Cultural Psychology

Archive for August 2010

Culture in Crisis: The Visionary Theories of Pitirim Sorokin

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Pitirim Sorokin, a leading 20th century sociologist, is someone you should know about. Consider this quote of his:

The organism of the Western society and culture seems to be undergoing one of the deepest and most significant crises of its life. The crisis is far greater than the ordinary; its depth is unfathomable, its end not yet in sight, and the whole of the Western society is involved in it. It is the crisis of a Sensate culture, now in its overripe stage, the culture that has dominated the Western World during the last five centuries….

Shall we wonder, therefore, that if many do not apprehend clearly what is happening, they have at least a vague feeling that the issue is not merely that of “prosperity,” or “democracy,” or “capitalism,” or the like, but involves the whole contemporary culture, society, and man? …

Shall we wonder, also, at the endless multitude of incessant major and minor crises that have been rolling over us, like ocean waves, during recent decades? Today in one form, tomorrow in another. Now here, now there. Crises political, agricultural, commercial, and industrial! Crises of production and distribution. Crises moral, juridical, religious, scientific, and artistic. Crises of property, of the State, of the family, of industrial enterprise… Each of the crises has battered our nerves and minds, each has shaken the very foundations of our culture and society, and each has left behind a legion of derelicts and victims. And alas! The end is not in view. Each of these crises has been, as it were, a movement in a great terrifying symphony, and each has been remarkable for its magnitude and intensity. (P. Sorokin, SCD, pp. 622-623)


Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin (1889–1968) was born in Russia to a Russian father and an indigenous (Komi, an ethnic group related to Finns) mother. Like other intellectuals of his age, he was swept up in the revolt against the tsarist government. He held a cabinet post in the short-lived Russian Provisional Government (1917), and had the distinction of being imprisoned successively by both tsarist and Bolshevist factions. Eventually sentenced to death, he was pardoned by Lenin, emigrated, and came to the US. There he enjoyed a long and distinguished academic career, much of it at Harvard University, where he served as head of the sociology department.

His experience and acute observations of Russian politics left him uniquely suited for understanding the transformational forces of the 20th century. By 1937 he published the first three volumes of his masterpiece, Social and Cultural Dynamics, but he continued to refine his theories for nearly three more decades.

Based on a careful study of world history – including detailed statistical analysis of phases in art, architecture, literature, economics, philosophy, science, and warfare – he identified three strikingly consistent phenomena:

  1. There are two opposed elementary cultural patterns, the materialistic (Sensate) and spiritual (Ideational), along with certain intermediate or mixed patterns.  One mixed pattern, called Idealistic, which integrates the Sensate and Ideational orientations, is extremely important.
  2. Every society tends to alternate between materialistic and spiritual periods, sometimes with transitional, mixed periods, in a regular and predictable way.
  3. Times of transition from one orientation to another are characterized by a markedly increased prevalence of wars and other crises.

Main characteristics of the Sensate, Ideational, and Idealistic cultural patterns are listed below. (A more detailed explanation of alternative cultural orientations, excerpted from Sorokin’s writings, can be found here.)

Sensate (Materialistic) Culture

The first pattern, which Sorokin called Sensate culture, has these features:

  • The defining cultural principle is that true reality is sensory – only the material world is real. There is no other reality or source of values.
  • This becomes the organizing principle of society. It permeates every aspect of culture and defines the basic mentality. People are unable to think in any other terms.
  • Sensate culture pursues science and technology, but dedicates little creative thought to spirituality or religion.
  • Dominant values are wealth, health, bodily comfort, sensual pleasures, power and fame.
  • Ethics, politics, and economics are utilitarian and hedonistic. All ethical and legal precepts are considered mere man-made conventions, relative and changeable.
  • Art and entertainment emphasize sensory stimulation. In the decadent stages of Sensate culture there is a frenzied emphasis on the new and the shocking (literally, sensationalism).
  • Religious institutions are mere relics of previous epochs, stripped of their original substance, and tending to fundamentalism and exaggerated fideism (the view that faith is not compatible with reason).

