‘A Momentous Leap’: Human Nature and Conscious Design

From ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health’, D.C. Wahl 2006

Daniel Christian Wahl
10 min readMay 22, 2017

It is true that anything I can see is not the real Seer — because everything I see is the Seer. As I go within to find my real self, I find only the world … the real self within is actually the real world without. The subject and the object, the inside and the outside are and always have been one. There is no primary boundary. The world is my body, and what I am looking out of is what I am looking at. The real self resides neither within nor without because subject and object are actually not-two. — Ken Wilber, 1979

The individual nexus of pathways which I call “me” is no longer so precious because that nexus is only part of a larger mind. — Gregory Bateson, in Macy, 1994

The boundaries of my ego-self, which distinguish me from others, would simply dissolve as ‘my mind’ was realized to be not something separate from the world but a ‘focal point’ of the world. It would be a loss of all dualist tension and effort, a relaxation of the whole being. Letting go of all those things previously clung to, one would become the everything that in fact one always was. — David Loy, 1998

In 1974, the American psychologist Clare Graves published a paper entitled ‘Human Nature Prepares for a Momentous Leap’ in which he argued that human society is facing a period of fundamental change, “the most difficult, but at the same time the most exciting transition the human race has faced to date.” Graves believed that humanity was at the beginning of “not merely a transition to a new level of existence, but the start of a new movement in the symphony of human history” (in Beck & Cowan, 1996, p.319).

According to Graves’ predictions, humanity had to collectively make a conscious choice between three distinct possibilities for the future of human society. The list below summarizes these three possible futures.

Clare Graves’ Prediction of three Possible Futures for Humanity

(Reproduced from Beck & Cowan, 1996, p.13)

  • A massive regression back to Stone Age beginnings if we fail to stabilize our world’s weapons and endangered resources.
  • A version of George Orwell’s 1984, embodied in forms of tyrannical, manipulative governments with glossed over communitarian overtones.
  • The emergence of a Second Tier approach to business and society which would be fundamentally different from the one we know today, equipped to act locally and plan globally while acting globally and planning locally at the same time.

After more than a quarter century of research into how humans live, act, engage in decision- making processes, and change as participants of complex systems, Graves provided a dynamic map of the developmental stages of human consciousness, value systems and worldviews. He described a number of behavioural systems, based on the biological, psychological and social way of relating to the wider world — the whole — that these “biopsychosocial systems” result in (Beck & Cowan, 1996, p.49).

Ken Wilber — a major contributor to transpersonal psychology and the founder of ‘integral psychology’ — recently emphasized that the Gravesian model has so far “been tested in more than fifty thousand people from around the world, and there have been no major exceptions found in the general scheme (Wilber, 2001, p.6). Clare Graves himself described his model of human psychological development that involves a progressive transformation of the worldview employed as follows:

Briefly what I am proposing is that the psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, spiralling process marked by progressive subordination of older, lower order behavioural systems to newer, higher-order systems as an individual’s existential problems change. Each successive stage, wave, or level of existence is a state through which people pass on their way to other stages of being. When the human is centralized in one state of existence, he or she has a psychology which is particular to that state. His or her feelings, motivations, ethics and values, biochemistry, degree of neurological activation, learning system, belief system, conception of mental health, ideas to what mental illness is and how it should be treated, conceptions of and preferences for management, education, economics, political theory and practice are all appropriate to that stage.

Professor Clare Graves (in Wilber, 2001, pp.5–6)

Graves was convinced that a dynamic map of worldviews and their associated value systems could be a useful tool for integrating insights and concerns voiced from within these different ways of seeing. If design is worldview dependent, then a more holistic approach to design and decision-making in general should be based on a constructive and co-operative dialogue that spans disciplines and value-systems.

Graves’ map may be able to provide a helpful framework for integration in such a dialogue process. In turn this may facilitate the creation of more appropriate and sustainable design solutions based on a holistic or integral (Wilber, 2001) perspective rather than the specialized and limited point of view of a particular value-system or academic discipline.

