IONS50 Series: Where is Our Positive Image of the Future?

September 13, 2023
IONS Former President Willis Harman (1918-1997), Foreword by IONS Board Chair and Interim CEO Claudia Welss

Our third post in the IONS 50th Anniversary blog series was written in 1980 by then-President of IONS Willis Harman. With IONS founder Edgar Mitchell — an astronaut and astrophysicist who experienced the fundamental oneness of all life through a cosmic perspective — and Willis — a futurist and social scientist who understood the mechanics of creating a “global mind change” based on a “new” perspective — IONS set out to help liberate humanity from the scientific and other civilizational paradigms holding us back.

It’s striking to note that the signs of social systems collapse present in the late 20th century, as portrayed by Willis below, are still with us today.  He reminds us both of how agonizingly slow real change can be, and of how close we all are to achieving a collective tipping point capable of lifting our world to a higher order in the relative blink of an eye — or as Willis writes, “the next transformation may fairly complete itself within the timespan of a single generation.” Willis believed that essential to arriving at such a tipping point was a heightened sense of the possible illuminated by noetics, and provided inspiration in his famous quote: “Because of the interconnectedness of all minds, affirming a positive vision may be about the most sophisticated action any one of us can take.” We’d be wise to take that inspiration to heart. — Claudia Welss

Where is Our Positive Image of the Future? By Willis Harman

America began with an inspiring image of the future – a “new order of the ages” (the “Novus Ordo Seclorum” on the back of the dollar bill). Through most of the two centuries a positive image of the future shaped our actions; at various times it highlighted Westward expansion, or economic expansion, or the hope of the Old World’s downtrodden, or keeping the world safe for Democracy. Since the mid-1960’s we have seen the image grow dim. No one who has observed the U.S. over the past decade has any doubt that a gloomy cynicism has set in.

America in the past few years has come to be, possibly for the first time in its history, without a clear positive goal. We look to a future that is economically uncertain, inflation-ridden, energy starved; noisy, crowded, and polluted; plagued by threads from hazardous chemicals to nuclear holocaust; surfeited by technological gimmicks and disillusioned with the “technological fix”; nostalgic for a happier past.

Yet perhaps the present period, which may have appeared as a discouraging decline or a time of vexing dilemmas, is better viewed as the beginning of a profound transformation – a transformation which, could we but see its end, would provide the stirring image and sense of direction we presently lack.

Such transformations have happened before in history, but rarely. Lewis Mumford, writing in 1956 on The Transformations of Man argued that there have been at most three or four such major transformations in the history of Western civilization, the last two being the end of the Roman Empire and the end of the Middle Ages. We may be, he said, approaching another such great transformation. If he is right, how wrenching and traumatic will the transition period turn out to be? That will depend to a great extent on how well we understand the approaching change and with what lack of feat we meet it.

Ours may be the first society in history to be able to prevision such a transformation and prepare for it. That is partly because of the tools for thought we have developed that can be turned to forecasting the future. It is also because of the general speedup of historical development, what with a culture used to continual change and with worldwide instantaneous communication, such that the next transformation may fairly complete itself within the time-span of a single generation.

What kinds of signs would you look for to confirm a suspicion that a Great Transformation of industrial society was underway? Four, at least:

  1. Signs that the ways and institutions of the old society were working less well than in the past and appear to be still less well adapted to the future.
  2. Signs that a widening group of people were perceiving the society to be headed toward an undesirable future and that an alternative image was beginning to emerge.
  3. Evidence that signs preceding revolutionary change in the past are present today, and that a growing social force can be identified as potentially capable of producing major institutional change.
  4. Signs that the tacitly held basic premises of the culture might be changing. (Lewis Mumford claims, “Every transformation of man…has rested on…a new picture of the cosmos and the nature of man.”)

Those signs are all present today.

