Systemic Drivers of Collapse (Part 1: Introduction)

“Systemic drivers of collapse”* are dynamics and assumptions built into our current global civilization’s systems.  They are present in various forms in diverse economic systems, political systems, governance systems, social systems, educational systems and cultures.  They are embedded in how we – all of us in our homes, communities, organizations and societies – go about our daily, quarterly, and annual lives. They are destroying the world.

I’ll describe many of these drivers of collapse in more detail in upcoming posts in this series, but to give you a taste, here’s a big one: Externalizing Harm.  This dynamic has diverse manifestations and shows up virtually everywhere.  To a remarkable extent we don’t even realize how ubiquitous it is. It will feature in my next post.

It’s important to understand that these systemic drivers of collapse aren’t like issues or problems that we can solve and get rid of so we can get back to business as usual or perhaps get on with reforming business as usual.  They are toxic dynamics embedded right in the business as usual we’re living in and depending on.  So we can’t think of them as just problems to solve, because addressing them will require deep transformation of all the systems we live with, work with, and use for nearly everything we do.  

For those of us seeking a better world, that deep transformation can be viewed as humanity’s top priority, because these drivers are progressively destroying the world we live in, along with everyone and everything else.  

I first encountered them – or this way of thinking and talking about them – early in June this year.  I was watching Nate Hagens’ recent 3 hour interview with Daniel Schmachtenberger  (which I alerted you to in my July 12th post).  It had an immediate and profound impact on my thinking about life in general and about wise democracy, in particular.  It disturbed me at a very deep level.

Early in developing the Co-Intelligence Institute’s Wise Democracy Project, I defined wisdom as “taking into account what needs to be taken into account for long term broad benefit”. So if these systemic drivers are leading to the collapse of civilization, massive ecological disaster, and potential human extinction, any effort that claims to be wise must take them into account.  And only part of what I was doing was addressing only part of what these drivers were doing.  So what was I going to do about that?

Central to my vision of wise democracy have been citizen juries, citizen assemblies and other forms of what I called in the Tao of Democracy “citizen deliberative councils” but which now tend to be called “mini-publics” in the field of deliberative democracy.  These mini-publics are usually deliberative bodies made up of 12-160 randomly selected citizens who learn about, discuss and make recommendations to deal with a particular issue.  For years I’ve been exploring how to use them to generate actionable collective wisdom.

However, the systemic drivers mentioned above present a number of challenges to that effort…

  1. As noted already, they are not an issue to be solved, but a deep and urgent transformational challenge of breakdown to be engaged with in search of breakthrough.
  2. The diversity, complexity and scope of the drivers can make them challenging to understand.
  3. Coming to terms with their implications presents daunting emotional and existential challenges. 
  4. Their scope, complexity and urgency can also make it very challenging to figure out how to address them.
  5. Even if citizen deliberators could make salient recommendations, what would happen then?

All this was going through my mind as I was watching Schmachtenberger’s brilliant responses to Hagens. The challenge he unknowingly presented to me has been stewing around in my life since then.  I’ve been learning more, talking with colleagues, testing ideas, and exploring two major inquiries…. 

….A. How might we make the drivers more understandable for ordinary people? and 

….B. How might we re-vision the nature and placement of mini-publics in the larger ecosystem of societal decision-making so they can impact systemic transformation?

Fortunately, a number of methods and transformational inquiries and trends have arisen in the deliberative democracy field that can offer initial guidance for tackling these profound challenges.

So that’s what I’ll be addressing in the coming series of posts on this subject – including some new frameworks for understanding the drivers, themselves, about which I’ll be seeking your feedback. So stay tuned.


*  Many people working in the realm of existential risk use the term polycrisis to refer to a notable collection of current existential challenges – climate disruption, resource depletion, global pandemics, nuclear holocaust, species extinctions, extreme wealth inequality, dangerous new technologies, and more.  Not only are these crises separately capable of “destroying the world” (theoretically, one way or another), but they seem to be inexorably merging into one monstrously complex system of mutually reinforcing dynamics that constitutes a far more formidable challenge not only to civilization but to all of Earth’s living systems. Polycrisis – along with its self-explanatory cousin megacrisis – are evocative names for this new phenomenon.

However, I prefer the term metacrisis.  I will be using it in this series because it points beyond the mere convergence of separate crises to the shared underlying sources that give birth to them all. Ultimately, these sources involve assumptions about who and how we are in the world, how the world works, and how what we think we know shapes what we do and the cultures and systems we co-create. Such underlying sources generate recognizable system dynamics that are collectively driving our global civilization to destroy itself and much of life – all the while believing we are making progress.  (Unfortunately “when you are standing on the edge of a cliff, your next step forward is not progress.”)  So I’ll be speaking of the systemic drivers as primary factors arising from and generating the metacrisis faced by us and the world we all live in.

A Personal Note  

It is very easy in the face of all this to conclude that nothing can actually be done to address our collective plight, or even to believe (nihilistically) that nothing matters or means anything anymore.  

My long-time friend and colleague Michael Dowd has done something creative with his own end-times sensibilities – his Post Doom project.  He says that “doom” is one’s sense or realization that the game is over, while post-doom is what one does to live a meaningful life after that.  He believes that collective death (collapse and extinction) can be undertaken with the same compassion, wisdom and meaning with which we can undertake our own individual deaths. (Both of these deaths are – at least at this point – inevitable, sooner or later.)  I highly recommend the video conversations Michael has recorded with dozens of fascinating people about this topic.  

(Thanks to my friend John Steiner, I find myself also drawn again to Joanna Macy’s pioneering work on despair and empowerment, now called The Work that Reconnects. Her work (and her own spirit as a model for us – see her remarkable interview with Michael) points us toward how we can live with joy, love and gratitude, even active hope, in the midst of the metacrisis. She invites us to consider how we can love ourselves, each other, our communities, and the natural world in the midst of what we’re facing.  She’s a breath of fresh air alongside the daunting complexity of my own responses….)

Personally, I find myself living in radical uncertainty, standing with half my being in Michael’s worldview and half my being in a world of positive possibilities.  In the latter domain – what I half-jokingly call “my bubble” – I pursue ideas and initiatives that I can imagine might make a difference.  If they do, then great – even if I will never know.  If they don’t, then they were a beautiful fantasy that gave me the psychic space I needed to do creative work with wonderful, brilliant, intensely caring people, enjoying novel ideas and visions filled with meaning for me and those around me.  

In a way it is one example of how Rebecca Solnit talks about hope as “not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction… Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.”

So this is one way – my way – to live a good life in the face of the uniquely daunting collective challenges of the Immense Journey we’re all on together on this Dear Planet with the Family of Life we are all part of.  It includes the exploration of how to engage creatively with the systemic drivers of collapse that I’ll be sharing with you in coming posts.  

I send best wishes for your own approaches to navigating the challenges and opportunities around us and before us




Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440


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