This morning at 8 a.m., four of us from Commonweal went down to Agate Beach in Bolinas. We went to visit an extraordinary whale rib that had washed up with the tide. I estimate the rib is about twelve feet long and as thick as my thigh. Since it is only one side of the whale’s rib cage, the rib cage must have been over twenty-four feet wide.
Whole whales have washed ashore in Bolinas before during my 50 years here. Somehow this whale bone, picked clean by the elements, struck me with a special power.
I don’t know what happened to the whale. Did it die of old age? Was it chemical contaminants that weakened it? Or was it one of the growing number of casualties hit by the immense cargo ships that we see moving in and out of San Francisco Bay every day?
The global polycrisis continues to unfold. The great science fiction writer William Gibson captures the essence of it: “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.”
In fact, some people have always lived in the polycrisis. Others have emerged from it in recent times. Still others have sunk into it again. The nature of the polycrisis is that it takes different forms in different places and at different times.
The climate emergency was the first poster child for the polycrisis. Then came COVID. And now the Ukraine war. But as these and many other global stressors interacted and worked their way around the world, new stressors emerged – growing food insecurity and starvation, growing supply chain disruptions, and dramatically increasing inflation in many parts of the world.
What is the psychological impact? This is from a recent Lancet Planetary Health article:
“We surveyed 10,000 children and young people (aged 16—25 years) in ten countries (Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, the UK, and the USA; 1,000 participants per country). Respondents across all countries were worried about climate change (59% were very or extremely worried and 84% were at least moderately worried). More than 50% reported each of the following emotions: sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty. More than 45% of respondents said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning, and many reported a high number of negative thoughts about climate change (e.g., 75% said that they think the future is frightening and 83% said that they think people have failed to take care of the planet). Respondents rated governmental responses to climate change negatively and reported greater feelings of betrayal than of reassurance. Climate anxiety and distress were correlated with perceived inadequate government response and associated feelings of betrayal.”
The New York Times reports:
According to the Spring 2022 Harvard Youth Poll, a majority of Americans under 30 now believe “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing.” Harvard also reports “a sharp increase in youth believing that ‘political involvement rarely has tangible results.’”
There is evidence, too, that COVID’s emotional toll has been particularly hard for young adults. The American Psychological Association does a regular survey called Stress in America, and in October 2020, the APA was already sounding the alarm:
The potential long-term consequences of the persistent stress and trauma created by the pandemic are particularly serious for our country’s youngest individuals, known as Generation Z (Gen Z). Our 2020 survey shows that Gen Z teens (ages 13-17) and Gen Z adults (ages 18-23) are facing unprecedented uncertainty, are experiencing elevated stress, and are already reporting symptoms of depression.
In a more recent Stress in America survey from earlier this year, 77% of 18- to 25-year-olds said that “the COVID-19 pandemic has stolen major life moments they will never get back.”
The polycrisis poses four fundamental questions:
What is the global polycrisis? How can we understand it?
Can we escape it? If so, how?
If we can’t escape it, how can we navigate it?
How do we best live with it—each in our own way and collectively?
As for understanding the polycrisis, there will be no single analysis or shared interpretation. We describe it as a set of dozens of global stressors—environmental, social, technological and financial/economic that are interacting unpredictably with increasing force causing future shocks of ever greater intensity and frequency.
As to whether we can escape it? No. But we can and should work to bend the arc of the polycrisis toward better outcomes wherever we have leverage to do so.
As to whether we can navigate it? Probably, yes. It depends on many things, but better prepared communities are likely to do better with the very uncertain future.
As to how best to live with it? This is the critical personal and collective question we face. We know that cynicism and despair won’t get us anywhere. We know that untold numbers of others in times past and present have found ways to live and serve with compassion, wisdom, and skill. This is the one thing over which we have direct personal control. Whatever we confront, we have some ability to choose our personal and sometimes collective response.
Two statistics struck me particularly this week:
The first relates to gun violence in the United States:
There are an estimated 400 million guns in the United States, with between a third and a half of American households owning at least one gun.
The second is a cosmological finding:
There are an estimated 2 trillion galaxies in the universe, each with millions or billions of stars.
Why did these two statistics strike me? I can’t really say. But somehow they are connected.
Just as the whale bone on Agate Beach connects to the global polycrisis.
The whale was quite likely directly affected by the polycrisis—certainly filled with chemicals, certainly experiencing changes in ocean temperature, possibly killed our wounded by one of our immense cargo ships.
The gun ownership data put the school and other mass killings in a broader perspective. The polycrisis is affecting child development, cognitive and emotional balance, depression, mental health disorders, and more. When we put 400 million guns in circulation, some will certainly end up in the hands of mentally ill people.
The other thing I am thinking is the intersection of three cosmological theories—the Anthropic Principle, the Gaia Hypothesis, and the Panspermia Hypothesis.
The Anthropic Principle examines the hypothesis that the universe seems perfectly designed to support life.
The Gaia Hypothesis “proposes that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet.”
The third is the observation by scientists that the building blocks of life can be found on asteroids. This theory is sometimes referred to as the panspermia hypothesis, an ancient theory going back to the Greeks. It has been considered a fringe theory, though continuing to describe it as such seems at odds with the new science cited above.
Why would it matter if the universe appears designed to support life, if the earth is a synergistic, self-regulating complex system, and if the building blocks of life are carried in asteroids and may take root on fertile planets wherever they are found?
Contrast this with a theory that the evolution of the universe had nothing to do with supporting life, that life is a random epiphenomenon of evolution, and that life on earth evolved without any connection to the building blocks having come from space.
The facts will support either set of theories, as far as I can understand.
Come back with me, then, to the whale bone on the beach, the 400 million guns in the United States, and a cosmos of 2 trillion galaxies each containing millions or billions of stars.
If by chance the universe is somehow organized to support life, if earth itself works to sustain life, and if the building blocks of life circulate among the 2 trillion galaxies and untold billions of stars, inseminating fertile planets whenever they are receptive—would knowing that make a difference?
I don’t know. I like to think it would.
Greater wisdom welcome,