Signs of breakdown

One of the signs that a society is approaching a critical time is when it contains within it basic contradictions that people would find too threatening if they noticed them – so they simply fail to see. As examples, consider the following:

  • We are taught by society that fulfillment comes from the consumption of scarce resources. This assumption is woven through the structure of materialistic modern society; it permeates advertising; it underlies the standard economic indicators, the concept of economic growth, the desirability of obsolescence through “progress.” The dominant institution in modern society is the economy, and the goals of the economy tend to be the goals of society. The economy is judged on the consumption of goods and services all of which use up scarce resources and exude polluting waste. Hedonistic consumption, once a vice, is now promoted; frugality, until recently a virtue, is now bad for the economy. Yet on a finite planet, “spaceship Earth,” in the end we must become frugal. Eventually, the consumption ethic leads unwaveringly to increasing global competition and conflict.
  • We are taught to think of employment as a byproduct of economic production – keep the production rising and people will have jobs. However, modern societies face limits to production; meanwhile pressures continue to increase labor productivity so the same production yields fewer jobs. Thus meaningful work becomes a scarce commodity. But in modern society employment in the mainstream economy is the individual’s primary way of relating to society, of making a personal contribution and receiving affirmation in return. Satisfying social roles are essential to the well-being of all persons. What is the future of a society in which satisfying roles are so defined as to be an increasingly scarce commodity?
  • Energy is so intimately related to jobs and productivity that we dare not consider seriously an energy policy that aims at a drastic cutback in energy use. Yet the costs of our foreign oil purchases, in economic and security terms, are undermining U.S. strength as a nation.
  • It does not seem practicable, in conventional thinking, to ask the rich of the world to significantly decrease their material standard of living to redistribute to the world’s poor. Yet in another sense they cannot afford not to. World distribution of food, income and wealth is far more uneven than is the distribution in any single country, even those with most notoriously unjust political orders. Economic forces and population pressures seem to conspire to cause the maldistribution to grow steadily worse. The rich “North” partakes of a feast that the world’s limited resources cannot sustain, while the teeming populations of the impoverished “South” remain trapped by poverty, illiteracy, and high birth rates in a remorseless cycle of deprivation. The threat of ultimate global conflict over this disparity looms ever greater.
  • We have been taught to believe that technology will solve social problems. Economic and technological development have indeed brought abundance, solved problems, and liberated humankind in numerous ways. Yet in recent years we have heard technology made the villain, accused of creating environmental and social problems, and even threatening democracy. Fundamentally, the very momentum of economic and technological growth leads toward the automatic making of far-reaching social decisions (for example, modern agricultural methods essentially eradicating the small family farm).
  • If these contradictions were not enough to bring us to an Orwellian 1984, they are topped by our perpetuating the threat of nuclear holocaust and calling it “national security.”

Towards an Alternative Future

The roots of these characteristics are centuries back. At the end of the Middle Ages there began, first in Western Europe and eventually in practically all of the world, the journey on the path which led to industrialization, modernization, economic development. Sociologists have used the term “secularization” to describe the predominant characteristic of this path – the shift of society’s guiding values from the traditional religious base to impersonal, utilitarian values. The values that shape social choices were increasingly influenced by materialistic and economic factors. Transcendent spiritual values and goals became steadily less influential.

By the end of the 16th century this breaking out of the traditional mold has led to the beginnings of both capitalism and modern science. The new practical value emphasis generated effective and efficient new methods of production which brought the beginning of the Industrial Revolution two centuries later. Within another century the ethic of “controlling nature” through combining science with technology was firmly established. Knowledge that would generate new manipulative technologies was increasingly favored and supported over other kinds of knowledge (which were left to the humanities and religions with the tacit understanding that if science didn’t deal with them they couldn’t really be very important).

