The Circular Economy and The Access Economy

infographic 'Disownership is the New Normal'

Image credit

What happens to resource efficiency, recycling and waste management in a world where disownership is becoming the new normal?

As much as it may seem that the nuts and bolts of resource and waste management is about sorting machinery, storage, bins and collection systems, it is really ultimately about people.

We know that if people are to use resources mindfully, to manage them well, and to both demand and correctly use appropriate end of life systems, then we need to design systems that they are easy and convenient to use.

There are two ‘muscles’ that can be flexed in relation to resource and waste management – the Circular Economy muscle, and the Access Economy muscle. A lot of muscle-building effort has gone into the former, and the latter is a muscle we’ve only just discovered we can build.

circular economy biological loop - make, consume, enrich; technical loop - make, use return

Image credit

The Circular Economy is a concept and model which has been around for some time now, but is increasingly gaining traction – the UK’s leading waste & recycling organisation, WRAP UK have recently rebranded themselves as ‘Circular Economy and Resource Efficiency Experts’.

The Circular Economy seeks to shift activity from a linear to a circular model by making better use of materials, by keeping materials in circulation through reuse and recycling, industrial symbiosis and other efforts to divert material from landfill.

It displaces some demand for new materials, but does not address the rate at which materials enter the circle, as evidenced by total material demand continuing to grow faster than recycling rates improve.

It is vital to maintain a focus on bending the Linear Economy (‘take-make-waste’) into a Circular Economy, but it is not enough.

There is an entire, parallel area of territory yet to be explored, which I will call The Access Economy (aka Sharing Economy, Collaborative Economy) – or being able to access what we need by better using what we already have.

image of a drill - caption 'I do not need a drill - I need a hole in the wall'

Image credit

The Access Economy seeks to minimise the demand for materials, and is as – if not more – significant than The Circular Economy. There are also overlaps between the two eg. reuse could be considered Circular and Access.

The rapidly-gaining momentum of the collaborative (aka sharing) economy holds huge potential for addressing how we consume resources, and ways it could result in less waste.

The Access Economy is focused not on managing material at end-of-life, of better managing ‘waste’. It is focused on designing systems that facilitate more efficient, cost effective and in many case, community-enhancing ways of enabling people to meet their needs by tapping what is already available and leveraging idle assets (be they stuff, time, space, skills).

This means looking at the design of our living systems – how we grow food and prepare it; how we clothe and transport ourselves; how we meet our daily needs. We need to look at how we can solve the pain points of people’s lives – cost of living, time poverty –in a way that also delivers on environmental objectives.

The systems for The Access Economy are different from those for The Circular Economy – and significantly they may be more appealing to people who don’t see themselves as ‘green’, or really care about recycling. 

Successfully meeting sustainability challenges means we need to stop focusing on ‘reducing’ and ‘managing’ energy, emissions, water, waste and everything else (which are symptoms, outcomes of how people live) and start looking our systems through a lens of design (not just physical design) and social innovation.

Ultimately, environmental organisations and programs are not really about ‘environment’ at all – they are social innovation, because they set out to create new patterns of behaviour among human beings in order to lessen our impacts on the ecological systems which sustain all life. And social innovation is a design process.

We are now far from the traditional, familiar territory of the Circular Economy, but into an exciting new realm we have scarcely begun to explore that is fast gathering momentum around the world.

What would we be capable of if we combined the existing strength of the Circular Economy with the emerging juggernaut of the Access Economy?

Further references:

Circular Economy – Ellen Macarthur Foundation – a series of articles about the circular economy model, its principles, related schools of thought, and an overview of circular economy news from around the world.

Shareable – an award-winning nonprofit news, action and connection hub for the sharing transformation.

OuiShare – a global community empowering citizens, public institutions and companies to build a society based on collaboration, openness and sharing.

Collaborative Consumption – comprehensive online resource for collaborative consumption worldwide and network for the global community, curating news, content, events, jobs, studies and resources from key media outlets and industry blogs, as well as original content.

If you’d like to get Cruxcatalyst via email, click here to subscribe to this blog.

If you liked this post, please consider sharing it using the buttons below or to the left of this post.

Listen

How Prioritising Under Pressure Helps Us Understand Others’ Perspectives

to do list

Here’s a fun engagement exercise that was used in a workshop I recently attended. You can use this with any size group, although it will be more effective with a bigger rather than a smaller group.

Step 1

Ask participants to imagine the following scenario, and write down each of these situations:

You’re home alone, and these six things happen at once:

  • a water pipe bursts in the kitchen
  • the baby is crying
  • the phone starts ringing
  • your neighbour’s alarm is going off
  • the cat has the budgie in its mouth
  • someone is knocking at your door

Augh! What to respond to first?

Challenge the participants to rank all of these events according to priority of how they would handle them – give them no more than one minute to complete this task (this is so they can’t think about it too long).

Invite participants to stand up when they have completed their ranking.

Step 2

When everyone is standing, ask them to move around the room and see if they can find someone who has these things ranked in exactly the same order. They must keep going until they find someone whose ranking matches theirs exactly.

