The Future's Human Dimension

Introducing the Concept of Cultural Maturity—Part 1

Posted Oct 11, 2018

My 12 initial posts are series. Each is written so it can stand alone, but you will gain most (and most appreciate posts that follow) if you take time to engage them as a whole.

I approach the challenges ahead for the species differently than most people who call themselves futurists. Better you might think of me as a cultural psychiatrist. The larger portion of my futurist colleagues focus their attention on technological advancement, or perhaps on problems that can arise in our efforts to advance—such as climate change. While I often write about the technological, most often the topics I address are more sociological and psychological. My primary interest lies with the human dimension of futures questions.

That it does is partly a product of my background as a psychiatrist. But it is as much because of where the necessary solutions to important futures questions commonly reside. For example, while we may think of climate change as a largely scientific concern, we can’t escape that addressing it will be a product of our human choices. And an example from my own field of medicine: While advances like genome-based treatments and dramatic new transplant technologies appropriately garner great attention, medicine’s future—certainly the ability to control spiraling health care costs, but also simply the most compassionate delivery of care—will depend on coming to think differently about the whole health care endeavor. I’ve written extensively about how the heroic “defeat death and disease at any cost” mindset that has given us much in modern medicine’s great advances can’t continue to work going forward.

Not only does the human dimension have a key role with futures questions, as these examples illustrate, very often needed answers will depend on critical changes in how we humans think and act. Making sense of such changes and what they require of us will be necessary to successfully addressing future challenges of all sorts and moving forward effectively.

An additional reason why the human dimension is worth our attention easily takes people by surprise. The human dimension is often what we can say most about. Our ability to predict our technological futures has historically proved to be decidedly—and often embarrassingly—limited. If we could accurately anticipate invention, it wouldn’t be “invention.” In contrast, there is very often a great deal we can say about the human variable. This is the case, certainly, for making sense of what particular challenges will demand of us. Very often, too, it is the case for understanding how successfully meeting those demands might be possible.

In this series of short articles, I will do a couple of things. First, I will apply my “cultural psychiatrist’s” eye to specific topics where the human dimension is key. These topics will run the gamut—from effectively addressing terrorism, to the future of morality, to evolving concepts of leadership, to the long-term challenge presented by the growing availability of weapons of mass destruction, to changes currently reshaping love and the family.

Second, I will look more big picture. One of the most striking observations from my now over forty years of wearing the cultural psychiatrist’s hat is that not only do critical challenges often require new perspectives and human capacities, the new abilities needed to address very different future challenges often have much in common. This observation has powerfully important implications. Most immediately, these are abilities we can practice. More big picture, examining these commonalities can help us better understand what, in the most encompassing sense, the future asks of us.

These two ways of approaching the human dimension have together driven my efforts through the years. My work with the Institute for Creative Development involved addressing specific issues and also training leaders in needed new capacities. My writings have focused more on the big picture. These big-picture efforts have their roots in ideas I and colleagues have developed about how cultural systems evolve and about how changes happening today are altering what it means to be human.

Developmental language provides a simple way to describe how I have come to think about today’s overarching human task. Our times are demanding a critical “grow up” as a species. To have language, I speak of the need for a new Cultural Maturity. Cultural Maturity is not as easy a notion as the simple phrase “growing up” might suggest, but understood deeply it provides essential guidance for making our way in today’s uncertain and easily overwhelming world.  (The website www.creativesystems.org includes links to multiple sites that address this kind of thinking.)   

These short pieces will most often combine these approaches. I may start from a very particular issue—the extreme partisan pettiness we currently see in the political arena, changes taking place in religious belief, or the challenge of crafting coherent policy for the Middle East—and then turn to larger implications. Other times I will highlight some needed new capacity and how it relates to the more general greater human maturity our times require. Specific questions will provide illustration and support for these more encompassing reflections.

My hope is that each approach will provide useful insight and also provoke valuable conversation here within the Psychology Today community.  I look forward to what may result.

These posts are adapted from a series originally written for the World Future Society and can be found in podcast form at www.LookingtotheFuture.net