This continues from the previous post, where I discussed chapter 3 of Integral Ecology. Together these posts make up my summary overviews for Week 3 of the reading group. What follows is less a summary than a response to chapter 4, but I think it covers most of the key concepts in the chapter.


Chapter 4: Developing Interiors

Chapter 4 moves to the “interior” left-hand side of the four-quadrant AQAL model. Here things get more challenging, as the account of tetra-arising development comes to seem even more complex than it has so far.

As mentioned in the Preamble above, E/Z are involved in a very ambitious undertaking, and  it shouldn’t surprise us if there are oversimplifications in the process. Wilber justifies these by claiming he is taking broad “orienting generalizations” from different fields. The risk, however, is that trying to fit too many things onto a single map, we lose distinctions that are important features of the territory. So even though Wilber and E/Z can criticize others for being “monological” — by which they mean that these others only recognize one of the “big three” dimensions (first-person, second-person, and third-person) — they themselves can be monological insofar as their map flattens certain differences and distinctions.

An example of this is E/Z’s account in Chapter 4 of the “three stages of moral development: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional,” which they claim follow a “fixed” sequence of “egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric to planetcentric.” Here, it seems, we have one oversimplification grafted onto a second oversimplification, resulting in a model that squares poorly with historical and cross-cultural evidence.

For instance, the kinds of traditional cultural beliefs and practices associated with what anthropologists call “totemism” and “animism” have often included stronger forms of identification between members of certain subsets (moieties, clans, kinship groups, etc.) of the given society and certain animals or deities (at least one-way identification by/from those humans) than they did between different subsets of the human society (not to mention other human societies). These were arguably not “ethnocentric” so much as they were variations on a “worldcentrism” in which “ego” was probably relatively weak (by modern standards), “ethnos” was complex in its classifications, and “cosmos” took the place of “planet” (since the notion of a planet was not available to them).

E/Z suggest that “planetcentrism” is a moral advance over the others, but the fact that earlier societies did not have our conception of a blue-green planet floating in the heavens does not mean that they did not have some conception of the cosmos morally unifying all things, from the underworld to the earth to the heavenly firmament (for instance). Our emergent planetcentrism is, to my mind, not a moral advance so much as it’s an altered image of the cosmos resulting from a purely technical advance.

Egocentrism, on the other hand, is arguably more prevalent in modern, liberal, humanist, individualist cultures than it ever was in traditional and tribal societies. E/Z’s model suggests that any shift from ethnocentrism (identification with collectively defined values) to egocentrism would be a regressive slide backward (and only that).

But let’s think about this. Max Stirner’s anarchism and the rational-egoism embedded within neoclassical economics are both value systems that provilege egocentrism. They do this in the service of a higher goal — political liberty or economic rationality — so we might call them worldcentric rather than egocentric, but they do not necessarily (if at all) build on (“transcend and include”) collective (tribal, ethnic, national, etc.) values. Are they, then, to be taken to task for dissociating from the previous (ethnocentric) level as they transcend? And either way, which of the many forms of ethnocentrism, or collective identity — localcentrism, tribe-centrism, nation-centrism, religiocentrism, ideological class-centrism, and so on — are the ones that ought to be integrated, and which is it alright to reject altogether as one climbs the ladder from ethnocentrism to worldcentrism?

The point is that there is no such straightforward sequence (ego-ethnos-world-planet) written into nature, because “ego,” “ethnos,” “world,” and “planet” are constructs that are relative to particular kinds of societies, or more precisely to socio-material-technological networks or collectives. Generally, I would suggest, “ego” (selfhood) always co-emerges alongside some form of collectivity, and collectivities take various forms depending on the type of society, its relationship with the nonhuman world, and its conception of the cosmos.