Give the participants five minutes to see if they can find a match.

The number of matches may be none, one or many, depending on the group size and participants’ choices of how they ranked the events, and who they spoke to.

Step 3

Time’s up!

Ask the participants (or selected participants, depending on the size of the group) to share a little about whether they found a match; what others’ reactions were to their choice of task ordering; and what they thought of the choices of others who had the list in a different order to themselves.

People may report being taken aback at others’ ordering of priorities (‘you attended to the baby over saving the budgie?’; ‘you went to the burst pipe first before seeing to the baby?’), and often people will explain their reasons for doing the things in that particular order (‘the baby is just crying – the budgie is about to die!’; ‘I can check on the alarm while carrying the baby’).

Participants will have their reasons for choosing their particular response sequence.

Now – ask the participants what they think just happened.

Tell them ‘you just had a conversation about values’.

We all carry our assumptions into whatever we do, and we must remember that other people don’t always share our values.

This exercise is both a great icebreaker, and a reminder to be aware of our own values and assumptions, and our judgments of others’ values and assumptions, in any group situation.

 

If you’d like to get Cruxcatalyst via email, click here to subscribe to this blog.

If you liked this post, please consider sharing it using the buttons below or to the left of this post.

Listen

Brand Revolution

Russell Brand facing camera, head down, sunglasses on, hands held up, forefingers extended

The kind of people who can assemble huge crowds into one spot will be the major influences on mass culture in the next decade.

– Jim Morrison

Unless you’ve been on a digital detox, you’d have found it hard to miss Russell Brand’s Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman in your feed. It has gone viral across social media, with the video footage alone attracting an average of a million YouTube views a day since it was published on 23 October (currently 6.5 million and rising).

Prompted by Brand’s appointment as guest editor of this week’s issue of London’s political and cultural magazine, New Statesman, the interview began with the question “Russell Brand, who are you to edit a political magazine?”

Brand’s subsequent disembowelling of the status quo of politics, economics and corporate influence on social and environmental breakdown has set the internet alight with discussion – some of it on the points Brand made, and predictably, much of it ad hominem attacks on the messenger.

It’s one thing to read the transcript or blogs commenting on the interview, another altogether to watch it:

In the following interview excerpt, after Brand admitted he doesn’t vote, Paxman asked him “well how do you have any authority to talk about politics then?”

Brand: “Well I don’t get my authority from this pre-existing paradigm which is quite narrow and only serves a few people. I look elsewhere, for alternatives, that might be of service to humanity. Alternate means alternative political systems?”

Paxman: “They being?”

Brand: “Well I’ve not invented it yet, Jeremy. I had to do a magazine last week. I’ve had a lot on me plate. But I say, but here’s the thing that you shouldn’t do. Shouldn’t destroy the planet, shouldn’t create massive economic disparity, shouldn’t ignore the needs of the people. The burden of proof is on the people with the power…”

Paxman: “…if you can’t be arsed to vote why should we be asked to listen to your political point of view?”

Brand: “You don’t have to listen to my political point of view. But it’s not that I’m not voting out of apathy. I’m not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery, deceit of the political class, that has been going on for generations now. And which has now reached fever pitch where you have a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system so voting for it is tacit, complicity with that system and that’s not something I’m offering up.”

Paxman: “Well why don’t you change it then?”

Brand: “I’m trying to.”

Paxman: “Well why don’t you start by voting.”

Brand: “I don’t think it works. People have voted already and that’s what’s created the current paradigm.”

Paxman: “When did you last vote?”

Brand: “Never.”

Paxman: “You’ve never, ever voted?”

Brand: “No. Do you think that’s really bad?”

Paxman: “So you struck an attitude before, what, the age of 18?”

Brand: “Well I was busy being a drug addict at that point, because I come from the kind of social conditions that are exacerbated by an indifferent system that, really, just administrates for large corporations and ignores the population that it was voted in to serve.”

Paxman: “You’re blaming the political class for the fact that you had a drug problem?”

Brand: “No, no, no. I’m saying I was part of a social and economic class that is underserved by the current political system. And drug addiction is one of the problems it creates when you have huge, underserved, impoverished populations, people get drug problems. And, also, don’t feel like they want to engage with the current political system because they see that it doesn’t work for them. They see that it makes no difference. They see that they’re not served…”

Paxman: “Of course it doesn’t work for them if they didn’t bother to vote.”

Brand: “Jeremy, my darling, I’m not saying…the apathy doesn’t come from us, the people. The apathy comes from the politicians. They are apathetic to our needs, they’re only interested in servicing the needs of the corporations. Look at..ain’t the Tories going to court, taking the EU to court, because they’re trying to curtail bank bonuses? Isn’t that what’s happening at the moment in our country? It is, innit?”

Paxman: “Yeah.”

Brand: “So what am I gonna do, tune in for that?”

Paxman: “You don’t believe in democracy. You want a revolution don’t you?”

Brand: “The planet is being destroyed, we are creating an underclass, we’re exploiting people all over the world and the genuine, legitimate problems of the people are not being addressed by our political class.”

