The limitations of the evolutionary meaning-making

or Peak oil and why integralists tend to overlook it

A week or two ago I recorded a podcast with two Norwegians, one was the host James Alexander Arfinsen who has been doing a lot of podcast interviews with people involved with issues of sustainability and integral perspectives on social and personal development and transformation. The other one was Anders Asphaug who has written a few extensive articles in Norwegian on the topic of Peak oil and permaculture, and the topic of the podcast was Integral perspectives on Peak oil.

And actually, James and I made an earlier attempt to cover the extensive topic, or rather the crossing of two huge bodies of knowledge or discourses. However, I wasn’t comfortable with the result, perhaps since I felt that I couldn’t embody and bridge the gap between them by myself. But with this new attempt with Anders that could act more as an expert in Peak oil while I could focus a bit more on the integral part that I feel more comfortable in, although it is still very limited. And I think it worked great, we talked for three hours which after editing resulting in two hour-long episodes. The podcasts are in Scandinavian (Norwegian/Swedish) so I thought I’d just give a brief overview of my main points in English.

When James and I did a research of what had been written on the topic of Peak oil in integral contexts we found two references, one was by another Norwegian, Svein Horn, who had made a presentation on the topic of integral perspectives on Peak oil already in 2009. Apparently he wrote a follow-up article that was submitted to Journal of integral theory and practice, but it seems not to have been accepted for publication. It seems to have ended up as a book chapter. The other reference is an article on Integral world, Twilight in the integral world, an alternative forum for integral thought and critique that is outside the core of the integral movement, written by Tomislav Markus. Markus criticizes the leading integral theorists such as Sean Esbjörg-Hargens for how little they say about the ecological crisis and at for not at all recognizing the issue of Peak oil.

So, why is it so? Why don’t the leading edge thinkers of the world, at least as I think that should be the ambition for integralists to strive for, acknowledge the issue or problem that I and many more think is one of the most challenging and acute of our world to address? The question is complex and should of course be open for discussion and a multitude of perspectives, but I’d like to start with three possible reasons that I see from my horizon. I elaborate these reasons in the end of the final part of the podcast, after providing some constructive thoughts on how to apply the integral framework and principles as tools for understanding and addressing the issue at hand.

Firstly, as an engineer my observation is that the integral movement typically consists of non-engineers. They are typically people with backgrounds in psychology, cultural studies, i.e. the humanities and the social sciences, perspectives that emphasize the left quadrants of the AQAL model. But Peak oil is not foremost about perspectives, it’s about physical resources and processes, how much oil that is actually in the ground, how quick we can get it out and with which amount of energy input. As an engineer or physicist I focus typically on the physical and material world that can be described by laws and mathematics and that, although complex and uncertain, have definite and final answers. In integral contexts there is a larger emphasis on meta-theory and perspectives rather than descriptions on reality itself. When there is a conflict in the issue of Peak oil it is typically between physicists and economists (another area that is not exactly packed with integral people).

Secondly, most commonly integralists rely on the quadrants for identifying important issues or aspects of them. But in which quadrant do we find Peak oil? The quadrants come from Ken Wilber’s approach of describing evolution as something that isn’t a purely psychological affair (UL), and neither a purely cultural (LL), not a physiological or behavioral (UR), nor only an affair of evolving societal structures (LR). According to Wilber evolution is better described by taking all these perspective into account and seeing it as an interplay between these four aspects or quadrants, a process of tetra-evolution. If would perhaps feel most natural to place Peak oil in the lower right quadrant since it’s about the outside and surrounding physical world and not about individual entities or individuals. On the other hand, the lower right is where we typically put the human economic, political and social structures.

The quadrants are very useful in proposing aspects of transition, we need to transform our cultures, our psychology, our economic system and our consumption patterns, and this is also one of my conclusion in the podcast. But in my view we may easily overlook the resource basis and issues such as Peak oil since it appears to fall outside the quadrants. It might be placed in one of the zones of the integral methodological pluralism, but that more complex version of the quadrants hasn’t really had any impact in these issues.

