This essay, or working paper, is my latest effort to explore how we may live as best we can in the global polycrisis that we have entered.
I use the terms global polycrisis and polycrisis throughout this working paper. But I hold no special brief for these terms. I will discuss many other frames of reference as well. For simplicity’s sake, I have chosen a title that I believe almost everyone can relate to: “Changing Times.”
I have thought about the polycrisis for at least 50 of my 78 years. When I first imagined founding Commonweal in 1975, my vision was of a center dedicated to healing ourselves and healing the earth. In the early years, we held conferences on the prospects for better systems of planetary governance.
We were active participants at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992—which many saw as the last chance for a North-South agreement on a sustainable future. Likewise we have focused for 30 years at Commonweal on environmental health and justice.
In the early 2000s I wrote a series of articles on “The Biosocial Decline Hypothesis,” “Biopsychosocial Transformation,” and “The Age of Extinctions and the Emerging Environmental Health Movement.” They each addressed the emerging reality of the polycrisis through the lens of this new age of human driven extinctions.
During the last decade, I served as an informal advisor to a visionary effort called the Fan Initiative (faninitiative.net) which seeks to identify and address a dozen global stressors that threaten civilizational collapse. The work of the Fan Initiative pulled me back into a community of global thinkers whose focus is the polycrisis.
This is the backstory for our current work at Commonweal on resilience in the face of the global polycrisis. That work led to the formation at Commonweal of Omega, our effort to contribute to building the field of polycrisis research and resilient response. Through the Jenifer Altman Foundation, we co-founded the Omega Resilience Funders Network with other colleagues. In 2022, we added the Omega Resilience Awards project, which is in an advanced planning stage.
We work closely with a global community of thinkers and doers who share our hope for a more just and resilient world. We claim no originality. We build on the work of all those who have gone before us.
Ukraine War as the third poster child for the polycrisis
In many respects, the Ukraine war has emerged as the third poster child for the polycrisis. In this accounting, the climate emergency was the first, COVID was the second, and the Ukraine war is the third.
Not all people around the world share this narrative. In the West, the Ukraine war is front and center in our minds right now. The human catastrophe is immense. But we should realize that a considerable part of humanity does not share our perception for a range of different reasons.
For one thing, many regions have suffered far greater human catastrophes than the Ukraine war that the West did not respond to with such concern and generosity. If we are to take a global view, we need to understand from the start that there will be no single shared narrative of the polycrisis.
What you see depends on where you sit—and whether you have food, shelter, safety and other basic essentials of life. It also depends on whether you and your country or tribe or reference community have on the whole gained from the hegemony of the West over the last 500 years or whether you and those you identify with have largely suffered.
If we want to think clearly about the polycrisis, we must consciously “de-center” our reference community and commit to being interested in how the polycrisis is perceived and experienced everywhere. We may not like how others see the polycrisis. But if we don’t understand the whole range of perspectives, we will not understand the polycrisis itself.
Geopolitics as an important driver of global change
For those few who do think in the framework of the polycrisis, the Ukraine war can reasonably be described as the third poster child for the polycrisis—even if other countries have suffered greater catastrophes. The global response is a large part of the explanation. We knew about the climate crisis. COVID came unannounced, though long predicted. The Ukraine war was both unannounced and unpredicted in the media —though experts were aware of the risk.
From the polycrisis perspective, the Ukraine war reminds us that geopolitics is as important a global change agent as climate, COVID, the financial/economic system, or the technological transformation.
This is the first major war waged in an entirely wired world. Putin miscalculated. He thought he understood the military vectors of force. He did not count on the courage of the Ukranians, the power of social media, the depth of the political/economic sanctions, or the prospect of being cut off from half of his $630 billion war chest of foreign reserves.
In the polycrisis frame, what is striking about the Ukraine war is how it is rippling out across so many other global vectors of stress. The sanctions against Russia have transformed financial structures, further upset supply chains, and upset energy flows.
One example: The world food crisis is worsening because of the wheat supplies trapped in the Ukraine and Russia. Starvation is near in North Africa which imported grain from Russia and the Ukraine. But India has a bumper crop and surpluses to sell.
