Systemic Drivers of Collapse (Part 2 – An Overview)

The phase “systemic drivers of collapse” refers to dynamic factors contributing to past, present and future instances of societal collapse.  In our current case, they also relate to concerns about ecological disasters and the prospect of human extinction.  They also contain profound guidance for social transformation. In this post I include a list of more than 30 drivers for your reflection.

The use of the term “systemic drivers” suggests these dynamic factors are significantly “built into” the cultural stories and paradigms that shape our social systems.  They are deeply embedded in how our economic, political, governance, education, health care and other systems function, such that they “drive us” towards collapse simply through those systems’ everyday functioning.

I – and my primary mentor in this regard, Daniel Schmachtenberger – believe that two fundamental underlying drivers of today’s meta-crisis and civilizational collapse both arise from our failure to engage with the holistic, interconnected nature of reality.  

These two fundamental drivers are:

FRAGMENTING CONSCIOUSNESS that sees reality as made up of separate entities and forces. This consciousness enables us to attend to, care about and benefit one thing at the expense of other things. 

FRAGMENTING INTELLIGENCE which, empowered by linear rationality, frames, pursues and achieves narrow, short-term goals. 

Fragmenting consciousness can be contrasted with HOLISTIC CONSCIOUSNESS that perceives, experiences and thinks about reality in terms of wholes, wholeness, and interconnectedness.  

Fragmenting intelligence can be contrasted with the intelligence of WISDOM which, grounded in wholeness and interconnection, frames and pursues broadly beneficial long-term goals.

So, in order to not serve societal fragmentation and collapse, intelligence needs to be bound and driven by wisdom.  In other words, we need to arrange things so that intelligence – most importantly AI, the powerful offspring of our own fragmenting intelligence – serves the broad, inclusive, long-term goals of wisdom.


I find it useful to frame the primary systemic drivers above within the familiar concept of ALIENATION [1] – the experience of separateness from self, others, nature, and life in general.  This alienation is pervasive as both a personal and a cultural phenomenon.  Through it we lose our sense – and the reality – of individual and collective meaningful participation in the ongoing mutual thriving of life.

I find it interesting to contemplate the role of wisdom in this.  Wisdom is about the big picture, the whole picture.  Ideally, wisdom would enable us to meaningfully participate in the ongoing mutual thriving of all life, in all circumstances, as we meet each new issue, challenge and opportunity.  That’s an ideal to strive for, over and over – to do the best we can, learning together as we go, growing into greater wisdom together.

The opposite of alienation is reciprocity and the opportunity to bring our gifts to Life and to be appreciated and welcomed because we’re participating in the great collective life project of mutual thriving.  Beyond alienation we are no longer alone in the universe seeking our own separate benefits and survival.  And, significantly, moving together beyond alienation – really and truly – frees us from structures that make our lives so out-of-touch that we become toxic not only to the aliveness of the world but to the aliveness within us.

So understanding the alienating sources and influences of the systemic drivers of collapse can provide guidance for creating social systems and cultures that help everyone involved find meaningful ways to participate in the ongoing mutual thriving of life.  And every failure, success and realization in that effort can provide lessons for the ongoing development of our wisdom together.


So what are these systemic drivers of collapse?  Let’s do a quick dip into some of them now.  

Over the last several weeks, I attempted to model those drivers – to identify overarching frames that would make sense of them all, make them all easier to understand.  But so far I have found bugs in each of my models.[2]  Since I don’t want my modeling to keep delaying my sharing the drivers with you, I offer below just a start-up list to give you a sense of what they’re about.

It’s a pretty naked list.  I don’t want to belabor it with descriptions and nuances you might get lost in.  So some things that would ideally be explained here, aren’t.  I suggest that you skip over anything below that you don’t understand – or look up relevant words or phrases online.  But even if you don’t really “get” some of the items, I think the list will give you the gist, which is my aim in sharing it.

If you want to go deeper with this in your own mind and heart, you might imagine examples and how each one of these – separately or in synergistic combinations – could influence the collapse of civilization.  Or you might reflect on where you see these drivers at work in and around you now….

