The Cultural Creatives

Reviewed by Richard Walthers

I have been telling my friends for the past 30 years that there would be another flowering of the tremendous energy that was expended to end the Viet Nam war, and another blossoming of the moral righteousness that launched the civil rights movement. I refused to believe that these events were the result of a singular explosion of prolonged adolescent bio-chemical energy that naturally dissipates as time passes. I refused to believe that these movements were only empowered and triumphal due to the sheer number of people included in the cohort. Most of my friends believed these events were once-in-a-lifetime occurrences. I, of course, always argued to the contrary.

A new book just published, The Cultural Creatives by sociologist Paul H. Ray and psychologist Sherry Ruth Anderson, describes the evolution of this energy as embodied in a newly identified subculture. It provides much of the information I need to argue my case with my disbelieving friends. Author Ray has spent the last 13 years polling and studying American society and he has detected a large emergent subculture, 50 million adults, that has been invisible to most of society. Ray and Anderson have named these people the "Cultural Creatives" because they have been silently shaping a new American culture that supports their beliefs and lifestyle.

Cultural Creatives have lead the way in anti-pollution fights, in protecting ecosystems, and in limiting environmentally damaging growth. They also actively support women’s issues, and have been involved in rebuilding neighborhoods and communities. Some additional identifying characteristics of this group are their strong interests in holistic health, self-actualization, personal growth psychology and spirituality. This group presently consists of individuals who see themselves as isolated from the current mainstream of society with no sense of any cohesive group identity.

The first section of the book is devoted to a detailed definition of American culture and how the right to define America has been contested by society’s two main cultural components, the Moderns and the Traditionals for more than 100 years. It is within this context of cultural conflict that the authors have identified a new emerging subculture, the Cultural Creatives.

The modern mainstream has been dominant in this country since Columbus first landed in the New World. This is the commercialized, industrialized world populated by achievement-oriented consumers who live in the present. The Traditionals are characterized as the first American counterculture that split off from the main Modern path about 1870. It is the culture of memory.

"Traditionals remember a vanished America and long for its restoration," the authors describe. "They place their hopes in the recovery of small-town, religious America. This mythic world was cleaner, more principled, and less conflicted than the one that impinges on us every day today. Often this imagined world never really was." This group, in rejecting the modern system and its secular worldview, has been looking backward and continues to do so in an attempt to recapture a past phase of Modernism.

By contrast, the Cultural Creatives are looking forward to go beyond the current system and are inwardly departing from the Modern materialistic worldview. Author Ray dates this divergence to about 1970, and he presents concise histories of the important social movements for women, civil rights, and the environment that served as the seedbeds for most of the members of this new subculture. The authors do this to give a sense for where this group’s roots are grounded. However, they then launch into an extended discussion of the consciousness movement. The book could have been beneficially shortened by not including so much anecdotal evidence. Whereas such stories are critically important to create vivid pictures of how spiritual epiphanies and consciousness raising encounters provided necessary linkages to and between various social movements, it could have been done more succinctly.

This group has been fragmented and isolated largely because during the past several decades while they were diverging from the main culture, there was no established support structure to aid learning and organization. It is the authors’ contention that now institutions have arisen that can support individuals seeking alternatives. They also now have the power of size to be heard and affect meaningful change. Ray and Anderson have ultimate faith in this subculture to direct society in positive directions in the future. In fact, the subtitle of the book is "How 50 million people are changing the world."

This represents a sizeable portion of the U.S. population. If these numbers are correct, this subculture is going to have an incredible impact on so many aspects of American life. Having named and described this group in detail, the authors should also have interpreted their data to give a flavor of some possible future scenarios.

I know from my firm’s consulting work with what we call "cult companies," consumers are no longer accepting the usual solutions from providers. Every type of product from housewares to automobiles, from foodstuffs to energy suppliers is being questioned and judged by a new set of criteria. The implications for product design and development, the arts, communications, and health care are astounding. It would have been enlightening to have the authors’ thoughts on the ramifications of the Cultural Creatives demanding sustainable solutions for all aspects of their lives. This group is about to unleash the considerable power it has been collecting during the last three decades. This book adds considerable understanding to how this group formed and what is contained in the structure and content of their belief system. Perhaps it is another book that details all the potentials that will arrive with the impending worldview changes.

One of the important underlying foundation stones of the growth of the Cultural Creatives is their passionate desire to create a sustainable future. This is due to the fact that most members of this subculture belong to what one of Ray’s interview subjects, Joanna Macy, called "the first generation to have lost the certainty that there will be a future." We are in a great transition between worldviews, values and ways of life. In short we are between the informing stories by which we live. The search for elders to help us through this transition and create the new stories is clearly underway.

Perhaps the most singularly important aspect of this book is how it mimics the Japanese sun goddess myth that Ray and Anderson use as an epilogue. The sun goddess locked herself inside the Cave of Heaven and the whole earth began to die. The spirits of all living things decided to have a big celebration to draw the sun goddess out of her cave. The plan was then to each hold up a shard of mirror to reflect her radiance. So amazed to see herself reflected in so many tens of thousands of mirrors, she danced all the way out of her hiding place and back to her rightful place in the big blue sky. As Cultural Creatives read this book they will see themselves reflected in the pages amplifying their presence and thereby ending their isolation and, hopefully, allow them to concentrate even more energy to the task of restoring the earth by their collective positive actions.

So, to all those disbelieving friends of mine, I hold up this mirror of a book to let them know that the energies of the 1960s were not permanently dissipated. Rather they were metamorphosing into something bigger and stronger that is about to make its presence known again.