[This is an excerpt from my 2006 PhD Thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’. This research and 10 years of experience as an educator, consultant, activist, and expert in whole systems design and transformative innovation have led me to publish Designing Regenerative Cultures in May 2016.]

Human population growth and resource use reached ecological over-shoot in the 1970s. Currently, humanity is producing waste and consuming resources at a 30% faster rate than the total bio-productive capacity of the planet can absorb and replenish (Desai & Riddlestone, 2002, p.26). The most pressing design brief is how to fit a technologically advanced and culturally diverse human species into the limits set by the bio-productive capacity of the biosphere and its current solar income, while at the same time safe guarding human and planetary health.

Which of the three trajectories for the future of human society suggested by Clare Graves (see above) will come to pass depends on the appropriateness of our design choices in this momentous challenge of creating a sustainable and humane civilization.

At the nexus of values, attitudes, needs and action, designers have the potential to act as trans-disciplinary facilitators of a process of integration and synthesis that can guide sustainable decision making from a holistic perspective. Integrative, cross-disciplinary and scale-linking design thinking can ensure that our choices are conscious and well informed by a holistic perspective, rather than hastily forced by the most powerful stakeholders and based on the limited perspective of a specific, dominant discipline.

As Homo faber — human as maker — our material actions, mental constructs and value systems shape our world and guide our perception of it. Design, when broadly conceived, can help us to integrate the remarkable wealth of specialized knowledge and skill that rests within humanity.

All design is inspired by and an expression of the values, perceived needs, and basic assumptions about reality that are predominant in a particular culture, academic discipline or professional sub-culture. As such, design is fundamentally worldview dependent. It can either be informed by one or many points of view. Rittel suggested in 1972: “For every wicked problem there is always more than one possible explanation, with explanations depending on the Weltanschauung [worldview] of the designer” (in Buchanan, 1995, p.14).

This is precisely where the dynamic psychological map proposed by Clare Graves and developed as Spiral Dynamics by Don Beck and Christopher C. Cowan (1996) may provide a powerful tool of integration and facilitation of continuous dialogue and holistic design thinking.

The basic stages of the human development model developed by Clare Graves (Source); this image was not used in the orgiginal 2006 PhD thesis that this article is an excerpt of.

If our design decisions are fundamentally worldview and value-system dependent, a dynamic map of the emergence of progressively more inclusive worldviews in human society and consciousness could help us in understanding past design decisions as well as provide a way for taking future design decisions from amore holistic perspective.

Such a perspective would be more fitting to the complex dynamics of the wicked design problems of an interconnected and unpredictable complex world. A collective re-evaluation of human nature may help us to reframe the guiding intentionality behind all design.

This may lead to a more conscious approach to designing, from within a participatory understanding of reality and guided by world-centric ethics. An integral perspective can access a whole range of value systems and discern adaptive and evolutionary priorities, as well as which needs are best met materially and which immaterially.

The only way we now know of preventing contamination of our perception of nature, of society, or of ourselves by human values is to be very conscious of these values at all times, to understand their influence on perception, and with the aid of such an understanding to make the necessary corrections. (By contamination I mean the confusion of psychic determinants with reality determinants, when it is the latter we seek to perceive). — Maslow, 1987, p.183

Abraham Maslow suggested that in order to meet true human needs effectively we have to be aware of the role our operative value systems play in influencing or creating our intentions, goals, and perceived needs. Through personal growth and healthy human development, we access more and more inclusive worldviews and value systems. In the supportive environment of a healthy society this process of self-actualisation occurs naturally.

Maslow defined a “good society” as one “that gives its members the greatest possibility of becoming sound and self-actualising human beings,” and argued that therefore “good society is synonymous with psychologically healthy society, while bad society is synonymous with psychologically sick society, which in turn means basic need gratifying and basic need thwarting respectively (i.e. not enough love, affection, protection, respect, trust, and truth and too much hostility, humiliation, fear, contempt, and domination)” (Maslow, 1987, p.105).

