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Awakening the Power of Our Social Potential
By Barbara Marx Hubbard
New World Library, 1998

Conscious Evolution presents an overview of what futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard calls the emerging "social potential movement" — the burgeoning network of forward-looking scientists, scholars, activists, innovators, and practitioners working at the frontiers of social change. Like the human potential movement of the 1960s and 70s, it is rooted in an expanded concept of individual consciousness and human possibility. But unlike its forerunner, it is explicitly outer-directed; its chief objective is to foster a more humane, sustainable, and life-enhancing global society.

The "social potential movement is not revolutionary, but evolutionary," Hubbard asserts. "Its purpose is to evolve all of us, our communities, and our world so that all people are free to fulfill their highest potential." Once confined to a small group of writers and thinkers, the movement is now spawning think tanks and institutes around the world committed to systematically exploring its ideas and proposals, from the reintegration of community through alternative currency systems and socially responsible investing to visionary leadership based on participatory management and the principles of stewardship.

Hubbard discusses the social potential movement against the backdrop of a broader visionary perspective on social and personal transformation. She believes that the human species is poised to take its next evolutionary leap and that the many crises we now face — from environmental devastation and overpopulation to social alienation and dire poverty — represent a dangerous yet natural stage in the birth of a more highly evolved species. Citing recent research in the fields of evolutionary biology, systems theory, and chemistry, she contends that living systems do not change and evolve in a linear fashion, but rather by upheaval, or what she calls "quantum change."

For example, the work of Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ilya Prigogine has thrown new light on how open systems in nature are subject to constant fluctuations or perturbations, sudden shifts that allow for novelty and unpredictable change. The chief characteristic of these systems is that apparently random fluctuations inevitably culminate in a sudden shift in which the system's parts reorganize into a more complex pattern. Hubbard sees this process as a metaphor for the sort of change that lies in store for human civilization. Social breakdowns are a lot like to the perturbations which precede a sudden whole-system shift.

In her view, the challenge is to make this process conscious and to "co-create" our fate as a species — that is, to shape our future by choice and willful participation. To do this requires not only that we understand the nature of evolution and "the astonishing capacity for novelty, emergence, and transformation that has brought us from subatomic particles to our current condition," but also that we reframe our current predicament and see it as a painful yet necessary process of giving birth to the next stage of our evolution. The social potential movement has a key role to play during this transition by highlighting the social breakthroughs and innovations that signal the emergence of a more highly evolved global society.

At bottom, Hubbard says, we need to rethink our standard approach to global problem-solving. Rather than analyze what does not work, we need to learn from the many "golden innovations" that do work — those projects in the fields of business, education, urban planning, and other fields that are working successfully and which, if further developed and applied, could not only transform the systems in which they function but also foster greater cooperation, creativity, optimism, tolerance for diversity, and faith in the potential of all human beings.

Hubbard cites many examples of golden innovations, ranging from the efforts of Deborah Meier to restructure inner-city schools into vibrant educational enclaves to the work of The Hunger Project, an international non-governmental organization attempting to alleviate hunger around the world not by providing food but by educating for self-reliance.

This is an inspiring, if not always inspired, book. Hubbard brings together some of the most hopeful evidence that our culture is evolving in the right direction, but much of it is soft rather than hard data. For example, she gets a lot of mileage out of Paul Ray's assertion that there is a growing subculture in the United States, some 44 million strong, which embodies a new set of cultural values. Yet these numbers are highly questionable, and in any case there is very little to corroborate them. But never mind, they sound persuasive.

She is also content to provide anecdotal examples of social innovation rather than objective accounts, projects that may appear on the surface to represent an emerging paradigm, as it were, but whose outcomes one can only speculate about. In the sixties, people wrote radiantly about "intentional communities" as a promising glimpse of the future. Today, of course, we know better. Her roundup of recent breakthroughs in science is also somewhat, well, impressionistic.

These flaws notwithstanding, I feel the book should be judged by the clarity and strength of its vision, not the inadequacy of its research or the weakness of its supporting evidence. Like other great social thinkers (Teilhard de Chardin, Jonas Salk, and Buckminster Fuller come to mind), Hubbard has articulated a compelling vision that can inspire and ennoble us as we look to the future. We ignore prophets at our own peril. If we are serious about creating a better world for future generations, there is much to be learned from people like Barbara Marx Hubbard — and, indeed, from books like this.

Copyright 2001 by Scott London. All rights reserved.