India depends on Russian oil and armaments for its military. The United States is seeking to wean India away from these dependencies, as it likewise seeks to move China away from its entente with Russia. But neither India nor China, close neighbors of Russia, which also both suffered greatly under Western imperialism, sees things according to American doctrine.
China, India, and the European Union are all neighbors of Russia. They all know that some day this war will be over. They will need to live next to Russia, whose territory spans eleven time zones and contains many of the great natural resources of the earth.
As Peter Zeihan has written, “Just as Russia and Ukraine are central to all things oil and natural gas and wheat and fertilizer, so too are they central to all things steel and aluminum and copper and palladium and uranium.” This is the real basis for the Russian-Chinese entente—and why Europe cannot remain at odds with Russia forever.
China, India, and Europe—to say nothing of the regional powers and smaller states—all know that the United States will not prioritize their interests. So this latest twist in American foreign policy—to punish Russia for the Ukraine war—does not persuade the elites or for that matter the people of these great collective enterprises to “follow the leader.” China, India, and Europe have all suffered far greater tragedies than the Ukraine war in their long histories. They are historically oriented cultures. They do not forget their histories.
The sham of the democracies vs. autocracies frame
A vast rethinking of international relationships is under way. But it isn’t the simplistic vision of democracies vs. autocracies that you read about in the American media. That framing—democracies vs. autocracies—is historically and demonstrably a sham. The United States not only supports autocracies when it serves American interests but has repeatedly overthrown democratically elected governments when they have strayed from American economic and political diktats.
The real question, from a human values perspective, should not be whether countries are democracies or not—since many countries are not, have never been, and in many cases will never be democracies. The real human values question is whether national governments deliver what their constituencies believe to be the best they can realistically hope for. And that calculus can only come from within each country.
That calculus, moreover, will be forever contested within each country. No other country should, from a human values perspective, set itself up as the arbiter of the forever-contested answer. That is what national self-determination means.
National self-determination is by no means the only human value. It will forever be in tension with other human and environmental values. We have witnessed that repeatedly in the post-colonial period as sovereign nations have experienced a wide range of goods and bads in their experiments in self-government.
As Herodotus put it, “And did you not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?”
United States hegemonic fragility
While the United States remains the most dynamic global superpower, its hegemonic status is rapidly eroding. We live in an increasingly multi-polar world. There are several superpowers, most notably the United States and China, but also in some respects the European Union and Russia, as well as a dozen or so major regional powers, depending on how you count.
The fragility of American alliances has become obvious since the Trump presidency. Inflation + COVID + supply chain problems + political polarization may topple the democratic majority in the Congress. These and other factors may cost the Democrats the presidency in 2024.
The reality that the Biden “centrist” policies may not stand deepens the awareness of United States allies and opponents of the fragility of U.S. guarantees as a superpower. That affects political calculations around the globe. Not only China, Russia and the EU are re-calibrating. Regional powers like Iran, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Canada, Nigeria, South Africa, Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Israel, Turkey, and others are re-calibrating.
What will be the next polycrisis poster child?
Who knows when the next polycrisis poster child will announce itself? Many thoughtful thinkers like Paul Krugman and Adam Tooze believe we have come to the end of the long expansion of globalization. If so, that will have vast repercussions as countries, corporations, and people around the world rework their perceptions of geopolitical realities in a more fragmented world.
Here are some of the consequential questions:
Will there be a global recession?
Will the global system fragment into separate if overlapping politico-economic blocks?
Will world hunger spread?
Will the world refugee crises destabilize more countries?
Will more nationalist-conservative parties come to power?
Will a new lethal variant of COVID—or some successor pathogen—appear?
Will a cyber-war targeting financial systems, energy grids, and information systems break out?
What is inescapable is that, on the one hand, the Ukraine war massively distracts the world from our ability to respond to the multiple environmental, social, technological, and financial stressors we face. On the other hand, as Katherine Fulton has noted, there may be beneficial results of this terrible conflict—such as the acceleration of the search for alternative energy sources and alternatives to other scarce resources.
At the same time, the troika of climate, COVID, and the Ukraine war remind us of the inescapable linkages that require a global systems approach to global, national, regional, sectoral, and local resilience.
