Who Will Lead the Next Tipping Point?

Whether or not you use the catchy phrase “tipping point,” behind it lies an idea whose time has come. This is the idea that there is a collective consciousness, a mind shared by an entire society. Polls give us a snapshot of the social mind as it applies to issues of the day. But that is more superficial than collective consciousness, which isn’t defined by opinions or even beliefs. Rather, it’s a shared awareness of who we are and where we are going. When major changes occur in society that affect everyone, such as the outbreak of the Civil War or the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the collective consciousness has shifted. But before the shift can occur, the weight of collective consciousness must decisively tip one way or another.

We live in such uncertain times that the next tipping point could come from anywhere. Every week trial balloons are sent up and premature forecasts delivered. The Tea Party could serve as a bellwether, since it sprang almost from nowhere, fueled by widespread social frustration and fear. Will it tip the scales into a wholesale revolt again the welfare state and the power of central government? A year ago the notion was absurd, the Tea Party being seen as a fringe movement with no major impact on politics as usual. But much has happened since then, as we all know, and Rep. Michele Bachmann certainly is betting that populist discontent can be ridden all the way to the White House.

That won’t occur unless we pass a tipping point and collective consciousness takes a radical turn. Looking deeper, however, politics may be a tremor compared to a future earthquake. Depending on how the world tips, you can find supporters for any and all of the following drastic scenarios:

The end of U.S. economic dominance.
A takeover of global leadership by China.
The collapse of any hope for reversing global climate change.
Fossil fuels choking the planet, while skyrocketing oil prices lead to economic wars among nations desperate for energy.
A worldwide crisis in our supply of food and water.
A sudden leap in technology that will save us from ecological disaster.
A spiritual quantum leap that carries us into a new age of post-religious beliefs.
A genetic solution to all problems of illness and aging.
Perpetual terrorism and religious unrest.

This is an abbreviated list — I haven’t even touched on the various scenarios for nuclear weapons — but it’s enough to show that we are living in a time of unsettled beliefs, restless speculation, and deep-seated uncertainty. Should we be worried for this reason alone, following the mythical Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times?” Or is our time a phase transition leading to the emergence of a new paradigm? Clearly President Obama is one leader who wants to preside over a transition into a new economic structure, the main elements being globalism, the end of traditional antagonisms, and independence from oil.

Just as clearly, his opponents want a radical upset of the apple cart. Since the 2008 presidential election, the right wing has become more vocal and reactionary, making plain through tax cuts and overspending that they are pursuing a “starve the best” agenda to radically reduce government. Common sense tells us that a modern society cannot exist without the Internet, social Security, Medicare, civil rights, and interstate highways — all the product of a strong federal government — but it’s the nature of radical movements to follow their own obsessive ideology. If this wild horse takes off, there will be no turning back, and a reforming idealist like Obama may find himself unseated by a tipping point he didn’t see coming.

I far prefer the Obama perspective, using a time of crisis to retool America for a future that is green, global, and peaceful. Yet I recognize that collective consciousness isn’t reasonable. Pressures can build up that lead to horrifying consequences like the totalitarianism of the twentieth century or the rise of radical Islam in our day. There are too many possibilities, both positive and negative, to allow for any reliable predictions about the state of the world fifty years from now. Uncertainty is a factor that deepens stress, along with lack of control, and both are present everywhere, which is why social stress is the hallmark of our existence right now.

But uncertainty can be used creatively. All art begins with a blank canvas, all new ideas with a blank page. Out of the unknown emerges the future, so making peace with the unknown is essential. I don’t call it easy. A layer of fear and restlessness must be dealt with on an individual basis. With that knowledge, it’s good for each of us to spend some time facing our own anxiety and helping others face theirs. I think it’s also productive to pick the vision you want to see unfold and work toward it. Perhaps you have a vision of a greener world or one devoid of nuclear arms; perhaps you want to support the shift in spiritual values. What is certain is that without a vision life becomes aimless, and eventually aimlessness becomes subject to chaos and deepening fear. Make the unknown a state of new possibilities — that’s the overarching theme for the decade to come. It may be a wobbly decade, but if we remain conscious and do not give in to reactionary fantasies and demagoguery, we can find ourselves renewed with greater fulfillment than ever before.

Published by The San Francisco Chronicle