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Recession and Transcendence

During a seminar arranged by The Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies several years ago, before the first great depression of the 20th Century, the speaker said something that stuck in my mind:

“If a significant portion of the Western population reaches transcendence it would change the economic system on a fundamental level.”1

The speaker presented it as a “wild card”, but mentioned populations in various Asian countries whose spending habits and lifestyle choices can be considered spiritual or even ascetic.

It goes without asying that there are sub-cultures in the West that embrace an either anti-consumerist or consciously alternative lifestyle, also among those not influenced by Asian philosophies, for instance deep ecologists, neo-pagans and radical socialists.

The Religious Indulgence

One could argue that traditional religiousity is a pathway to transcendence, but even if transcendent values are presented or even prominent in most religious doctrines, history and experience instructs us otherwise.
In Christianity neither the Catholic Lent nor Protestant fasting immunized believers against materialism and overconsumption, particularly not as it became the standard in the industrialized West.

As for Islam the Ramadan and duty to give alms is equally forced.

Ultimately, transcendence incorporated in religion serves as a venting mechanism, an outlet for transcendent ideals, and as a way of buying indulgence.

Maslow: A Crumbling Pyramid

If we look at recession in the past they were followed by industrial booms and gross increase in materialism in the West.

The question is if human nature can be changed on a fundamental level by any set of circumstances.

A subsequent question is if Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is fundamentally flawed, particularly when it comes to the upper layers of the structure, self-actualization and “peak experiences” or transcendence.

No matter what the answer is, the road to transcendence is very long in the West if the journey must contain all the conventional features of fulfillment: Education, career, procreation and family, and on top of that, fame and fortune.

Alternative view of transcendence

Interestingly, however, there are examples of people who reach straight for transcendence. Political involvement, also on an idealistic level, is common among middle class citizens, as well as financial charity.
It may not be the overarching goal on such a level of existence, but it does deconstruct or at least add nuances to the Maslowian structure in which fulfillment on a lower level goes before involvement in the next.

It may also suggest that Keynesian capitalism provides a far better vehicle for transcendent aspirations than rigorous Communism. Maslow’s ideal has an unfortunate similarity to Ayn Rand’s objectivism, but if you vary his thesis according to contemporary observations the conclusion may be very different.

A strong middle-class is traditionally the dominating benchmark for development and stability in World 3, but often neglected by monetarists in World 1. If we dissolve the false dichotomy between the developing worlds and the affluent West – which is, to some degree, what the Financial Crisis has done – relative middle-class enlightenment may be the single most important vehicle for transcendence in the 2st Century.

Converging factors in the current century

There are three other main indicators – aside from the Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis and subsequent recession – that society may be on the verge of transcendence:

·         Ecology. The green wave that rose in the 70s, resurfaced in the 90s (where it was most dismissively dubbed eco-fascism), has taken a strong foothold on society and can be expected to gain momentum in the current decade. The agreed CO2 reduction thresholds force, to some extent, industry and households to explore alternatives to traditional consumerism, or at least accommodate the demand for sustainable/clean energy production.

·         Techology. Particularly the Internet First generation (people who use Internet and orient themselves around this medium over printed press and TV) has, in the past decade, explored the possibilities of exploring and fulfilling social, cognitive, aesthetic and actualization needs online, regardless of how functional or privileged they may be IRL (In Real Life).

·         Globalization. Both Ecology and The Internet Revolution constitutes transnational movements that facilitates a global or geocentric world view. It is the first time in history such a view has been “promoted.” Globalization differs from globalism (but cannot exist logically exist separately from it) by having to do with political and commercial integration.

As the fundamental premises of our existence changes we may see a change also in the primary identity of citizens in the West, and worldwide, flowing naturally from consumer to a more diverse set of behavioral patterns.

Transcendence is not a characteristic of the mainstream culture at the moment, but presents itself as more of a possibility now and ever before in history.


Recession in itself is not a trigger of transcendence, even if it may force people to seek other avenues than materialism. Converging with other megatrends of the century, however, a growing portion of citizens may orient themselves as other than or more than consumers and voters in the hyper-industrialized modern society.


1. The number may refer to either the 5% rule, stating that 5% of any group or population is generally required to achieve critical mass and perpetual momentum, or 16% according to other theories, since this is the combined force of innovators (2.5%) and early adopters (13.5%).

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