The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World

A book review by Olivier Danes and Luc Guillory

A radically new culture is emerging in the US, one which favors a sustainable and responsible life-style. (1037 words) May 2004

A radically different culture is emerging in the US, according to a 12-year study of 100,000 Americans. The project, conducted by university professors Paul H. Ray, a sociologist and anthropologist, and Sherry R. Anderson, a psychologist, is described in their book The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World.

It seems that a completely different kind of person is emerging from the prevailing mainstream materialistic Western society - a person with values and priorities which are in themselves a rejection of the generally accepted norms. These are people who see themselves as citizens of the world and, as such, are more able to empathize with others. They are altruistic, idealistic but practical, concerned about the environment, and willing to take action for the causes they believe in and for the less fortunate members of society. Cultural creativesbase their cultureon spiritual development and economic and ecological harmony.

One useful way to see the idea of cultureis as a large repertoire of solutions for the problems and passions that people see as important in each time period. So these are the people who are creating many of the surprising new cultural solutions required for the time ahead,say Ray and Anderson.

Until very recently it was customary to describe American society in terms of two contrasting groups - the modernistsand the traditionalists. The modernists make up 49 per cent of the American population. This group includes people who believe in and literally as well as metaphysically buy intoa materialistic and suburban way of life. This lifestyle is taken to be the general norm, the official ideology, the way things are; it is what we see on our television screens. It is, in effect, the American dreamand is seldom called into question. Money, success, appearances, and technological progress are considered to be the most important elements of a good life.

Traditionalists, on the other hand, only represent 25 per cent of the population now, whereas at the time of the Second World War they represented 50 per cent. Traditionalists do not define themselves in terms of political orientation but according to their beliefs which are based on patriarchy; and their identity revolves around the importance of the family, the church and the community. At a psychological level, traditionalists seem to protect themselves from worldly influences that do not value what they have to offer. Their adherents live in the memory of a rural and religious American society which is a nostalgic and a rather vague image of a period between the 1890s and 1930s.

Shaping the future

Cultural creatives, as a new and developing phenomenon, began to emerge in the 1960s, representing around 5 per cent of the US population. Today, according to Rays and Andersons survey, this group represents 26 per cent of the adults in the US - 50 million people. They distance themselves from traditional and accepted beliefs, and have made a comprehensive shift in their worldview, values, and way of life - their culture, in short. These creative, optimistic millions are at the leading edge of several kinds of cultural change, deeply affecting not only their own lives but society as a whole. We call them the cultural creatives because, innovation by innovation, they are shaping a new kind of American culture for the 21st century,say the authors. Visionaries and futurists have been predicting a change of this magnitude for well over two decades. Our research suggests that this long anticipated cultural moment may have arrived.

The sheer size of the Cultural Creative population is already affecting the way Americans do business and politics. They are the drivers of the demand that we go beyond environmental regulation to real ecological sustainability, to change our entire way of life accordingly.

The testimonies of tens of thousands of people interviewed by Ray and Anderson indicate that the process of alienation from the mainstream and gradual development of a new set of priorities seems to follow a similar pattern.

For most of us, to change our vision of the world is a once-in-a-lifetime possibility. Distancing oneself from the blind trance generated by the old culture can start in childhood when detecting a lie told by adults who seem to believe in it. Even if it is difficult to detach oneself from the dominant social mores, there comes a time when the presence of such an untruth becomes unbearable to cultural creatives. At that point many report a process of withdrawal from the prevailing culture accompanied by the fear of being rejected or ignored by society. The next stage is to start a new mode of life. The third stage involves dealing with criticism, which is often coupled with resentment, silence or denial. The fourth stage consists of putting into practice their new values. The book gives numerous examples and testimonies of people who experienced these different phases individually, enabling readers to recognize themselves, to identify what stage they have reached and to recognize their potential and the challenges awaiting them.

With regard to the USA, the authors suggest that we are in the middle of a transitional phase.... When millions of people make such choices, in the space of a few decades only, this leads to a change in the collective identity of the people.However, the authors note: We have arrived at a crucial point where things could change extremely quickly, when a community is ready to take changes into its hands.

The new way of thinking relates to a more responsible life-style and a long-term approach to problems. We are on the verge of an unknown world that lies beyond our experience and we are going to have to cast aside our habitual reference points in order to build a new culture. - It's only a matter of having moral imagination and an inner heart-felt wisdom.Ray and Anderson believe that such a gigantic transition only happens once every 500 to 5,000 years.

P. H. Ray and S. R. Anderson, The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World. Three Rivers Press, USA, 2001. ISBN 0609808451

Olivier Danes and Luc Guillory are Share International co-workers based in France

Informant: Martin Greenhut


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