Finally, and here is the most important reason in my view, when I learned about Peak oil I started to follow up the references that the proponents of Peak oil relied on, theorists and presenters such as Nicole Foss and Chris Martensson, and reading the books they read. These books, typically about a coming collapse of our complex societies and how and if we can avoid it, are written by authors such as Jared Diamond and Joseph Tainter who gives a different view on the history of humanity from hunter-gatherers to the current global society than that we are familiar with from reading Wilber. First I tried to assimilate these new thoughts and theories into the AQAL framework that is commonly applied in integral contexts (that I have described in Swedish in a number of posts), but without success. It seemed to me that these two perspectives, although they aim to describe the same history, gave two quite opposite views on our development and e.g. the role of complexity in our society.

Wilber, on one hand, emphasizes human development as something that is inherently driven by humanity itself, the tetra-evolution of psychological, cultural, behavioral/physiological and structural. The integral view of humanity is a story of progress and of transformation from rudimentary to complex forms of thinking and being, therefore sometimes called the evolutionary meaning-making. Throughout history humanity has evolved from archaic to magic, to mythic, to rational and industrial, to postmodern in the age of global information and perhaps further into the post-postmodern integral age. The main cause or driver of this evolution is sometimes referred to as the evolutionary impulse. When a crisis is viewed from this grand perspective, or rather this narrative or meaning-making since it in turn consists of many perspectives, we tend to interpret it as a transformation towards a higher stage of wider embrace or of higher complexity. “There is no coming to consciousness without pain” as Jung said, and if we see pain it’s easy to from this perspective draw the conclusion that we see a development or coming to consciousness.

In contrast, the peak perspective with its collapse-theorists’ background, Diamond is a geographer and Tainter is an anthropologist and historian (both very multi-disciplinary), focus on the environment and its resources as main drivers of human development, and human activities as a consequence of this. In Diamonds book Guns, germs and steel, he argues for the availability of natural resources, crops and animal to domesticate and climate zones as advantages in favor of the Eurasian continent as main reasons to why Europeans colonized the rest of the world instead of the opposite. Tainter’s notion of The collapse of complex societies rests on a historical view on previous civilizations that actually have collapsed due to a depletion in natural resources that are needed to sustain the society and that complexity in the form of administration and societal functions that are not associated to survival and food production. A common but inappropriate response to the crises that occur, according to Tainter, is to further increase complexity which will give an ever decreasing result or return on investment.

Although they sometimes look at the same data or phenomenon, these two grand perspectives on human development, as well as on the future, are often in contrast to each other, or they are at least to me. For example, although there is a shared view on what complexity is, a high degree of differentiation in social roles, functions or parts that is integrated into a functioning organism, organization, structure or goods, it is interpreted as either a measure of progress and desirable outcome or something that by necessity costs energy and is a burden to the society.

A more concrete example is the view of the Arab spring a couple of years ago, where people in northern Africa revolted toward their leaders. An integral interpretation is that this crisis is a developmental one, where the people hungers for democracy and revolts towards the dictatorship that stands in the way of this cultural progress. An interpretation from the peak perspective, on the other hand, emphasizes high oil and food prices at that time as the igniting spark as well as the long term challenge. For example, in Egypt decreasing oil production gives decreasing incomes which means that the government can’t afford to subsidize gasoline and food to the people, which will revolt, not primarily from hunger of democracy but from hunger of food. Oppressing a people is much easier if you manage to feed them.

Or the case of the industrial revolution where Wilber emphasizes the innovations, the techno-economic, psychological and cultural transformation, while the Peak proponents would emphasize the discoveries of coal and further down the industrialized road today’s total dependency on oil for our civilizations to function. Fossil fuels are not inventions, they are gifts from past times that where given to us. All we had to do was to dig a few meters then, and now a few thousand meters. It’s easy to see that one of these grand perspectives gives a significantly brighter view on humanity, on life on earth and on the future.

A simplified way of illustrating these two narratives is by means of two graphs or functions (yes, my background is in mathematics). The integral or evolutionary meaning-making is represented by an exponential function that starts slowly, picks up speed and then explodes into what seems to be an omega point. This is typically what we see when we plot any measure of human development or complexity as a function of time.

The peak narrative is here symbolized by a Gauss-function or bell-shaped curve that typically serves as illustration for global (as well as local) oil production. The curve starts the same way as the exponential function, but flattens out, reaches a peak and then decreases. It has a birth, a growth, a flourishing golden age with a peak and then a decline followed by death, like the rise and fall of the Roman empire. In this discourse the exponential curve is typically seen as a naive view of an ever growing economy on a finite planet, cells multiplying in a bottle, and of a sign of hubris or illusion of own immortality.