Paxman: “All of those things may be true.”

Brand: “They are true.”

Paxman: “But you took…I wouldn’t argue with you about many of them.”

Brand: “Well how come I feel so cross with you? It can’t just be because of that beard, it’s gorgeous.”

Paxman: “It’s possibly because…”

Brand: “And if the Daily Mail don’t want it, I do. Because I’m against them. Grow it longer. Tangle it into your armpit hair.”

Paxman: “You are a very trivial man.”

Brand: “What you think I am, trivial?”

Paxman: “Yes.”

Brand: “A minute ago you were having a go at me because I wanted a revolution now I’m trivial, I’m bouncing all over the place.”

Paxman: “I’m not having a go at you because you want a revolution, many people want a revolution, but I’m asking you what it would be like?”

Brand: “Well I think what it won’t be like is a huge disparity between rich and poor where 300 Americans have the same amount of wealth as the 85 million poorest Americans, where there is an exploited and underserved underclass that are being continually ignored, where welfare is slashed while Cameron and Osbourne go to court to defend the rights of bankers to continue receiving their bonuses. That’s all I’m saying.”

…within the existing paradigm, the change is not dramatic enough, not radical enough. So you can well understand public disturbances and public dissatisfaction, when there are not genuine changes and genuine alternatives being offered. I say when there is a genuine alternative, a genuine option, then vote for that. But until then, pffft, don’t bother. Why pretend? Why be complicit in this ridiculous illusion?”

Paxman: “Because by the time somebody comes along you might think it worth voting for, it may be too late.”

Brand: “I don’t think so because the time is now, this movement is already occurring, it’s happening everywhere, communication is instantaneous and there are communities all over the world. The Occupy movement made a difference. Even if, only in that, it introduced, to the popular public lexicon, the idea of the 1% versus the 99%. People for the first time in a generation are aware of massive, corporate and economic exploitation. These things are not nonsense. And these subjects are not being addressed. No one is doing anything about tax havens, no one is doing anything about their political affiliations and financial affiliations of the Conservative Party, so until people start addressing things that are actually real, why wouldn’t I be facetious, why would I take it seriously? Why would I encourage a constituency of young people that are absolutely indifferent to vote? Why would you? Aren’t you bored? Aren’t you more bored than anyone? And you’ve been talking to them year after year, listening to their lies, their nonsense. Then it’s this one that gets in, then it’s that one gets in but the problem continues. Why are we going to continue to contribute to this facade?”

Paxman: “I’m surprised you can be facetious when you’re that angry about it.”

Brand: “Yeah, I am angry, I am angry. Because for me it’s real, because for me it’s not just some peripheral thing that I just turn up to once in a while to a church féte for. For me, this is what I come from. This is what I care about.”

At first I thought that Brand was running rings around Paxman (or someone in a G-T state and someone in a D-Q state missing each others’ points).

But on reflection, I don’t think that Jeremy Paxman was in any way taken down or apart by Brand – I suspect it was a well crafted piece of theatre in that Paxman played Devil’s Advocate with Dorothy Dixer questions that enabled Brand to take flight with his responses, which I believe to be completely genuine (not ‘acting’ as some of his detractors have claimed).

In this short clip, Brand has encapsulated and communicated in minutes – MINUTES – what activists, concerned citizens and change agents everywhere, whose work spans a wide array of issues, have been on about for so long, in a way that has both gripped people and resonated with them.

Most importantly of all, it is because this came from Russell Brand that it has ignited. It hasn’t come from an academic, a political figure, an activist. It’s come from popular culture, which by definition has access to a greater diversity of antennae.

The messenger matters, as illustrated by this comment sourced from one of many Facebook threads:

Actually I think Brand has broken something in England. For this to be aired on the BBC is a biggy. The kids on Facebook are posting it and at last the mainstream have heard it. That’s THE most positive thing that’s been done for years. I marched in Manchester against the annihilation of the NHS the other week along with over 50,000 other people and it got two minutes. Nobody in London noticed. This will be noticed.

Like any change agent who sticks their head above the parapet, Brand has copped flak for his outspokenness. Across social media, this seems to have coalesced into several key grievances:

1) he pointed out everything that was wrong, but didn’t offer any solutions

Given the sum total of the greatest thinkers and do-ers in the world have yet to do this, or get their ideas traction, or to tipping point, it’s hardly a fair accusation.

Or as Brand eloquently rebutted it:

Jeremy darling, don’t ask me to sit here in a bloody hotel room and devise a global utopian system.

2) he’s criticising the 1% and profit, yet his net worth is $15 million

This is an ad hominem attack ie. it seeks to discredit the messenger, rather than engaging with the message. Those making this point need to remember that Brand’s message is all the more powerful coming from someone who is in this position – and that he’d already addressed this accusation in his New Statesman editorial:

I should qualify my right to even pontificate on such a topic and in so doing untangle another of revolution’s inherent problems. Hypocrisy. How dare I, from my velvet chaise longue, in my Hollywood home like Kubla Khan, drag my limbs from my harem to moan about the system? A system that has posited me on a lilo made of thighs in an ocean filled with honey and foie gras’d my Essex arse with undue praise and money.