Ideational (Spiritual) Culture

The second pattern, which Sorokin called Ideational culture, has these characteristics:

  • The defining principle is that true reality is supersensory, transcendent, spiritual.
  • The material world is variously: an illusion (maya), temporary, passing away (“stranger in a strange land”), sinful, or a mere shadow of an eternal transcendent reality.
  • Religion often tends to asceticism and moralism.
  • Mysticism and revelation are considered valid sources of truth and morality.
  • Science and technology are comparatively de-emphasized.
  • Economics is conditioned by religious and moral commandments (e.g., laws against usury).
  • Innovation in theology, metaphysics, and supersensory philosophies.
  • Flourishing of religious and spiritual art (e.g., Gothic cathedrals).

Integral (Idealistic) Culture

Most cultures correspond to one of the two basic patterns above. Sometimes, however, a mixed cultural pattern occurs. The most important mixed culture Sorokin termed an Integral culture (also sometimes called an idealistic culture – not to be confused with an Ideational culture.) An Integral culture harmoniously balances sensate and ideational tendencies. Characteristics of an Integral culture include the following:

  • Its ultimate principle is that the true reality is richly manifold, a tapestry in which sensory, rational, and supersensory threads are interwoven.
  • All compartments of society and the person express this principle.
  • Science, philosophy, and theology blossom together.
  • Fine arts treat both supersensory reality and the noblest aspects of sensory reality.

Update:  A more recent article that concisely describes the features of Materialism, Ideationalism, and Idealism is ‘What is Materialism? What is Idealism?‘ (Uebersax, 2013b)

Western Cultural History

Sorokin examined a wide range of world societies. In each he believed he found evidence of the regular alternation between Sensate and Ideational orientations, sometimes with an Integral culture intervening. According to Sorokin, Western culture is now in the third Sensate epoch of its recorded history. Table 1 summarizes his view of this history.

Table 1
Cultural Periods of Western Civilization According to Sorokin

Period Cultural Type Begin End
Greek Dark Age Sensate 1200 BC 900 BC
Archaic Greece Ideational 900 BC 550 BC
Classical Greece Integral 550 BC 320 BC
Hellenistic – Roman Sensate 320 BC 400
Transitional Mixed 400 600
Middle Ages Ideational 600 1200
High Middle Ages, Renaissance Integral 1200 1500
Rationalism, Age of Science Sensate 1500 present

Based on a detailed analysis of art, literature, economics, and other cultural indicators, Sorokin concluded that ancient Greece changed from a Sensate to an Ideational culture around the 9th century BC; during this Ideational phase, religious themes dominated society (Hesiod, Homer, etc.).

Following this, in the Greek Classical period (roughly 600 BC to 300 BC), an Integral culture reigned: the Parthenon was built; art (the sculptures of Phidias, the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles) flourished, as did philosophy (Plato, Aristotle). This was followed by a new Sensate age, associated first with Hellenistic  (the empire founded by Alexander the Great) culture, and then the Roman Empire.

As Rome’s Sensate culture decayed, it was eventually replaced by the Christian Ideational culture of the Middle Ages. The High Middle Ages and Renaissance brought a new Integral culture, again associated with many artistic and cultural innovations. After this Western society entered its present Sensate era, now in its twilight. We are due, according to Sorokin, to soon make a transition to a new Ideational, or, preferably, an Integral cultural era.

Cultural Dynamics

Sorokin was especially interested in the process by which societies change cultural orientations. He opposed the view, held by communists, that social change must be imposed externally, such as by a revolution. His principle of immanent change states that external forces are not necessary: societies change because it is in their nature to change. Although sensate or ideational tendencies may dominate at any given time, every culture contains both mentalities in a tension of opposites. When one mentality becomes stretched too far, it sets in motion compensatory transformative forces.

Helping drive transformation is the fact that human beings are themselves partly sensate, partly rational, and partly intuitive. Whenever a culture becomes too exaggerated in one of these directions, forces within the human psyche will, individually and collectively – work correctively.

