for a particular product; they are also advertisements for the attitudes, values and lifestyles that surround the consumption of that product. Mass entertainment is being used to capture a mass audience that is then appealed to by mass advertising to promote mass consumption that, in turn, is devastating the Earth's biosphere.

By programming television for commercial success, the television industry is also programming the mindset of civilizations for ecological failure. This is a profoundly shallow view of our humanity and a recipe for ecological calamity. 

The "American Dream" that pulled the U.S. forward for at least three generations is fast becoming the world's nightmare as the excesses of consumerism produce climate disruption, the depletion of cheap oil, growing income disparities, and more. 

Instead of a different "dream," people want wide-awake visions of real possibilities told in ways that are believable and compelling. We face big challenges and it will take an equally big vision to transform conflict into cooperation and draw us into a promising future. 

The most difficult challenge facing humanity is not devising solutions to the energy crisis or climate crisis or population crisis; rather, it is bringing images and stories of the human journey into our collective awareness that empower us to look beyond a future of great adversity and to see a future of great opportunity.

Here are four of more than a dozen 'stories of great transition' that illuminate a promising future (more at

These narratives are of universal concern, simple and relatively easy to understand, emotionally powerful and able to call forth our higher potentials and all involve a time of profound initiation and deep transformation.

I. Humanity is Growing Up:  
Over tens of thousands of years, the human species has been learning and maturing. We have moved from our childhood as awakening hunter-gatherers to our late adolescence as a species on the edge of a planetary civilization. 
We are now moving collectively through a rite of passage, toward our early adulthood as a human community. 
II. A Global Brain is Awakening:  
An unprecedented revolution in global communications is underway, integrating powerful technologies ranging from wireless networks to Internet connections, cell-phones, televisions, and much more. 
Combined, these technologies are rapidly wiring the global brain and supporting the awakening of collective consciousness from a local to a global scale. 
III. Humanity is on a Heroic Journey:  
The Hero’s Journey has three, major stages: separation, initiation and return. 
Over the past 45,000 years or so, the human community has moved from a long stage of separation from nature and one another and we are now moving into a time of initiation, from which may come the insight to begin our journey of return to living in harmony with Earth, one another and the living universe. 
IV. Choosing Conscious Evolution:  
Consciousness is the knowing faculty. Our capacity for reflective or witnessing consciousness – to know that we know – enables us to take greater responsibility for our actions and their consequences. 
Unprecedented global crises are pressuring human consciousness to develop further, and we are poised to awaken to a collective knowing that we can choose consciously to evolve our capacities for living in harmony with the rest of life.

This is a rare moment in human history when we are beginning to develop, for the very first time, the "story of, by and for all of us." 

There may be no more important task for humanity than to cultivate narratives in our collective imagination that can serve as beacons for guiding us into a promising future.

Second, Change the Story Machine: 

Two different media dominate the world today -- television and the Internet – and these are quite different. Television provides programming that is shallow but has a reach that is very broad. The Internet provides stunning depth but has a reach that is generally very narrow. 

Individually, they have tremendous limitations. Together, they are powerful, synergistic tools of communication that connect the local with the global and back again. 

The Arab Spring and Occupy movements combined the immediacy and depth of first-hand experience captured on cell-phones in the streets that were then broadcast television audiences around the world. The depth of the Internet connected with the broad reach of television and supported an awakening in human dignity and democracy. These are not competing but highly synergistic forms of communication.

However, it is television that is most powerful in programming the mass mind of humanity. 

In turn, our mass mind is being programmed by the mass media for consumer success and evolutionary failure. Psychotherapists, meditation teachers, and psychologists recognize this incessant bias is producing a deep distortion in our collective sense of identity and personal responsibility, 

Therefore, one of the most powerful and important actions that an integral revolution could take is to 'call the game' in the mass media! 

Instead of turning off and turning away, it is to hold media that use our public airwaves accountable for serving the public "interest, convenience, and necessity." 

We could call upon the mass media to honor the profound importance of our mass mind in making choices at this pivotal time in human history. 

We could affirm that we are more than consumers to be entertained, we are citizens of an endangered Earth and civilization and we want to be informed and engaged in our common future. 

This is more than a matter of 'taste,' it is now a matter of survival and human necessity.

Nearly all of the world's problems are, at their core, communication problems. Therefore, the future of the world will depend largely on the quality and depth of human communication. 

I agree with Lester Brown, author of the respected State of the World book series, who said that to respond to the global ecological crisis, 
"The communications industry is the only instrument that has the capacity to educate on a scale that is needed and in the time available." 

At the heart of the communications industry is television. In the U.S. 98% of all homes have a TV set and the average person watches approximately four hours per day.

Television has become our primary window onto the world: most of the people get most of their news about the world from television. 

Like it or not, television has become the central nervous system of modern society. The question then becomes, how well is our "social brain" responding to the immense challenge of sustainability?

The unrelenting consumerist bias of television distorts our view of reality and social priorities, leaving us entertainment rich and knowledge poor. 

Television may be our window onto the world but the view it provides is cramped and narrow. Television may be the mirror in which we see ourselves as a society but the reflection it gives is often distorted and unbalanced. 

Our evolutionary intelligence is being tested by how well we use this powerful vehicle to communicate collectively about our future.

Most people understand that our planet is in trouble and that we will soon have to make dramatic changes in our manner of living, working and consuming if we are to live in harmony with the Earth. 

Never before in human history have so many people been called upon to make such sweeping changes in so little time.

If a problem recognized is a problem half-solved, then we can make an enormous leap forward by breaking the last taboo on television and taking back a portion of the public's airwaves for purposes of mature conversation about our common future.

For more on these and related themes, see my blogs on Huffington Post:

Editors' note: Also see the conversation between Duane Elgin and Terry Patten on Beyond Awakening.

About Author: Duane Elgin, MBA and MA, is an internationally recognized, visionary speaker and author. His books include: Voluntary Simplicity The Living Universe, Promise Ahead and Awakening Earth. In 2006, Duane received the international “Goi Peace Award” in recognition of his contribution to a global “vision, consciousness and lifestyle” that fosters a “more sustainable and spiritual culture.”

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