Whether Brand is worth $15 million or $150 million is irrelevant. Not even $15 billion would address the systemic flaws raised in the interview.

3) he’s just playing it for a laugh

Brand himself, in both his interview and editorial for the New Statesman, is quoted as saying:

…first and foremost I want to have a f*cking laugh. As John Cleese said, there is a tendency to confuse seriousness with solemnity. Serious causes can and must be approached with good humour, otherwise they’re boring and can’t compete with the Premier League and Grand Theft Auto. Social movements needn’t lack razzmatazz.

Not only is he spot on in relation to competition for attention, but what many of the critics have failed to grasp is that by styling himself as The Fool, or The Jester, Brand has more scope to play with potentially dangerous material, challenge the status quo and breach taboos.

4) if Brand wants a revolution, he should get down to the ‘real’ work

Perhaps best expressed by this quote from Robert Lustig in The Huffington Post:

…he demonstrated his utter inability to offer any concrete example of what he believes we should do instead of vote. He wants fundamental change but has no idea how to achieve it…by writing thousands of words of political junk in a respected weekly magazine, he sets himself up as someone with something to contribute to an important debate. The truth is that he has nothing to contribute, other than the self-satisfied smirk of a man who knows he’ll never go hungry or be without a home.

See #1, #2 and #3 above.

If he really wanted to encourage the development of a genuinely revolutionary movement, he would start organising one. He would knuckle down to do really, really boring things, like handing out leaflets on street corners, launching petitions, holding meetings, just like the early trades unionists and labour activists he professes to admire so much.

Er no. That’s not the best use of his platform.

Attention is a currency, and like it or not, celebrities in our era have that currency to spend. Instead of criticising him for doing so, or nitpicking about his linguistic style – which I find a fascinating mix of Shakespearian vocabulary meets My Fair Lady grammar and dialect – let him spend it in service of those who, as Brand already noted, are people who have:

…alternative ideas that are far better qualified than I am, and far better qualified, more importantly, than the people that are currently doing that job.

It’s not his job to fix the world. It’s our job. All of us.

In fact I’d be more worried about many of the people offering Brand ‘solutions’ to champion than I would anything Brand had to say.

I personally don’t 100% agree with all the points Brand made, for example, I think the 99% meme was useful for awareness (and it sure feels good to metaphorically sink the boots into banksters now and then), but ultimately we are all – including the 1% – in this together. I think the idea of ‘left’ and ‘right’ in politics is no longer relevant, and those labels bog us down. But it doesn’t matter.

IT DOESN’T MATTER.

What matters is that people everywhere are talking about this.

Russell Brand wins the internet right now.

Brand is one of the most fascinating characters of the modern era – he’s independently wealthy (which makes him beholden to no-one), he has a massive public profile AND all his skeletons are already out of the closet.

These things put him in an enormously powerful position of influence.

He’s opened a Pandora’s Box for himself, with armies of change-makers now seeking everything from support for their initiatives to a chance to further ‘educate’ him. No doubt he’s going to continue his already impressive learning curve, but those who he referred to as ‘far better qualified’ also need to let him be who he is.

Russell Brand on stage with a megaphone

Let him sing the social consciousness equivalent of ‘Eye of the Tiger’.

Let him be an alarm clock and a megaphone.

Brand has delivered changemakers a signal interruption of epic proportion. How best to use it?

If you’d like to get Cruxcatalyst via email, click here to subscribe to this blog.

If you liked this post, please consider sharing it using the buttons below or to the left of this post.

Listen

Crux On Ice – A Change Agent’s Treasure Trove

polar bear slipping on his back in front of sign 'watch for ice'

Since late 2011, I’ve maintained the discipline of writing (and sometimes curating/negotiating republishing) an average of one article per week.

Around full time work and a range of other social media and activism commitments (and life!), the time has now come for me to put Crux on ice – not for good, and not completely, as I will continue to post here, but will do so on an as-needs rather than a once-per-week basis. One piece a week doesn’t sound like much, but it can be as much as another full work day split over two evenings, depending on how much research is involved, and whether or not you have any topics up your sleeve.

I’ve also got some plans to do something else with Crux, which requires me to free up my time from a weekly blogging schedule.

For recent subscribers as well as existing visitors to this site, the vast majority of content here is ‘evergreen’ and will continue to be relevant. I encourage you to rummage back through the Crux files menu on the right hand side of the blog, or browse this summary of areas covered, including:

Values & Motivating People

physical and sticker badgesfour different big cats, eyes featured in layered horizontal strips red, brown, green and gold eyes

 

Leadership

man in suit holding a black face mask over his face, having just taken off a similar white face mask russell brand with his 'fag pimp brand' sign, a gift from the WBC

 

Sustainability Thinking

young child in a forest touching a web of energy, green light human brain - left half grey cubicle farm, right half colourful image of people in nature

 

Understanding People

grid of icons styled from iconic movie characters an early version of Bugs Bunny, reclining eating a carrot and reading 'Victory thru Hare Power'

 

Communication 

cartoon images of people all speaking in different coloured cartoon bubbles (no words - different colours show different 'dialects') graffiti art of beggar holding a sign that says 'keep your coins, I want change'

 

Case Studies

screenshot of online news story about LDOA reuniting pets and owners Jamie Oliver, dressed in pea pod costume, holding fork to mouth of little boy pleading with the reluctant little fellow to eat!