Crises of Transition

As a Sensate or Ideational culture reaches a certain point of decline, social and economic crises mark the beginning of transition to a new mentality. These crises occur partly because, as the dominant paradigm reaches its late decadent stages, its institutions try unsuccessfully to adapt, taking ever more drastic measures. However, responses to crises tend to make things worse, leading to new crises. Expansion of government control is an inevitable by-product:

The main uniform effect of calamities upon the political and social structure of society is an expansion of governmental regulation, regimentation, and control of social relationships and a decrease in the regulation and management of social relationships by individuals and private groups. The expansion of governmental control and regulation assumes a variety of forms, embracing socialistic or communistic totalitarianism, fascist totalitarianism, monarchial autocracy, and theocracy. Now it is effected by a revolutionary regime, now by a counterrevolutionary regime; now by a military dictatorship, now by a dictatorship, now by a dictatorial bureaucracy. From both the quantitative and the qualitative point of view, such an expansion of governmental control means a decrease of freedom, a curtailment of the autonomy of individuals and private groups in the regulation and management of their individual behavior and their social relationships, the decline of constitutional and democratic institutions.” (MSC p. 122)

But, as we shall consider below, at the same time as these crises occur, other constructive forces are at work.

Trends of our Times

Sorokin identified what he considered three pivotal trends of modern times. The first trend is the disintegration of the current Sensate order:

In the twentieth century the magnificent sensate house of Western man began to deteriorate rapidly and then to crumble. There was, among other things, a disintegration of its moral, legal, and other values which, from within, control and guide the behavior of individuals and groups. When human beings cease to be controlled by deeply interiorized religious, ethical, aesthetic and other values, individuals and groups become the victims of crude power and fraud as the supreme controlling forces of their behavior, relationship, and destiny. In such circumstances, man turns into a human animal driven mainly by his biological urges, passions, and lust. Individual and collective unrestricted egotism flares up; a struggle for existence intensifies; might becomes right; and wars, bloody revolutions, crime, and other forms of interhuman strife and bestiality explode on an unprecedented scale. So it was in all great transitory periods. (BT, 1964, p. 24)

The second trend concerns the positive transformational processes which are already at work:

Fortunately for all the societies which do not perish in this sort of transition from one basic order to another, the disintegration process often generates the emergence of mobilization of forces opposed to it. Weak and insignificant at the beginning, these forces slowly grow and then start not only to fight the disintegration but also to plan and then to build a new sociocultural order which can meet more adequately the gigantic challenge of the critical transition and of the post-transitory future. This process of emergence and growth of the forces planning and building the new order has also appeared and is slowly developing now….

The epochal struggle between the increasingly sterile and destructive forces of the dying sensate order and the creative forces of the emerging, integral, sociocultural order marks all areas of today’s culture and social life, and deeply affects the way of life of every one of us. (BT, 1964, pp. 15-16)

The third trend is the growing importance of developing nations:

“The stars of the next acts of the great historical drama are going to be – besides Europe, the Americas, and Russia – the renascent great cultures of India, China, Japan, Indonesia, and the Islamic world. This epochal shift has already started…. Its effects upon the future history of mankind are going to be incomparably greater than those of the alliances and disalliances of the Western governments and ruling groups. (BT, 1964, pp. 15-16)

Social Transformation and Love

While the preceding might suggest that Sorokin was a cheerless prophet of doom, that is not so, and his later work decidedly emphasized the positive. He founded the Harvard Research Center for Creative Altruism, which sought to understand the role of love and altruism in producing a better society. Much of the Center’s research was summarized in Sorokin’s second masterpiece, The Ways and the Power of Love.

This book offered a comprehensive view on the role of love in positively transforming society. It surveyed the ideals and tactics of the great spiritual reformers of the past – Jesus Christ, the Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, etc. – looking for common themes and principles.

We need, according to Sorokin, not only great figures like these, but also ‘ordinary’ individuals who seek to exemplify the same principles within their personal spheres of influence.  Personal change must precede collective change, and nothing transforms a culture more effectively than positive examples. What is essential today, according to Sorokin, is that individuals reorient their thinking and values to a universal perspective – to seek to benefit all human beings, not just oneself or ones own country.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to the subject of yoga (remarkable for a book written in 1954), which Sorokin saw as an effective means of integrating the intellectual and sensate dimensions of the human being. At the same time he affirmed the value of traditional Western religions and religious practices.

The Road Ahead

Sorokin’s theories supply hope, motivation, and vision. They bolster hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that it may not be too far distant. The knowledge that change is coming, along with an understanding of his theories generally, enables us to try to steer change in a positive direction. Sorokin left no doubt but that we are at the end of a Sensate epoch. Whether we are headed for an Ideational or an Integral culture remains to be seen. It is clearly consistent with his theories that an Integral culture – a new Renaissance – is attainable and something to actively seek.

