All Revolutions Begin Like a Caterpillar..

03/18/2015 10:10

by Chris Campbell


To understand why you are destined for changemaking, let's pan the camera to Arnold J. Toynbee, an English historian born in 1889.

Toynbee, as his magnum opus, penned a massive a 12-volume work called A Study of History. It's widely considered one of the greatest scholar achievements of our day. It contains over three million words printed on over 7,000 pages. The indices alone cover 412 pages. Finished in 1961, Toynbee meticulously archived the rise and fall of twenty-three civilizations, including the United States. (Assuming that the collapse of the United States was a done deal, Toynbee fit it in as the twenty-third.) Toynbee was a man of religion. So rather than focus on economic factors, he put most of the weight of a civilization's health on the morality and value systems of its people.

Of the twenty-two civilizations that have appeared in history, Toynbee writes, nineteen of them collapsed when they reached the moral state the United States is in now.  This could be true. What Toynbee said next is what’s important to our new life narratives:

To really test the future of a society, he said, you must test the gumption of its individuals.

The fate of a civilization, Toynbee posited, comes down to how its individuals respond to challenges.  The rise and fall of a civilization, from birth to death, hinges upon a process Toynbee called “challenge-and-response.”

First, you have a group of individuals, large or small. The natural environment creates a series of challenges to this group. These individuals rise to the challenges and, eventually, if they are repeatedly successful enough, a civilization is born.

The lifeblood of any civilization, says Toynbee, is a successive interplay of challenge and response. The more successful responses, the more powerful and prosperous the civilization.

A civilization begins to decay, he goes on, when two things happen: it turns against itself and becomes self-destructive and the cultural elite becomes parasitic.  (Hmmm….)

When this happens, a civilization loses its momentum and its vitality, and most crucially, its flexibility.


Said civilization can no longer adapt to the changing conditions efficiently enough to keep up.

The patterns of its society become rigid. The social fabric begins to wear, its integrity is compromised. It begins to break down in the face of constant change and accelerating strain.  Where growing civilizations show variety and versatility, those in disintegration show uniformity and lack of creativity. This, inevitably, leads to social discord and complete disruption of social harmony. 

Toynbee’s entire tome, therefore, can be summed up in seven words:  “Civilizations die from suicide, not from murder.”

But before you jump to conclusions, let me tell you this: Arnold Toynbee wasn’t all doom and gloom.  You see, Toynbee believed that civilizations didn’t have to fall completely once they began the dreaded slide down into the abyss. It was never too late to climb back up.

Toynbee, you see, was a rabid individualist.

“I do not believe that civilizations have to die,” he wrote, “because civilization is not an organism. It is a product of wills.”  When a civilization is on a downtrend, it simply means that the status quo is no longer functioning as it once was. It’s no longer solving the new challenges of the day. It no longer serves the people. But when faced with this disintegration of the status quo, something else normally emerges: a small class of what Toynbee calls “creative minorities.”

“Almost always,” the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been quoted saying, “the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.

These creative minorities step in to solve the problems presented by this disintegration. They normally operate from the fringes of society.

They are the Buckminster Fullers of the world: “We are called to be architects of the future,” Bucky once said, “not its victims.”  They reject the status quo. And always gravitate to things that push beyond the rigid confines of its cold stone walls.

These “creative minorities” are the imaginal cells of humanity. Creating life anew out of the dredge and goop of the old.

This includes ALL of history’s greatest problem solvers of the past… and the potential problem solvers of the future. You are, like it or not, an inseparable part of this group.

Since you’re reading this, you probably have more potential to rise through the ranks of the creative minority than any other.  The only difference between you and the creative minorities of the past is you have more power at your fingertips, should you choose to use it, to effect change on the world.


How so? Well, aside from your obvious newfound technological prowess, get this…

The very act of reading this missive means you’re participating in the “fringe” of society. And the “fringe” in any ecosystem performs, by its very nature, what’s called the “Edge Effect.” When any ecosystem begins to collapse, it’s the fringes of the ecosystem that thrives.

The same can be said for social constructs. When the status quo begins its devolution, those on the edges begin to prosper.

Hunter S. Thompson put it best: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

Point blank: Growth and evolution of any civilization depends wholly upon the “weirdos” of the creative minority.

According to the esteemed psychologist Abraham Maslow, these people are the lamp posts of humanity. They represent the cutting edge of an ever-evolving human consciousness.

Civilizations die only when the masses stop listening to these creative shapeshifters and succumb to what Toynbee referred to as a “dominant minority.”

When the majority are forced to obey this dominant minority (see: fascism), the creative minorities lose their voices and their power to effect change. And then they deteriorate into shells of themselves. Like those freaky things locusts leave behind on trees. But there’s always hope.

“Though the cultural mainstream has become ossified by clinging to fixed ideas and rigid patterns of behavior,” journalist and photographer Scott London writes, “creative minorities will appear on the scene and carry on the process of challenge-and-response.

“The dominant social institutions will refuse to hand over their leading roles to these new cultural forces, but they will inevitably go on to decline and disintegrate, and the creative minorities may be able to transform some of the old elements into a new configuration.”

(Examples: Obamacare and all the solutions arising to subvert the bloated mess. Systemic problems within the monetary system and bitcoin. The NSA and email encryption services.)

“The process of cultural evolution will then continue, but under new circumstances and with new protagonists.”

And that’s where we’re headed. To a new paradigm.

Thomas Kuhn introduced the concept of a paradigm in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions -- it’s been called the most important book of the twentieth century. A paradigm, in short, has its own set of rules. As long as it confirms what we know to be true, and solves most of our problems, it remains dominant.

But inevitably, new things come in that contradict that paradigm. Suddenly, the paradigm doesn’t fit so neatly in reality anymore.  At first, the inconsistencies are called anomalies. But then these so-called anomalies begin to become common occurrences. And they pile up. Then they’re no longer anomalies. They become questions. Holes. Doubts. Disputes. And uncertainty.  And then, finally, an entire way of thinking is thrown into disorder. And a new paradigm is introduced, a (hopefully) higher order of thought. (Think Copernicus and the heliocentric model. Or the shift from Aristotelian mechanics to classical mechanics and then to quantum mechanics. Newtonian physics to Einstein’s relativism, etc.)

“Interesting parallels can also be drawn between imaginal discs [of the Caterpillar] and the "creative minorities" in Toynbee's theory of the rise and fall of civilizations,” London goes on. “As Toynbee showed, the seeds of the new civilization are contained within the old one just like the blueprint of the butterfly is contained in the cells of the caterpillar.

I can’t tell you exactly what this paradigm shift will look like. But I can tell you that over the next few decades, the world will look much different than it does today. And it will be unprecedented.  This time, you see, the shift isn’t about the rise and fall of the power of specific civilizations. This time, it’s about the rise and fall of power itself.

“Power is undergoing a far more fundamental mutation that has not been sufficiently recognized and understood,” Moises Naim writes in his book The End of Power.

“Even as rival states, companies, political parties, social movements, and institutions or individual leaders fight for power as they have done throughout the ages, power itself -- what they are fighting so desperately to get and keep -- is slipping away.  “Power is decaying.”  This is bad for the governments and blue chips. But it’s great for you -- the individual, should you heed the opportunity.

“Power is spreading, and long-established, big players are increasingly being challenged by newer and smaller ones. “ We know that power is shifting from brawn to brains, from north to south and west to east, from old corporate behemoths to agile startups, from entrenched dictators to people in town squares and cyberspace.

“Understanding how power is losing its value -- and facing up to the hard challenges this poses -- is key to making sense of one of the most important trends reshaping the world in the twenty-first century.”


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