In their discussion of “developmental lines,” E/Z write that “at level 4 […], the self’s center of gravity is at the mythic level, which corresponds to the mythic order of culture and is consistent with premodern countries [?], and which requires corresponding brain structure.” I don’t know if “countries” is a typo or not, but if it isn’t, it’s not clear what they mean. If by “countries” they mean nation-states, how can these be called “premodern” at all, if the nation-state system only arose as a result of modernizing processes (print literacy, bourgeois and imperial-colonial developments, etc.)?

As for there being a “mythic level,” here E/Z are following a particular account of history that is not shared by the vast majority of historians or scholars of culture, myth, religion, or philosophy. At the very least, the term “myth” requires much more careful definition than they (or Wilber, to my knowledge) give it.

The same kinds of questions can be raised in their account of individual development, where idiosyncratic and/or esoteric spiritual ideas (vision-logic, illumined mind, intuitive mind, overmind, supermind) are grafted onto Piagetian theoretical concepts (preoperational, concrete operational, formal operational) and all mapped onto a ladder made up of the colors of the rainbow:

  1. Infrared – Instinctual/Symbiotic
  2. Magenta – Magical/Impulsive
  3. Red – Egocentric/Self-Protective
  4. Amber – Mythic/Conformist
  5. Orange – Achiever/Conscientious
  6. Green – Sensitive Self/Individualistic
  7. Teal – Holistic Self/Autonous
  8. Turquoise – Integral Self/Integrated
  9. Indigo – Ego-aware
  10. Violet – Unitive

This is an ambitious grafting, and one that’s worth examining closely and working through. But I can’t help wondering if the appearance of complexity isn’t substituting here for actual complexity. The authors write:

“It is inaccurate to describe anyone as wholly ‘red’ or ‘green.’ Development is differential in nature. People may be red in one line, orange in another, and green in still another. A man may occasionally act from the red, emotional center of gravity when a car cuts him off; from an amber, interpersonal center of gravity when he attends church; from an orange, cognitive center when he is competing for a professional promotion; and from green values when he supports a Sierra Club initiative to curb factory pollution. Typically individuals operate from both the level above and below their center of gravity 25% o the time in any one line.” (p. 126)

I would prefer to say that it’s simply more typical that individuals act to some extent in conformity with those around them (or with a chosen subset of those around them) and to some extent out of a calculation of what kind of behavior is better behavior – defined according to their own standards, which may be “more appropriate,” “more honorable,” “more in accordance with my being able to attain my own goals,” “more just,” and so on.  There are great differences between each of these (justice, honor, pursuit of goals, etc.), but it seems to me that placing them on a hierarchical ladder, no matter how much jumping around is allowed on that ladder, oversimplifies the complexity of relations, motivations, meanings, and values that make up our lives.

Or perhaps that’s just the humanities scholar in me responding that way. Social scientists like to operationalize concepts and quantify complex phenomena, and I won’t deny there can be much use in doing that. I just don’t know if any such quantification — especially one that, for all its hedges and qualifications, remains linear — will be able to render such important topics as individual moral and spiritual “development” with the nuance and care they deserve. E/Z tend to address the complexities and critiques of such models (e.g., Piagetian developmental theory) in their footnotes rather than in the main text, which is fine; but it makes reading the text challenging for those who don’t agree with the details they outline.

Similarly with statements like the following:

“Amber and orange compose about 70% of the adult population in the U.S.A., whereas 25% of the population operates from green pluralism or multiculturalism” and 2% or 3% “operate at the holistic center of gravity, and much smaller percentages at integral and beyond.” (p. 128)

Or this one:

“Only later in life did Marx entertain the possibilities that the members of an entire society could somehow jump from amber agrarian to green socialist without the intermediary orange capitalist-industrial-bourgeois developmental center of gravity. […] The Soviet Union was a social, political, economic, cultural, and environmental catastrophe. We hope that this serves as a lesson: members of a society cannot skip developmental stages. Nor is it wise for a society to eradicate, imprison, or murder its individuals who have stabilized the more advanced levels of development.” (pp. 128-9, emphasis added)

That the Soviet Union was a catastrophe is a point worth arguing, even if there are strong arguments that it wasn’t entirely a catastrophe. And the eradication of whole classes (not merely individuals) — as in the decimation of the entire cultural intelligentsia of Ukraine in the 1930s — is one of the most heinous crimes ascribable to the Soviet Union, though one should be more careful and specific about who was to blame (Stalin and the system he erected in the late 1920s and 1930s).

