Extinction-level issues and wise democracy

Crises that could cause human extinction or civilizational collapse are (perhaps arguably) the most important issues we face.  Efforts to create a wise democracy are intended to bring forth forms of participatory self-governance that could creatively and effectively address extinction-level issues. It makes sense that such a wise democracy would be able to thoughtfully and compassionately handle ALL public issues and aspirations. So let us work to avoid human extinction in ways that bring forth cultures that are set up to work for all.

For the past three decades I’ve sought to clarify how we can develop humanity’s collective capacity to generate the participatory wisdom needed to address extinction-level issues.

Not all social and environmental problems could cause civilizational collapse or humanity’s extinction. But for obvious reasons those were the challenges I chose to measure my work against.

Much of the wisdom we need to address such mega-issues already exists. Most of these solutions are dispersed* and not broadly recognized and agreed-on. Furthermore, we have failed to demonstrate a collective capacity to implement such solutions in sustainably intelligent, integrated, responsive ways. The barriers to collectively recognizing and implementing wise approaches to our challenges are as complex as the challenges themselves. We face obstacles ranging from wildly imbalanced social power and entrenched institutions to broadly shared dangerous assumptions about the good life and even profound limitations and distortions of our individual and collective mental and emotional capacities.

As far as I can tell, effective and lasting solutions to our current mega-challenges will require a deep transformation of our ways of thinking and behaving accompanied by a fundamental re-visioning of our civilization and its underlying assumptions.

On the bright side, if we did these things, the resulting civilization would be profoundly good in unprecedented ways. And since halfway measures won’t suffice, we need to go all the way. If we do theat job properly, we’ll find ourselves in healthy partnership with each other and the world around us… because that’s the only thing that will work. The sacrifices involved will be more than worth it and our grandchildren will be grateful beyond measure.

I’m sharing this message at this time thanks to a rare mainstream article that looks seriously at climate change. Provocatively entitled The Uninhabitable Earth this essay from New York magazine reaches well beyond the usual “global warming” focus on rising seas and inclement weather. It takes us on a tour of the probably extreme disruptive effects related to what some now call “climate chaos” or “global weirding”. Since we find reality increasingly supporting the worst scenarios of climate science, this article does a great service by giving us a stark look at what that means, in an effort to stimulate us to act quickly and thoroughly.

Climate and Y2K

That dire New York essay apparently caught fire and inspired a follow-up in The New York TimesHow Y2K Offers a Lesson for Fighting Climate Change. This second article notes similarities between the unfolding climate threat and the Y2K problem of two decades ago, as well as lessons from our responses to both crises. Although Y2K had an exact date – January 1st, 2000 – and climate change doesn’t, both exemplify profound uncertainties and expert disagreements about the depth and breadth of the problem. Significantly, the businesses, governments and communities who took the Y2K problem most seriously, spending billions of dollars and millions of hours addressing it, were the ones who made sure Y2K impacts were minimal for the rest of us.

So to the extent we take the real possibility of total climate disruption seriously, we may well be able to ameliorate its worst possible effects. On the other hand, to the extent we see the threat as basically manageable while continuing business as usual, growing evidence suggests that we face a total and terrible disruption of life as we know it. (Another excellent recent article on this is Staving Off the Coming Global Collapse by William Rees who co-founded the concept of “ecological footprint”, widely used to help grasp our complex situation and how to deal with it.)

The Call of Transformation

I see the climate challenge as providing both motivation and guidance for transforming human cultures and institutions in ways that would enable us to deal with ALL public issues well, including other extinction-level issues ranging from all-out nuclear war to global pandemics to diverse technologies running amok.

During 1998-99 I managed what was perhaps the leading website on using Y2K for personal and social transformation. The fact that the Y2K challenge is now recognized as instructive for broader challenges like climate disruption suggests that we may be waking up to what’s really important and needed. The site, although mostly addressing Y2K specifically, is filled with insights and guidance on extreme social challenges generally.

Today the wise democracy pattern language has been designed to reverse the underlying dynamic that generates our collective tendency to destroy ourselves – specifically, our collective inability to recognize and act on the big picture that we are all part of. This unique resource provides transformational guidance for creating a wise civilization able to take into account what needs to be taken into account for longterm broad benefit.

I want to highlight that this focus is bigger than solving any particular crisis or social problem. Rather, it addresses our society’s tendency to mishandle virtually all the issues we face and, notably, to continue to collectively generate crises that could erase us from the face of the earth. In doing so, it lays out a path for co-creating a society which – as designer William McDonough once envisioned – works for all children of all species for all time.

May it be so.


* We’re slowly bringing together what’s needed. For an inspiring effort to pull together 100 of the best creative approaches to climate change, for example, see Project Drawdown.

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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
Calling forth the wisdom of the whole for the wellbeing of the whole

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