Dear Commonweal Friends,
I hope this finds you well. This is my summer letter to the Commonweal community. It comes at a special point in our history.
This year I turn 80. Our executive director, Oren Slozberg, turns 60. And it’s 50 years since I co-founded Full Circle, the residential school for at-risk children just outside Bolinas that gave birth to Commonweal three years later in 1976.
Under Oren’s leadership, Commonweal has grown exponentially over the past five years. We have more than doubled our programs, budget, and staff. We are doing a great deal more good in the world—in health and healing, education and the arts, and environment and justice. And we’re focused on strengthening the resilience of all our work in the ever changing conditions created by the global polycrisis.
This year is a good time for us to reflect and to ask what is ours to do in the decades ahead.
How can we explain the explosive emergence of global awareness of the polycrisis over the past year, 2022-2023? Three years ago, almost no one had heard of the polycrisis.
What Is the Polycrisis?
First, let’s roughly define the polycrisis. Some claim it is nothing new. We believe the polycrisis is new. We believe a confluence of environmental, social, technological, financial-economic, natural and other forces are interacting with ever increasing unpredictability, rapidity and power. We believe these unpredictable interactions are causing future shocks of ever greater frequency and amplitude.
Because the polycrisis looks different, feels different, and is explained differently everywhere, there won’t be any single understanding of it. Think of the polycrisis as a global weather system. Weather everywhere is deeply interrelated, but local weather looks different in each place. Continue reading
Dear New School Friends:
I want to thank each of you who contributed, or continued to contribute, to The New School in 2022. You’ve made a critical contribution to our work. It’s never too late to add your support. So if you intended to contribute, or are moved to now, we welcome support at any level you can afford. You can do so right here.
This past year was the year that the polycrisis exploded as a global meme. “Polycrisis” was the word of the year 2022 in the Collins Dictionary. The World Economic Forum in Davos where the ultra-wealthy and their acolytes gather to pontificate declared 2023 “the year of the polycrisis.”
“The theme of our meeting in Davos is cooperation in a fragmented world,” [WEF Chair Klaus] Klaus stated. In what the WEF calls the “Year of the Polycrisis,” Klaus declared that “economic, environmental, social, and geopolitical crises are converging and conflating, creating an extremely versatile and uncertain future.” Continue reading
Commonweal Labyrinth in Fog. Photo: Peter Cunningham.
Dear Commonweal Friends,
I hope this letter finds each of you as well as you can be in these tumultuous times.
Oren Slozberg: A Leader for Commonweal
In September, I turned over the helm at Commonweal to my beloved friend and partner Oren Slozberg. Oren has worked with us at Commonweal for nine years. He has led Commonweal as executive director for five years. His extraordinary wisdom, kindness, and commitment to Commonweal are known to all. We could not ask for a more inspired leader for Commonweal’s future.
The time was right. This is a long-planned and carefully executed next step in what Oren rightly calls “intergenerational leadership” at Commonweal. As far as our community is concerned, little has changed. I am able to focus far more intensively on the work I was put here to do. Continue reading
The Commonweal bluff at night. Photo: Power of Hope 2022
Dear New School Friends,
Call the world, if you please, “the Vale of Soul Making,” [wrote the poet John Keats to a friend.] Then you will understand the use of the world.
I hope this finds you as well as you can be in troubled times. Truth is, times have been troubled for many people around the world for centuries, even millennia. So troubled times are not new. What hasn’t happened before any time recently is that the troubles are landing on the doorsteps of people who have enjoyed some measure of peace and security—however tenuous that peace and security may have been.
A great sadness is settling on the world. New York Times columnist David Brooks, a centrist Republican who writes thoughtful essays, put it this way:
The negativity in the culture reflects the negativity in real life. The General Social Survey asks people to rate their happiness levels. Between 1990 and 2018 the share of Americans who put themselves in the lowest happiness category increased by more than 50 percent. And that was before the pandemic. Continue reading
Dear New School Friends:
Awareness of the global polycrisis is spreading everywhere now. Most often people tie the polycrisis to climate change. Fewer realize that the real challenge is the unpredictable interaction of all the global stressors—environmental, social, technological, and financial/economic.
Climate, COVID, and conflicts without end are the three emblematic issues for the polycrisis. But the emblematic issues keep morphing. The Ukraine war was for months in the headlines—now it has faded in the news (though it continues in reality). COVID, once a constant headline, has now moved into the background and monkeypox takes its star turn, though COVID remains a far greater danger. Continue reading
Peter DaSilva for The New York Times
Dear New School Friends:
The great writer and naturalist Barry Lopez participated in a Commonweal retreat a few years before he died. That is where I came to know him. On May 31, Ben Ehrenreich, himself a great writer and naturalist, published this New York Times review of the last book Barry Lopez left us—a book of essays with this unforgettable title: Embrace Fearlessly This Burning World. Rebecca Solnit, another great writer, wrote a beautiful introduction.
I dedicate this post to Barry Lopez. Here are some quotes from Ehrenreich’s review that touch me most deeply:
“The central project of my adult life as a writer,” [Lopez] says, “is to know and love what we have been given, and to urge others to do the same.”
“Throughout this book, Lopez considers his calling in terms that are unabashedly spiritual. Raised a Catholic, he was “fixated” in high school, he wrote, on emulating the life of the Jesuit paleontologist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Even after drifting away from Catholicism, he took time off from a New York publishing job for a retreat at the Kentucky abbey where the mystic and writer Thomas Merton lived. Fortunately for us, he didn’t stay. But years later, Lopez still relied “on the centrality of a life of prayer, which I broadly took to be a continuous, respectful attendance to the presence of the Divine. Prayer was one’s daily effort to be incorporated within that essence.”
“We must invent overnight,” Lopez concludes, “another kind of civilization.” He offers no details, only fundamentals: “It is a good idea to love each other, and to love the Earth.” Continue reading
We live in an intensely dangerous period of time–for ourselves and for the world.
The turbulence continues to accelerate. This is the polycrisis–the quickening interaction of environmental, social, technological and economic stressors–leading to unpredictable future shocks of increasing frequency and intensity.
In the perception of many in the West, the first poster child for the polycrisis was the climate emergency. Then came COVID. Then the Ukraine War. And now dangerous levels of inflation, supply chain breakdown, and both political and financial instability.
In other parts of the world, the perception is different. Many have lived for decades and beyond under polycrisis conditions. “The future is already here,” the sci-fi great William Gibson observes–“it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
In the United States, we are acutely aware of the transformation of the Supreme Court. The Court ruled on three emblematic conservative causes–bibles, bullets and babies. They promised to rule on whether states can set their own rules for elections without review by state superior courts.
Republicans have locked in control of 70% of state legislative districts for the coming decade. The mid-terms look promising for them. They also look well positioned for the 2024 presidential contest. Continue reading