No single frame for the polycrisis
There will not be, and in principle cannot be, one frame for the global polycrisis. That is because, while it is a global problem, the polycrisis declares itself locally and even globally in different ways, depending on where the observer is situated. Often it declares itself as an urgent focal issue—war, famine, drought, pandemic, or whatever single or combined stressors are primary for certain groups of people in specific regions.
Many if not most people around the world have lived under polycrisis conditions for decades or centuries, both in the Global North and the Global South. As the science fiction writer William Gibson puts it, “the future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.” As a result, the view from the Global North that the polycrisis has announced itself over the past several years is not necessarily a compelling one for people and places where a state of emergency has been the norm for a long time.
What has changed at a global systemic level is the number and power of the global stressors impacting the biosphere and humanity. Climate change and COVID are affecting people everywhere. Now the Ukraine war is adding to these global shocks. These global stressors are interacting with increasing velocity and intensity. They create future shocks of greater frequency, power, and unpredictability.
Four categories of global stressors: environmental, social, technological, and financial/economic
There are many ways of characterizing these global forces. We call them global stressors, but some of them can be beneficent in some ways, harmful in others. We could call them simply global change drivers because some of them have significant upsides as well as downsides. Technology changes are a prime example.
While climate, COVID and the Ukraine war are—for much but not all of the world—the three current poster children for the polycrisis, there are dozens of other stressors at work. We categorize the four categories of stressors crudely as environmental, social, technological, and financial/economic stressors. We could readily add more categories. For example, we could differentiate between social and political stressors.
Environmental stressors include climate change, toxic chemicals, degradation of the global biological commons, and much more.
Social stressors include everything from gender, ethnic and equity stressors, to geopolitical stressors, like the Ukraine war.
Technological stressors include the infinite ways technology has changed everything in the human and biological spheres. The surveillance state is a single example.
Financial/economic stressors include the present examples of inflation, supply chain disruption, the global debt overhang, unparalleled quantitative easing, and the inequality built into the global system.
Geographic approaches to the polycrisis
It is also useful to study the polycrisis on a geographical basis. A place-based analysis overlaps with the environmental, social, technological and financial/economic themes described above. How does the polycrisis appear on different continents, in different regions, for different nations?
Vaclav Smil: The impact of the polycrisis on populations, agriculture, energies, economies, and environment
In Grand Transitions, the great Canadian scientist Vaclav Smil, best known as Bill Gates’ favorite scientist, describes five forces that have shaped the modern world—population dynamics, agricultural practices and food production, choice of energy resources and the scale and efficiency of their conversions; the extent and pace of industrial production and, more recently, of the service sector, intensity of trade distribution of wealth, and the environment.
We would do well to analyze the impact of the polycrisis on each of these five major transitions—population, agriculture, energies, economies, and the environment. Most significantly, Smil sees the likelihood of a timely transition from carbon fuels to renewables as extremely unlikely.
Wikipedia: “Smil is skeptical that there will be a rapid transition to clean energy, believing it will take much longer than many predict. Smil said ‘I have never been wrong on these major energy and environmental issues because I have nothing to sell,’ unlike many energy companies and politicians.
“Smil noted in 2018 that coal, oil, and natural gas still supply 90% of the world’s primary energy. Despite decades of growth in newer renewable energy technologies, the worldwide proportion of energy supplied by fossil fuels had increased since 2000. He emphasizes that “the greatest long-term challenge in the industrial sector will be to displace fossil carbon used in the production of primary iron, cement, ammonia and plastics” which account for 15% of the total fossil fuel consumption globally. Smil favours reducing demand for fossil fuels through energy conservation, and calls for having the price of energy reflect its real costs including greenhouse gas emissions.”
Smil’s view is widely contested in the climate community. But if it turns out that Smil is correct—and his views are confirmed by others—the entire public narrative about the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, however deeply we want it to be true, contains fundamental flaws. That should be a matter of some concern.
Competing memes, framers, and narratives for the polycrisis
Another sign of the deepening polycrisis is the increase in competing memes, frames, and narratives to describe it. Decades ago, the polycrisis was described more sedately as “the human dilemma,” “the global problematique,” or, thanks to Dana Meadows, “limits to growth.”