One reason that change may happen quickly is because people already know that the present culture is oppressive. Expressed public opinion, which tends to conformity, lags behind private opinion. Once it is sufficiently clear that the tide is changing, people will quickly join the revolution. The process is non-linear.

The West and Islam

Viewed in terms of Sorokin’s theories, the current tensions between the West and Islam suggest a conflict between an overripe ultra-materialistic Western culture, detached from its religious heritage and without appreciation of transcendent values, against a medieval Ideational culture that has lost much of its earlier spiritual creativity. As Nieli (2006) put it:

“With regard to the current clash between Islam and the West, Sorokin would no doubt point out that both cultures currently find themselves at end stages of their respective ideational and sensate developments and are long overdue for a shift in direction. The Wahabist-Taliban style of Islamic fundamentalism strays as far from the goal of integral balance in Sorokin’s sense as the one-sidedly sensate, post-Christian societies of Northern and Western Europe. Both are ripe for a correction, according to Sorokin’s theory of cultural change, the Islamic societies in the direction of sensate development (particularly in the areas of science, technology, economic productivity, and democratic governance), the Western sensate cultures in the direction of ideational change (including the development of more stable families, greater temperance and self-control, and the reorientation of their cultural values in a more God-centered direction). Were he alive today, Sorokin would no doubt hold out hope for a political and cultural rapprochement between Islam and the West.” (Nieli, p. 373)

The current state of affairs between the West and Islam, then, is better characterized as that of mutual opportunity rather than unavoidable conflict. The West can share its technological advances, and Islam may again – as it did around the 12th century – help reinvigorate the spirit of theological and metaphysical investigation in the West.

Individual and Institutional Changes

Institutions must adapt to the coming changes or be left behind. Today’s universities are leading transmitters of a sensate mentality. It is neither a secret nor a coincidence that Sorokin’s ideas found little favor in academia. A new model of higher education, perhaps based on the model of small liberal arts colleges, is required.

Politics, national and international, must move from having conflict as an organizing principle, replacing it with principles of unity and the recognition of a joint destiny of humankind.

A renewal in religious institutions is called for. Christianity, for example, despite its protestations otherwise, still tends decidedly towards an ascetic dualism – the view that the body is little more than a hindrance to the spirit, and that the created world is merely a “vale of tears.” Increased understanding and appreciation of the spiritual traditions of indigenous cultures, which have not severed the connection between man and Nature, may assist in this change.

Sorokin emphasized, however, that the primary agent of social transformation is the individual. Many simple steps are available to the ordinary person. Examples include the following:

  • Commit yourself to ethical and intellectual improvement. In the ethical sphere, focus first on self-mastery. Be eager to discover and correct your faults, and to acquire virtue. Think first of others. See yourself as a citizen of the world. Urgently needed are individuals who can see and seek the objective, transcendent basis of ethical values.
  • Read Plato and study Platonism, the wellsprings of integral idealism in the West.  For a warm-up, read works of Emerson — Platonism come to America.
  • Cultivate your Intellect and encourage others to do likewise: read history, literature, and poetry; listen to classical music; visit an art museum.
  • Practice yoga.
  • Be in harmony with Nature: plant a garden; go camping; protect the environment.
  • Reduce the importance of money and materialism generally in your life.
  • Turn off the television and spend more time in personal interaction with others.

A little reflection will doubtless suggest many other similar steps. Recognize that in changing, you are not only helping yourself, but also setting a powerfully transformative positive example for others.

The Supraconscious

Sorokin’s later work emphasized the role of the supraconscious — a Higher Self or consciousness that inspires and guides our rational mind. Religions and philosophical systems universally recognize such a higher human consciousness, naming it variously: Conscience, Atman, Self, Nous, etc. Yet this concept is completely ignored or even denied by modern science. Clearly this is something that must change. As Sorokin put it:

By becoming conscious of the paramount importance of the supraconscious and by earnest striving for its grace, we can activate its creative potential and its control over our conscious and unconscious forces. By all these means we can break the thick prison walls erected by prevalent pseudo-science around the supraconscious. (WPL, p. 487)

The reality of the supraconscious is a cause for hope and humility: hope, because we are confident that the transpersonal source of human supraconsciousness is providential, guiding culture through history with a definite plan; and humility, because it reminds us that our role in the grand plan is achieved by striving to rid ourselves of preconceived ideas and selfishly motivated schemes, and by increasing our capacity to receive and follow inspiration. It is through inspiration and humility that we achieve a “realization of man’s unique creative mission on this planet.” (CA, p. 326).

