Welcome to the 2nd Axial Age
Toward the next evolution in human consciousness
German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the term “Axial Age” in 1949 to describe the astonishing concurrent emergence of major systems of religious, spiritual, and philosophical thought anchored roughly around 500 BCE. This graphic (shoutout to some random guy on the internet for putting it together) describes some of that emergence and confluence.
What’s particularly striking is that in most cases these emergent paradigms did not overlap with each other geographically: as disparate as Socrates in Greece, the Buddha in Nepal, Confucius in China. And given available communications and travel technology, in most cases they really couldn’t have known about each other. Yet: from diverse sources they reached very similar conclusions, and set the stage for the next evolution in human consciousness. Jaspers described the Axial Age as “an interregnum between two ages of great empire, a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness.”
I believe we are now living in what we might characterize as the second axial age. A growing number of systems thinkers—people who look across disciplines to identify emergent patterns—are reaching the same conclusions. I first encountered the term through Otto Scharmer (via the ever-thoughtful Kristian Bolk), and found it deeply resonant with what I’m seeing emerging across a diverse range of disciplines and geographies.
I think this is the most exciting trend in the world today: a once-every-couple-millennia “moment”. And unlike the first axial age, we now have the technology to link these disparate thinkers/observers/doers, and to build something together. And to do so in fewer than 600 years this time… the planet depends on it.
I will use this post to explore some of those emergent phenomena in an effort to illuminate these connections. This post will be a bit longer than normal as a consequence; bear with me. There are many ways to cluster and organize this material. I chose to highlight emergence within distinctive disciplines (evolutionary biology, psychology, economics, etc), but one feature of this emergence is how inherently interdisciplinary it is… for reasons that will become apparent. What’s exciting to me is the Venn that emerges when you overlay all these seemingly disparate trends is actually super clear; it allows us to easily distill the key elements of what the new world we are trying to build needs to look like. This list is not intended to be exhaustive or exclusive. With those caveats, and in no particular order, let’s begin.
1) Music. Let’s start by setting the mood: the soundtrack to this revolution (evolution?) Mexican artists Rodrigo y Gabriela just released a new album, coining a new term that feels right to this moment: Mettavolution. They describe it:
It is a contraction of "Metta" – which is a form of practice, a meditation that means love and kindness – and "volution" from "evolution." So in their own world of this 'Mettavolution,' it's a world where human beings, we get in touch with the most human part of ourselves – which is love and compassion. Starting with one person, with yourself, in order to really evolve.
Get into the rhythm. One way I think about this moment is moving from cacophony (the world in disorder and chaos) to symphony (beauty, harmony, joy, pleasure).
It doesn’t quite fit under “music”, but I would add here the emergent field of “cultural strategy.” It applies the tools of art to the field of social change. I’ve really loved Favianna Rodriguez’s contributions here; check out her new start-up.
2) Evolutionary biology. Let’s pivot from art to science (two sides of the same coin, I will contend). David Sloan Wilson is among the most pre-eminent scholars of what he calls “evolutionary consciousness”: premised on the notion that evolution is also social and cultural (not limited to genetic mutation at the individual cellular level). He argues—compellingly, in my view—that humans are on the cusp of the next phase in the evolution of human consciousness. This podcast interview (feat. Ken Wilber, another major figure in interdisciplinary systems thinking) is a good introduction.
Douglas Rushkoff offers another beautifully interdisciplinary synthesis of this evolution in the context of our digital era with his work on “Team Human.” His podcast is a great compilation of many of the practitioners that I see as sages in defining the new axial age.
3) Pediatrics, parenting, and early childhood development. As the father of two young kids, I am DEEP into this literature and find it one of the most exciting developments in the world today (I know I keep saying that). Here’s why it matters:
A good example of this emergent field is Dan Siegel’s work around presence and awareness; this podcast interview is a great overview of his work applied to child-rearing. Echoing Sloan Wilson and Kashtan above and affirming a key theme that will reverberate throughout this post: “Integration is at the heart of well-being, even at the level of our cellular functions.” I compiled a huge range of resources into this syllabus on “Parenting Beyond Power” for those who are interested.
NPR did a great and heartbreaking interview with a Sandy Hook parent on the“Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement,” named in honor of her murdered son. It is premised on the notion that kindness and empathy can be taught to young children. I’m still sitting with this sentence:
4) Education. Speaking of “what children learn”… the entire education system is facing calls for renewal and re-imagination. Style (flipping the classroom); content (the New York Times powerful new 1619 feature and related efforts insisting that we re-examine curricula and the stories we tell in classrooms); and even purpose (I love this piece highlighting Professor Rhonda Magee’s work on mindfulness, education, and justice).