Today, popular terms are more urgent. They include “the great turning,” “the great simplification,” “the great unraveling,” “the metacrisis,” “the permacrisis,” the prospect of “civilizational collapse,” and, on the internet, “TEOTWAWKI—the end of the world as we know it.”
The terms we use most often, the global polycrisis or, for short, the polycrisis, are useful in some circles but far less useful in others. “Polycrisis” is deliberately neutral. It does not tell a story in the same way that “navigating the great unraveling does,” or “the extinction rebellion” or “the great simplification.” These other terms are poetic. Polycrisis is prose. Worse, it is also not a beautiful word. Great words or phrases should be self-explanatory, memorable, and beautiful. It doesn’t immediately convey to people what it means. Yet it is useful in certain contexts where the poetic story-telling terms are not welcome and neutral terms open minds and doors to discussion.
Four (somewhat) hopeful perspectives on the polycrisis
The terms we use for the polycrisis are one thing. Deep analyses of the polycrisis go far beyond the brief descriptors. There is a whole literature on the polycrisis that runs the gamut from dystopian to utopian. Here are four examples of (somewhat) hopeful visions of the future.
The late great German sociologist Ulrich Beck (1944-2015) argued in The Metamorphosis of The World” that the world is not only undergoing transformation, it is undergoing metamorphosis. “The theory of metamorphosis goes beyond the theory of world risk society: it is not about the negative side effects of goods but the positive side effects of bads. They produce normative horizons of common goods and propel us beyond the national frame to a cosmopolitan outlook.” In other words, the growing evolution of a global cosmopolitan evolution is, in this telling, a good thing.
The late great British interpreter of the polycrisis, David Fleming, was a seminal figure in envisioning a better post-capitalist world. In Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy—a selection of his writings from his masterwork Lean Logic—Fleming argued that the market economy would not survive its inherent flaws beyond the early decades of the current century. Despite the challenges its failure would bring, he believed “we know what we need to do. We need to build the sequel, to draw on the inspiration which has lain dormant, like the seed beneath the snow.” Fleming imagined a future based not on competition and growth but on play, humor, and the reciprocal obligations of a rich culture.
The Canadian scholar Thomas Homer-Dixon at the Cascades Institute in British Columbia is among the foremost analysts of the polycrisis. In his books The Upside of Down and Command Hope, he relentlessly explores more hopeful paths through the polycrisis. “The Upside of Down sets out a theory of the growth, crisis, and renewal of societies. Today’s converging energy, environmental, and political-economic stresses could cause a breakdown of national and global order. Yet there are things we can do now to keep such a breakdown from being catastrophic. And some kinds of breakdown could even open up extraordinary opportunities for creative, bold reform of our societies, if we’re prepared to exploit these opportunities when they arise.”
Science fiction is a rich vein for both utopian and dystopian futures. One darkly utopian masterwork is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. Robinson imagines how climate change is turned around by an ex-Irish Prime Minister at a new United Nations Ministry for the Future in Zurich following the death of 20 million people after a heat wave in India.
Both utopian and dystopian science fiction—along with innumerable films and video games—are among the richest resources for exploring the polycrisis. The necessary distance from reality provided by science fiction enables many to explore—and prepare for—alternative futures with less fear.
The polycrisis becomes a principal global concern
The term polycrisis first emerged in the European Union. It was focused on the challenges the EU faced, not on the global polycrisis. Then President Biden in his inaugural address described the “cascading crises” the United States faces. The National Intelligence Council used his term “cascading crises” to describe America’s greatest threat in its four-year threat projection.
Wide public awareness of the polycrisis has increasingly emerged in multiple sectors. Advertisements on National Public Radio tell listeners of management services that will enable you to “pivot to whatever comes next.” Perhaps the most common public meme is that we face “a rapidly changing world.”
Resilience replaces sustainability
“Resilience” is one of the most widely used terms associated with responding to the polycrisis. Resilience carries many different meanings. Resilience has replaced sustainability since a sustainable world is no longer one we can hope for. Now at best we hope for resilience in a rapidly changing world. Like sustainability, resilience carries a host of different meanings. “Bad” things as well as “good things” can be resilient. Criminal gangs, the dark web, and all manner of other “bads” are notably resilient. We use the term resilience primarily to connote our hope that good things can survive. What we mean by good things is notoriously difficult to define.
No single frame will prevail. All perceptions of the polycrisis are specific to different geographies, cultures, socioeconomic conditions, belief systems and psychological types. If you live under severe drought, conflict, or other extreme conditions, the polycrisis may bear the name of your greatest concern.
While no single frame will prevail, humans have always been myth-makers. We craft meaning to tell stories about events beyond our comprehension. We make myths of meaning. The many frames for the polycrisis reflect competing memes or myths-in-the-making.
The significance of personality in attitudes toward the polycrisis
We readily understand that geography, politics, media, culture, class, gender, ethnicity, and other common variables shape our meaning-making perceptions of the world. We rarely give as much thought to the power of our personalities to shape our perceptions. Yet in fact, on the micro-level on which each of us actually lives our lives, our perceptions of the polycrisis derive in fundamental ways from our personalities.
The late great Yale political scientist Harold Lasswell, a mentor of mine, was among the first to understand that our political views are to a large degree projections of our personalities onto public events. Some people are hopeful, some skeptical, some cynical, some anguished. Some are angry, some are drawn to activism, some are resigned, some are anxious or depressed. Some seek simple answers from populist leaders. Some mistrust all authority. Some crusade for a better world. Some turn to their faith or spirituality.
Many find the global polycrisis too frightening to think about. Others find it too complex. Some focus on hopeful strategies for building resilience in uncertain times ahead.
Quantifiable changes in geochemical and social reality can’t be explained away
For all the variation in perceptions, meaning marking, and personality differences, the global polycrisis is a physical reality we will live in for the foreseeable future. If nothing else, the quantifiable changes in the global commons—framed by the Global Commons Alliance as biodiversity, climate, land, ocean, and water—can’t be explained away with cultural or personal myths or narratives that do not take them into account.
Likewise, the quantifiable changes in social conditions, technological developments, and financial/economic developments can’t be explained away. What follows is a heuristic list of just a few of the quantifiable social indices (as opposed to the environmental commons indices listed above).
Global opinion polling, such as that provided by the Pew Research Center, provides one key index of the human perception of the polycrisis.
Global health indicators are a second index.
Global happiness is a third.
Global refugees is a fourth.
Global income inequality is a fifth.
Global hunger is a sixth.
Global conflict is a seventh.
The women’s peace and security index is an eighth.
Global military expenditures is a ninth.
Our tenth category would be all the other relevant environmental, social, technological, and financial/economic indicators—of which the list above is a small proportion.
The point, simply, is that, in addition to the measurable geophysical parameters of the polycrisis, there are a wide range of measurable social indicators that can fruitfully be studied. The polycrisis itself is an “unbounded” reality—the metamorphosis of the entire biosphere including humanity. But unbounded questions cannot be studied in their entirety. The more we identify the best sets of indicators to look at any specific set of questions we pose, the more informed our perceptions will be.
Is the polycrisis a “wicked problem”?
This notion that the global polycrisis is an “unbounded” metamorphosis of the biosphere, including humanity, raises the question of whether the polycrisis is a “wicked problem.” The concept of a “wicked problem” was introduced by a Bolinas resident, the late great C. West Churchman, a University of California Berkeley professor, philosopher and systems thinker—whose son, Josh Churchman, is a leading fisherman in Bolinas to this day. (Commonweal is based in Bolinas, hence the reference.) Here is Wikipedia on the definition of a wicked problem:
“In planning and policy, a wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. It refers to an idea or problem that cannot be fixed, where there is no single solution to the problem; and “wicked” denotes resistance to resolution, rather than evil. Another definition is “a problem whose social complexity means that it has no determinable stopping point”. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.”
While it may certainly be useful to see the polycrisis as a wicked problem, there actually do seem to be policies and practices that would mitigate it. Limiting climate change, increasing equity, preserving biodiversity, building a global security system that lowered defense expenditures, reversing the toxification of the biosphere, and agreeing to core human values to guide our shared future are a few examples.
Working toward these great goals would mitigate the polycrisis—but only if even the most successful efforts in one sector did not worsen things in another sector. For example, increasing incomes for the lowest third of the world population could increase consumption and degrade biodiversity unless consumption among higher income groups comparably decreased—or unless we massively greened the consumption cycle.
Likewise, as COVID demonstrated, decreasing tourism can have a devastating effect in poor countries where tourism is central to livelihoods. So while achieving the beneficent objectives described above would mitigate the polycrisis, the means of achieving them might worsen it.
“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”
While the “wicked problem” frame for analyzing the polycrisis is useful for some purposes, it tends to have a paralyzing effect on efforts to “bend the arc of history” toward better outcomes with respect to a wide range of environmental, social, technological, and financial/economic goals. For this reason, we may recognize its potential validity on downside projections but will question its value in efforts to ameliorate the polycrisis.
The anti-fascist Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote from his prison cell, “I am a pessimist because of intellect and an optimist because of will.” That phrase, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” has stayed in common discourse.
Many people need hope of some kind in order to function and in order to work for a better world. Intuitively, humans are designed to believe that hope has a strong basis in reality. In many ways, the world has been getting better over the last 500 years, even as other indicators show things are getting worse. The evolutionary linguist Steven Pinker at Harvard is a great proponent of the case that the world is getting better.
By contrast, from an ecological perspective, we know we are in a bottleneck of evolution of the biosphere on earth. Only a portion of extant species will make it through this bottleneck. Whether humanity makes it through, or whether a post-human species makes it through, or whether existing humanity makes it through but potentially with radically different values and ideas about ourselves and the world, we cannot know.
What we do know is that any definition of the polycrisis that paralyzes the will to forge a better future—even if useful for some analytic purposes—is not useful as a guide to meaningful action, does not promote hope, and does not serve to help us forge a collective vision of what we can be.
Future scenario work has long been a staple of futures thinking. One simple heuristic approach to futures scenarios is to think of four quadrants of possible futures. For example, we can contrast the prospects for a more or less unmodified “natural” humanity and biosphere with a far more modified or even transhuman species and technologically altered biosphere.
My preferred future, which holds hope for humanity and the biosphere in as “natural” a form as possible, I would put in the upper right quadrant of a four-fold set of future scenarios. In the lower right quadrant I would place despair for humanity and the biosphere in their “natural” form.
In the upper left quadrant, I would place hope for a modified humanity and a modified biosphere. In the lower left I would place despair for a modified humanity and biosphere.
Some technological optimists, and many authors of utopian science fiction, place their hope in a modified or transhuman future and a technologically modified biosphere—or other extra-planetary environments for living.
In reality, we have already greatly modified the biosphere and are in the process of modifying what it means to be human. So the best possible future may be a transactional process between the two upper quadrants—preserving whatever we can from nature while trying to use environmental, social, technological and financial/economic measures that can bring greater benefit than harm.
The late great Czech statesman Vaclav Havel famously suggested that optimism and hope are different. Optimism, Havel said, is the belief that things will go well. Hope, by contrast, he opined, is a deep orientation of the human soul that can be held in the darkest of times. I have lived by these words ever since I found them.
As the arresting title of Thomas Homer-Dixon’s latest book puts it, we can Command Hope. We can do that in the face of immense odds—not because success is probable, but because choosing hope is the most interesting way to live.
While for many of us the future looks difficult, there are others equally convinced the future looks bright. Even for those of us who foresee a difficult future, humility requires that we recognize we may proven to be quite wrong.
Perhaps we are in the infancy of our species. Perhaps this is not the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning. Perhaps we are destined for great and beneficent things not only in renewing the beautiful garden of the earth but in taking our maturing compassion and wisdom out to the stars.
One can imagine benign counter forces will reverse negative trends. One can imagine new sources of energy, new technologies for conservation, and widespread adoption of new applied ethics about how we live. We may arrive at a new sense of being earth citizens. There is indeed much to hope for.
With greater collective wisdom and collective will, we might dramatically shift the arc of the future. But without awareness of the reality of the polycrisis, our analyses of how to act skillfully on behalf of humanity and the earth will likely be short-sighted and likely doomed to fail.
