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Our Collective Awakening and the Politics of Consciousness

by Duane Elgin

The challenges of our times are so great that we are called to move beyond our personal awakening to our collective awakening—as communities, as nations, and as a species. In this generation we confront growing disruption of the global climate, an enormous increase in human populations living in gigantic cities, the depletion of vital resources such as fresh water and cheap oil, the massive and rapid extinction of animal and plant species around the world, growing disparities between the rich and the poor made starkly visible with the communications revolution, and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Considering just this limited list, it is clear that the human family must wake up and begin to make profound changes in our manner of living, consuming, working, and relating if we are to build a sustainable future.

But what is the nature of the “collective awakening” that is so essential to our future? Some may view this as a collective mystical experience that magically galvanizes our sense of connection with and compassion for all of life. However, I see our awakening in much more practical and approachable terms. A common theme in the world's spiritual traditions, as well as in psychotherapy, is that the first step in awakening is to simply see “what is.” In other words, we begin by becoming an objective witness or impartial observer who tells ourselves the truth about our actual situation. Honest reflection and nonjudgmental witnessing are fundamental to both individual and collective awakening.

By mobilizing our capacity for reflective consciousness, we can become self-directing agents of our own evolution, not only personally but also socially. In a democracy, when we are informed as individual citizens, then we “know.” However, when we communicate and reflect among ourselves as citizens—publicly learning about and affirming our shared sentiments as an extended community—then we “know that we know.” In our dangerous and difficult time of global transition, it is not sufficient for civilizations to be wise; we must become “doubly wise” through social communication that clearly reveals our collective knowing to ourselves. Once there is a capacity for sustained and authentic social reflection, we will then have the means to achieve a shared understanding and a working consensus regarding appropriate actions for a positive future. Actions can then come quickly and voluntarily. We can mobilize ourselves purposefully, and each person can contribute his or her unique talents to building a life-affirming future.

How, then, does a nation of several hundred million people pay attention? Where is the “knowing faculty” to be found in modern civilizations? I believe that television, in particular, is fundamental to the knowing capacity of modern societies. However, to suggest that television is vital for the functioning of a reflective consciousness for modern societies will strike many people as an outrageous assertion. Television has been called a “boob tube,” a “cultural barbiturate,” a “vast wasteland,” and worse. How can such a seemingly dysfunctional technology be at the heart of our capacity for social knowing?

A few stark statistics testify to the power of television in dominating the consciousness and perceptions of modern society. In the U.S., 99 percent of all households have a television, making the TV set one of the most common fixtures in our lives. The average person watches nearly four hours of television per day, and a majority of persons get a majority of their news about the world from this single source. Television creates our shared frame of reference, and for all practical purposes, if something does not appear on television, it does not exist in mass social consciousness. Television, then, has become our social witness, our shared vehicle for knowing that we know.

Despite the power of television to awaken our collective knowing, it is clearly not serving us in this way. Television may be our primary social mirror, but it is holding up a reflection that is diminished, distorted, and shortsighted. Consequently, I believe that the most critical environmental problem facing humanity is not a problem with the physical environment but with the electronic environment generated by the mass media. To build a sustainable and compassionate future, we must overcome the cultural hypnosis of consumerism that is generated daily by commercial television. By allowing television to be programmed primarily for commercial success, we are simultaneously programming the mindset of entire civilizations for evolutionary stagnation and ecological failure. Our evolutionary maturity is being tested. Our future as a species may well depend on a new “politics of consciousness” that holds the mass media accountable for being a fair witness and mature partner in our collective awakening.

Duane Elgin is an author, speaker, educator, and activist for media accountability. His personal website is, which contains his writings as well as information about his upcoming talks, telecourses, and workshops. He is also the cofounder of the nonprofit organization Our Media Voice:


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