As with all the trends I’m documenting here, at its core is a call for honoring autonomy alongside interdependence, for valuing students—particularly students marginalized by dominant social norms—for who they are rather than forcing them to conform to a system that wasn’t designed for them. The “whole child” movement is perhaps the best embodiment of this evolution.
5) Economics. Too many emergent trends to enumerate, but I think of this broadly as the shift from neoclassical economics with its long-debunked theory of “rational homo economicus” to new fields broadly organized under concepts of a “wellbeing economy” or the “caring economy.” Sloan Wilson helped start an initiative called “Evonomics” (applying his theory of evolution to economics). Kate Raworth coined the neat frame of “doughnut economics” to describe her view of how economics as a profession ought to view its purpose and role.
Charles Eisenstein talks of “sacred economics” and the return to a gift economy (a notion echoed by anthropologist David Graeber, which sounds way cooler and more appealing than you might think at first blush).
6) Ecology. For obvious reasons in the face of the global collapse of our natural systems, this field has been among the most dynamic in producing alternative visions. French philosopher and anthropologist (no accident that we have another interdisciplinary thinker) Bruno Latour’s contributions here are great, particularly around how we think of our human connection to land and nature. And of course, much of the best writing is at the intersection of climate and economics (Naomi Klein, e.g.)
One of the most exciting trends here is a return to the concept of the Commons as the site where economics and ecology come together. (Indeed, as Movement Generation beautifully reminds us, they share the same etymological root: the prefix “eco” means “home”; thus economics = management of home and ecology = knowledge of home). After the concept was brutalized beyond recognition in the famous “tragedy of the commons” (taught as common sense wisdom in most economics courses), a number of economists and thinkers—mostly women, following the pioneering work of Nobel-winning Elinor Ostrom—are re-imagining the field. Joanna Macy (a Buddhist ecologist, because of course) and her concept of the Great Turning are among my favorites here.
Indigenous people the world over have long understood this essential truth: we depend on the land and need to care for it. Movements like Standing Rock and similar efforts standing up to extraction around the world—and in the Global South in particular—continue to provide a lodestar for this new world we are trying to co-create.
7) Religion and spirituality. This too I find super exciting. Where the last Axial Age gave birth to the world’s major religions, this second axial age is demanding their rebirth. Indeed, in 2009 Phyllis Tickle wrote a book about this very phenomenon titled, appropriately enough, “The Great Emergence.”
The old ways are no longer working, and people know it. This has led to massive schisms in most major organized religions; this week’s news from the progressive wing of the Lutheran church stands in contrast to retrenchment by the other major Lutheran branch in the U.S. The whole ex-vangelical movement is one example of this, perhaps best personified by the work of Rachel Held Evans (rest in peace). The Vatican is sponsoring a cool new global initiative called Humanity 2.0 that speaks to this emergence.
There is also a whole burgeoning movement around spirituality (without the trappings of organized religion). Marianne Williamson is one embodiment of this, but so too is the whole phenomenon of mindfulness, yoga, etc. Krista Tippett’s beautiful OnBeing podcast is a veritable “who’s who” of people at the vanguard of our religious and spiritual potential (I love in particular the interviews of Fathers Richard Rohr and Greg Boyle; Buddhist angel Kyodo williams, along with Joanna Macy above, to name but a few).
And stuff in between (not quite religion, not totally secular): I love Nadia Bolz-Weber’s work here, and her notion of “leading from the scar, not the wound.” We have to heal ourselves first, lest we inevitably enact our trauma in the world. I see Eric Liu’s work around “Civic Saturday” as speaking to this desire for ritual and re-introducing some conception of the sacred in our lives.
8) International relations. In a world best known for its hard-nosed realpolitik, 2019 saw the founding of the UK-based Center for Empathy in International Affairs. I’ve always been drawn to this space (it was my first career) and I always resonated with the work of international conflict mediators. I listened to a talk with renowned conflict mediator Ken Cloke a couple years back that reinforced this essential truth: “There is no them, only us.”
Increasingly, those of us who have worked in international affairs are drawing these connections, and focusing on emphasizing our common humanity and connecting across difference. Quaker Matthew Regge published a new book “Are we done fighting?” that documents some of these emerging trends in the international relations arena.