If we ignore the reality of the global polycrisis, many of our personal and collective strategies will sink under both known and unforeseen future shocks. If we give up hope, and do not fight and work for a better future, the outcomes will almost certainly be even worse.
The old man and the starfish
There is an old story about a young man walking along a beach where thousands of starfish had been washed up by the tide. Coming toward him, he sees an old man with a staff bending over and tossing still living starfish into the sea. When they meet, the young man said to the old man, “what are you doing? You can’t possibly make a difference for all these stranded starfish.” The old man says nothing. They pass. The old man picks up another starfish and throws it back into the sea. “Made a difference for that one,” he mutters to himself.
We may or may not be able to change the arc of the global polycrisis significantly as a species. Yet each day we are given countless small opportunities to alleviate suffering—to throw starfish back into the sea. We have countless small ways to make a difference for the people, critters and conditions we can affect. Living this way imbues us with a sense of hope. Whatever the outcome in the long run, in our time we align ourselves with the forces of life.
My friend Rachel Naomi Remen once met Gregory Bateson at a gathering. “And who are you?” Rachel asked. “I am a friend of evolution,” Bateson replied. That is not a bad intention—to count ourselves among the friends of evolution.
My friend Randy Hayes, who started Rainforest Action Network, has a clear vision of the world he would like to see: “A world of continental networks of regional bioeconomies.” I can envision that in a post-capitalist world. I can imagine continental networks of bioregional economies as a world worth working for. In fact, this is my favorite image of the world we could make. It is a grassroots up vision of a better world with a strong base in regenerative local agriculture, small bio-economies that some together in bio-regional networks, and lives lived in self-reliant communities based on local and regional trade and exchange.
How then shall we live?
The ultimate question for each of us is not to determine how the world will go. We cannot control it. We cannot know. The ultimate question for each of us is how we live our lives. In the face of the reality of the polycrisis, do we choose ways of seeing ourselves and others that leads us to anguish, cynicism, resignation and despair? Or do we discover a way of seeing and living that leads us to lives of courage, service, gratitude, compassion and peace?
We are far from the first to face this question. Countless generations before us believed in their own times that the world as they knew it would soon come to an end. Maimonides famously wrote it was not permitted to count the days till the coming of the Messiah. We in our time believe that science has given us a deeper truth about the state of the world. Yet the psychological truth of living with a sense of possible finitude has not substantially changed.
One thing I know from 40 years of intimate work with people with life-threatening cancers. When people are diagnosed with life-threatening cancers, they often experience their cancers as a “wake up call.” They almost never toward more materialistic values. They are toward deeper awareness of what we may call interbeing—of the shared reality of suffering and the shared imperative of compassion and love.
Dame Edith Sittwell said of the poet William Blake, “he was cracked, but it was though the crack that the light came.” Our wounds are not only wounds—they are potential openings. I say “potential openings” because our wounds can spiral us down as well as upward.
We also know that in the history of civilizations, great collective wounds—wars, plagues and famines—often lead to profound shifts in whole cultures. This was true at the end of the American Civil War, World War I and World War II. But these civilizational shifts are by no means always positive, as the experience of Germany after its defeat in World War I demonstrates. Civilizations, like people, can go either up or down after great traumas.
So we can indeed hope that the global polycrisis will end up being a “wake up call” for the emergence of some kind of planetary ethos or trans-cultural civilization.
I am sharing this work in progress with you because I have no choice but to keep asking these questions. At 78, I have experienced some of these deep wounds myself. I know what it means to be at the edge of life. I continue to live the questions I asked myself 46 years ago when I first imagined Commonweal as a center for healing ourselves and healing the earth. What does a life dedicated to that purpose ask of me today?
So, gentle reader, if you have made it this far with me, I leave you with this question:
What does your life—with whatever sense of calling or purpose you may have—ask of you? How do you hold what it means for you to live in these changing times? And if you have no sense of calling or purpose—that’s fine, too—what will you do with this one irreplaceable day in your life?
Thanks for walking with me. I hope we find ways of aligning ourselves as a community of friends dedicated to finding lives of joy, hope and service in these changing times. May we join forces with other communities of friends around the world who share our commitments to safeguarding the sacred beauty of this miraculous planet we have been given. May we love justice. May we do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with the mystery of the universe.