References and Reading

  • Coser, Lewis A. Masters of Sociological Thought. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
  • Cousin, M. Victor. Classification of philosophical systems. In: Cousin, Course of the History of Modern Philosophy. 2 vols. Vol.1. Tr. O. W. Wright. New York: Appleton, 1852 (repr. 1866); pp. 343-364. French philosopher, Victor Cousin (1792–1867), somewhat like Sorokin, saw a recurring historical pattern of alternation among philosophical schools of Sensualism, Idealism, Skepticism and Mysticism — all rooted in human nature and hence perennial.
  • Sorokin, Pitirim A. Social and Cultural Dynamics. 4 vols. 1937 (vols. 1-3), 1941 (vol. 4); rev. 1957 (reprinted: Transaction Publishers, 1985). [SCD]
  • Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Crisis of Our Age. E. P. Dutton, 1941 (reprinted 1957). [CA]

updated 11 March 2015

The Gaia Hypothesis and 9/11

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Last weekend I drove my elderly father somewhere and, while waiting for him, felt an impulse to check the trunk of his car.  While straightening out the messy trunk I noticed a road map and sensed it would be useful. When we got home, I placed the map in my own truck and didn’t think about it again.

That is, not until later, when I drove from Paso Robles (California) to Pleasanton, 200 miles north, where I consult.  On Interstate 101, just north of Salinas, there was a large traffic jam – unusual for a Sunday afternoon.  It  promised a long, nerve-wracking delay, so I pulled off the road, hoping to wait it out.  Then I remembered the map: maybe it would show a back-road to bypass the traffic.  As luck would have it, the map covered the Salinas area, and, what’s more, showed a back-road nearby.

I backed up on the roadside and headed to the alternate route – and a ramble through the hills north of Salinas, an area I’d never previously visited or knew existed, surrounded by oak trees and small farms.  This ended at the mission town of San Juan Bautista, a laid-back place where chickens still roam about.  From there I cut back over to Interstate 101, having bypassed the traffic.

Things jammed up again, however, a few miles further, past Gilroy, but Fortune relented a second time:  again the map showed a handy side road.  This time I was treated to a shady jaunt through a horse ranching area.

I picked up the interstate again south of San Jose.  At this point there was no traffic jam per se, just the ordinary ordeal of five lanes (each way) of congested, fast-moving traffic.  I’ve driven this stretch many times in recent months, but this time noticed it in a new way.  There was something palpably unpleasant, agitating about it — a kind of negative energy or ‘vibration’, one might say.  It was as though the collective angst and frustration of all the drivers was pooled together and could be felt.  What made me notice it so vividly this time was precisely that I had spent the previous hour on tranquil back roads.

It reminded me of a story I once read about a modern Arctic explorer – a man who kayaked from Greenland to Alaska.  He described how, after months in the wilderness, he returned to civilization and felt ill, disoriented, and out of place.  Even as early as arriving at Alaska’s North Shore oil fields – with no other person present, but merely the signs of modern civilization – he felt nauseous.

That’s something like how I felt, though on a lesser scale.  The abrupt change confronted me with something that I, and perhaps most other people, usually try to ignore or forget:  that modern urban life is radically out of balance and against our needs and wants as human beings.  If we weren’t habituated to it, we might see that it’s literally sickening.

Remember this commercial?

In 2001, when 9/11 occurred, I was living in Los Angeles. I was involved in the effort to save Ahmanson Ranch, one of the few remaining undeveloped tracts of land in LA Country and an important wildlife refuge.  This brought me into confrontation with the materialistic values of my native Southern California and with the “greedy corporate mentality” that was trying to develop Ahmanson Ranch over everybody’s objections.

When I saw the first images of the Twin Towers in flames, my first reaction (after initial disbelief, and natural concern for the victims) was something like, “Well, what else did people expect!”  I wasn’t consumed with hatred for the terrorists or a thirst for revenge.  Rather, it seemed apparent to me that American society had become so completely dissociated from Nature, and from human nature, that this result was almost predictable.

