Allan Combs, Ph.D.
Saybrook Graduate School

In this paper I offer to the reader the most humble thesis that talking can change the world. Here I mean talking between individuals and persons in small groups – friendly talking in which ideas of mutual interest and concern are shared openly, heard in an atmosphere of trust, and solutions are explored openly. It is how we might begin the long process of saving the world.

That the world needs saving does not seem to be in serious doubt. Issues of unsustainable growth, ecological depletion, rampant consumerism and market instability, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, diseases, water shortages, etc., are enough to scare the socks off anyone with the courage to look at them squarely. To this list we now add the reality of global terrorism. Not surprisingly, when we turn around to look at individual lives we also see an unsatisfactory picture. The average adult today, even in the most successful economies, is financially stressed and exhausted by ever-expanding work demands. If all this weren’t enough, it seems that the whole structure of civilization has grown rotten at the core. Twenty years ago cultural historian William Irwin Thompson diagnosed the condition of our civilization as the final ages of cultural and spiritual deterioration. He observed that we are living in an era of profound conflict and disorder which, speaking in mythological terms, he named this the Age of Chaos, coming after three earlier ages – of Gods, Heroes, and Men – described by the 17th century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, and echoing an ancient theory of history outlined by Ovid, who is said to have gotten it from even more ancient Egyptian sources. Thompson was optimistic, however, believing that a cyclic return to a new age of the gods was in the making if we can just survive the disorder of the transition. At that time he wrote:

Because our culture is in a transitional stage there now exists a great polarization between the mystics and the mechanists. One section of the culture is caught up in visions of total control… [while] the other is caught up in the spiritual visions… The age of chaos and the new age of gods overlap. (1981, p. 7)

This division of society into mystics and mechanists is a reflection of C.P. Snow’s mid-twentieth century portrayal of a split between the “Two Cultures” of the humanists and the scientists. Today we find ourselves face to face with an even more profound cultural fissure symbolized by book titles such as The Lexus and the Olive Tree, by Thomas Friedman, and Jihad vs. McWorld, by Benjamin Barber. This is a cultural and economic fracture of global dimensions that pits the modern world of science and big business against traditional values and the traditional cultures that hold them. The fault lines run between long-established cultural blocks such as Western Europe and the Middle East, between the rich and the poor, and both between and within religions. We live in a world where Mickey Mouse lunch buckets are carried to school by Afghan children, and Pakistani men collect in front of TVs to watch re-runs of Bay Watch and Kojak.

Traditionalists resent these intrusions of modern corporate interests into their long-established ways of life. As a consequence the world is experiencing a strong reaction in which traditionalists of all ilks are attempting to regain power lost to modernism during the 19th and 20th centuries. The most extreme product of this reaction is the appearance of terrorism on a global scale. Perhaps just as dangerous in its own way is the shift in the U.S. toward a kind of neocorporate fascism that threatens to radically curtail the humanistic principles of the Enlightenment on which the country was originally founded, and in which statecraft and rule of law are superseded by both religious and market priorities.

The cumulative impact of so many threatening circumstances has been more than a little depressing to today’s youth. My recent experience as a professor at a liberal arts university in the U.S. is that large numbers of college students have become deeply pessimistic. The machinery of higher education has done an excellent job informing them of the myriad potential catastrophes that wait just around the corner, while offering no plan of action or hope for solutions. No doubt this is because faculty members themselves see no solutions, and if anything are hoping for the students themselves to come up with something. The depression and despair exhibited by young people is evident in their music, their art, and their media images. It is also evident their choice in large numbers not to participate in local or national elections, despite the fact that many are politically well informed. While few adults invest in the adolescent brand of pessimism exhibited by such youths, more than a few are simply hoping to make it through to the end of their lives before things get too much worse. Many, especially in the third world, have not made it at all, and a walk through the streets of any city in the U.S., large or small, makes it apparent that many in the first world are not making it either.

We might all hope for Thompson’s new age of the gods, each in our own way, but the unhappy realities of today’s world are too overwhelming to expect it to come about very soon. On the positive side, however, it is well to realize that though the corporate media paints a picture of an increasingly conservative, even reactionary public, those espousing regressive and reactionary views remain in the distinct minority. For example, only 7% of the American citizenry are evangelicals despite the noise they make; and at the time of this writing President Bush’s approval ratings have sunk to 40%, with the Republican congress even lower at 30%. Despite appearances most people have not changed their basic values and attitudes significantly, even since 9/11.

