"You live in the joy of giving the best of yourself as a servant of evolution." An Interview with Michel Saloff Coste

The Future Was Always Created by Small Groups of People

evolve: In looking at Europe, many might describe us in the midst of a “culture war.” I’m not speaking about the West and Islam, but about religious traditionalists, who tend to be pre-rational, and two types of secularists—the modernists and the postmodernists. The modernists tend to be rational, efficient bureaucrats and capitalists. The postmodernists are often highly individualistic, egalitatarian, pluralistic, and increasingly interested in personal spirituality. Do you see these divisions affecting Europe today?

Michel Saloff Coste: All over the world there are these big gaps between the traditionalists, modernists, and postmodernists. In Europe over the past five hundred years, we seen many clashes between different value systems. There has been a strong opposition between traditional Catholicism and the Protestant modernism, that eventually led to free speech and capitalism. We could even say that the two world wars in the last century were an expression of a conflict between values and belief systems, not only a conflict between nations.
And today we are in the midst of a struggle between traditional, modern postmodernist values. This conflicts are intensified through the new development of traditionalism as many modern people return to traditionalism and extreme right populism because of the economic struggle of the middle class and the loss of a meaningful frame-work and vision.

In the Nordic countries, we see the development of postmodern “cultural creatives,” as sociologist Paul Ray calls them. When you study values and belief systems and sociology, we can consider the Nordic countries to be the most advanced societies. But even there we see the rise of far right, neo-traditionalist movements, because even for modernists it is difficult to embrace these new postmodern values and belief systems.

Part of the development to modern values is also an existential crisis, in the philosophical tradition formulated, for example, by Jean-Paul Sartre. To become a modern human, one has to give up the security of religious traditions and step into the uncertainty of deciding for one’s self. Our European tradition is partly defined by the belief that we, as humans, can develop our morality from introspection. This step into individuality and your own creative power and path is the great gift of modernity. It’s a necessary step in our development. Modernity gives a freedom of individual creativity that is not possible in a traditional society—and postmodernity goes even farther with this creative freedom, opening up and questioning the conventions of society to enable choice in all aspects of life. However, for people who are economically not well integrated into society or people who are not well educated or do not have the courage to built their own belief-system, it can seem more stable to return to traditional values. For them modernity seems to have failed. And postmodern ideas are too complicated and complex.

e: Given these divisions within Europe, what impact does bringing in refugees have on those divisions?

MSC: The refugee situation is contributing to the regression that we see in Europe right now. But the refugees are not the problem. The problem is that Europe, as a whole, is no longer a dynamic society. The lack of dynamism directly affects whether the culture can evolve. The population is aging and the birth rate is low, because of a higher level of education, the rise of individualism and the pursuit of carrier. This creates a more stratified society, because so much of the efforts of young people go to supporting the pensions for the older generation. There is no room for newcomers and, even amongst the young people in these countries, there is a lot of unemployment. When well-educated French citizens cannot find work, it is even harder for immigrants who are not educated. Also, contrary to the first wave of immigration, which came mainly from Europe, this second wave is coming from without Europe, so the cultural gap is bigger. This makes it difficult to integrate people from other countries with other belief systems. Also, when a society is less dynamic, it is more difficult to convince immigrants of your values and belief systems.

So, the structural problem is the birth rate. As an expert in future studies, we see that birth rate is very influential. The next ten or twenty years will depend on how many young people you have, because they will determine the future. A country like Germany, in which there are so many old people, really has a problem. Even if you have very advanced people who propose new ideas, it will be difficult to convince an aging population of these new directions, because they are often more conservative and inclined to regress to the past.

Any aging society has a problem of evolution. That’s why we need strong policies to support woman in having a career, developing themselves and have children at the same time. We need at least a stable population, because the diminishing population is very dangerous also in economic terms, because it means a shrinking economy. That is also the reason why Asia is emerging so strongly right now, because there is a strong young generation of educated people. We can also see that the future also lies in Africa, because of the number of young people there, the same for India. But in all of these cases everything depends on the level of education that will be reached.

e: For this reason, some people say that immigration is important for Germany, so that more young people come into the country.

