Cultural Maturity Part I: The Concept of Cultural Maturity

Johnston, Charles | May 31, 2016 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Hubble’s view of a changing fan | Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

The Institute for Creative Development is a Seattle-based think tank and center for advanced leadership training that addresses critical challenges facing the. Its primary focus is the maturity of thought and action that will be needed to effectively address future human questions. Environmental issues have always been a central concern.

Our work provides big-picture perspective for understanding what addressing environmental issues wisely will require of us. The concept of Cultural Maturity, a notion at the center of the Institute’s work, proposes that doing so will require ways of thinking and acting that are new to us as a species. It goes on to examine just what those new ways of thinking and acting entail.

In the article below I have excerpted a piece from the Cultural Maturity Blog that introduces the concept of Cultural Maturity. The piece in its entirety can be found here. Next week, I will turn briefly to the particular new skills and capacities that the concept argues will be needed for the specific task of confronting new environmental realities.

Concept of Cultural Maturity –Brief Reflections from the Cultural Maturity Blog


I approach addressing the future differently than most futurists. The larger portion of people whose work addresses what may lie ahead focus on technological advancement, or perhaps on obstacles that might present themselves in our efforts to advance. The kind of perspective I find most useful is more “developmental.” It draws on ideas about how cultures change, and about how changes happening today are altering how we think and act.

Increasingly my attention has turned to an essential recognition: The most critical challenges ahead for the species will require not just fresh ideas, but a fundamentally greater sophistication in how we understand and relate. I see our times demanding what I call a new Cultural Maturity—put most simply, a critical “growing up” as a species. Today I devote the larger part of my life to making sense of this necessary growing up, and to training leaders in the new capacities it requires and makes possible.

The fact that I might think as I do comes in part from my background as a psychiatrist—we are trained to look at questions developmentally. It comes also from being a student of history. And most of all it comes from a deep fascination with understanding what makes us human. The concept of Cultural Maturity is a formal notion within Creative Systems Theory, a comprehensive theory of change, purpose, and interrelationship in human systems developed by myself and colleagues at the Institute for Creative Development over the last thirty-five years.

Cultural Maturity is not as easy a notion as the simple phrase “growing up” might suggest. But most of us appreciate—whether consciously or not—that something like what the concept of Cultural Maturity describes will be necessary. When we look at essential issues ahead for the species, we get that a sane and healthy future will require at the least that we be more intelligent in our choices. For example, we recognize that dealing with nuclear proliferation in an ever more technologically complex and globally interconnected world will be very difficult unless we can bring greater insight to how we humans relate. Similarly, people recognize that addressing the energy crisis, or other environmental concerns, will require that we be smarter in our engagement of hard realities. We also see a beginning appreciation of the need to be not just more intelligent, but more “grown up” in how we think. With growing frequency, people today respond with disgust—appropriately—at the common childishness of political debate, and at how rarely the media appeal to more than adolescent impulses.

Most of us also recognize something further. At some level, we get that it is essential, given the magnitude and the subtlety of the challenges we face and the potential consequences of our decisions, that our choices be not just more intelligent and adult, but more wise. Cultural Maturity is about realizing the greater nuance and depth of understanding—we could say wisdom—that human concerns of every sort today demand of us.

The concept of Cultural Maturity challenges the common assumption that Modern Age institutions and ways of thinking are end points and ideals—only needing further refinement. It describes how our future human well-being hinges on turning first pages in an essential next chapter in our human story. It also describes how, today, we are beginning to do so.

The observation that gives the concept its name provides a first glimpse of Cultural Maturity’s changes. Human culture in times past has functioned like a parent in the lives of individuals. It has provided us with our rules to live by—shared absolutes—and, in the process, a sense of identity and connectedness with others. These cultural absolutes have also protected us from life’s very real uncertainties and immense complexities. But in today’s increasingly multi-faceted world, unquestioned cultural guideposts serve us less and less well. They are also having diminishing influence.

The implications of this loss are Janus-faced. Certainly it can bring a disturbing sense of absence. Combined with how our world has become more risk-filled and complicated, this weakening of familiar rules can leave us dangerously overwhelmed and disoriented. But at the same time, these changes reveals possibilities that before now we could not have considered. Importantly, this is not just possibility in some postmodern, “anything-goes” sense. The concept of Cultural Maturity describes how the same change processes that generate today’s loss of past absolutes also create the potential for new, more mature ways of thinking and being in the world.

The concept of Cultural Maturity assists us in four ways that together provide essential direction for going forward:

First, the concept of Cultural Maturity helps us make sense of the easily confusing times in which we live. It puts the challenges and changes we face today in larger perspective.

Second, it provides a new guiding narrative. Having a new, more mature story to guide us becomes increasingly essential as the stories we’ve traditionally relied upon—from the American Dream to our various political and religious allegiances—cease to serve us.

Third, the concept helps clarify the new skills and capacities that we will need if we are to successfully address the challenge before us. In doing so, it also provides guidance for practicing those needed new abilities.

And fourth, the concept of Cultural Maturity points toward needed changes not just in what we think, but how we think. Culturally mature perspective does more than just provide greater clarity—it involves specific cognitive changes. These cognitive changes make possibility new, more dynamic and encompassing ways of understanding.

Accordingly, Cultural Maturity holds critical implications for bringing to bear the wisdom that environmental concerns increasingly demand of us. Next week, I will briefly introduce the particular new skills and capacities that the concept argues will be needed for the specific task of confronting new environmental realities.

The Cultural Maturity Blog can be found at, the MAHB also features an RSS feed of the blog here. The main ICD website can be found at My two most recent books each specifically address culturally mature perspective and what it asks of us. Hope and the Future is a short book (130 pages) designed to introduce the concept of Cultural Maturity. Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future is a much longer work (630 pages) for those interested in developing the new leadership capacities that addressing challenges ahead will require of us.

MAHB-UTS Blogs are a joint venture between the University of Technology Sydney and the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • liveoak

    Cultural Maturity, seeking an end to Patriarchy–these seem to be valuable approaches to moving us past a certain threshold in the level of human awareness, a move that is desperately needed at this time. It’s a little hard to tell from the essay above and a quick look at the website exactly what of substance is being offered by Creative Systems Theory, but Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess spoke of attaining “maturity” in his expositions on Deep Ecology. I think the kind of maturity that people need to start exhibiting now will include recognizing certain less-than-pleasant facts about our species’ present situation, including the finitude of the planet, our current state of having already overpopulated to the point of all 7 billion plus of us being unsupportable at the level of affluence presently available to some in the industrialized countries (and probably not long sustainable for them either), and the anthropogenic changes now well underway that are destabilizing many biospherical systems. Mature people should also be cognizant of the foolhardiness of all political posturing that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons, even if ostensibly initially only on a limited scale, and be doing some hard thinking about how our human groupishness impels us to pit subgroup against subgroup instead of pulling together as a species to deal with our common planetary trajectory. Some attention also needs to be directed toward the foolish actions that our economic system in its present form is incentivizing.

    In philosophy, there is some interesting work being done in group metacognition and social ontology which, in itself, stands as evidence that some of us are coming into a greater and greater degree of consciousness about the reverberative processes that maintain our current “social reality,” and that could also actively transform it into something much more appropriate for our perilous situation. Right now, however, the processes of denial seem to be dominating in the larger group consciousness, severely constraining our collective ability to mobilize in the interest of what needs to be seen more starkly as a matter of species survival. Some approaches to “maturity” emphasize expanding individual awareness and seeking peace and harmony in one’s immediate surroundings, providing a nidus around which similar others may “crystallize.” I think a complementary, more confrontational approach is also needed to break through all the layers of denial. Studying the work of whistleblowers, the (largely unconscious) forces of social ostracism that often become directed toward them, and the ultimate benefits that attention to and correction of the problems that they disclose, which are all-too-often recognized only long after the original act of courage was performed, should be an academic priority. So should an investigation into the psychology of social cowardice–the reticence of knowledgeable people to speak up even when issues of life and death are at stake, especially within the university setting where academic freedom and freedom of expression are supposed to reign.

  • Coracle

    For anyone unfamiliar with the work of Dr iain McGilchrist, and his thesis contained in (at least the first half of) his 500 page opus — The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World — may I suggest, to one and all, that taking heed of what it took him 20 years to write, could help bring us — and our life source, this planet — back from the brink!

    • liveoak

      Yes, I’d like to second the recommendation to read McGilchrist. It is his thesis that over the last several centuries of western civilization’s evolution–and with an accelerating pace in recent times–our left hemispheres (which should be the “emissaries”), specializing in re-presenting the world in terms of language, abstract thought, and the ability to manipulate and use what is “other” to us, have become increasingly dominant over our right hemispheres (which are the rightful “masters”), specializing in receiving what is first “present” to us in the world and allowing us to connect intersubjectively and relate with empathy to other living beings. The trend can be seen in our increasing obsession with that abstract symbol we call money, in proliferating rules and bureaucracy, and in the growing manipulation of the public into fighting unnecessary wars, all the while growing less and less in touch with each other and with living nature. Loss of right hemisphere function can produce a clinical syndrome of “neglect” of the left hemi-field, anosognosia or denial of illness, and confabulation, the making up of a false but optimistic story to explain anomalies like a left-sided paralysis–and something of this sort seems to be prominent in many of our ecology-neglecting, destruction-denying, we-can-solve-all-your-problems pollyanna-politicians as well! But since just about everybody HAS a functional, if somewhat atrophic, right hemisphere, McGilchrist offers a message of hope–if we can reverse this unhealthy usurpation of the left hemisphere in taking over more and more of our culture, perhaps we can alter our trajectory on the Earth as well.

      • Charles Johnston

        Creative Systems Theory concurs with McGilchrist’s basic description and also offers explanation for why this is what we have seen (see In a couple of additional ways it further affirms that legitimacy of hope. First CST describes how the progression he describes is developmentally predicted (people who make related historical observations often pathologize what they accurately observe). Second, it emphasizes that the more integrative processes he hopes could take place are — at least as potential — also predicted. We don’t have to invent Cultural Maturity. We have to listen to, and respond to, the potential for greater maturity that is built into our natures. (We may fail at the task. But we may be more up to it — at least over the long term –than those of a more cynical bent might assume.)

        Charles Johnston, MD

  • John Weyland

    a changed world will comprise changed people.
    developing tools and leadership should follow experience

    start fixing human relationships, make people feel better
    start with examples – i changed X and feel Y
    engage and help people change
    prevent relationships that damage us
    endlessly repeat
    then we will be more intelligent, adult, wise

  • Maybe it’s my background in Economics and Philosophy, but I think we have to prioritize political and economic stability. And I don’t mean clinging to traditional forms, I mean figuring out what political and economic systems we need to have in place in order to survive the coming massive challenges to our collective survival. I am inspired by the book Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu, et al. The authors demonstrate that nations become failed states when their governments don’t represent an adequate portion of their inhabitants. We can see, in general, that terrorism often occurs when an ethnic or religious group feels oppressed or has no representation in its national government. Political stability is threatened when ethnic groups are discriminated against and prevented from achieving economic gains, or if there is widespread inequality, and differential treatment of the poor or lower classes. Economic instability can lead to catastrophic political responses, such as fascist dictatorships, ethnic cleansing, and theocracies. These things need to be dealt with and prevented first, otherwise it really doesn’t matter how mature our decision making abilities are.

  • Charles, I believe the work you are doing reflects this megatrend: the gradual move away from the world’s dominant ‘human operating system’, which grew out of the archaic and toxic values of patriarchy. Trying to change the world without understanding patriarchy is like trying to go to the moon without understanding gravity.

    While it may not always be apparent amid the confusion and complexity of everyday life and business, we are, I believe, experiencing a global transition towards a non-patriarchal future, where a different set of values – far more congruent with the way our planet works – will govern human behaviour and decision making.

    I’m sharing my thoughts on this seismic shift in this new clip: Pozzy to Cozzy (Freeing our Planet from Patriarchy). The aim of the clip is to serve as a discussion starter. Feel free to use it as such.

    • Pozzy refers to a P-OS or Pyramid Operating System, which is today’s dominant and dysfunctional way of being, living and working.

    • Cozzy stands for a C-OS or Circle Operating System, which is a new, more nurturing way of leading and functioning, one that has been struggling to emerge for some time, but which is now poised to expand exponentially.

    • Charles Johnston

      Graeme — I agree that needed next steps in understanding are “post-patriarchal.” But I don’t see patriarchy’s place in history as inherently “archaic and toxic.” As I use the term, it was right for the Modern Age and its particular advances, but no longer sufficient (and becomes increasingly toxic if carried beyond its timeliness). Charles Johnston

  • Martin Hellman

    Thanks for this article. I very much agree. Here’s how I put it on one of my websites:

    Science and engineering have given us powers that were traditionally reserved for gods, such as causing floods, creating new life forms, and destroying the world. In contrast to our awesome physical power, humanity’s social progress is at best in the adolescent phase. This chasm between our technological powers on the one hand and our social development on the other has created a recipe for disaster that demands urgent attention if the human race is to survive. Humanity is like a 16-year-old with a new driver’s license who somehow got his hands on a 500 hp Ferrari. He will either mature rapidly or kill himself.

    Martin Hellman, Stanford University