The Times They Are A-Changin’

Historical patterns offer hope for "the next agenda"

One of the articles in The Next Agenda (IC#19)
Originally published in Autumn 1988 on page 5
Copyright (c)1988, 1997 by Context Institute

In many ways, what we are calling "the next agenda" (developing a sustainable relationship between humankind and the earth) has needed urgent attention for at least the past two decades. In spite of that need, not much has been done nor, if we judge only by the actions of present governments and other major institutions, does it look like much will be done. Yet the idea behind this issue of IN CONTEXT is that we have come to a watershed time – a time when it is not only necessary for us to "get real" about building a livable 21st century, but also when it is beginning to be culturally and politically possible.

You might well ask, "What has changed? Why now?" Part of the answer is amply illustrated by the articles that follow, which show both that the problems resulting from "business as usual" are getting worse, and that the most promising alternatives for alleviating those problems are now better developed with more of a practical and successful track record to draw on. As the problems build and the alternatives mature there can come a point where even the skeptical establishment begins to take the alternatives seriously.

Yet there is more going on than just the gradually broadening contrast between these two streams. There is also a more cultural, even psychological aspect to our current situation that suggests we are now entering a "window of opportunity," and it is this aspect that I would like to explore in this article.


History, of course, is always full of surprises, and attempting to discern if we are at the start of a watershed time is at best difficult and perhaps foolhardy. Yet I’m willing to take the risk partly because the stakes are so high and we need as much understanding of our present historical situation as we can get. We need at least to try.

I’m also encouraged to try because so far the worldwide cultural transformation – in spite of all its uniqueness – seems to be following the general pattern for deep cultural change that anthropologists and others have discovered. This pattern was described three years ago in our "Strategies For Cultural Change" issue. A key part of that description goes as follows:

"Once the stress in the system has grown to the level that it is seen as a general problem, it is difficult for the culture to return to a steady state without going through a ‘revitalization’ process…. This revitalization can be either reactionary or innovative in its basic thrust. The reactionary mode is characterized by a belief that present problems can be resolved by ‘doing the old way harder,’ and generally tries to undo or suppress recent changes that are seen as the cause of the problem. The innovative mode, on the other hand, attempts to get ‘lagging’ parts of the culture to catch up to recent changes that are seen by the innovators as either positive or unchangeable.

"In complex societies under stress (like our own), there are usually many revitalization movements competing for attention and converts during the time of increasing cultural disintegration. The inherent conservatism in most cultures favors reactionary movements, and it is common for a culture to attempt a ‘let’s do the old way harder’ revitalization as its first response to realizing that something must be done to get the culture back on track (sound familiar?). It is only after the failure of a reactionary revitalization attempt that a culture is willing to risk fundamental innovation." (IC #9, Spring 1985, p. 7)

We can get a more specific sense of how this pattern works by looking at the recent history of China, the Soviet Union, and the United States. The stresses in China during the 1950s and 60s were typical of any country after a successful political revolution. The shift from rebel to ruler is usually harder than most revolutionaries imagine. In 1956 Mao Tse-Tung, hoping to get helpful creative input from the populace, urged the people to "let a hundred flowers bloom and let a hundred schools of thought contend." The resulting diversity of suggestions shocked the party leaders who soon ended the campaign and suppressed many who had spoken out. Worries about ideological purity continued, aided by the poor performance of supposedly "pure" programs like the Great Leap Forward. In the mid-60s Mao launched the "Cultural Revolution" to recapture the revolutionary fervor of the 1930s and 40s and to stem the growing influence of "impure" ideas both from China’s past and from the rest of the world. In our terms, it was a reactionary revitalization movement. It failed, brutally and dismally, and in so doing paved the way for the ideologically flexible Deng Xiaoping and his major economic reforms.

The story is different in the Soviet Union, but the pattern remains the same. The combination of World War II and Stalin left the U.S.S.R. both devastated and deeply inefficient – problems highlighted all the more by the rapid recovery of Europe and Japan and the growing strength of the United States. Khrushchev attempted a (mildly) innovative revitalization in the late 1950s and early 60s, but it lacked depth and quickly lead to his ouster. The conservative period that followed (roughly 1964 to 1985) is hard to describe as "revitalization" (the Soviets now call it "the period of stagnation"). Nevertheless, the Party leadership’s policy of denying the existence of problems served the same function (suppressing unwelcome change) as a reactionary revitalization movement. It’s failure again paved the way for an innovative reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Isn’t this just the normal oscillation between the times of innovation and the times of retreat that one finds in any society? Yes, but there is also more going on. Both of these societies faced a fundamental challenge that had to be resolved sooner or later. In both cases we see a large country, accustomed to functioning as a world unto itself, discovering that the post-war world was much more interconnected – and much harder to remain isolated from – than its leaders wanted. The first response to this recognition, be it in the Hundred Flowers campaign or in Khrushchev, is both confident and naïve, not fully comprehending the depth of change required to accommodate this new interconnectedness. The second response glimpses the magnitude of it and recoils into repression and denial. When this eventually fails, the way is finally open for a more pragmatic approach that accepts the accommodation as unavoidable.


The surface dynamics of cultural change and politics are very different in the United States, yet here as well there is a surprisingly similar pattern. As the most powerful country in the post-war world – economically and culturally as well as militarily – our attempt to function as a world unto ourselves was more subtle: we sought to dominate and control rather than to wall off. Also, in keeping with what cultural historians describe as the phenomenon of the "lagging center," it is not surprising that our pattern trails behind that of China and the Soviet Union. The first recognition of the limits to our power came from several directions in the late 1960s. Growing environmental problems undercut our confidence in our power over nature; our power over other countries was mocked by Vietnam; and the power of old patriarchal institutions felt the tremors produced by students, feminists and the civil rights movement. The response to these shifts developed slowly, but eventually the OPEC-created energy crisis and the American Embassy hostages in Iran brought it to a head in a way that was too much to bear for those who saw their power ebbing away.