  • the University of Adelaide’s campus sustainability program Ecoversity, and how the Lost Dogs of Adelaide social media phenomenon could translate to local sustainability

 

Self Care for Change Agents

heart shaped yellow candy with 'Just Say No' imprinted on it in red

 

Changemaker Profiles

  • how leading change agents approach their work

bauwens

Michel Bauwens, founder of the Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives

headshot of Neal

Neal Gorenflo, founder of Shareable

headshot of Ben Dyson

Ben Dyson, founder of Positive Money

headshot of dana pearlman

Dana Pearlman, cofounder of the Global Leadership Lab

headshot of Brett Scott

Brett Scott, activist, campaigner and author of The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance

Thanks to everyone who has subscribed, commented, Tweeted and shared the content you’ve found on my blog, and to Donnie Maclurcan, Mike Freedman, Michael Michalko, Chris Rose, Susan WeinschenkBarrett C Brown and David Lavenda who contributed, or gave permission for me to republish their work as, a guest post.

I appreciate your support and interest and hope that the Crux ‘back catalogue’ continues to be useful for your work.

Cheers!
Sharon

Listen

Spiral Dynamics – A Way of Understanding Human Nature

spiral dynamic model, showing nested systems of levels

click on image, then click again to enlarge

Creating lasting and effective cultural and behavioural change means recognising and working with values.

But where do values come from? Values spring from worldviews.

To effectively work with values means understanding worldviews – how people think, and why people adopt the values they do.

Insight into worldviews and ways of thinking is profoundly relevant to a range of areas including:

  • leadership
  • conflict management
  • organisational change
  • communication & marketing
  • working with diverse communities
  • cultural transformation

In my quest to learn more about this, I travelled to Melbourne in August to undertake four days’ Spiral Dynamics training with Chris Cowan and Natasha Todorovic.

What is Spiral Dynamics

Spiral Dynamics is a data-based, psychological approach to understanding worldviews or systems of thinking held by individuals, organisations and societies. It is concerned with:

  • how people to respond to the world around them in given circumstances and with their particular coping abilities (rather than categorising people as ‘types’)
  • how people think about things (conceptualisation), rather than what they think about (concepts) – for example, is their thinking binary and absolutist (‘if it’s not black, then it must be white’), or do they acknowledge and seem comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty?
  • complex questions about change including ‘HOW should WHO lead WHOM to do WHAT and WHEN?’

How Did Spiral Dynamics Originate?

There are many variations and references to ‘Spiral Dynamics’ (and a lot of misinformation) swirling around, as Cowan & Todorovic note:

Many people doing a web search have come to see SD as quasi-spiritual mumbo-jumbo rather than a useful program incorporating a theory of human behavior that can apply to many realms of life from personal growth to business and politics, including religion.

Here’s some background on where the theory and model came from.

Spiral Dynamics builds on the research undertaken in the 1950s and 60s by US psychologist Dr Clare W Graves of Union College, New York. Graves was seeking to understand human nature, and questions like:

  • why are people different?
  • why do some people change but others do not?
  • how does the mind respond to a world that becomes increasingly complex?

However he was frustrated with questions from his students who were being taught a range of theories by different professors, and quizzing him as to which was the ‘correct’ version:

In 1952 Clare W. Graves found he could not go back to the classroom and be a referee in the conflict over whose theory was correct on any given issue. He’d ‘had it’ with psychology as it was, and knew that he either had to reframe the problem or abandon the field.

Graves began looking for patterns of human development and how they related to other theories, and spent over 20 years gathering primary data from thousands of sources. He was originally seeking to validate his contemporary and friend Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but Graves’s data revealed that the hierarchy does not work universally. Cowan and Todorovic note that Graves:

…saw Maslow, as he saw most of his peers, as niche players who explored parts eloquently but were still missing the broader view and the engine that drives it.

Maslow eventually acknowledged that Graves’s model was superior to his own.

Graves’s research revealed eight kinds of responses (so far in human experience) or ‘levels’, tinted with variations as people entered and exited the eight levels.

Graves’s health declined and he died in 1986 before he could finish and publish his research, which is perhaps why his work is not as well known as Maslow’s, or as recognised as Myers-Briggs.

Graves’s work, also known as ‘Gravesian Theory’, was taken up and developed by two of his students, Christopher Cowan and Don Beck, who coined the term ‘spiral dynamics’. Beck later went on to work with Ken Wilber, the latter of whom is best known for Integral Theory. Cowan now works with Natasha Todorovic, and their Spiral Dynamics teaching remains closest to Graves’s original work, with the pair documenting Graves’s research in The Neverending Quest.

