Climbing the Ladder of Awareness

When it comes to our understanding of the unfolding global crisis, each of us seems to fit somewhere along a continuum of awareness that can be roughly divided into five stages:

  1. Dead asleep. At this stage there seem to be no fundamental problems, just some shortcomings in human organization, behaviour and morality that can be fixed with the proper attention to rule-making. People at this stage tend to live their lives happily, with occasional outbursts of annoyance around election times or the quarterly corporate earnings seasons.
  2. Awareness of one fundamental problem. Whether it’s Climate Change, overpopulation, Peak Oil, chemical pollution, oceanic over-fishing, biodiversity loss, corporatism, economic instability or sociopolitical injustice, one problem seems to engage the attention completely. People at this stage tend to become ardent activists for their chosen cause. They tend to be very vocal about their personal issue, and blind to any others.
  3. Awareness of many problems. As people let in more evidence from different domains, the awareness of complexity begins to grow. At this point a person worries about the prioritization of problems in terms of their immediacy and degree of impact. People at this stage may become reluctant to acknowledge new problems – for example, someone who is committed to fighting for social justice and against climate change may not recognize the problem of resource depletion. They may feel that the problem space is already complex enough, and the addition of any new concerns will only dilute the effort that needs to be focused on solving the "highest priority" problem.
  4. Awareness of the interconnections between the many problems. The realization that a solution in one domain may worsen a problem in another marks the beginning of large-scale system-level thinking. It also marks the transition from thinking of the situation in terms of a set of problems to thinking of it in terms of a predicament. At this point the possibility that there may not be a solution begins to raise its head. People who arrive at this stage tend to withdraw into tight circles of like-minded individuals in order to trade insights and deepen their understanding of what’s going on. These circles are necessarily small, both because personal dialogue is essential for this depth of exploration, and because there just aren’t very many people who have arrived at this level of understanding.
  5. Awareness that the predicament encompasses all aspects of life. This includes everything we do, how we do it, our relationships with each other, as well as our treatment of the rest of the biosphere and the physical planet. With this realization, the floodgates open, and no problem is exempt from consideration or acceptance. The very concept of a "Solution" is seen through, and cast aside as a waste of effort.

For those who arrive at Stage 5 there is a real risk that depression will set in. After all, we’ve learned throughout our lives that our hope for tomorrow lies in our ability to solve problems today. When no amount of human cleverness appears able to solve our predicament the possibility of hope can vanish like a the light of a candle flame, to be replaced by the suffocating darkness of despair.

How people cope with despair is of course deeply personal, but it seems to me there are two general routes people take to reconcile themselves with the situation. These are not mutually exclusive, and most of us will operate out of some mix of the two. I identify them here as general tendencies, because people seem to be drawn more to one or the other. I call them the outer path and the inner path.

If one is inclined to choose the outer path, concerns about adaptation and local resilience move into the foreground, as exemplified by the Transition Network and Permaculture Movement. To those on the outer path, community-building and local sustainability initiatives will have great appeal. Organized party politics seems to be less attractive to people at this stage, however. Perhaps politics is seen as part of the problem, or perhaps it’s just seen as a waste of effort when the real action will take place at the local level.

If one is disinclined to choose the outer path either because of temperament or circumstance, the inner path offers its own set of attractions.

Choosing the inner path involves re-framing the whole thing in terms of consciousness, self-awareness and/or some form of transcendent perception. For someone on this path it is seen as an attempt to manifest Gandhi’s message, "Become the change you wish to see in the world," on the most profoundly personal level. This message is similarly expressed in the ancient Hermetic saying, "As above, so below." Or in plain language, "In order to heal the world, first begin by healing yourself."

However, the inner path does not imply a "retreat into religion". Most of the people I’ve met who have chosen an inner path have as little use for traditional religion as their counterparts on the outer path have for traditional politics. Organized religion is usually seen as part of the predicament rather than a valid response to it. Those who have arrived at this point have no interest in hiding from or easing the painful truth, rather they wish to create a coherent personal context for it. Personal spirituality of one sort or another often works for this, but organized religion rarely does.