Robert Frager (1987) reports how in Maslow’s work, “human functioning is different for people who operate in a state of positive health rather than a state of deficiency.” Maslow’s “Being-psychology” suggests self-actualising people are motivated by “Being Values,” and describes these as “values that are naturally developed by healthy human beings and are not

imposed by religion or culture.” The values appreciated by self-actualizers include: “truth, creativity, beauty, goodness, wholeness, aliveness, uniqueness, justice, simplicity, and self- sufficiency” (in Maslow, 1987, p.xxxv). The list below summarizes some of Maslow’s basic conclusions about self-actualising human nature.

Abraham Maslow’s Notion of Self-actualising Human Nature and the Synergistic Society

(Reproduced and adapted from Maslow, 1987, p.xxxv)

  1. Human beings have an innate tendency to move toward higher levels of health, creativity, and self-fulfillment.
  2. Neurosis may be regarded as a blockage of the tendency towards self-actualisation.
  3. The evolution of a synergistic society is a natural and essential process. This is a society in which all individuals may reach a high level of self-development, without restricting each others’ freedom.
  4. Business efficiency and personal growth are not incompatible. In fact the process of self-actualisation leads each individual to highest levels of efficiency.

According to Maslow, for effective self-actualisation to be able to take place, basic human needs have to be met. Once they are met, higher needs emerge. Maslow believed that “higher needs and lower needs have different properties, but they are the same in that both higher needs as well as lower needs must be included in the repertory of basic and given human nature.” He emphasized: “They are not different or opposed to human nature; they are part if human nature” (Maslow, 1987, p.56).

Our perceived needs and the value systems we spontaneously employ can change significantly dependent on our immediate situation. More conscious decision-making and responsible design results from first becoming clear about our fundamental intentions before we act in response to that situation. We can choose to adjust our worldview and corresponding value system, thereby transforming the situation and the perceived needs.

Maslow believed that “man has a higher nature and that this is part of his essence — or more simply, that human beings can be wonderful out of their own human and biological nature” (in Maslow, 1987, p.246). Maslow suggested that education could play an important role in supporting people’s effective self-actualisation of their higher human nature. “For Maslow, learning was in some way relevant to all human needs. Learning involves not merely the acquisition of data and facts, but the holistic reintegration of the individual, continually producing changes in self-image, feeling, behaviour, and relationship to the environment. He viewed education as occurring during the entire span of life” (Ruth Cox in Maslow, 1987, p.252).

Education can help people to question and transcend the dominant value system of their society. It can help them to self-actualise and meet their basic and higher needs in new ways, contributing to the emergence of what Maslow called a synergistic and healthy society (Maslow, 1987). The self-actualisation of our higher human nature is an important part of the transition towards a sustainable civilization and a necessary step towards a more conscious and health promoting approach to design.

Scope not permitting, I will have to refrain from a detailed discussion of Maslow’s work on the basic hierarchy of human needs within the context of a more conscious and self-actualising approach to design for sustainability. […] Max-Neef suggests:

In summary, perhaps we may say that fundamental human needs are essential attributes related to human evolution; satisfiers are forms of Being, Having, Doing and Interacting related to structures, and economic goods are objects related to particular historical moments. … The speed of production and the diversification of objects have become ends in themselves and as such are no longer able to satisfy any need whatsoever. People have grown more dependent on this system of production but, at the same time, more alienated from it.

It is only in some of the regions marginalized by the crisis, and in those groups which defy the prevailing styles of development, that autonomous processes are generated in which satisfiers and economic goods become subordinate once again to the actualisation of human needs. It is in these sectors that we can find examples of synergic types of behaviour which offer a potential response to the crisis that looms over us. — Manfred Max-Neef, 1991, p.28

[This is an excerpt from my 2006 PhD Thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’. This research and 10 years of experience as an educator, consultant, activist, and expert in whole systems design and transformative innovation have led me to publish Designing Regenerative Cultures in May 2016.]



Daniel Christian Wahl

Catalysing transformative innovation, cultural co-creation, whole systems design, and bioregional regeneration. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures