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The following overview of the Spiral Dynamics framework was excerpted from a 2006 keynote speech given by Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey. Click here to view a transcript of Mackey’s keynote, which applied the Spiral Dynamics framework to the Food industry and global agricultural system. Mackey has since mobilized his company around the heroic purpose of creating a global sustainable agriculture system, improving world health, ending poverty and promoting conscious capitalism, which is a testament to the power of this model to promote disruptive change in business.
Based on decades of research starting in 1952, psychologist Clare Graves developed a theory of human evolution, which posited that the psychology of human beings transitioned throughout time base upon an ever increasingly set of complex life conditions. Graves classified a total of eight levels of increasingly complex human value systems (or vMemes) consisting of sets of world views, preferences, and purposes. Through these value systems, groups and cultures structure their societies and individuals integrate within them. Each distinct set of values is developed as a response to solving the problems of the previous system. His theory was further developed by prodigies Don Beck and Chris Cowan into a structured evolutionary model of adaptive intelligence called Spiral Dynamics.
Note that I have adapted various aspects of the framework to be consistent with my use of the model. In particular, I view the model as circular and not in hierarchical levels. The model has been criticized as elitist in that the higher value systems (levels) can be viewed as characteristic of more advanced human beings. I view the model as circular as Graves referred to the vMemes as awakenings, not levels. I interpret this to mean that everyone can awaken these values within themselves depending upon their own life conditions and priorities. I also believe there are positive aspects of each vMeme that are essential to one’s ability to enjoy a fulfilling and meaningful life experience.
Beige “Survival” vMEME
The first is the Beige “Instinctive” vMEME. This first arrived on the scene, or “awakened,” 100,000+ years ago. Its basic premise is: Do what you must to stay alive. The characteristic beliefs and actions of the Beige vMEME are:
Where do you find the Beige vMEME expressed? Here is a representative list: The first peoples, newborn infants, senile elderly, late-stage Alzheimer’s victims, mentally ill street people, starving masses, bad drug trips and “shell shock.” This vMEME is well described in anthropological fiction like Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear.
The Beige vMEME includes approximately 1/10 percent of the world’s adult population and zero percent of the power.
Purple “Safety” vMEME
As human consciousness evolves, it next goes into the Purple “Safety” vMEME. This second “awakening” occurred approximately 50,000 years ago. The basic theme for the Purple vMEME is: Keep the spirits happy and the tribe’s nest warm and safe. The Characteristic beliefs and actions of the Purple vMEME are:
Although some of this sounds benign, it wasn’t all good, because this was where slavery and human sacrifice came into the picture.
Where do you find the Purple vMEME expressed? Here is a sampling: belief in guardian angels and Voodoo-like curses, animism, blood oaths, Native American Indians were living primarily in the purple vMEME when the Western peoples arrived on the continent, chanting and trance dancing, good luck charms, mystical ethnic beliefs and superstitions, New Age beliefs—crystals, tarot, astrology, and Harry Potter’s magical world.
The Purple vMEME includes 10% of the world population, and only 1% of the power. The following provides more detail about the typical qualities seen in the Purple “Safety” vMEME:
Just to explain the rhythm, the vMEMEs tend to alternate between individualistic and community-focused. The Purple vMEME was community focused. The next level is individualistic.
Red “Significance” vMEME
The Red “Significance” vMEME, the third “awakening,” occurred about 10,000 years ago. Its basic theme is: Be what you are and do what you want regardless—”Nobody tells me what to do.”
Many teenagers are at the Red vMEME. The characteristic beliefs and actions of this vMEME are:
Where is the Red vMEME expressed? The following sample provides an overview: the “Terrible Twos,” rebellious youth, frontier mentalities, feudal kingdoms, street gangs, James Bond villains—the guys that conquer the world, epic heroes, soldiers of fortune, wild rock stars, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Sauron in Lord of the Rings, Voldemort in Harry Potter.
The red vMEME includes 15% to 20% of the world population, but only 5% of the power.
When adults are residing at the Red vMEME, we often think of them as “spoiled.” But you need Red energy to overcome restrictions and boundaries put on you by other systems.
The following provides more detail about the typical qualities seen in the Red “Significance” vMEME.
After the very individualistic Red vMEME, the next level goes back again to the more community-focused orientation. The Blue “Purposeful/Authoritarian” vMEME, as the fourth “awakening,” began about 5,000 years ago. The basic rules for the Blue vMEME are:Life has meaning, direction and purpose with outcomes determined by an all-powerful Other or Order. This vMEME brings discipline to the spiral because you are now “following a higher order.”
The characteristic beliefs and actions of the Blue vMEME include:
Where do you find the Blue vMEME expressed? The following provides a sample:
Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, Puritan America, Dickensian England, Singapore’s strict discipline, witch hunts, codes of chivalry and honor, the Spanish Inquisition, the caste system in India, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Boy and Girl Scouts, and patriotism.
The Blue vMEME includes 35% to 40% of the world population, and 25% to 30% of the power. The figures are somewhat lower in the United States.
The following provides more detail about the typical qualities seen in the Blue “Order” vMEME.
The Blue vMEME is one the core constituencies of the Republican Party and comprises the “moral majority” in the United States today.
The Orange “Prosperity” vMEME, the fifth “awakening” began only 300 years ago. Its tagline is: Act in your own self-interest by playing the game to win.
Some of the characteristic beliefs and actions of this vMEME include:
The Orange vMEME is expressed in ways such as the following: The Enlightenment, “success” ministries (such as Napoleon Hill and Tony Robbins), American “Founding Fathers,” Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Wall Street, Rodeo Drive, The Riviera, the cosmetics and fashion industries, breast implants, emerging middle classes around the world (in India and certain parts of China), Chambers of Commerce, corporate America, Forbes magazine, materialism, and the stereotypical yuppies.
The Orange vMEME includes about 25% to 30% of the world population. In the United States, the figure is closer to 50% of the population. Worldwide, this vMEME wields 45% to 50% of the power. Orange is the dominant vMEME in the U.S. today.
The following provides more detail on the typical qualities seen in the Orange “Prosperity” vMEME.
The response to the somewhat singularly driven Orange vMEME is found in the Green “Community” vMEME, the sixth “awakening,” which first appeared nearly 150 years ago. The basic theme for the Green vMEME is: Seek peace within the inner self and explore, with others, the caring dimensions of community. Another way to think of this vMEME is as “The Sensitive Self.”
Some of the characteristic beliefs and actions of the Green vMEME include:
The Green vMEME is seen in the following: John Lennon’s music, deep ecology, Greenpeace, animal rights, Woodstock, single payer health care, ACLU, humanistic psychology, diversity training, multiculturalism, Boulder, Colorado, Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream company, The Body Shop, politically correct thinking, deconstructionism, postmodernism, The Utne Reader, Paul Ray’s Cultural Creatives, and the natural/organic foods movement.
The Green vMEME comprises 10% of the world population, and holds nearly 15% of the power; in the U.S. you can double these numbers. The Green vMEME now has more power in the U.S. than the Blue vMEME.
The following provides more information on the qualities inherent in the Green “Community” vMEME.
Consciousness continues its upward flow. None of the First Tier vMEMEs can fully appreciate the value of the other vMEMEs. Each believes that its worldview is the only true perspective. However, a qualitative leap in consciousness occurs when a person moves past the Green vMEME into Second Tier, which is also termed “Integral.”
Individuals who operate from the Second Tier can fully appreciate the value and necessity of all the vMEMEs. They comprehend that the health of the entire spiral, or all vMEMEs, is essential. At the Integral level, fear and anxiety largely disappear from consciousness. At the Second Tier, systems thinking becomes the norm, and mental activity consists of joining, linking, and synthesizing in pluralistic systems. Individuals who have achieved the Second Tier find a greatly increased capacity for love and compassion. This is the “Self-Actualizing and Transpersonal” level in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
The first level within the Second Tier is the Yellow “Inter-dependence” vMEME, which is the 7th “awakening,” and it occurred about 50 years ago. The Yellow vMEME’s basic tenet is: Live fully and responsibly with authenticity.
Some of the characteristic beliefs and actions of the Yellow vMEME are:
The risk at this level of the wave is what Darth Vader from Star Wars or Sauruman from Lord of the Rings faced, which is the risk of the fall downward.
The Yellow vMEME is expressed in the following: Carl Sagan’s astronomy, Peter Senge’s learning organizations, Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, chaos theory, appropriate technology, eco-industrial parks (using each others’ outflows as raw materials), Fred Alan Wolf’s “new physics,” Deepak Chopra’s Ageless Body, the movie What the Bleep Do We Know?, Wired magazine, Gandalf the Grey from Lord of the Rings, and Dumbeldore from Harry Potter.
This is a recent vMEME, and only 1% of the population is found in the Yellow, but it holds 5% of the power world-wide.
The following qualities typify the Yellow “Inter-dependence” vMEME.
Beyond the largely individualistic Yellow vMEME, the Turquoise “Harmony” vMEME, as the 8th “awakening,” began expressing about 30 years ago. This vMEME’s basic premise is:Experience the wholeness of existence through mind and spirit.
Some of the characteristic beliefs and actions of the Turquoise vMEME include:
The Turquoise vMEME is seen in: David Bohm’s theories, McLuhan’s “global village,” Rupert Sheldrake and morphic fields, Gandhi’s ideas of pluralistic harmony, Ken Wilber’s “Spectrum of Consciousness,” James Lovelock’s “Gaia hypothesis,” transpersonal psychology, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s “noosphere,” the White from Lord of the Rings, and Dumbledore fromHarry Potter.
The Turquoise vMEME currently has around .01% of the population, but already holds about 1% of the power in the world.
Some of the differences to note are that the Yellow vMEME figures things out on an individual basis, and is very good at figuring out paradoxes on a one-up basis. The Turquoise vMEME goes back into the community orientation. It begins to connect to other organizations and individuals that it harmonizes with to magnify the good we can do.
The following qualities define the Turquoise “Harmony” vMEME.
Are there any vMEMEs beyond Turquoise?
New vMEMEs will continue to be created as the evolution of human consciousness so requires. Beck and Cowan claim that a new vMEME, Coral, exists but that it lacks a sufficient number of people to be statistically meaningful. Likewise, Ken Wilber believes that vMEMEs beyond Coral also exist. He calls this the “Third Tier” of consciousness. He states that fully realized beings such as the Buddha and Jesus evolved to this Third Tier. Non-dual consciousness and universal love and compassion characterize this level of consciousness.