The Gaia Hypothesis

I’ve kept these thoughts mostly to myself these last 9 1/2 years.  But the experience last weekend somehow jogged my unconscious, and I saw how they could be expressed in terms of the Gaia hypothesis.  A short definition of the hypothesis is as follows:

The Gaia Hypothesis is the theory that living organisms and inorganic material are part of a dynamic system that shape Earth’s biosphere, in Lynn Margulis’s words, a “super organismic system”  The earth is a self-regulating environment; a single, unified, cooperating and living system – a superorganism that regulates physical conditions to keep the environment hospitable for life.”  Source:

Flavors of the Gaia hypothesis range from a New Agey kind of metaphysical view (‘Gaism’ as a of religion), to a more scientific view based on ecology, biology, and systems theory.  In any case, the Gaia hypothesis comports with intuition, common sense, and experience alike in suggesting that, if you push Nature around enough, you can expect push-back.  (“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”)

Consider an example.  Some suggest that a bee-hive is really a super-organism.  If one bee starts doing things against the good of the hive, it can expect, first, a few angry pokes from the others, and, if that doesn’t work, to get stung.  A superorganism has feedback and control mechanisms built-in. The only way a complex system can survive long is if it has such mechanisms.

By 2001, society had, in my view, already broken down in Los Angeles.  Traffic was horrendous.  There was no affordable housing in the city or nearby areas.  Many people were driving 60 miles to and from work because they couldn’t afford to live any closer.

Greed and Selfishness

Others responded with personal real estate speculation: the game was to buy the most expensive property one could afford, on the assumption that, with continued increase in house prices, one would build up a large equity within 5 years, to be taken as profit.  In short, people denied or ignored the unlivable lifestyle, hoping that, in a few years, they could cash in. Never mind that, besides literally betting the farm on the wrong assumption that real estate would appreciate indefinitely, this scheme only worked by passing on the burden of higher prices to the next buyer.  It was completely greedy:  “let the other poor sucker pony up an extra 50 grand for the house, even though its intrinsic value hasn’t changed, and put it in my pocket.”

Real estate developers and banks (and the federal government) were only too happy to accommodate this personal greed by building and financing bigger houses.  Families of 2 or 3 were buying 5 bedroom mansions (the bigger the house, the more money to be made on speculation.)  On every developable piece of land the largest possible house was built.  Cookie-cutter villas were packed into grids so densely that neighbors could reach out their windows and shake hands.

This also negatively affected the workplace.  Californians were now deeply in debt, stuck with large mortgage payments.  Because keeping ones job became essential, nobody would dare do or say anything to jeopardize their paycheck. Working in the pharmaceutical field, I witnessed a remarkable decline in the conditions and values of the industry.  What began as an earnest attempt of idealistic professionals to make medicine, cure disease, and reduce human suffering became an endless quest for yearly, double-digit corporate profits, to be achieved at any cost.  The industry was surviving more by endless mergers and restructuring than by producing anything.

This same pattern was being played out in other industries and regions of the United States.  We were clearly a culture in decline.  This had not happened suddenly.  Dire warnings about the environment and society had begun in the 1950’s.  In 1982, the remarkable movie, Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance, supplied a vivid artistic portrayal of the problem.  But despite foreshadowings of what was to come, nobody took the warnings to heart. By 2001 things were at least twice as bad as in the 80’s.   Much more ominously, nobody was even talking about the problems any more, much less trying to address them.  All interest was on a series of political and pop-culture distractions:  Bill Clinton, Rush Limbaugh, O. J….one media circus after another.

Note the uncanny and chillingly prophetic, almost subliminal scene at 1:43 in this clip.  That’s not one of the Twin Towers collapsing.  This was filmed 20 years before 9/11.

The Gaia hypothesis implies that, when things get too far out of balance, a correction is inevitable.  It seems reasonable to try looking at the 9/11 disaster in this way.  Some may object:  but it was Osama bin Laden and the terrorists, not Nature, that did this.  That’s almost irrelevant; maybe, in theory, ‘Gaia’ could have responded with a wholly natural event, like an earthquake or flood.  But if that had occurred, would we have paid attention, or would we have just written it off as a random event?  Instead, perhaps Nature chose to act by pushing some borderline terrorists over the edge in their disordered thinking. Stranger things have happened.