A growing number of people of all ages are sincerely interested in alternative values such as environmental conservation, equal rights for all people, personal spiritual growth, and the seeking of peaceful ways to resolve conflict. Some are giving up conspicuous consumerism for simpler life styles with more time to enjoy life and to share it with others. There now exists a large and growing population of people supporting alternative values who social researchers Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson have termed "cultural creatives." They represent more than a quarter of the population in the U.S. and Europe, and also exist in significant numbers elsewhere throughout the world. But few of them have a clear sense of the strength of their numbers, or how to proceed to realize their alternative values beyond kitchen recycling and the purchase of fewer fast-food hamburgers. It is the possibility that this group might become organized through communication and the sharing of common values, and ultimately through the birth and spread of practical solutions to the problems of today’s world, that is our principal hope for the future.

What can be done?

By now it is apparent that few of the major world’s powers – read governments, corporations, religions and educational institutions – have taken today’s global dilemmas seriously enough to deal with them forcefully. For example, the recent White House Chief of Staff, Philip A. Cooney, edited government reports on global warming to take the edges off their ominous projections, much like a doctor touching up the X-rays for a patient unwilling to undergo the necessary cure. And the Catholic Church is now moving even further from realistic policies for family planning, despite devastating overpopulation problems in impoverished nations. These, and other examples of the failures of major powers to actively seek realistic solutions to wide-scale concerns, is because these same world powers are designed for stability rather than for creative resilience in a rapidly changing world. Seeking ways to transform them should be placed high on our agenda. The green capitalism movement is an excellent example. In the meantime, however, I believe that informed and thoughtful voices may lend speed to the widening of an awareness of the urgency or our times, and that such voices can also offer creative suggestions for solutions.

Many resourceful individuals throughout the world are working both individually and in groups to explore solutions to the problems that plague us. Yet they often do not know of each other's actions because the dominant sources of news and the institutions that support them are dedicated to stability and seem unable to recognize the significance of transformative activities. Such people and groups are often isolated by their own separate issues and "languages," not recognizing that they are partners in seeking answers for a world that has moved beyond 20th century values, agendas, and goals. Even so, a broad new set of values is coming into wide acceptance among many people in many nations, regardless of differences in social class, political affiliation, or economic privilege. These values aspire toward cooperation and synergy among individuals, ethnic groups, social classes, political institutions, businesses and economic organizations, among species, and between nature and human civilization.

The growing presence of such resourceful persons and groups seems to me to be an important source of optimism. Their greatest potential, however, comes in the sharing of ideas and plans, in conversations that connect individuals into groups, groups into larger groups, and ultimately to create spreading networks of shared efforts and values. Need I point out that communication networks are already in frighteningly effective use by loose-knit but single-minded factions such as al Qaeda? The challenge for those of us with more constructive goals is first to overcome our own differences, and second to reach out to people in the many sectors of society that do not hold our own values and viewpoints. In the first instance we must overcome our own unwillingness to cooperate when we don’t all share exactly the same views. “Liberals” and highly-educated people of all ilks are known for their failures at cooperation. Will Rogers said, “I belong to no organized political party; I am a Democrat!” Indeed, a college administrator once told me that trying to get faculty to cooperate is like herding cats. But today it is vital that we prima donnas learn to work together and communicate, because those that don’t share our values are doing a frighteningly good job at it.

Fortunately, though the “cultural creatives” have been a little slow warming up to the idea of effective networking, they now seem to be getting the knack of it. For instance, organizations such as have become rallying nodes for action, connecting large numbers of people with a broad but compatible range of values and interests. Ironically, the internet is especially effective for this kind of thing because organizations such as can coordinate many people around particular issues without inviting wrangling over individual differences. Working on many fronts, this kind of dynamic brings significant numbers of people together in what may be one of our best hopes for midwifing the emergence of a life-affirming third millennium civilization.

But no matter how politically effectively internet networks might be, there is no substitute for person to person dialogue. This is why virtually all successful organizations, whether they are concerned with business, science, religion, or other spheres of activity, hold meetings and members come to them with one utmost goal in mind: to schmooze!  That is, to talk to each other face to face, share ideas, make new contacts, and explore future possibilities. Members of such organizations usually have the advantage of sharing common languages, for example the language of science or the language of the business world, but those of us seeking dialogues across a range of overlapping local or global concerns must work a bit harder to talk to each other. This is especially true if we are speaking to people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds than our own. In this case, unexamined assumptions about what is expected of us, what is polite, and so on, may interfere with effective communication, sometimes in obvious ways, and sometimes unconsciously.