Graves’s ‘Double Helix’ Theory

After extensive data gathering, Graves’s research resulted in a theory he called the ‘Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory’ (or ECLET), that humans evolve not just physically but also socially and psychologically, which he summarised as follows:

The psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, spiraling process, marked by progressive subordination of older, lower-order behavior systems to newer, higher-order systems as man’s existential problems change.

Graves observed that as certain thresholds of complexity were reached, the mind’s ability to make sense of the world became overburdened, and to cope, the mind must create more complex models of reality to deal with the new problems of existence.

This interplay between the world and the human response to it – which is applicable to people as individuals, at societal level, or humanity as a species – is expressed in Graves’s ‘Double Helix’ system, which describes the relationship between:

Helix 1 (life conditions, reality): what’s the world like for this person or group? What are the times like, the physical place, the problems of existence, where is it necessary to put attention and energy?

and

Helix 2 (mind capacities, neurobiological response): what’s the toolkit that person or group has for dealing with that world? What is the ‘coping system’ an individual, group or society develops to cope with those life conditions?

The combinations of Helix 1 and Helix 2 represent the eight levels identified by Graves.

Levels of Psychological Existence

These levels represent a conceptual space, or systems in people – they are not a ‘Hogwarts Hat’ means of sorting people into ‘types’ and labelling them, although understanding people’s priorities and what matters to them are clues to what system/s might be in play.

Graves used a two-letter system to represent the eight levels he identified – the first letter (commencing with ‘A’) denotes the Helix 1 ‘life conditions’, the second (commencing with ‘N’), the Helix 2 ‘mind capacities’:

screen shot of double helix model for levels AN to IV

Image from Spiral Dynamics – click image then click again to enlarge

Graves identified what people seek out in life at each level of psychological existence as follows:

Level 1 BEIGE (A-N) existential: survival, biogenic needs satisfaction, reproduction, satisfy instinctive urges

Reactive, biologically driven, living in a state of nature, limited sense of cause and effect; there is very little of this level remaining, although people can regress into it (eg. Alzheimers).

Level 2 PURPLE (B-O) animistic: placate spirit realm; honour ancestors; protection from harm; family bonds

Subsumed in the group, no separate identity of ‘I’ – the focus is on co-operation, sharing, ritual; conflict will endanger the tribe, who have the forces of nature to contend with.

Level 3 RED (C-P) egocentric: power/action, asserting self to dominate others, control, sensory pleasure

Breaking away from the tribe, impulsive, seeking respect, honour and avoiding shame and establishing the self, might is right; the world is adversarial, uncaring, only raw power will let me prevail.

Level 4 BLUE (D-Q) absolutistic: stability/order, obedience to earn reward later, meaning, purpose, certainty

Emerges from the chaos of C-P – obedience to rightful authority, binary thinking, categorising, deny self for ‘the one right way’, stability and security is achieved through sacrifice and submission, doing things by the book/manual; bringing in new norms undermines control/authority.

Level 5 ORANGE (E-R) multiplistic: opportunity/success, competing to achieve results, influence, autonomy

Emerges from the rigidity of D-Q, how to manouver rather than comply, many ways and criteria rather than one right way or set of standards, goal directed, independent, self-sufficient, confident, experiment to find the best among many possible choices, future oriented and competitive; work for the good life and abundance, the winners deserve their rewards.

Level 6 GREEN (F-S) relativistic: harmony/love, joining together for mutual growth, awareness, belonging

Emerges in response to the excesses of E-R, can’t do it on my own and need to collaborate with others, group membership highly valued, tolerates ambiguity through encountering diverse perspectives, requires trust, doesn’t want to hurt others; high empathy and sensitivity to others – everybody counts.

Level 7 YELLOW (G-T) systemic: independence/self-worth, fitting a living system, knowing, good questions

Demands flexibility, autonomy, accepts paradoxes and uncertainties, self interest without harm to others, curiosity, learns from a variety of sources, contextual thinkers, can see things but not always be able to explain them, great awareness of what they do and don’t understand, punished by conventional education and corporate structures; not motivated by fear of survival, God or social approval, guilt and reward motivators don’t work – seeks to do well without compulsive drives and ambitiousness.

Level 8 TURQUOISE (H-U) still developing global community/life force; survival of life on a fragile Earth; consciousness

Existential problems this level will create still not fully known; may be: holistic focus on the well being of all entities, comfortable with many paths to knowing; self is part of a larger non-localised field.

Graves also noted an oscillating ‘locus of control’ – ie. where a person’s instructions on how to behave originate – in the levels. Commencing with the first level, and the odd numbered/warm coloured systems thereafter, the locus is ‘within me’, in service of me. This alternates with the even numbered/cool coloured systems where the focus is ‘outside me’, in service of us. 