These two grand perspectives or narratives can in many cases be referred to as examples of meaning-making, which refers to the fact that people often build their worldviews, identities and act from these perspectives, this according to adult development theorists such as Susanne Cook-Greuter and Robert Kegan. Therefore, questioning them as overarching frameworks or narratives can be hard.

I am not disregarding any of them, nor do I claim that one is more complex than the other. I do really want to honor both perspectives. What I am saying is that I think that they are both partially right(!) but they are both limited. The integral meaning-making does not acknowledge how dependent we are on fossil fuels for our development, on the biosphere and the half-meter fertile soil for our survival and the fact that our current way of life and our current development is not sustainable. The peak meaning-making often fails to acknowledge the fact that we have stages of development in a psychological sense as well and that we are at different stages, states and so forth. This means that we are cognitively and emotionally better equipped to handle the complexity of the current crisis today and can learn from previous disasters. On the other hand, we have never before faced such a complex and global crisis.

To all who call themselves integralists, I’m truly sorry for questioning the foundations of this meaning-making. I sincerely believe that everyone should be allowed to be at whatever stage they are and that higher is not better per se. But when it comes to the future of our planet I would really want to see the integral movement and its leading thinkers to play a more active and more relevant role and not only to represent a safe haven of meditation and personal healing and growth, although that has a value that cannot be underestimated.

To me there is integral and there is integral. Integral in the first sense is believing in a certain story and identifying with a certain framework and community, only reading the good news, seeing the signs of progress that can be assimilated into the current framework or meaning-making and resting in what seems to be the best of worlds. The world needs this kind of people.

Integral in the second sense is killing your dearest darlings, acknowledging the limitations of the evolutionary meaning-making, letting go of all maps and authorities only to start from scratch again, being a constant beginner’s mind, engaging in fundamentally new perspectives, even those who cannot be reconciled with the integral framework, and embracing uncertainty and even death head on.

This second version of integral is the approach that I have found being most useful when trying to bridge the integral and adult development perspectives with the sustainability, collapse and peak perspectives. I may be wrong in my analysis, it may be a non-completed synthesis, it may be limited too and not very appealing, but this is where I’m at. And if this resonates with you as well, feel free to join in!

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17 Responses to The limitations of the evolutionary meaning-making

  1. Stina says:

    Beautiful Kristian!

    It became very clear to me, while reading your post, that integral, in your first sense, is a form of escapism. It’s selling point is very tempting — everything is getting better and you can be a part of the edge, reaching the promised land first.

    About your curves, I would like to combine them, put a lot of gauss curves along the exponential curve. And then bend the exponential curve into a gauss curve that doesn’t go all the way down and then start upwards again from there.

  2. Kristian says:

    Well, it can be an escapism if one cling to it too long. But yes, it’s very appealing with the omega point or bucket of gold at the end of the rainbow.

    I think that both curves are valid descriptions in different situations, and probably as you say a combination of them can work as a useful description to some. But it might be a good idea to split up the quadrants where one developmental trajectory is valid in one half and another trajectory in the other. There are still no limits to growth in the mental realm.

  3. Stina says:

    Yes, I do imaging a multi-line, multi-dimensional, multi-quadrant, multi-embrace graph. But it’s harder to describe in words 😉

    An important understanding I’ve gotten out of the integral framework, is that development is not a continuum. There are levels with different properties and perspectives. This can be used to be humble before the future — we can’t know. Or it can be used within an evolutionary believe system — it will become better.

  4. Kristian says:

    Yes, one should always be humble and predictions are always hard to make, especially about the future. It’s impossible to anticipate what awaits at the next level, but on the other hand, that unpredictability can also work as an escapism: all problems will magically disappear at the next stage!

  5. Stina says:

    Just realized that the famous quote from Einstein “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them” almost always is used as if he said “We can always solve our problems with the next level of thinking”.