Knowledge about wholesome human values, ethics and behavior became neglected. Indeed, some of our eminent scientists assured us that freedom, dignity, love, integrity, creativity, and spirituality were “unscientific” concepts and it would be fruitless to seek fundamental knowledge of them. Economic rationality has come to substitute as a pseudo-ethic because we have become exceptionally confused about the eternal value issues. Thus profit passes as an adequate goal for the corporation, and GNP likewise for the nation.

Goods and services are increasingly produced by industrialized processes and offered and purchased in the mainstream economy. They are shaped more and more by the criteria of the economy. Our bodies are serviced by the “health care industry.” We who are coming toward the end of our years will be taken care of by the “nursing homes industry.” When our bodies are no longer serviceable they will be disposed of by the “funeral homes industry.” Our education, travel, leisure, food preparation, and social life, all tend to become “market” to be satisfied with “products.”

In the process, the per capita demands on physical resources (particularly energy) and impact on the environment have steadily increased both because of rising spending levels and because of changes in the kinds of products bought (for example, moving from re-usable wooden boxes to aluminum and plastic containers; from natural fibers to synthetics). 

Along with the impressive accomplishments in public health have come new threats to health as well – noxious and hazardous chemicals; artificial foods and unwholesome dietary characteristics; psychological stress from crowding, noise, and isolation from the natural environment; proliferation of nuclear weapons of mass destruction.

In response to the negative aspects of these characteristics of the long-term modernization trend, there have sprung up in the U.S. over the past 15 or 20 years a host of special new movements. (Similar movements with slightly different emphases have appeared in other highly industrialized countries – Canada, Western Europe, Japan.) For convenience these can be grouped under four major themes:

  • Ecological Outlook – concern for environmental protection, resource conservation, wilderness preservation, and fostering wholesome relationships between man (woman) and nature.
  • Appropriate Technology – focusing on the relationships between people and technology, emphasizing use of small, decentralized technology that is under the control of the user; that does not cause undue insult to the environment; that is resource conserving; and that is compatible with a voluntarily simple lifestyle (favoring, for example, solar energy and conservation, and opposing dependence on gigantic coal-powered and nuclear-powered electric systems).
  • Person Liberation – emphasizing development of self reliance and self emancipation from prejudice and stereotypes relating to race and sex; from oppression by “patriarchal” social institutions; from the dehumanizing effects of the giant organizations of industrial society.
  • Spiritual Revitalization – emphasizing the search for guiding meanings and values; renewed attention to the spiritual; release of full human potentiality; seeing health as holistic, involving mind, emotions, body, and spirit in organic unity.

Each of these movements – environmentalist, civil rights, anti-nuclear, feminist, holistic health, “conserver society,” “appropriate technology,” “human potential,” and so on – seems understandable in its own terms. But if instead of viewing them one at a time one asks what the overall pattern means, it appears to be aimed at deflecting the various aspects of the long-term modernization trend, to bring about a “New Age” society that is qualitatively different from the post World War II “late-industrial” society.

A widening group of people are associated with these movements or affected by them, and tend to perceive this society (and other advanced industrial societies) to be headed toward an undesirable future. An alternative future image of a “New Age” society is beginning to emerge, characterized by a synthesis of the four thrusts of the social movements mentioned earlier.

Signs of Transformation

Sociological studies of past periods of revolutionary change in various societies indicate that typically certain indicators show up sometime before the revolutionary change period, foreshadowing it. These indicators include alienation of persons from the institutions of society, rising rate of mental illness, rising rate of violent crime, social disruption and use of police to put down dissension, tolerance of sexual hedonism, religious cultism, and economic inflation. All of these indicators are with us. (Barbara Tuchman’s recent book A Distant Mirror describes the appearance of similar phenomena in a previous period of transformation, the 14th century in Western Europe.)

The single most powerful means of bringing about social change is through challenges to the legitimacy of institutions and institutional behaviors. We need only remind ourselves that in a few short years following World War II, much to the surprise of seasoned watchers of international affairs, scores of colonies of the larger nations suddenly became independent countries. This remarkable liberation movement occurred with remarkably little bloodshed, primarily because legitimacy was withdrawn from the institution of political colonies.