Indeed, we must seek not only to speak with others like ourselves, but make an extra effort to talk with those who are religiously and ethnically different than us. This is simple to say and hard to do. To begin with, it can be emotionally demanding to talk to people who seem fundamentally different than us. We don’t know what to expect, and frustrations can build quickly if stereotypes are allowed to control expectations. The recent film, Crash, presents a panoramic view of multicultural frustrations and misunderstandings in the city of LA. Beyond this, however, no one needs to tell the readers of these pages that when people get together in conversations about “green” issues the attendance is usually made up nearly entirely of well-educated Caucasians all preaching to the converted, with perhaps a few Native American, Asian, and Hispanic folks sprinkled in, and almost no one in attendance from the Afro-American or Middle-Eastern communities. What is more, there are no representatives of the “religious right”, or if they do come, they may be there only to heckle. The reasons for these disparities are many and complex, but my point is that until all these people become part of the conversation those of us concerned about “green” issues will remain a small and hampered minority. It is vital that we reach beyond the boarders of our own life styles and value systems to include every kind of person in the population.

Of course, individually we can do only so much. But an important first step is to overcome our own fears, and to open ourselves to simple human contact with people we see as different from ourselves. I don’t mean that we should get into our cars and drive right down to the inner city ghetto, knock on doors, and start talking. I just mean for us to open ourselves to friendly interactions with people around us, in grocery lines, restaurants, or just walking down the street; and see were this leads. Such interactions overcome stereotyped fears and confusions, and in doing so are a first major step to seeing other people as human beings in the same way we see ourselves, our families, and our friends. Our first step is to embrace the warmth of human contact through friendly conversation.

I first became aware of the power of such casual conversations a few years back while walking through a poor section of town at nigh. I became aware of someone walking right behind me, and tilting my head a bit I noticed he was a large black man with an ice cream cone. The feeling of someone moving too close behind you in the dark can be very uncomfortable, but I made up my mind I would not do something to humiliate this man such as scooting off across the street. Instead, I turned directly to him and said, “Jeez, that ice-cream looks great!” He instantly filled up with a huge smile and said, “It sure is, and its dripp’n all over me!” What a relief! And what a normal, human, and friendly thing to say. I did not become friends with this man, but I have seen him around town several times since, and we always enjoy saying hello to each other. The resonances of small exchanges like this one ripple out far beyond the moment and begin the process of overcoming fixed stereotypes and resentments in a way that no other form of communication can achieve.

What good can conversations do? 

When two people enter into conversation a larger dynamic comes into being, one that embraces but is greater than either of them taken separately. When three people become involved the dynamic grows further, and as more join in it continues to change, taking on the dynamic properties of a creative system. Information is exchanged, ideas are born, and cognitive vistas arise that extend beyond the reach of the separate individuals who make up the group. When these individuals also communicate in other such groups they become conduits for connecting these groups, carrying information from one conversation to another, and almost unwittingly guide the separate discussions toward common languages and values. If this process continues far enough, conversational loops form and feedback dynamics become a reality. The strength of the effect grows exponentially in a powerful autopoietic organizational dynamic involving the exchange of ideas. Human nature being what it is, however, ideas lead to action. So, if the powerful dynamics of sharing creative ideas are once set in motion, they will inevitably give birth to the next vital step of planning and initiating transformative activities. 

I personally feel that nothing substitutes for conversations of the old fashioned face-to-face variety, which seems essential for deep listening and understanding other people’s viewpoints, and for overcoming differences which separate us. Nevertheless, much useful information can be exchanged in slower conversations that take place over great distances, using electronic connections such as email and the web. Some observers speculate that the World Wide Web may take on dynamic self-organizing properties of its own in time. My own view, however, is that much of the work of bringing people into dialogue at a distance has already begun by e-mail. The inexpensive, virtually instantaneous, and above all easy conversations that e-mail makes possible overcomes distance and national barriers without effort, and seems to bring the extra benefit of equality among conversants. A friendly and intelligent letter that arrives in one’s e-mail "box" is most often answered in the same spirit. One has surprisingly little inclination to make value judgments based on whether the letter comes from someone of proper standing, whether in a business, academic institution, or the like. From its very beginning this democratic aspect of e-mail made it an important vehicle for connecting people of many backgrounds and geographical locations in productive conversations.