It’s worth mentioning that there is also the possibility of a serious personal difficulty at this point. If someone cannot choose an outer path for whatever reasons, and is also resistant to the idea of inner growth or spirituality as a response the the crisis of an entire planet, then they are truly in a bind. There are few other doorways out of this depth of despair. If one remains stuck here for an extended period of time, life can begin to seem awfully bleak, and violence against either the world or oneself may begin begin to seem like a reasonable option. Please keep a watchful eye on your own progress, and if you encounter someone else who may be in this state, please offer them a supportive ear.

From my observations, each successive stage contains roughly a tenth of the number people as the one before it. So while perhaps 90% of humanity is in Stage 1, less than one person in ten thousand will be at Stage 5 (and none of them are likely to be politicians). The number of those who have chosen the inner path in Stage 5 also seems to be an order of magnitude smaller than the number who are on the outer path.

I happen to have chosen an inner path as my response to a Stage 5 awareness. It works well for me, but navigating this imminent (transition, shift, metamorphosis – call it what you will), will require all of us – no matter what our chosen paths – to cooperate on making wise decisions in difficult times.

Best wishes for a long, exciting and fulfilling journey.


  1. Very nice analysis, and it seems to me there is also a further stage where both the inner and outer path become integrated–outer action in the world integrated with an inward “spiritual” (if you will) contemplation and practice. At this point the personal difficulty seems to become less painful (I’m mostly talking from personal experience and observation of a few others) and there is a deep commitment to both outer action and inner cultivation, even if the problems/predicaments seem possibly insurmountable. Permaculture entered my life at a “stage 5” time and was the vehicle I needed to move beyond paralysis and despair. Much gratitude to the many teachers and pioneers of this movement for all their hard work and dedication to disseminating this information and worldview. Are you familiar with Spiral Dynamics? Very good read if you have not read it already. Thanks much!

  2. I’m sorry to tell that the journey is not likely to become so long, as I learned recently that humans already use close to 50% of the world’s photosynthesis. The worst fact is that with a steady state humanity will use more than 100% of the world’s total photosynthesis within 40 years, or year 2053. This mean that there will be no photosynthesis left for producing food and fibers etc for other than humans, i.e. there will be no food leftover for other species than humans. Then all species other than those producing for humans will go extinct, there will simply not be any food left for them, as humanity will consume more than 100% of the outcome of the photosynthesis. This is simple a fact: (in Norwegian)

  3. I appreciated the first comment by Catherine, in that both the outer and inner paths of Stage 5 are very important to me. The outer strengthens community bonds and a sense of shared purpose. The inner path supports personal spiritual growth and with it inner resiliency as the body ages.

  4. You say choosing the inner path involves “re-framing the whole thing in terms of consciousness, self-awareness and/or some form of transcendent perception”. The inner path can also involve other things, that don’t contain glib or bland “spiritual” words. For example, the inner path can involve using non-violent communication, or it could involve practical measures that don’t involve “transcendence”. We can simply love our places, we can create beauty in our lives, we can create nurturing moments.

    The two paths are connected, of course. The “outer path” is the “manifestation” of the “inner path” – or to use “spiritual” words, the source and the seen cannot be separated. There is an inner path when one nurtures the soil, when one gardens naturally, when we compost our waste (and our experiences) to replenish life itself, when we act from an ethos of fertility, rather than consumption. We cannot transcend anything – we need to be our embodiment and relish our physical activities as equally “inner” as any kind of “consciousness-raising” activities.

    There are many ideas in the five stages that could be critiqued. But I’ll raise just one. Stage 3, awareness of many problems, contains some illogical and spurious ideas, such as the need to prioritise problems and the reluctance to acknowledge new problems. Because all problems are connected, working on one, works on them all – so it is sufficient to work on the one problem that is most suitable to the individual, and there is no need to arbitrarily construct priorities amongst problems.

  5. “For myself, I am proud of my atheist upbringing, in which humanist values defined an ethical framework for a rational world; but I also accept that, through the project of permaculture, my life is by small increments being drawn towards some sort of spiritual awareness and perspective that is not yet clear. To deny this, based on the evidence would be irrational.” David Holmgren, Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability

    Just thought I would throw that in the mix.