9) Medicine and public health. Two practicing physicians coined the term “compassionomics” to describe the positive impact of empathy and connection on patient outcomes (but evidently felt the need to make it sound more scientific and use words that connote positive financial results to make corporate structures more likely to act on their findings). Consulting giant BCG reached a similar conclusion in the context of thinking about organizational structure (echoing Laloux’s work from a previous post), concluding that revitalizing the global health sector “will require much higher levels of cooperation.” (Shoutout to friend Paul Larkin for the share).
The recent focus on the “social determinants of health” is another way of saying the same thing: we need to treat people as whole humans who are themselves embedded in a broader social/political/cultural/economic context, and to treat not only the symptoms of these broken systems but the systems themselves. I consistently appreciate Brian Rahmer’s reflections drawing out some of these connections.
10) Somatics. Somatics as a field exists at the intersection of medicine, movement, and psychology. It is the science of how our experiences show up in our bodies: things like intergenerational trauma, systemic oppression like racism, child abuse, etc. It has crystallized into a distinct field over the last 10-20 years thanks in part to the work of organizations like generative somatics. I consider it part of a broader ecosystem (encompassing other disciplines and realms) that we might call “healing justice”; this podcast features outstanding interviews with key practitioners in this space.
11) Psychology. Again, too many developments to call out individually, but the strand that seems most important to me deliberately challenges our assumptions about human nature, and specifically the notion that we are fundamentally tribal and driven by “us vs them” tendencies. There is a burgeoning field of study around the nature of “empathy”: this Hidden Brain piece feat. Jamil Zaki, for example. Or this piece on the evolutionary history of compassion, from Dacher Keltner. Or this one challenging our too-narrow conception of the “fight of flight” impulse and instead highlighting our capacity to “tend and befriend”, from Kelly McGonigal.
Anne Kingston wrote a really thoughtful overview of the various strands that are part of what she calls a “compassion revolution”, including a number highlighted here. She quotes James Doty of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research:
Compassion is what’s going to save our species.
A range of initiatives are springing up to tap into this insight, focusing on bridging across difference and reconnection, particularly in the political realm. Better Angels is one such group, recently profiled on the Laura Flanders Show. David Brooks launched a new effort through Aspen called “Weave” that reaches many of the same conclusions.
12) Sociology. Many scholars and practitioners are reaching these same conclusions from a sociological standpoint. Brene Brown is probably the most famous, drawing on insights from sociology and social work. She too argues that we are wired for empathy, and like Zaki and Keltner above and the Sandy Hook initiative featured earlier, that it can be taught.
13) Critical race theory. Itself an emergent field thanks to the pioneering work of scholars like Kimberle Crenshaw, it is explicitly interdisciplinary in scope, drawing on insights from psychology, law, American studies, ethnic studies, sociology, and more. Its core insights are around power dynamics, privilege, and how systems of oppression operate. The emergent trend that feels most inspiring here is a growing movement toward solidarity politics that sees us not inherently trapped by our history… though we must learn from it. Robin D.G. Kelley did the best job articulating this shift, in my view, in this outstanding and deeply textured essay on Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Ibram Kendi represents to me this emergent trend within critical race theory: a relentless insistence that we look history honestly in the face (as he does in Stamped from the Beginning), coupled with a belief that we can do better (he offers a blueprint in the just-released How to be an Antiracist). There are also powerful insights emerging from psychology, sociology, and social work here, particularly around how we re-constitute identity. john powell is among the best out there on this; this piece is a great introduction to his work. Even shifting our conception of “race” to include interrogating “whiteness” is a relatively new phenomenon in popular discourse; Robin DiAngelo’s contributions to understanding “white fragility” have been powerful here. And I’m still sitting with these insights from Naava Smolash unpacking one element of what lies beneath white fragility (more on this in #15 below):
One of the processes for dismantling white supremacy is, oddly, building up white people's sense of fundamental worth and belonging... Until you have a core sense of worth and belonging, it can be very difficult to get to healthy accountability to others where, upon hearing feedback about the impact of harm, your sense of self neither collapses nor a false sense of worth needs to be defended… You can't shame someone out of a shame-aversion.
14) Philosophy. Another field exploding with new insights, and dovetailing in fascinating ways with many other disciplines. I love the work of philosopher and chess grandmaster Jonathan Rowson and his new organization Perspectiva; it was his interview for OnBeing that reminded me of the concept of the Axial Age and tied together many of the ideas bouncing around in my head. Rowson too sees a new Axial Age dawning:
There’s a feeling of a sort of planetary immune response emerging, and levels of awareness and attention that may give rise to some new way of seeing the world and seeing each other. And we don’t quite know what it is yet, but my feeling is that something is emerging.