The allocation of colours to Graves’s original letter pairs was incorporated later by Beck and Cowan to assist with understanding. It has no particular symbolism except in terms of ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ colours, which respectively signify the primacy of the individual (‘express self’)  in the red, orange and yellow levels, and the primacy of the group (‘sacrifice self’) in the purple, blue and green levels.

The H-U (eighth) level is still not clear, and – if Graves’s theory holds – there will be another level beyond this, where the locus of control cycles back towards the external, expressive. This yet-to-emerge level would be called I-V and has been assigned a ‘warm’ colour of coral.

While the colours help in some ways, using the letter pairs keeps the emphasis on the double-helix approach, or the interaction between people and culture. When I arrived at the training, I was talking colours. By the time I had completed the training, I was referring to letter pairs.

Clarifying Aspects of Spiral Dynamics

One of the key aspects of Spiral Dynamics which is critical to understand is that it differentiates the content from the container, or thinking system(s); it recognises the difference between how people think about things, and the things people think about. Cowan and Todorovic offer the following example:

Each level represents a way of thinking about things…The absolutely certain theist and the equally certain atheist share certitude; they share the absence of ambiguity; they judge their opponents harshly; and they might share a zealous need to promote their views. Thus diametrically opposed contents in very similar containers.

So while the two positions, theist and atheist seem to be diametrically opposed, they share the same absolutist, D-Q (blue) worldview. Concepts like ‘justice’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘sustainability’ can vary greatly in their expression, depending on the ‘container’ they are in. This was the biggest shift in understanding for me – that the words coming out of people’s mouths representing ideas, concepts, symbols, opinions, whatever, are one thing, but it is discerning what kinds of thinking systems are being used that gives insight into deeper worldviews, values and behaviours.

People or groups can be in a ‘closed’, ‘arrested’ or an ‘open’ state at any level.

Those who are ‘closed’ at a particular level can only think in terms of that level, see no alternatives and may simply not comprehend anything else. If someone closed in D-Q (blue) starts to have ‘E’ (orange) level problems thrown at them – such as a bureaucrat who suddenly finds him or herself in a privatised organisation or enterprise environment – their response is likely to be more rigid.

Those who are ‘open’ may be centralised in a particular level, but can accept different thinking and move between levels.

Those who are ‘arrested’ find their movement to another state is blocked by barriers.

These three states represent different kinds of characters within the same level or processing capacity.

Cowan & Todorovic advise caution in relation to people claiming to be certain levels, for example Turquoise (H-U), or D-Q (blue) or E-R (orange) which may be masquerading as F-S (green):

…we see the relationship that has confounded so many bright people – green-sounding ideas slid back into an absolute, authoritarian, dichotomous way of thinking about them, maybe even into an aggressive and rigidly dogmatic form. That’s not FS in operation, but it can certainly look Green at the surface.

Sometimes, people may have developed a broader way of conceptualising (such as R/orange), but be in a situation where they are coping with life of prior levels (such as C/red).

One of Graves’s key areas of research was to ask people what they thought was ‘the mature adult personality in operation’. He collected many of these samples of levels and their associated entering, nodal or peak and exiting stages, some examples of which can be viewed here. Notice the difference in what someone centred in C-P (red) perceives compared to someone who is exiting D-Q (blue).

In Spiral Dynamics, the ‘maturity’ of an adult is based on how they are responding to the world they find themselves in:

Graves recognized many forms of maturity at different levels. An end state, a target of completion like self-actualization, just didn’t exist for Graves. What he came to recognize was that maturity is a function of fit between neuronal systems – part of the conditions for existence – and existential problems in the milieu – part of the conditions of existence. Thus, for Graves, the search for the mature personality in operation was illusory. The quest was to understand how different people conceptualize maturity and how those conceptions are influenced and change, then how to deal with people effectively at their levels.

Levels are not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – all levels have both positive and negative expressions. The container is not the content.

There is also an ethic to Spiral Dynamics – it is not about coercion or manipulation. Graves was adamant that a person had the right to be who he or she was, and that his theory was about how to rework social or organisational goals by approaching people as they are, not as others wish or perceive them to be. As Cowan & Todorovic note:

All too often ‘change’ is a directive rather than a process of opening possibilities, often with a tacit ‘or else’ attached. That is often accompanied by a vertical assumption that ‘up’ is the right and proper direction, thereby ignoring the other perfectly viable forms. Usually, downward change (back into congruence and a restoration of a comfortable state, even constructive downward mobility without disgrace) is dismissed as weakness rather than a possibility for better coping and adaptation. So if there is to be change, then facilitating the right kind of change at the right time with the right means for the appropriate people is essential to making effective use of the principles.

People don’t get smarter or better or more ‘superior’ as they move through the levels – which represent increased complexity, not intelligence, enlightenment or anything else – though they do expand their conceptual space, broadening their perspectives and increasing their options to act appropriately in a given situation.

image of human head with spiral and coloured layers of levels emerging on top of the other

People can be centred in a particular level, and they may settle in one for any range of reasons, but they can develop and flourish within that level. If someone is not coping at their present level, asking them to shift to another level isn’t likely to be successful – first, give them the coping skills they need at their present level.

