In these overwrought, often bewildering
times, its natural to yearn for a framework that helps us
understand whats going on. Not that people dont already
rely on these reality tunnelstheyre 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 dont explain the whole. They produce
a whole lot of pummeling and not much progress. Theyre not
even particularly credible: theyre too biased and simplistic.
What is needed is a more comprehensive, higher-level frameworka
meta-framework, as its calledthat is reasonably
plausible and helps us understand the big picture. Fortunately we
have oneor at least I believe we do. Its 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 Ill 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 developednames
like Lawrence Kohlberg, Abraham Maslow and Ken Wilber may ring bellsbut
Spiral Dynamics is especially robust, accessible and useful for
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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
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 losers 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 cant
possibly address in this space. So lets jump over any possible
objections (youre 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 youve got
to deliver a persuasive business case, i.e., youve got to
speak orange fluently. Thats understandable if
you view corporations as disembodied profit machinesas 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
whos 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 dêtre. And, increasingly, there is green
energy inside corporations, in the form of pressure to adopt sustainable
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 thats 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 argumentappealing 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? Theres 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 thats a problem. Its not realistic.
It invites opposition and contradiction. Its not inclusive
enoughand not strategic enough, either! Theres a lot
about green thats very good, but we need to transition into
In addition to embracing sustainability, greens spend a lot of time
proclaiming their commitment to diversity. Ethnicity, religion,
sexual preferencethat 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is a writer, journalist and consultant specializing in business and