But boiling down the “lesson” from this to “skipping developmental stages” seems to trivialize the matter more than it enlightens it. The authors here are mixing economic development, political development, social development, psychological development, and moral development (and perhaps spiritual development) in ways that seem to me illegitimate.


“Gifford Pinchot, founder of the U.S. Forest Service, promulgated an orange-based management approach [. . .]  With [John] Muir, however, orange individualism begins to move toward green pluralism.” (p. 134)

There’s some truth to this, but couldn’t there be just as strong an argument that Muir was an individualist, seeking a heightened experience of nature (and self), while Pinchot was a holist and integralist (of a sort), seeking to balance out multiple interests for the greater benefit of all? That Pinchot’s “all” did not include the interests of trees or animals does not indicate any particular selfishness on his part.

All of my complaints here would be rendered moot if the qualifier that these are “waves” — overlapping, often simultaneously present, and dynamically/dialectically related “Kosmic habits” — and not pregiven “levels” or “stages,” were taken seriously and applied more consistently. Often enough E/Z do take it seriously, so this is a tension internal to their writing, but not necessarily one that readers and users of the AQAL framework need to take on board with them.

Another example is that of infant development: is there really a clear shift from the “symbiotic self” (who “focuses entirely on surviving in an incomprehensible world” and whose “main task” is “to construct a stable world of objects so as to separate [?] from their surroundings”) to the “impulsive self” (superstitious, magical, etc.) to the egocentric or “self-protective” to the “mythic/conformist” to the “achiever/conscientious,” and so on? I would argue, consistently I believe with a lot of contemporary developmental psychology, that sociality, including the play and joy of mutual recognition (as any mother hopefully knows), begins very early. Conformism and differentiation unfold in a dialectic. And all the more so with social and political development.

Again, the authors sometimes acknowledge this kind of complexity, as, for instance, when  they state that “Sociocultural development is not, however, analogous to the development of an organism” (p. 141). Thinking through such a complex set of interrelationships with the nuance they deserve isn’t easy, however.


Concluding thoughts

So, to hazard a conclusion here — a temporary resting-spot rumination after the first four chapters (making up Part 1) of the book — I would say the following.

The general ideas Wilber, Esbjorn-Hargens and Zimmerman propose hold great promise. Whether they are correct or not is certainly worth arguing over.

The AQAL model is, in any case, a most ambitious proposal with the potential to reconcile a great many contending theories about life, humanity, ecology, and the cosmos. I’m very impressed with its incorporation of such diverse strands of theory and research: developmental, cognitive, systems-theoretical, processual, semiotic (and biosemiotic), hermeneutic (including Heideggerian), poststructuralist (including Foucauldian), and so on. I’m also convinced by some of the critiques integral theory poses to certain traditions of thought (e.g., its critique of relativism, or of some eco-theorists’ misanthropic leanings).

But operationalizing the ideas is a complicated task that I think is still in its infancy. As a result, some of the book’s arguments fall flat in their details (at least for me). They require  more work, probably by a larger interdisciplinary contingent of thinkers and researchers.

But that work wouldn’t be done if someone hadn’t taken the first step in articulating this model for ecological thought, and I greatly admire the authors for doing that. I’m quite willing to think along with them. And with the promise of getting into the nitty-gritty of environmental matters — which both authors are well versed in — I’m keen to pursue where they go with it in the remainder of the book. I’m even suspecting that it’s these two chapters (3 and 4) that may end up being the least convincing (for me, in any case).

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