If you want change in Helix 2 (individual response) to stick, its essential to ensure that you create the Helix 1 (life conditions) to enable that. Disruption needs to be congruent with where people are. Under certain circumstances (such as too much change, too fast), a person may return to a previous level where life is more familiar.

The Value of Spiral Dynamics

What sets Spiral Dynamics apart from other models which focus on personality traits and types is that it is about psychological evolution and the dynamic interaction between people and culture as represented by the double helix not ‘what a person is like’, but ‘how a person thinks, in this context, at this level’.

All around us, we see what it’s like when people at different levels of psychological existence, who hear, learn and communicate things differently, need to live or work together, yet as Graves pointed out:

The error which most people make when they think about human values is that they assume the nature of man is fixed and there is a single set of human values by which he should live. Such an assumption does not fit with my research. My data indicate that man’s nature is an open, constantly evolving system, a system which proceeds by quantum jumps from one steady state system to the next through a hierarchy of ordered systems.

In the workplace, in our government institutions, in our communities and homes, what seems like a clash of personalities or values may actually be a clash of levels.

Consider this example from Graves’s work on How People at Different Levels Form Groups:

Graves has tested some of his theories on his students at Union College in New York. In one experiment, he grouped students according to their levels of existence and then gave them various problems to solve.

Students at the D-Q level split up into a number of groups, each with its own leader. Graves likens this to the feudal craft society with elaborate hierarchies within trade guilds.

E-R students had a huge argument which ended when an overall leader emerged.

F-S students worked well with no leader at all.

G-T students would choose a leader who was well-qualified for the task at hand. Later they would drop him for another leader better-suited for the next task.

The percentage of his students in the different categories has shifted dramatically in the past two decades. In 1952 Graves found 34% of his students at the D-Q level and 10% at the G-T level. Today the figures have approximately reversed, an indication of the U.S. shift away from the D-Q level.

In the school, community or workplace, those operating in C-P (red) level may be motivated by managing immediate survival problems, D-Q (blue) will do best with rules and processes, and G-T (yellow) will buck a system that does not offer them autonomy and freedom to do things the way they see they could best be done. Most people in the (post) industrialised West are at D-Q (blue), E-R (orange) or F-S (green) levels.

As part of the Spiral Dynamics course, I completed some questionnaires to provide an insight into my current state (there is an ethic associated with how this testing is undertaken, and who receives the results):

  • my Change State Indicator, or readiness and acceptance for change (which is not related to Gravesian levels);
  • my Values Profile, to determine which levels I have an acceptance for or rejection of, and to what extent; what ‘blind spots’ do I have;
  • my Discover Profile, to highlight which levels were most and least like me

It is easy to see the results of such questionnaires and be tempted to ‘spin a story’, which is why it requires a reasonable amount of expertise to interpret what the results mean, and to treat them as indicators of something that may be occurring, not a description of ‘what is’. A respondent’s results may reflect a situation that is occurring in a different context (eg. stresses in home life rather than work life).

Spiral Dynamics invites us to ask: what if we could consciously ‘change filters’ rather than unconsciously viewing the world through our own lens(es)? What if we could identify worldview-related areas of stress, strengths, potential?

What bearing would it have on how an organisation functioned in terms of management, sales/marketing and morale if they knew their project team to be F-S/G-T, their executive centred in E-R and their clients mostly D-Q?

How much of a difference would it make to be able to work with people’s worldviews as they relate to organisational culture or purpose, or a community’s goals instead of trying to ‘motivate’ them on the basis of a worldview they may not hold or even comprehend?

The insights and applications Spiral Dynamics offers could help people to better communicate, work together, manage, be managed and resolve conflict more effectively despite their differences.

Graves, whose model inverted Maslow’s pyramid (which implies an end point), believed humanity’s quest to be an open ended journey rather than a pinnacle to be achieved, which he succinctly captured in this narrative:

At each stage of human existence the adult man is off on his quest of his holy grail, the way of life he seeks by which to live.

At his first level he is on a quest for automatic physiological satisfaction. At the second level he seeks a safe mode of living, and this is followed in turn, by a search for heroic status, for power and glory, by a search for ultimate peace; a search for material pleasure, a search for affectionate relations, a search for respect of self, and a search for peace in an incomprehensible world.

And, when he finds he will not find that peace, he will be off on his ninth level quest. As he sets off on each quest, he believes he will find the answer to his existence. Yet, much to his surprise and much to his dismay, he finds at every stage that the solution to existence is not the solution he has come to find.

Every stage he reaches leaves him disconcerted and perplexed. It is simply that as he solves one set of human problems he finds a new set in their place.

The quest, he finds, is never ending.

Further Resources

Spiral Dynamics

Clare W Graves

Summary Statement – The Emergent, Cyclical, Double-Helix Model of the Adult Human Biopsychosocial Systems – Boston May 1981

If you’d like to get Cruxcatalyst via email, click here to subscribe to this blog.

If you liked this post, please consider sharing it using the buttons below or to the left of this post.

Listen