Challenges to the legitimacy of the behaviors of large corporations and large nations, racist and sexist institutions, patriarchal customs, and the like have been frequently-used tools of the contemporary network of transformation-focused social movements. Thus not only do the signs of impending transformation seem to be present, but there is demonstrated public awareness of how to use legitimacy challenges as a tool for social change. Both of these facts make the transformational hypothesis more plausible.

Changing Premises

Finally, for an indication of how far-reaching the transformation may be, we need to look for signs of a profound change in the basic premises underlying industrial society. Most fundamental of all is the premise that what is real is measurable. From Galileo on, the conviction has grown that what can be quantified is important; what cannot is either unimportant or doesn’t exist. In an industrializing society, knowledge that could be used to predict and control qualified as “scientific”; it became easy to forget there might be any other kind of knowledge. Yet every stable society that ever existed on the globe, ancient or modern, Eastern or Western, derived its basic value commitments from another kind of knowledge. That is the intuitive knowledge of deep inner experience from which sprang all the religious traditions of the world.

Western scientific-technological zeal tended to downgrade if not debunk this kind of knowledge. The growth of materialistic science eroded the transcendental base of Judeo-Christian values – or, more accurately, of the perennial wisdom of all the world’s religious traditions. As a result we were left like a ship with ever more powerful engines, but no chart or compass. We acquired more and more “know-how,” and seemed to know less and less about what is worth doing.

Both within the scientific community and in the broader culture can be found numerous indications of our becoming aware of this extraordinary and dangerous imbalance. Among the scientists we see new inquiries into unconscious processes, hypnosis, the psychosomatic origins of illness, biofeedback training, psychic phenomena, “levels” of consciousness. We are learning the extent to which we create or cure our own illness, the ways in which our minds are joined other than by ordinary visual or aural communication, the ability of the mind to “image” solutions to complex problems. In the culture at large the quest for individual spiritual meaning and for caring relationships has replaced both the old dogmatic religion and the nihilism of the mid-twentieth century. The shift in basic premises implied by this “new transcendentalism” is fully as great as the shift from the traditional religious beliefs of the Middle Ages to the materialism of the industrial world.


If indeed the signs point to a coming profound transformation to some sort of trans-industrial “New Age,” should we view the transition period with apprehension, even granting an attractive image of the long-term future? Perhaps there is a second case to be made for a positive image of the transition process. The analogy of metamorphosis, the process by which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, is suggestive.

The metamorphosis of a larva to become an adult insect begins with the degeneration of much of the larval tissue. Simultaneously there is a proliferation of growth around special cells called “imaginal cells.” These colonies of new cells in effect create parts of the new creature that will eventually emerge from the pupal shell. When they grow large enough, they merge to form the adult insect, and the remainder of the larval tissue in between disintegrates.

It may well be that the metamorphosis of industrial society has already begun, with thousands of “new age” organizations and experimental communities and voluntary associations playing the role of “imaginal cells,” linked by a vaguely defined image of a sparkling new future.

Perhaps Lewis Mumford described it as well as anyone can, a quarter of a century ago:

“We stand on the brink of a new age: the age of an open world and of a self capable of playing its part in that larger sphere. An age of renewal, when work and leisure and learning and love will unite to produce a fresh form for every stage of life, and a higher trajectory for life as a whole…In carrying man’s self-transformation to this further stage, world culture may bring about a fresh release of spiritual energy that will unveil new potentialities, no more visible in the human self today than radium was in the physical world a century ago, though always present…For who can set bounds to man’s emergence or to his power of surpassing his provisional achievements? So far we have found no limits to the imagination, nor yet to the sources on which it may draw. Every goal man reaches provides a new starting point, and the sum of all man’s days is just a beginning.”


Willis Harman,
Former President of IONS 


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