  • Short-termism
  • One-sidedness
  • Anthropocentrism
  • Hubris / techno-optimism
  • Lopsided opportunity/risk dynamics
  • Imbalanced polarities
  • Rivalrous relationships
  • Materialism
  • Linear approaches to complexity
  • Intelligence overwhelming wisdom in the short term
  • Toxic polarization, schismogenesis
  • Toxic concentration of power
  • Dangerous distribution of power (e.g., democratization of WMDs)   
  • Freedom/constraint imbalance
  • Misinformation, deep fakes
  • Tech potentials for mass destruction
  • Increasing ethical ambiguity
  • Toxic monetary reductionism
  • GDP growth
  • Extreme inequality
  • Materialism
  • Private ownership of commons   
  • Globalization 
  • Extractive economics
  • Perverse incentives
  • Confirmation bias
  • Scale overreach (beyond human scale)
  • Systemic ignorance
  • Externalizing costs
  • Ratchet effect 
  • Jeavons Paradox
  • Multi-polar traps
  • First mover advantage



I’d like now to offer a little window into my efforts to work with these.

I chose not to label capitalism as a driver in its own right, despite the urgings of some of my associates.  I see capitalism as a composite of a number of the other drivers (e.g., toxic monetary reductionism, GDP growth, extractive economics, externalizing costs, private ownership of commons, anthropocentrism, etc.) many of which are shared by other approaches to political economy, including state communism and democratic socialism.  So although this analysis justifies targeting capitalism for deep transformation or replacement, that focus can be a distraction if capitalism’s component drivers are not adequately understood.

Also note that many threats to our favorite Enlightenment and progressive values – like freedom, justice, and the value of individual human life – do not feature prominently in this list.  That’s because some of those threats are not only not directly related to collapse, but also that some of those values can end up actually serving or amplifying some of the drivers.  For example, when justice is viewed as equal opportunity to participate in the systems destroying the world or to live a middle class lifestyle based on extractive economics, we SEEM to face a case of “increasing ethical ambiguity”.  But that ambiguity vanishes if we reframe justice to include future generations and all non-human life – i.e., if we seek fair opportunities for “meaningful participation in the ongoing mutual thriving of life.”  What would a just society look like if THAT were its primary cultural aspiration?

Likewise, a health care system built on the sustained bodily functioning of individual human beings, regardless of the costs to them, society, or living systems around them can be seen as (a) an ultimate driver of systemic collapse and (b) a threat to the quality of life of that person and many lives around them.  This analysis calls for a deeper, wider, more nuanced and aliveness-nurturing definition of “health” – as well as a renewed appreciation of the important role of death in the health of all living systems.

The enlightenment ideal of “individual freedom” is also thrown into question – as noted in the “Freedom/constraint imbalance” driver.  Individual freedom needs to be reconceptualized in the context of the tightly interdependent fabric and family of nested living systems. In many Indigenous tribal and major civilized traditions, we find ethical standards emphasizing obligation to the larger wholes we are part of and depend on. Reductionist libertarian views of decontextualized freedom exemplify the kind of one-sided imbalance – especially in economic and political realms – that is destroying the world. We can learn that freedom is not just the opposite of tyranny but – if it is based on reality – a new version of freedom arises in contexts of mutual, reciprocal relations with the aliveness around us, within which we can express and fulfill ourselves in healthier ways than are possible through extreme pursuit of “liberty”.

And so it goes, on and on.  The systemic drivers of collapse and alienation challenge and invite us to deeply re-think our assumptions about the world, in ways that move us towards greater, fuller belonging in the family of Life.



[1] Thanks to John Abbe for suggesting the concept of alienation as fundamental here.

[2]  If you are inclined to modeling or organizing ideas, feel free to send me workable models or lists you’ve made of these drivers, or post them in the comments section.

PS:  My interest in the systemic drivers of collapse derives not only from the Schmachtenberger-Hagens podcast noted in my first post in this series, but also from my earlier exposure to William Catton’s watershed 1982 book OVERSHOOT: The ecological basis for revolutionary change which covers much the same territory from a different angle.  I find the systemic drivers analysis identifies more distinct drivers, while Catton’s work embeds civilizational dynamics in a deeper ecological reality.  The two complement each other.  (I learned of OVERSHOOT from Michael Dowd – also mentioned in my previous post – and his wife Connie Barlow.)

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

Evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole

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