An Opportunity for Civilizational Change

Natalie MuyresArticles, Updates

Image: Jason Wong, Unsplash

by Elizabeth Dozois

“There seems little doubt that we are currently in the midst of one of the great critical transitions of the human journey, and yet it is not at all clear where we will end up once our current system resolves into a newly stable state.”  (Jeremy Lent1)

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.” (Winston Churchill)

While incredibly challenging and disruptive, the global pandemic presents an unprecedented opportunity to re-evaluate and reconstruct human-designed systems and structures that have led us to the brink of disaster. In addition to exposing vulnerabilities in the way we’ve structured our systems, COVID-19 has shifted the Overton Window and opened up new conversations about what’s needed and possible. This is a critical juncture in the human story. We have an opportunity to reshape civilization. But what could/ should that look like? How do we avoid building in the same flaws? And how do we develop the capacity to discern between promising and destructive lines of development? 

Human Learning Ecology (HLE) was developed with precisely these questions in mind. HLE draws on the human and life stores to identify patterns associated with adaptive and maladaptive development in individuals, organizations, societies, cultures, and species. Why are these types of patterns so important in our quest to redesign our sociocultural systems? The game of chess provides a helpful analogy. Studies show that master chess players quickly identify promising moves because they have trained themselves to recognize strategically significant patterns.2 This gives them the power to play ‘smarter’ than the rest of us – to look at an ever-changing game board and quickly figure out which lines of development are likely to be promising and which ones will get them into trouble. We need this kind of pattern recognition for life – particularly now when the game board keeps changing and the stakes are so high.

Jeremy Lent, one of the thought leaders we have been tracking at HVI, understands the value of identifying patterns associated with human thinking and development. His book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning (2017), outlines the “cognitive history” of our species, and notes that the way that we have oriented ourselves to life has effectively brought “civilization to the brink of collapse.”3 If we hope to navigate towards more promising lines of development, Lent says, we have to understand how to effectively reconstruct or “repattern” the meaning-making processes that guide us.4  

In a recent panel discussion on global systems change, Lent pointed out that the pandemic presents a unique opportunity to accelerate change and correct our line of development as a species: “Coronavirus is like a crucible,” he said, “where things that might have taken 20 or 30 years to develop can be happening in just a few weeks, […] so that the absolute fundamentals of our world will look different once this whole system resettles.” 

Elsewhere, Lent cautions that we need to establish “the right framework of values” to guide our collective efforts to restructure civilization.5 Human Learning Ecology offers a disciplined, meta-cultural approach to developing, testing and extending values (not to mention processes, structures, etc.) so that they more closely align with what is needed in order for humans, life, and planetary systems to thrive. By zooming out to understand higher-level principles associated with adaptive learning and human development, we are able to more effectively identify the coordinates needed to navigate our way through the current crisis and support the transition to a more just and sustainable future.

The need for course-correction has never been stronger – and the opportunities that the pandemic has created are exciting. But the stakes are high, and we need to get this right. If we hope to adaptively reconstruct harm-inducing systems and chart a new path forward, we can’t rely on the same level of thinking that created the problems we’re now facing. We need a new level of thinking, one that is guided by a deeper understanding of the patterns associated with adaptive learning and intelligence. This is a key moment in the human story. Let’s not blow it. 

Lent, J. (2017). The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, p. 25. This quote actually precedes the global pandemic; however, it is perhaps even more relevant today. 

Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia, Surpassing Ourselves: An Inquiry into the Nature and Implications of Expertise (Chicago, Illinois: Open Court,1993), 27.

Lent, J. (2017). The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, p. 32.

Lent, J. (2017). The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, p. 32.

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Elizabeth has been engaged with the Human Venture Institute since completing the program in 2004/2005. She works as a consultant in Calgary, helping non-profit and government sectors integrate adaptive learning principles in their efforts to address complex social issues.