The Year of the Polycrisis

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.

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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

Fall Letter from Commonweal

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

Call the World “the Vale of Soul Making”

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

And If Not Now, When?

Photo: Stanley Wu

Dear TNS Friends:

These are the days of harvest blessings in many traditions. A good harvest was often a matter of life or death—of starvation or of plenty for the days and nights of dark and cold in the Northern Hemisphere.

It is also a good time to turn inward ourselves, to harvest what we have garnered since the last harvest, to ask what we have learned that may help us on our path.

As I enter my eightieth year this October, it is also a time of deeper reflection for me—and for many among us who are in or approaching our later years. The great Jewish mystic Rabbi Hillel asked us this same question 2,000 years ago:

If I am not for myself, who will be?
If I am not for others, what am I?
And if not now, when? Continue reading

Shed a Little Light

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

Embrace Fearlessly this Burning World

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

Troubles and Transformation in Turbulent Times

Dear Friends:

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.”

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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

Would Knowing Make A Difference?

Dear Friends:

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? Continue reading

Changing Times

Dear Friends:

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.”

Backstory

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. Continue reading

Time to Slow Down

Dear New School Friends:

No doubt you have noticed the world is in disarray.

No doubt COVID has affected your life.
No doubt the signs of war and climate change and political strife weigh upon you.

Tonight, as I reflected on what i might say to you, an inner voice came to me with this counsel—for me as well as for you.

That counsel was: slow down.

It may seem strange to offer such counsel in a world where most people are in a constant rush. I am as immeshed in unrelenting demands as any of you are.

Yet this voice is saying to me—this is perhaps the greatest wisdom that you and others need right now. Simply put: slow down. Continue reading