15) Anthropology. David Graeber has been among the foremost experts challenging conventional wisdom here, offering a different interpretation of human history very much in line with what the psychologists cited above are doing. This essay is mind-bending in its breadth and ambition, and serves to call into question core assumptions we have about the nature of hierarchy, of inequality, of domination. He and co-author David Wengrow offer this conclusion:
The pieces are all there to create an entirely different world history… For instance, almost everyone nowadays insists that participatory democracy, or social equality, can work in a small community or activist group, but cannot possibly ‘scale up’ to anything like a city, a region, or a nation-state. But the evidence before our eyes, if we choose to look at it, suggests the opposite. Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence.
16) Gender studies. Graeber’s insight offers a nice segue to the last point I wish to highlight here. Gender studies is too narrow a term for what I mean here, but a good example of this trend is Naava Smolash’s breathtaking new book Turn the World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture (written under the pseudonym Nora Samaran). I’m a little over halfway through it, and it’s truly an astonishing contribution: easily one of the most provocative and multi-layered books I’ve read in years. It builds off her viral article from a couple years back “The opposite of rape culture is nurturance culture,” deepening and extending those insights. The author is an English professor, but draws heavily on attachment theory (returning us again to the field of early childhood development). Here’s a taste:
The solution, in tangible terms, is community care and a great deal of awareness of how most of us did not get our needs met at key developmental stages, which means we did not move out of those stages and must do so now. Collective healing is possible. We can heal when we can finally be our whole, unguarded selves, in human community, without shields or guards, and be liked, accepted, seen, held. This is systemic change, spiritual change, at the core levels of our culture, lived each day.
The common theme I intend to capture under this heading are the deeply gendered dynamics at play in this axial shift. One way to describe it is a movement from “masculine” to “feminine.” Seen in this light many of the patterns emerge more clearly. From domination to partnership. Individualism to collective care. Power over to power with. I love this podcast episode from Healing Justice on “leading from the feminine” that explores this concept beautifully.
Understanding the axial shift
To some extent I’ve spent my whole life trying to understand this axial shift: I created my own interdisciplinary major in college because I felt too confined within any single discipline. I pursued international relations professionally as the broadest possible domain of knowledge, and within that sphere was drawn to conflict mediation (bridging across difference). For the last three years in particular I have turned my attention intentionally to mapping the various ecosystems that are part of this axial shift, and to identifying the people who seem to see it most clearly.
There are a number of people who are themselves seeking to document this emergence. Krista Tippett is the best I’ve found at giving voice to those at the cutting edge of this moment, through her OnBeing podcast. Maria Popova is the best I’ve found at synthesizing and curating resources from a dizzying interdisciplinary landscape and presenting them in dialogue with each other through her magical Brainpickings newsletter.
And there are others seeking to play a role in organizing this emergence (I am trying to do both!) In addition to those named here (many of whom are trying to play an integrative role in their own work), I appreciate the contributions of John Hagel’s thinking on what he calls the Big Shift, Paul Raskin’s framing of The Great Transition, and Gus Speth and Gar Alperovitz’s work around The Next System, to name but a few.
There are also a set of concepts—often emerging from the Global South—that express a similar sense of axial shifts. I highlighted some in a previous post. I find myself particularly drawn to the concept of a Just Transition (credit to Movement Generation for some groundbreaking work here). The Latin American notion of Buen Vivir also resonates for me (roughly: “live well”).
In researching the concept of an “axial shift” for this particular post I found myself resonating with Jim Kenney’s writing, and this reminder:
Principles of the 2nd Axial Age
So what are the common features of this global emergence? I have in mind a series of overlapping circles with a Venn in the middle (any graphic artists out there want to take a stab?) I see the key elements as follows; each element builds upon the ones that precede it.
1) It emerges from the margins. This was a key feature of the first Axial Age, and a vital aspect of this one: dominant culture privileges perspectives that tend to perpetuate the status quo. It was this insight that prompted bell hooks to call for re-imagining society “from margin to center.” She explains the unique perspective and role of black women in a system designed for white men:
Marginality [is] much more than a site of deprivation… it is also the site of radical possibility, a space of resistance… It offers to one the possibility of radical perspective from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds.
Ceasar McDowell expands on this concept in a beautiful TED Talk.
2) It is about wholeness, oneness, and integrity. It is about re-integrating across all dimensions (within ourselves, with others, with nature; or what Rowson calls systems, souls, and society). This is about bridging the false mind-body dichotomy (otherwise seen as the dualism of spirituality and science)… as I discussed in a previous post.
