Shifting Attention towards a new meaning-making


“Who would be born must first destroy a world” ~ Herman Hesse, Demian

In his book, The Dream of the Earth, Thomas Berry wrote that “The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation.

According to David Korten, this moment has arrived full force. Consider that “humanity’s current behavior threatens Earth’s capacity to support life and relegates more than a billion people to lives of destitution. Consider that this self-destruc­tive behavior and our seeming inability to change have deep roots in the stories by which we understand the nature and meaning of our existence“.

If change is an imperative and not a luxury of choice, then what is needed is nothing but a new narrative for humanity. Korten argues that “the challenge before us is to create a new civilization based on a cosmology—a story of the origin, nature, and purpose of creation—that reflects the fullness of our current human knowledge; a story to guide us to mature relationships with one another and a living Earth”.

If the issues we are facing are indeed as complex and entrenched as he articulates, then any ‘way out’ cannot be a mere superficial ‘make-over’; a slight shift to friendly capitalism or a mantra of reduce, recycle and reuse. The solution to what many believe could be our slow self-destruction is indeed NOT more technological advances to increase energy efficiency, food production and measures that allow us to continue full speed on our current path of ever more growth, progress and affluence. If there is a so called ‘solution’ to our demise on this planet then it must come from a starting point of critical self-reflection as to how we as individuals and societies ‘make meaning’.

Meaning making is a term that derives from a discussion on culture. In Conflict across Cultures, the authors stress that

“culture is the underground rivers of meaning-making, the places where we make choices about what matters and how, that connect us to others in the groups to which we belong. It is the water in which fish swim, unaware of its effect on their vision. It is a series of lenses that shape what we see and don’t see, how we perceive and interpret, and where we draw boundaries. Often invisible to us, culture shapes our ideas of what is important, influences our attitudes and values, and animates our behaviors. Operating largely below the surface, cultures are a shifting, dynamic set of starting points that orient us in a particular ways, pointing toward some things and away from others”.

The more attention we pay to any particular value or behavior, the more embedded it becomes in our culture, our set of inherited and continuously propagated answers to questions posed by life.

It appears that we in the west and indeed many of the aspiring so called ‘developing’ countries pay attention to those internal drives that lead us along narrow and materialistic paths toward a relating with nature each other that is curious at best, lethal at worst. No dogma is currently stronger and no process more essential than the myth of the ever increasing economic growth, of the ever increasing progress towards some sort of universal utopia as expressed by a common ability to indulge in every want and desire. According to Michael Sandel, capitalism is morphing from being an external phenomenon – an economic system – to becoming embedded in our individual lives so that in our particular form of relating and value assigning, we co-create a society that views itself and the individual through a lens of capitalism. In such a society, almost everything can be bought and sold. Sandel argues that “over the past three decades, markets—and market values—have come to govern our lives as never before. We did not arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. It is almost as if it came upon us.

As the Cold War ended, markets and market thinking enjoyed unrivaled prestige, and understandably so. No other mechanism for organizing the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful at generating affluence and prosperity. And yet even as growing numbers of countries around the world embraced market mechanisms in the operation of their economies, something else was happening. Market values were coming to play a greater and greater role in social life. Economics was becoming an imperial domain. Today, the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone. It increasingly governs the whole of life.

He asks us to “Consider, for example, the proliferation of for-profit schools, hospitals, and prisons, and the outsourcing of war to private military contractors. (In Iraq and Afghanistan, private contractors have actually outnumbered U.S. military troops.) Consider the eclipse of public police forces by private security firms—especially in the U.S. and the U.K., where the number of private guards is almost twice the number of public police officers.

Or consider the pharmaceutical companies’ aggressive marketing of prescription drugs directly to consumers, a practice now prevalent in the U.S. but prohibited in most other countries. (If you’ve ever seen the television commercials on the evening news, you could be forgiven for thinking that the greatest health crisis in the world is not malaria or river blindness or sleeping sickness but an epidemic of erectile dysfunction.)

Consider too the reach of commercial advertising into public schools, from buses to corridors to cafeterias; the sale of “naming rights” to parks and civic spaces; the blurred boundaries, within journalism, between news and advertising, likely to blur further as newspapers and magazines struggle to survive; the marketing of “designer” eggs and sperm for assisted reproduction; the buying and selling, by companies and countries, of the right to pollute; a system of campaign finance in the U.S. that comes close to permitting the buying and selling of elections.

He concludes that “when we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities, as instruments of profit and use”.

This, our transformation, did not come about suddenly. It was a gradual process that slowly shifted our paradigm one action-becoming-habit at a time. Repeat, repeat, repeat! It involved a gradual changing in cultural narrative, a gradual reorientation of our subconscious rivers.

It becomes clear that new narratives are needed to inform new action-becoming habits. These narratives must start with the individual and gradually encompass society as a whole. We require a new culture of relating to one another, a shifting of attention, a meaning making that is foremost about being with and belonging to nature as a nurtured species. Entrenched as we are in our current paradigm, our current culture, such new narratives are exhaustively hard to imagine, to comprehend, to birth. We need a revolution in thought and creativity, a bursting out of this dazed sheep mentality. Recognizing such new narratives, engaging with them as they evolve and perhaps formulating a few chapters of our own – This is our task; our starting line and our entry point into a new ‘being’ on Earth.


For some starters, I recommend looking at

“A new story of the People”

Awakening the dreamer, changing the dream

Learning from a barefoot movement

Finding Joe”

The dream of the Earth

The Century of Self”

Education with Hands, Hearts and Heads”

This is Water”



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