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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : July/Aug 2002 : Frankel-y Speaking

Frankel-y Speaking

A Different Kind of Rainbow
A model of consciousness called Spiral Dynamics provides insight into the nature—and challenges—of sustainability.

by senior columnist Carl Frankel

Frankel-y Speaking

In these overwrought, often bewildering times, it’s natural to yearn for a framework that helps us understand what’s going on. Not that people don’t already rely on these “reality tunnels”—they’re part of human nature. For instance, dyed-in-the-wool patriots make sense of things by glorifying flag and country and making every threat to them, “the enemy.” Others make the United States the enemy, the “Great Satan.” For many people, however, these and other similarly narrow frameworks are starting to look pretty moth-eaten. They make one side completely right and the other side completely wrong, and they don’t explain the whole. They produce a whole lot of pummeling and not much progress. They’re not even particularly credible: they’re too biased and simplistic.

What is needed is a more comprehensive, higher-level framework—a “meta-framework,” as it’s called—that is reasonably plausible and helps us understand the big picture. Fortunately we have one—or at least I believe we do. It’s called Spiral Dynamics, and in my opinion it provides insight into a broad range of subjects, including overarching geopolitical dynamics, the future of sustainability, the challenge of operationalizing sustainability inside corporations, and why sustainability advocates so often trip over their own feet despite their fervent desire to get things right.

All of which I’ll get to in due course. But first, an all-too-brief introduction to the framework. Developed by the psychologist Clare Graves, a professor of psychology who died in 1986, and popularized by Don Beck and Chris Cowan in their 1996 book of the same name, Spiral Dynamics frames personal and cultural experience in the context of an evolutionary journey that takes us up a ladder, or rather spiral, of consciousness. It does something else as well: it positions history, along with current politics, as a drama characterized by conflict among the different stations on the spiral. Many other models depicting the evolution of consciousness have been developed—names like Lawrence Kohlberg, Abraham Maslow and Ken Wilber may ring bells—but Spiral Dynamics is especially robust, accessible and useful for these times.
Spiral Dynamics sets forth an eight-level, two-tier model of consciousness. Each stage, or level, consists of a set of values that constellate into a single worldview or mental model. Each of these value clusters, in turn, organizes around a dominant principle or desire. Beck and Cowan ascribe a different color to each level of the spiral so that they are more easily remembered. The six first-tier stages are as follows:

> The level at the lowest point of the spiral, beige, is preoccupied with basic survival. Scrabbling from one day to the next is all that really matters. The first hunter-gatherers were beige.

> The second stage of the spiral, purple, is focused on security. Think archaic tribes praying to the gods for a good kill or for rain. Magical thinking predominates at this level.

> At the third stage, red, power is the main concern. Inner-city gangs are red. So are warlords in Afghanistan, and feudal societies generally.

> At the fourth stage, blue, truth replaces power as the main organizing principle. The individual subordinates him- or herself to a greater cause. Fundamentalist thinking is blue. So is patriotism: the flag represents the higher cause. More broadly, empire is blue. It is red warlordism transformed into an ideology, a guiding principle. Osama bin Laden is (or was) blue. (And this is why he appealed to people in Afghanistan, who were fed up with the chaos of warlord red.)

> The fifth stage, orange, is focused on prosperity. It is entrepreneurial, capitalistic and individualistic. If we accept the Spiral Dynamics model, the current conversation about corporations and globalization is really a conversation about the pros and cons of the orange level of consciousness as imposed economically and technologically upon the world.

> At the sixth level of the spiral, core values are communitarian, egalitarian, consensual and ecological. These are the values typically associated with sustainability. The color, not surprisingly, is green.

The story of human civilization can be seen as a journey up the spiral, moving from mere survival (Level 1) to magical tribalism (Level 2), from there to feudal warlordism (Level 3), on to empire (Level 4) and from there to global capitalism, which is where we are today. Or, more precisely, we are just beyond Level 5 and making our first fumbling efforts to transition from orange to green.

There are two second-tier levels:

> Seventh-level yellow is characterized by “big-picture views” and “integrative structures,” according to Beck and Cowan. Its organizing principle is systemic.

> Level 8 turquoise, or holistic, is characterized by an acute sensitivity to the interconnectedness of all life. It adds a dose of mystical awareness to the more cerebral systems orientation of the yellow seventh-level meme.

The main difference between the first and second tiers is that in the first tier, people believe the world would be a fine and dandy place if everyone on the planet shared their color. Blue like me, orange like me, green like me. At the second tier, people see this for what it is: a loser’s game. They understand that the colors of the spiral are immutable and that mass conversions to one particular color will never occur. Plus which, that sort of thing would be disastrous. People and cultures travel up the spiral; since there can be no leapfrogging, every level is indispensable. We need red and blue and orange to get to green. And green to get to yellow.

A discussion as brief as this invites misconceptions I can’t possibly address in this space. So let’s jump over any possible objections (you’re welcome to e-mail me) and examine what the framework implies vis-à-vis sustainability.

Implication #1: We may be positioning sustainability wrongly to corporations. The conventional wisdom is that you’ve got to deliver a persuasive business case, i.e., you’ve got to “speak orange” fluently. That’s understandable if you view corporations as disembodied profit machines—as pure orange. But the spiral suggests that may not be quite right. Corporations have a human face too, and so they reflect every color of the spiral, in the first tier especially. There are safety (purple) needs, especially in our post-9-11 era. Power (red) issues are present, as anyone who’s seen two ambitious executives vying for position can attest. There is an expectation, sometimes intense, to conform to the corporate culture, i.e., there is “blue” pressure to submit to a collective truth. Corporations also have enormous amounts of prosperity-focused “orange”: this is their formal raison d’être. And, increasingly, there is “green” energy inside corporations, in the form of pressure to adopt sustainable business practices.

This suggests that when people argue the case for sustainability to corporations, it might be advisable to adopt a more ecumenical approach than the “orange-only” tack that’s become the preferred strategy. When consultant Paul Gilding argues for linking safety and sustainability (see page 24), he can be seen as making the “purple” argument—appealing to the safety-focused level of the spiral. Why not work the “red” and “blue” levers as well, instead of proceeding as we currently do by fixating on the business case (orange) and throwing in a touch of moral argument (green) for good measure?

Implication #2: Sustainability is the next wave. Progress moves up the spiral; philosophers would say there is a teleology, a grand direction, at work here. The United States is somewhere between blue and orange, with one foot in imperial notions of patriotism and the other in economic globalization. In Europe the discourse is between orange and green; it is, in this sense, further up the spiral. But green and, beyond green, yellow and turquoise, await us eventually. These are the colors of sustainability.

Implication #3: But wait a moment. Is sustainability green, or is it yellow/ turquoise? There’s a big difference between the two. First-tier green wants everyone to be green, while second tier yellow and turquoise accept the immutability of the spiral. Right now, the sustainability community is mostly green (“Be like me!”) and that’s a problem. It’s not realistic. It invites opposition and contradiction. It’s not inclusive enough—and not strategic enough, either! There’s a lot about green that’s very good, but we need to transition into yellow.

In addition to embracing sustainability, greens spend a lot of time proclaiming their commitment to diversity. Ethnicity, religion, sexual preference—that sort of thing. But, they can also be mighty intolerant of orange and blue and red. Does anyone else sniff a huge contradiction here? We need to embrace spiral diversity along with the more familiar kinds. It would make our mental model more consistent, credible and persuasive. And more strategic, too.

Carl Frankel ( is a writer, journalist and consultant specializing in business and sustainable development.

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