  6. Stuart says:

    Nice analysis. You point at and clarify something that I have had on my radar but have only been dimly aware of, at the crossing of the developmental/evolutionary perspective with the limited resource-base/sustainability perspective. I wonder if the developmental perspective has, over the last 10,000 years of human history, been the one that has reflected the general trend, whereas the perspective of limited resources has played out many times in many collapsed societies within the general trend towards increased complexity. However, that was still when we were in the big world paradigm, no longer true I’m afraid, and perhaps we have reached the limits to complexity that our environment, or our ingenuity as a species, can maintain. Or perhaps the same pattern will play out again, just this time the crash will be that much bigger in our globalised world, but the general trend to increased complexity will continue in some post-apocolyptic societies. It’s all a bit depressing really…

  7. Kristian says:

    Hi Stuart, nice to hear from you.

    Yes, we can speculate on possible future scenarios and as you say, they are typically not that nice and quite demanding to work one’s head around. One thing I find hard to estimate is time and the rate of either development or decomplexification. And our societies ability to withstand unpleasant surprises, i.e. resilience…

  8. Stuart says:

    Decomplexification – that’s a good one, almost as good as the economist’s favourite, degrowth! 😉

    As for resilience, I believe that we have been successively reducing global resilience during the last 50 years or so, but especially since the 70s. Didn’t you just post an article about how 40% of the UK’s food is imported nowadays? How is that going to work in a collapsing system, with severe effects of climate change reducing agricultural productivity, oil prices increasing rapidly, oil reserves being nationalised and monopolised, fresh water shortages etc. And that’s just one example. So, resilience is not something that market forces are good at developing, despite the hype of the marketeers. I have much more faith in small more or less self-contained systems that large sensitive global ones when it comes to resilience.

    I’m not sure what decomplexification is actually, unless it’s a nice word for collapse. For that is what it would be if it happened rapidly. As for a slow adjustment, yes, still possible and desirable, but we show no signs of going down that road as yet. That’s the road that I’m working on myself, so I still believe, but I find it difficult to hold both the belief and the crass reality at the same time. Nonetheless, it is important to believe.

    Thinking about it last night, I wondered if the integral community are looking at development from a very impersonal point of view, that complexity has undoubtedly increased in the universe, and will continue to do so whether humans or even planet Earth are the vehicles for this, or whether the development will continue elsewhere. Perhaps true, but very cold-blooded from the point of view of human suffering.

    Oh, we should talk about those translations I was going to do…

    • Aniket Chaudhuri says:

      A few from………..

      Likeness of verbal emnity is sustained inbetween nacent yearning of uncertainity.

  9. Kristian says:

    Yep, here is the article:
    and I think that the numbers work for Sweden as well, I think we produce about 50 % of the food we consume.

    And here is a related documentary on the same theme, a post-peak discussion of British food production with organic farming and permaculture gardens.

    I like the word resilience, which typically comes up after the realization that we are not sustainable. And I agree that the market shouldn’t be trusted with providing that.

    And regarding the integral community, if we assume that as a whole and coherent group. I would rather say that it emphasizes an anthropocentric view in a way that makes it easy to overlook the problems of sustainability, as I elaborate in the text. I don’t think I have come across the notion of the development or evolution continuing with another species.

  10. Hokyo Joshua Routhier says:

    Hey brother, this is Hokyo from trollz. Love this piece. It speaks to me and my hope for real action within the Integral community. I have shared it to trollz and on my personal twitter account (neoarchiteuthis).

    Keep up the great work!

  11. Kristian says:

    Hi Hokyo!

    Thank’s for sharing and you too!

  12. This post really clarifies what came up in our conversation Kristian, and I especially appreciate the differentiation between the “collapse”-way-of-thinking and the “integral”-way-of-thinking. My wish is that either you, or someone else, should try again to get these perspectives into the integral journals, either the AQAL or Integral Review.

    PS! The second part of the podcast will be published soon (the part where we really apply and explore the integral perspective.

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  14. Frank Visser says:

    hi kristian,
    thanks for pointing to this blog on facebook. Could I repost this essay on Integral World?
    I will check out this blog to see if you have other English language postings that would quality for reposting,

  15. Gary Stamper says:

    Hi Kristian,

    Well done. I’ve been writing about Integral’s peak disconnect for several years. first aat my blog, “The Integral Warrior,” in my book “Awakening the New Masculine,” and now at my new blog and website “Collapsing into Consciousness.” I’d like to republish this on CIC and I’d also like to further this conversation.


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