The Evolution of Consciousness


We know that climate change is real and is already happening. For the countless species that have become extinguished, and the victims of floods, droughts and forest fires, the disaster is now.

The climate crisis is driving home to us that we can’t control Nature even though the geo-engineers may imagine we can. In ancient Greece, this kind of flagrant challenge to the Gods was called “hubris”, but in the current epoch, with the worship of technology and scientists as our high priests, we are taking hubris to a new level.

Have we always been so foolish and so selfish? Certainly during the era known as civilisation, beginning with Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece, we have persistently poisoned and vandalise our planet with mining and deforestation, conquest, warfare and slavery. This model of human society has continued unabated for centuries, and with the wisdom of hindsight, it is this dissociated and selfish behaviour that edges us closer and closer to the brink of destruction.

According to some, this is the “wake up call” – the moment when we can turn this whole thing around, and begin steering towards a just and fair world, where we live within our means, and respect each other and our environment. To achieve this turn-around we must fully reject our current socio-economic model. Water, farming, forests and oceans will be returned to local and common stewardship to create long term locally managed food security for all, predatory extractivism and militarism will be delegitimised, and resources currently locked up in private fortunes will be released to eradicate poverty.

Although there are many millions of people on the Earth who are dedicated to this mission, and even prepared to lay down their lives for it, the ironic truth is that we are still hurtling in the opposite direction. Or put another way – Humanity seems unable to adjust it’s settings, even though we are on a collision course, and will likely destroy the very thing that we feel we must preserve at all costs – our precious civilisation.

The Birth of Consciousness

There is a story that is often told by psychologists and anthropologists and it goes like this:

Once in the dim and distant past, our impulses and drives were animal and uncomplicated. Like a herd of cattle or a school of fish, we had extra-sensory awareness, and we were all attuned to the collective purpose. We had evolved to function best in groups, like our evolutionary neighbours, the apes and canines.

In this dawn of consciousness, personal desires served collective purposes, conflict was only briefly expressed and quickly resolved, and individualism was a thing of the future. We did not suffer from doubts and uncertainties – that was to come later, in the journey towards individual consciousness. This era in our distant past is now remembered as an age of innocence, as depicted in the story of the fall from grace, and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and countless other mythologies that preserve this fractured and nostalgic remnant.

The development of individual consciousness differentiated humanity from the rest of the biological community, and much has been written about the price paid to achieve it. One version that is particularly insightful goes like this: In order to be individually conscious, our psychological link with the source was severed, and this has resulted in the delusion of separation. This casting adrift has manifested in a myriad of ways, including the search for meaning. The search for meaning is apparently not a high priority elsewhere in the biological community, and yet amongst humans, there is a cacophony of despair and it drives much that we value in the realm of art and religion.

As our individuality developed in strength, so did our vulnerability. We learned to protect ourselves from predation and hostility with a kind of psychological shield, an outer skin, demarking a clear and impenetrable boundary. This split-off between the inner and the outer world was a double-edged sword. Inside the private residence of the self, we felt insulated from others and from the cosmos, but we increasingly suffered with the symptoms of separation, which was the germ of all that was to follow in the form of disease.

Spiritual teachers throughout the ages have advised that this self-protection can be cast off, allowing the individual to reconnect again with the source of all life, and that the feeling of separation is but an illusion.

Collective Consciousness

In our culture one per cent apparently owns ninety per cent of the wealth and rules and norms have been established to protect these interests, even when doing so causes destruction to the majority. We don’t need to go far to find examples – farmland in Africa is used to grow coffee and biofuels, whilst local populations starve; oil companies poison water sources to produce a fuel that we know is choking the planet; yet these actions are protected and incentivised.

Because this value system dominates most people accept it, as to go against it would be deeply unsettling. Commonly held cultural beliefs provides security, whether they are for the good of all or not. At different times all the following have been accepted norms: human slavery, witch burning, child brides, genital mutilation, Sati (widow burning), ethnic cleansing, apartheid. Practices and thought systems that remain unchallenged for centuries can finally be upturned in a wave of collective realignment. The problem is that when change does happen, it is not necessarily for the better: the rise of National Socialism in central Europe was a populist movement.

The power of the group mind seems to easily overwhelm resistance and common sense. Witness the success of cigarette advertising in the 1950’s and 60’s. This inability to resist the mind set of the group shows us that our personal identity is still relatively frail when faced with the weight of the collective.

Humanity has emerged from the instinct realm of our animal origin. In evolutionary terms, we are like screaming babies, aware of our needs, and the desire to fulfil them, but still utterly dependant on our mother. When the tide of collective consciousness rises, we are sucked back into the current of the group mind, and for a period, we feel the increased security of belonging and “community.”

As I said earlier, this is a story told by psychologists and anthropologists. It may be over-simplistic. We may have progressed beyond infancy. Perhaps we are now at the toddler stage, or later. Or perhaps there are many stages represented within our human family. We know that evolution is not linear, and a new thread may appear, and disappear, countless times before it can take hold.

The challenge of this era is that we must now act collectively whilst remaining individually conscious. It is time to have our cake and eat it!