There’s a more subtle piece to this: it’s not just about bonding (recognizing our own relatedness, which is the next point below). It’s also about reveling in the delight of our difference, diversity, and uniqueness. Nilofer Merchant coined a nice phrasing here that I like called “onlyness.” We have to come into our own power and connect with our unique self… and the entirety of our selves (this is the aspect of re-integration of our fragmented identities).
3) It is relational. It is about connection, networks, and interdependence; what Eisenstein calls “interbeing.” It is moving from ego-centric to eco-centric. (This too echoes a previous post) .
4) It is about compassion, empathy, and kindness. It calls to the better angels of our nature, our relational instincts, our ethic of care.
5) It is deeply gendered. Anyone reading this will already recognize one common feature uniting the above elements: we code them “feminine” in our deeply patriarchal cultures. This makes sense. We are trying to shift from a system that no longer serves us (if it ever did…) to a new one. As Naava Smolash reminds us: the opposite of masculine culture is “nurturance culture.” She elaborates:
[We live in] a society that actively, financially, politically, socially, privileges traits it deems ‘masculine’ – nonemotionality, strength, independence – and actively disparages traits it deems ‘feminine’ – interdependence, nurturance, [etc.]
My next series of posts will explore this latter aspect in more depth. A deep dive into my efforts to understand patriarchy and interrogating a key question: why does patriarchy persist? (Hooray, just in time for some light Labor Day reading!)
Unity without uniformity: leading lights
Is there a unifying frame that ties all these themes together? I think the answer is yes. I’ll present here a few of the best voices that I’ve found at the center of this Venn, who seem to grasp the dimensions of the axial shift we now face. They each seek to offer a framework for understanding the nature of this shift.
Riane Eisler is amazing. Her whole body of work speaks to her deep engagement across a huge range of disciplines; her latest book is a collaboration with anthropologist Douglas Fry and is a brilliant distillation of these emergent phenomenon as seen though an integrative lens. She talks of moving from domination to partnership.
john powell is another transcendent human being: every time I hear him speak I feel a little wiser and a little more humble. He too is deeply interdisciplinary, and like Eisler brings a powerful lens that looks across countries, cultures, and identities. His framework also resonates deeply with me; he talks of moving from “othering” to belonging.
adrienne maree brown is in my view perhaps the foremost sage of our times. She brings the best of everything: a piercing and wide-ranging intellect paired with a deep humility and embodied commitment to practicing what she preaches. Her groundbreaking book Emergent Strategy is an effort to navigate this new Axial Age, and her thinking continues to powerfully influence my own. Her latest contribution—a book called Pleasure Activism— is another perfectly attuned gift sensing what the world needs in this moment and responding to it with clarity and compassion.
Charles Eisenstein has been described as “one of the deepest integrative thinkers active today.” Like the others in this list, he defies easy categorization and covers an unbelievable breadth of intellectual terrain. In my head I think of his work at its core being a call to re-integration, wholeness, community, and interdependence (he calls it interbeing, a nod to Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh’s work.)
Miki Kashtan I first found only a couple months ago, and have already added her to my list of “read everything she writes.” Her moral clarity is enviable, and like john she brings a deep sense of empathy (what john calls “bridging”) to her work. This essay is among the best pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered; profound and deeply interdisciplinary. She is a pioneer in the field of Nonviolent Communication. Drawing from the work of Humberto Maturana, she talks of a “biology of love.”
Otto Scharmer is another beautifully interdisciplinary thinker working at the level of global systems change, and is probably the most advanced of anyone on this list in articulating a specific hypothesis around how to organize this emergence through his Societal Transformation Lab. I love this essay outlining the core elements of his thinking, which he also sees as an enterprise of global movement-building. He talks of moving from “absencing” to “presencing”.
As for me… this all resonates. But I’m drawn most powerfully to the concept of belonging. In part due to my own story of self in this world (subject for another day, perhaps), but also because it speaks so evocatively to our deepest longings and captures so well the various elements involved (connection, wholeness, etc.)
So all this is to describe one way I’m currently seeing this global moment. It’s the task of “organizing emergence.” (I’m influenced here by this great 2006 essay from Meg Wheatley and Deb Frieze). As “netweavers” June Holley and Valdis Krebs remind us:
“We can guide emergence by understanding, and catalyzing, connections.” Yes. That sounds right to me. Let’s connect!
Thanks for bearing with me; it’s hard to try to distill the world. If you made it this far, I’ll close with a beautiful reflection from Matthew Wright: