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Awakening the Double Wisdom of Civilization

by Duane Elgin

Although many recognize that an individual can be conscious of him- or herself, we seldom consider whether a whole society can be conscious of itself. Certainly at moments of great tragedy or great triumph there seems to be a capacity for millions of autonomous individuals to be conscious of themselves as a singular collective. For example, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, virtually an entire nation went into mourning. For a period of several days, a whole country paused and, together, people acknowledged the passing of their leader. Another moment of shared knowing occurred with the first lunar landing. For a few hours, much of the world paused to watch the first humans walk on the moon. In recent times, the terrorist strike on the World Trade Towers in New York City shocked a nation's consciousness into a time of collective attention.

The power of each of these events was not only in the sense of tragedy or triumph experienced by each person, but also in the awareness that this personal experience was being shared simultaneously by millions, even billions, of other people. Clearly, a civilization can be conscious of itself and, as in the example of the moon landing, nearly the entire species was aware that it was passing through a historic moment in its evolution.

Not only can we be collectively aware, but I believe the awakening of our collective consciousness at the scale of community, nation, and the planet is vital if we are to choose a positive future. An emerging whole-system crisis threatens humanity's future with powerful trends ranging from global climate change and unsustainable economic growth to diminished agricultural productivity, the depletion of cheap oil, a growing chasm between rich and poor, the extinction of species, and growing terrorism. Within the next several decades, we citizens of developed nations will be pressed to awaken to the world and make profound changes in our manner of living, consuming, and working if we are to build a sustainable future.

To realize this pattern shift toward a life-affirming future in a voluntary manner, hundreds of millions of people will be called to act in conscious cooperation with one another. Can we accomplish this leap to a new level and capacity in our collective consciousness? In my estimation, absolutely Yes! I believe that our core evolutionary potential lies, largely unnoticed, in the scientific name that we have given to ourselves as a species. Technically, our name is not simply Homo sapiens or “wise humans”; instead, we are called Homo sapiens sapiens or “doubly wise humans.” In other words, where animals have the capacity “to know,” humans have the capacity “to know that we know.”

Personal reflection refers to seeing ourselves in the mirror of consciousness and observing the unfolding of our lives. By analogy, social reflection refers to seeing ourselves in the mirror of collective consciousness by using tools such as television and the internet. Once there is authentic social reflection, we can achieve a shared understanding and a working consensus regarding actions for a sustainable future. With a shared understanding, actions can come quickly and voluntarily, and we can each contribute our unique talents to the creation of a life-affirming future.

How are we to accomplish this awakening of our collective consciousness? It is important to recall that it was television that enabled people to share in the large-scale collective experiences described earlier. We were all looking through the window of television at the assassination of JFK, the landing on the moon, and the collapse of the World Trade Towers. The bottom line is this: I believe that if we are to take practical steps to awaken our society, then citizens must make their voices heard in creating a more reflective and responsive television environment. Although many in the “consciousness community” have turned away from television in disgust, the reality is that both in the U.S. and around the planet, the overwhelming majority of people get most of their news about the world from this single source. At this pivotal time in human history, we cannot afford to turn away from the primary technology that supports expression of our collective consciousness. Instead, now is the time for: authentic reality shows that dramatize a future of climate change and species extinction; situation comedies that show the humorous side of life in an “eco-village” of fifty or so people; national interactive dialogues with sustained inquiry about our energy future; or genuine survivor shows that take us inside life in poorer nations.

The world is now several decades into the communications era, and it is time for a mainstream social movement and politics concerned with media consciousness. Our evolving use of these powerful technologies is not keeping pace with our deteriorating planetary conditions. We are losing the race between awakening and catastrophe. I believe the core challenge of this generation is to mobilize our extraordinary tools of local-to-global connection to consciously communicate our way into a sustainable and meaningful future. It is time for citizens to take back the public airwaves for purposes of mature dialogue about our common future and to create a politics of consciousness that mobilizes our capacity for collective reflection and conversation. It is time to awaken the double wisdom of civilizations.

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


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This article is from...


October–December 2004