  6. I think that there is yet another stage 6 and that is realization and understanding of the root of the problems described. Nothing can be solved without addressing it at the root. To understand the root of our problems, one must go to the beginning of our civilization, which is a very treacherous journey. But once there, it is obvious why many are on what it is called here the inner path, rejection of organized religions, etc. Look at the picture, that really tells that the the Stage 6 is real and where it may lead us. The spiral is, of course, symbolizes not only the journey but also the cosmic pattern embedded in life.

    “For a thousand hacking on branches of the tree of evil, there is on striking on the root” – David Thoreau. Indeed, a very lonely effort.

    Understanding the Stage 6 also sheds more light on deciding whether to use the outer path (trying to change, improve or correct what is – obviously a futile effort) or use the inner one that may lead to attempts to build various alternatives to what is, in other words, trying to create a new culture. Hence, the book The Cultural Creatives by Paul Ray is a must read to understand what is going on in our society.

  7. Again, as I look at the picture, the more appropriate title would be : Descending on the ladder of awareness. We have to go deeper and deeper to understand our predicament.

  8. The facts about the photosynthesis is from here:

    1. Vitousek, P.M., et al., Human domination of Earth’s ecosystems. Science, 1997. 277(5325): p. 494-499.

    The article above is now published at Kulturverk too:

    I think we should start to discuss how large part of the photsynthesis humans have the right to claim. We are now heading for a 110% use of the planet’s total photosyntesis, ignoring other species. Is it moral acceptable for humans to lay hold on more than f.ex. 10% of the total amount of the photosynthesis?

    Personaly I think we are obligated to reduce our numbers and our economical activity down to 10% of the planet’s photosynthesis. If we don’t do so voluntary, nature will force us to. We only have 30 years left to turn the trend, if not we will pass a 100% use ot the total amount of the photosynthesis. Proponents of eternal growth might not worry, but can we really survive without all these species that are not of direct use for humans as food and fibers?

  9. About three weeks before I wrote the piece published here, I wrote one on extending the Kubler-Ross framework to include a sixth stage, that I called “Finding the Gift”. I make no prescriptions about what such a “Gift” might be – obviously it’s deeply personal, dependent on our individual circumstances and worldview. Based on the comments, some here might be interested in it. It’s on my web site at


  10. Stages of growing awareness refer not to the same process as stages of dying by EKR, the latter applying to any deep change in our lives, not just death and in such situation, the sixth stage was added: New Beginnings. It is in line what is called Paradigm Shift theories. Indeed, when it comes to our personal lives, the New Beginning may be based or may hinge on finding the gift inside. But that is not what I suggested as a 6th stage of awareness.

    I see it as understanding and realization that the root of all our problems is demonstrated by development of civilization. It developed as it did in its many forms and tries because of the pursuit of power and domination. That was the common base, so common that we think it absolutely natural. The problem is inside us, carried over generations simply by social indoctrination. What is it? How did it start? Why have it spread? Only understanding that may bring us to what needs to be done. And, because of the nature of the problem, it can be done only one person at the time.

    What happened ca. 10,000 years ago?? Sure, it goes hand in hand with development of agriculture. But what was first: agriculture or propensity for evil inside us? It seems to be that agriculture just allowed the genie out of the bottle.

    I may say that the sixth stage is deeply spiritual as the roots of our problems are somehow related to our basic human endowments and our connection with the Source, as this have been broken. This is how far one can get by our limited mind and that is where I am still stuck. To move forward one (and many) needs to be free of constraints imposed on us by our social web and be fueled by the source of energy that comes from new to most of us eternal realm.

  11. Paul,

    There is a Zen saying, “Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.”

    Whilst inner and outer paths leading to awareness sound like a good idea, nothing trumps actions which put food on the table and fuel in the hearth.


  12. Chris,

    Of course I agree about chopping wood and carrying water. But the other side of that coin is “Gnothi seuaton.” Neither should be neglected if one wishes to be a whole person.

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