Suggestions for conversations.

The following list of guidelines for conversations was originally proposed by futurist and political observer Robert Theobald after much reflection on the styles of conversations that might be helpful in getting this process started. To develop the rationale for each of them in detail would go beyond the bounds of this article. They are, however, predicated on the belief that we do not have final answers at this time, and so would be best advised to carefully listen to each other. They also rest on the observation that large scale fix-it programs have generally not worked well, so we need to seek individual solutions from people who are genuinely involved in particular situations and who can offer concrete creative solutions from their own experience.

If we want to become skilled conversationalists it is also helpful to know something about the metaphors that people commonly take for granted, and how these differ from person to person. George Lakoff refers to these metaphors as “frames”, which put a context around a discussion and give it personal meaning. For instance, the speech of the religious right relies on the unspoken frame of an authoritarian family, in which a strict father enforces moral rules on the children through punishment until they grow to become strong moral adults like himself, no longer needing their parents for support. The implication of this frame is that people not making good financially are still children, and need strong discipline. In this metaphor, the father is not afraid to defend the family by force, if necessary. And so we have “wars” against poverty, wars against AIDS, wars against crime, and a war against terrorism. The model is always to fight the thing that threatens us rather, for example, than to cure it, aid it, understand it, or mend it, each of which is a different frame. Lakoff has written about frames in detail in his recent book, Don’t Think About an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. For this article, the most important point from Lakoff’s book is that we need to understand the frame in control of the person we are talking with, and seek in gentle ways to make this frame explicit, so that basic values can be uncovered and explored together. A fist step in this direction is simply to ask folks to explain what they mean. Then seek a common ground as the hidden assumptions come to light.

From another perspective, social scientists such as Don Beck and Christopher Cowen have devoted themselves to understanding the kinds of values people bring to the table when they engage in any kind of discussion of matters important to them. Readers of these pages are familiar with Beck and Cowen’s “value memes” which divide human culture into distinct developmental value strata using an easy to understand color code. My point here is that each of these strata, or value memes, might just as well be thought of as implicit frames that reside in the background of any conversation. In this system red represents an ego-centered orientation where might makes right. It is symbolized by the terrible twos, and it respects power above all. On the upside, reds can make valuable contributions in careers such as firemen, policemen, and soldiers, that call for self-sacrifice and valor. Blue indicates a conservative orientation that holds to traditional religious and political principles. Think of Lutherans, Roman Catholics, traditional Hindus, and the religious right. Blues have a consuming respect for authority. They like to belong to traditional organizations, and can be very caring and thoughtful within the contexts of those organizations. Think of the many hospitals operated by churches. Orange is the modernist view that esteems logic, science, and free enterprise. It includes Wall Street republicans as well as many Democrats. It respects reason and, above all, achievement. The modern world owes itself to the intelligence and drive of the orange meme. Green is the sensitive orientation, in which people recognize and respect the feelings of others different then themselves. Green includes many cultural creatives. Green respects sensitivity and caring. In relatively small numbers, yellow sees the world in terms of whole systems and of change. Yellow looks for answers that work for the whole system, whether it be a biological, social, ecological, or economical system.

A working knowledge of these value memes allows you to recognize which is being taken for granted by people with whom you speak.  Each meme has its own language and priorities, in Lakoff fashion, and the ability to speak the language of the persons with whom you are speaking is a great asset towards communication. For instance, until a person develops a green perspective it is difficult for them to be concerned about the environment for its own sake. This means it is of no use talking to a red person about saving the rainforests unless you can relate it to their own world. The red person can, however, understand that the global warming that results from deforestation makes it too hot to enjoy outside sports or work, and the depletion of natural resources makes it hard to pay for the air conditioning. On the other hand, the blue value person can understand the threat to their family and children of global warming and, in another vein, the need for Christian (or other) charity to reach out to aid children in poor neighborhoods or countries. It is especially important for them, however, to see those afflicted as similar in some way to themselves.  For instance, they are more likely to help poor Lutherans (whatever) than, say, Muslims. Orange persons understand that the destruction of the environment, at least on a large scale, is bad for business. And so on.

It is important to speak to the values of the persons with whom you dialogue. This knowledge in mind, you can use language and metaphors that will be meaningful to them. Speaking of energy conservation and the reduction of environmental pollution, Ken Wilber humorously but rightly suggested the billboard phrase, “What kind of car would Jesus drive?” A hybrid, of course!