MSC: Statistically speaking yes, but it depends on what culture you wish. We need young people to develop the economy, but we need them also to value and promote one’s own culture. Germany or France, for instance, are very unique cultures, and you need people who speak for these cultures. If most of the young people come from other cultures, then, of course, the county can continue economically, but how can it promote and develop its own culture? It could become a very different country, which might be okay, but it is a question of choice. We might find that some parts of the culture disappear because there is no one to preserve it. That happens to a lot of cultures worldwide. So it needs also young people who are educated in the German cultural values. If this dynamic is strong, then people from other cultures can assimilate easier. You are growing your own society and they can join your success, like it happened with the Italians in France or the Turkish in Germany. It will be easy for these new people to join and contribute to this success. But if your own population is shrinking and has economic problems, then the integration of other cultures will be very difficult. If you want to evolve Europe, you need the dynamism created by a stable birth rate, a thriving economy, and a vision.

e: So, in addition to the birth rate and economy, we also need a more dynamic framework for the future of Europe?

MSC: Yes, we need to have a vision. The problem of Europe is this lack of vision. If you read the founding documents of Europe, it is based on a clear vision of unity and diversity. We can even call this vision systemic or integral, because it brings together these opposites in a new synthesis. It is a vision of unique countries in a higher union. This vision also has deep roots in European history of thought. When you travel the world, you can see that Europe has a quite sophisticated vision for itself and for the world. The ideas are good, but when you are not able to implement them, it is more difficult to convince others to follow you.

The number of people who are interested in systemic, integral ideas is growing, but is still a minority of well-educated people. The people who develop to an integral systemic perspective need to find room and networks to develop their ideas in the midst of these crises so as to propose a vision for others. The integral perspective celebrates the gift of all value systems, so you can value the religious connection of traditional values, the independence of modern values, and the plurality and relativism of postmodern values. On a global scale that includes also the indigenous or first cultures like aborigines, we can also celebrate the qualities of these cultures. Also an integral perspective can give room for all traditional cultures, which is often not the case for the traditional cultures themselves, because they often fight each other, as we see with Islam. In the integral perspective you can value each tradition for the unique perspective they bring.

That’s why a systemic integral perspective is so important, because its only way we can deal with systemic problems like global warming or the economy, where we need to move from a mechanistic point of view to a systemic economy. Our economy is still based on the ideas of Newton, which have been transcended by Einstein. The solutions will come from this systemic level of consciousness, even if only a minority of people can see the world in that way. As Margaret Meads has said, the future was always created by a small but dedicated group of people.

A shift to this integral systemic perspective will happen. If it will happen in Europe I do not know, because it could also be Asia that leads the way here. What I observe when I am in Asia is that the people there are not only able to work hard, but also work hard in terms of their thinking. In Asia there are many very educated and sophisticated people that are more naturally inclined to be integral, because their traditional culture like Confucianism or Taoism had already some systemic elements. The culture in Asia does not tend so much to opposition, so that’s why they could move more naturally to an integral approach. Also their language works not so much in opposition, but is complex and more relationship-oriented. Words get their meaning from the context in which they are used.

In a perfect world, humanity will evolve to a systemic, integral view. But as we know, people develop through different stages and also sometimes get stuck. What each of us can do is to clarify our own impulse to evolve as much as possible, for ourselves and for mankind. We need to give the best of ourselves.

e: In your work, do you see evidence that this perspective is developing?

MSC: Thirty years ago I wrote about an integral view and since then applied this view in management and society, as well as with Jaques Delore on a European level. I founded the Integral University in France as a new educational hub for these new ideas, which was quite successful. So the ideas did spread. The University of Lille asked me to launch a new institute that we call “The international institute for cultural studies on innovation ecosystems.” In that context I travel and try to meet the most advanced people in each country and research how these people can move the planet in a good direction. So, I meet people all over the globe who are living an integral perspective with a lot a love and care for the world. I can see how ideas that I wrote about thirty years ago are now being implemented. That gives me a lot of hope. There you see the evolutionary dynamic at work. These young people I meet feel like my children in a way, but they are the children of the infinite, children of evolution. What I felt as my ideas were just ideas of the future, coming through me. That future might be far ahead and sound illusory, but it is already manifesting in some people. They operate from the future and a different set of values. They do not seek recognition, they do not want to be known, they just act powerfully with so much love. They bring incredible joy to their work: it is a labor of love for them. That being said, the problems before us are huge and there is still a long way to go, to leverage this spirit and new ideas in a bigger scale.

e: But that love you are mentioning can give us the strength to move forward, to act, it is a connection with something much bigger than ourselves. We can meet in that and can flourish in that. There we find co-evolutionary joy.

MSC: Yes, in modernity the currency was money, but in this new level the currency, so to speak, is love and joy. You measure reward as the love and joy you share. That is so strong that the old ideas of security and wealth disappear. You live in the joy of giving the best of yourself as a servant of evolution.