What should have ocurred soon after 9/11 – after looking after the survivors, caring for the affected families, and taking sensible security precautions — would have been to ask: “what have we done to make these people so mad at us?”   Possible answers aren’t hard to find.  It suffices to say that, not only have we done our best to destroy our country, but we’ve also managed to export our crass materialism to the rest of the world.  Can this be said out loud yet:  if we weren’t Americans, we’d be angry with America, too?  In fact, we were already blowing ourselves up – witness Timothy McVey and Ted Kaczynski.

Instead our leaders fell back on the most ridiculous response imaginable, claiming:  “they hate us because we’re free!”   Rather than engage in any kind of concerted self-examination, we externalized all blame and lashed out, throwing not one, but two hellish, trillion-dollar temper tantrums in Afghanistan and Iraq, unleashing new aggression and violence to further upset the planet.  As a consequence, we are, in 2010, much worse off.

Implications of the Gaia Hypothesis

Fortunately, the Gaia hypothesis has a positive aspect.  If the Earth is something like a superorganism, hopefully it still wants to keep us around; we do manage to do nice things now and then when we try.  Perhaps, like God, Gaia chastises those whom she loves: the point is not to destroy, but to improve us, and, ultimately, to place us back on the road to happiness.

Let’s get back on track, America.  Let’s, first of all, end this wretched war in Afghanistan, and not start any new wars.  Then let’s admit the problems that face us – environmental deterioration, urban sprawl, lack of planning and foresight, inane or nonexistent cultural values, a political climate of continual hostility and ill-will, domestic injustice, and indifference to the needs and suffering of the rest of the world.

The recent, interminable succession of crises and catastrophes was in a general sense, accurately predicted by the Harvard sociologist Pitirm A. Sorokin as early as 1937.  Based on an exhaustive analysis of world history, Sorokin saw that severe crises inevitably accompany a transition from one cultural epoch to another.  But he also recognized that, at the same time a culture becomes decadent, a contrary force emerges – and this force gathers strength rapidly.  We have already seen signs of this counter-force in the form of people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King and emerging ideas like the environmental movement, the 1960’s peace movement, holistic health, sustainable living, and more recently anti-globalization concerns.  The path forward is there – it’s just a matter of enough people disengaging from the mentality of the dying ultra-materialist culture.

I can think of no better way to end this post than with the words of the 1969 Joni Mitchell song, “Woodstock”:

We are stardust, we are golden,
Caught in the devil’s bargain.
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the Garden.

Poll data reveals strong sentiment against Afghanistan war

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Though the information isn’t especially easy to find, semi-regular opinion polls on the Afghan and Iraq wars have been conducted by several sources, including CBS News, Fox News, USA Today, Newsweek, CNN, and the Gallup Organization.  The ABC News/Washington Post polls are especially instructive, because of arguably better-worded questions. (As we know, how a question is phrased can substantially affect results.)

Since 2007, the ABC News polling unit has been asking the question, “All in all, considering the costs to the United States versus the benefits to the United States, do you think the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting, or not?” to groups of roughly N = 1000 respondents.

The latest results are described here, and cumulative historical data for the poll can be found here:

Because the cumulative graphs in the report are not very good, I’ve prepared two figures, below, from the data.

The first shows the proportion of respondents saying, “No” to the question over time.  The blue line indicates actual response rates; the green line is a quadratic trend line.  The important thing is the growth of negative opinion, now well over 50%.

Because, each time, from 3% to 5% subjects gave “Unsure” as their response, pro-war opinion and anti-war opinion sum to less than 100%. For example, in July 2010, 53% called the war not worth fighting, 4% were unsure, and only 43% were for the war – a 10% disparity.

Buried in the data is an interesting detail.  Respondents were asked to say whether they felt “strongly” or “somewhat”  that the war was worth/not worth fighting. This invites a stratified comparison of rates of strong approval vs. strong disapproval. This comparison is shown in the following figure:

As shown, when considering only those with strong beliefs, the disparity in favor of anti-war sentiment is more marked.  For example, in July 2010, 38% of respondents strongly believed the war was not worth fighting, vs. only 24% who felt strongly the opposite.  Factoring in degree of sentiment, therefore, makes an even stronger case that Americans do not support the war.

Maybe the media hasn’t exactly hidden this information, but they’ve taken no pains to draw attention to it!

Written by John Uebersax

August 3, 2010 at 11:03 pm