We all know what happened. What is being called "the Reagan era," including the rise of the religious right, is a classic example of a reactionary revitalization movement, full of the rhetoric of suppression, denial, and confident assertions that we can set everything right by just "doing the old way harder." It seemed to work very well during the first half of the 1980s when the "Teflon President" seemed always to have luck (and the media) on his side. Of course, the real problems didn’t go away. Acid rain continued its damage even if the administration declared it a "non problem." The Pacific Rim countries and Europe continued to out-compete us as we hid this bad news from ourselves by heavy borrowing. The list goes on and on, but for a while much of the population basked in the glow of feeling that the world was under control again.

By now, it is clear that the momentum of this era has crested and is waning. This is not to say that all the committed supporters of the reactionary approach are disappearing; far from it. Rather, the shift is in the larger public who no longer see this movement as a credible source of national salvation. Looking back, it is my sense that the first major crack in the era’s almost hypnotic spell came with the Challenger explosion in early 1986. Since then its success has soured: Wall Street has gone from euphoria and confidence to scandal and confusion; many of the TV evangelists have fallen from grace; both the Sandinistas and Noriega still rule in Central America; and drugs still flow unimpeded into our communities. We have had to face the fact that bravado neither makes us invincible nor does it equal morality, that problems denied or suppressed do not go away, and that our ability to control by force is much more limited than many had hoped.

What’s next? If we follow the common pattern, we will likely now move into a period of pragmatic reform that accepts our new status as a part of the world. There are many indications that this shift is already under way. A current one can be seen by comparing the outcomes of the presidential campaigns of the two ministers, Pat Robinson and Jesse Jackson. The Robinson campaign received a lot of initial attention in the press; but after a few successes in the more easily manipulated caucus states, it became clear that he was unable to appeal to any more than a hard-core following. His campaign was a "last hurrah" for the fading reactionary revitalization movement. Jackson, on the other hand, after being largely written off by the pundits, steadily spread the base of his appeal. He has now emerged not only as a leader of the Democratic Party, but as an increasingly recognized national moral leader whose achievements are praised even by George Bush. While there are many reasons for the respect that Jackson is getting, I find it significant that he has been the clearest spokesperson for our need to honestly accept a more interdependent relationship with the rest of the world, both human and natural.


If this analysis is correct, what does it mean for "the next agenda"? It could provide us with a very significant opportunity, especially since China, the Soviet Union and the United States will all be in this pragmatic reform phase together. But we also need to recognize that, even if a new era does begin, there is no guarantee that it will be easy, that it will have any significant success, or that it will deal with the fundamental issues required to put us on track towards genuine sustainability. The problems created by the "borrow, borrow, spend, spend" style of the Reagan era, both in and out of government, will catch up to us, probably sooner than later. The numerous unsolved problems – from climate changes and other environmental deterioration to nuclear weapons and the deepening poverty in much of the Third World – leave us with less room to maneuver and fewer resources to draw on. Under these pressures the temptation to apply short-term patch-ups will be great.

Even when people want to act for the long-term good, they can only act on the basis of what they know. Unfortunately, much of what needs to be done and what can be done to create a sustainable world is not well known either by the general public or by institutional decision makers.

If this new era of pragmatic reform is going to get a chance to develop and have a positive impact it will likely need to produce some quick, visible, significant successes. Going back to the experience in China and the U.S.S.R., we can see that Deng Xiaoping was able to create a solid foundation for his surprisingly successful and long-lived reform movement by beginning with agricultural reforms that allowed the peasants to sell their own produce in the open market. This quickly raised the quantity and quality of food available to everyone and also quickly raised rural incomes and living standards. In the U.S.S.R., Gorbachev has not produced any comparable practical results for everyday life and his reforms are still on shaky ground because of this.

As will be clear from the articles that follow, the sustainability movement has a number of quick-result, everyday-practical alternatives to offer in areas like energy efficiency and waste management. This provides us with a wonderful opportunity, but adequately responding to that opportunity will require us to shift the way we operate.

During the Reagan era, the sustainability movement had little hope of getting a broad public response. It made sense instead to be quietly doing our homework, building experience through small scale projects, working to limit the damage, and helping each other so that we could survive as a minority and as outsiders. Now, as the era changes, we need to shift from this inward focus to a more outward one. We will need:

  • to become much more effective at communicating the considerable body of knowledge that has been developed during these past few decades;
  • to develop better skills in working with broad coalitions of people and in cooperating with major institutions;
  • to creatively break the conspiracy of silence that, as in the old story of "The Emperor’s New Clothes," uses a public facade of illusion and denial to keep us from dealing with the real issues;
  • to deepen the maturity of our movement and ourselves so that we can play these new roles with compassion and competence; and
  • to create the support systems, the infrastructure, that will enable us in all these ways to rise to the challenge.

We here at IN CONTEXT are getting ready to respond to these changing times in a number of ways, ways I will describe more fully at the end of the issue. As a first step, however, we have devoted this issue to a sampling of the, by now, very extensive practical wisdom the sustainability movement has to offer on topics ranging from global reforestation to personal deepening. There is a great deal that can be done. I hope it will stir your mind and your heart and help you move into your own new era.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!