So what’s new?

You may well question my optimism about the power of conversations. Haven’t conversations been going on for as long as there have been people? And does the new power of electronic communication actually change the fundamental nature of dialogue? The answer to both of these questions, of course, is "no". But today, for the first time in many decades, there is an interest and willingness afoot in the world to question the institutions that structure our society, and to seek positive transformations in them. This is my own experience and that of others who have been speaking to people of many ilks, and of many different nationalities. This willingness and this interest are not recorded in any official censuses. They are not carried by the news services. They are written about in only a few books. People speak separately of their many different concerns, often using their own "languages", while failing to recognize their participation in a larger process. They often do not know about each other. And their concerns are not the kind that attracts the attention of the news media.

Today, we are experiencing quite a different situation than the "counter-culture revolution" of the 1960s, in which a passionate few struggled loudly for changes in the rigid and self-serving institutions of society. Though the activists of that period were sincere in their ideals and concerns, they did not understand the need to organize and work patiently for transformations that could only come slowly and in a step by step fashion. The antics of the Chicago Seven symbolized the attitude of those times, and in retrospect may have done as much harm as good by triggering a strong backlash in the conservative majority. There were exceptions such as the civil rights movement in the U.S., and in fact many of the activists of the 60s continued, and continue today, to work individually and in small groups for a better future. But when all was said and done and the counts were taken at the polls, the activists of that time found themselves in a sadly small minority, living among a vast "silent majority" not in the least interested in uprooting the basic institutions of the culture. Rather, they were interested in continuing to enjoy the opulent post-war economy, still playing itself out in the most fortunate countries of the capitalist West. After the terrible psychological trauma of the assassinations of the cultural icons of the 1960s, these conservatives managed to lure many, if not most of the cultural dissonants, over to their own consumption-based values. What else was one to do?

The situation today is fundamentally different. Though there is no counter-culture making itself visible on the evening news, small groups of people all around are forming local, regional, and even national and international learning communities. An example at hand is the international Club of Budapest, with its many local and regional derivatives. Another is Yasuhiko Genku Kimura’s Vision in Action organization, of which this VIA Journal is an important vehicle for communication. In a related vein, while 60s style communes are no longer in fashion, cooperatives of various types are popping up in many locations. These range from commune-like experiments, at one extreme, to groups of people who simply share some common land and work together to create a quality environment in which to build their homes and raise their families. Some share cooking and child care and some do not. Some include religious overtones, but many do not. Some print their own monetary currency. More important than all this, however, is that today people from all walks of society sense an urgency, a feeling that the time has come and come again to address our situation and seek healing solutions to the many sores of the world. There is a growing realization that we are all in the soup together, and we will have to get out together as well.

Another important dimension to the present situation is that, while the most radical of the 60s dissonants hoped for a full-scale revolution that would upend the very structure of society, the many people who are awakening to the urgency of our situation today are seeking solutions rather than revolutions. They are interested in talking about transformations in our economic systems, in our educational institutions, in our energy strategies, and in our attitudes toward the natural world. They are not interested in sinking the societal ship, but in transforming it into a compassionate and sustainable vehicle for carrying us into the future. Indeed, my sense in talking to people from many backgrounds indicates that even the well-to-do, the executives and magnates of today’s industrial corporations, are concerned about the world situation, and for the most part feel as helpless in the face of it as do the poor. They may live in comfort, but they are indeed as interested as anyone in promoting a better future. The sponsorship of much work toward a sustainable and abundant future is in the hands of such individuals.

All this may seem inordinately idealistic in an age of wars, ethnic violence, terrorism, and wide-spread economic disruption. But I invite you to speak to those around you, to invite them to engage in transformative conversations. See if they do not respond with interest and relief to find a community of others who are also interested in creative transformations.


Don Beck and Christopher Cowen. Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change. Blackwell Business, Malden, MA; 1996.

George Lakoff. Don’t Think About an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT; 2004.

Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson. The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People are Changing the World. Three Rivers Press, New York; 2001.

Robert Theobald. Reworking Success: New Communities at the Millennium. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, British Columbia; 1997.

William Irwin Thompson. The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality, and the Origins of Culture. St. Martin's Press, New York; 1981.

Religious Religious Identification in the U.S.: Christianity Sinking; "None of the Above" Rising.

NOTE: I whish to think Paul Ray for his encouragement and generous information during the writing of this article.