Exploring the origins, ethics and future of changemaking

A short history of saving the world

In Culture, Origins on June 8, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Where did the modern idea of charity and doing good come from? The notion of the non-profit as the primary vehicle for change is incredibly new in the grand scheme of Earth’s history. There are many drivers behind doing good, and it has also taken many forms and structures in society and community over time. I frame it here deliberately not from the point of view of ‘doing good’, but what has driven the emergence of new forms. That drive is a deep cultural and psychological need to be ‘saved’ or ‘to save’.

It all began with this idea that The Gods will Save Us, or at least close to it. We actually originally thought we could save ourselves until we realised there were other forces at play beyond our control, AND, that saving oneself doesn’t always work!

So we attempted coexisting together for a while, yet were somehow powerless to the whims of the mighty Gods – victims in a world where we were unable to really make it for ourselves. This was at least until we noticed someone doing (or asserting) things a little different. He (or maybe she), showed us that ….

…the glorious, powerful Leader will Save Us – well, this makes sense; sure there is someone out there who just knows best, or is at least a whole lot stronger. This meme is still around us and in us. The catch is that no matter how wise and powerful and great the leader, they only see a small part of a greater Truth. Plus, that kind of power can run away on the individual. So we decided to think that…

Truth will Save Us from the tyranny of the mighty, fallen leader. And for many it did, but Truth still struggled to gain traction in a world clinging to the glorious powerful leader. The only way to get beyond him was to create the Institution….

The idea that the Institution will Save Us wasn’t too much of a leap from the Truth as Savior. So often the early institutions were created as vehicles for disseminating Truth. And if only we followed Truth then the world would be fine. But the catch was that it didn’t just work like that. So we looked to create certain kinds of institutions to do this for us. We thought Governments will save us or charities will save us, in fact we keep on building organisations to satisfy this yearning and find the perfect way.

The catch is that on their own, they don’t. If we are really going to expand and grow and make something of this, we needed to find a much higher Truth again…the Market.

The notion that the Market will Save Us has been around for a good while now, and in a way took us back to a somewhat higher expression of ‘every person for themselves’ (EPfT). And despite the evidence that the ‘EPfT Theory’ is flawed, we still convince ourselves that this works. Although markets have achieved a lot (for some), we have come to see that they too have limits. We have seen how power and greed can run away on people, and the gains for some actually create pain for others.

Of course, the market as savior is not yet done-and-dusted. We are still trying to find more equitable ways of doing the market through social entrepreneurship, impact investing, conscious capitalism and more. This is not to dismiss or dispute the idea of the market. It is clearly a compelling idea that is worth continuing to pursue in the hope that we might find the magic that makes the market thrive in a just and sustainable way.

Yet some didn’t quite go down the road of social entrepreneurship, they took a left (or was it right) turn. There was this compelling new idea that…

…Community will Save Us.

The most beautiful expression of this meme is the Berkana Institutes slogan – “whatever the problem, community is the answer”. Of course disciples of the market as savior may find it hard to see the value of community as savior, or vice versa. Yet for some it is social entrepreneurship that seeks to bring them together. And we are also seeing a rebirth of cooperatives and ways for communities to operate and thrive in an open market.

Some hold that all of these coexist as part of an interconnected system. Pursuing the idea that the System will Save Us is one of our latest adventures. The idea is that if only we can make the system function in a smooth and equitable way, all will be good in the world. This is partly driven by the inability of the Institution to meet the needs of the society, and for others it is the new and obvious Truth….the explanation of explanations.

These ideas aren’t new and have been written about and mapped in numerous ways. Often the emergence of these memes is presented in a hierarchical way, with each emerging from the previous. There is truth in this, and they aren’t all equally comparable but may one day be mutually beneficial. What we can see is the constant evolution and emergence of higher viewpoints of how the world operates. While these views are mapped hierarchically, it does not mean that the earlier ones die out…transcend AND include as they say. They are all in us and around us coexisting.

I move between these worlds daily. I see and hear the disciples of the market dismiss the disciples of the community, and vice versa. Some write-off the Institution as a dead form, and for others the idea of individual as leader is an outdated function. The fact is that they are all here and constantly evolving and reshaping themselves. Some forms morph together and others disappear.

I find it less helpful to get caught up in which ideology is the best ideology. It is more helpful for me to try and discover:

 …how am I most gracefully and effortlessly able to shift across this vast territory to be of best service in the world?


If you are interested in this kind of stuff, I would recommend exploring anything by Graves, Cowan, Beck, Wilber. Check out the Resources page on this site.

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