Engaging the Metacrisis (Part 3: Polycrisis vs Metacrisis…) (was “Systemic Drivers of Collapse”)

I offer here a review and extensive excerpts from an article that is shifting my perspective on the polycrisis/metacrisis, and thus is central to my current inquiries and callings.  And after that, I encourage you to subscribe to the Co-Intelligence Institute’s newsletter (which is different from the newsletters connected to this blog) – and I provide a table of contents for the September issue to invite you into it…. – Tom

The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.  

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (1929)

I just read a long article that fits well into what I was unconsciously longing for in my “systemic drivers of collapse” journey.  

“Prefixing the World: Why the polycrisis is a permacrisis, which is actually a metacrisis, which is not really a crisis at all.” by Jonathan Rowson and Perspectiva

Rowson’s essential message is that 

1. the term “polycrisis” places the phenomenon “out there” – a daunting, unprecedented mega-problem to be urgently solved (which we fear may not be possible);

2. In contrast, the term “metacrisis” taps into the deep nature of the phenomenon. “The elasticity and ambiguity of ‘meta’ (within, between, after, beyond) … provides a richer context for our predicament”; and

3. The crisis is “in your heart and mind, and ‘between us and reality’ in the way we relate, notice, imagine, understand, listen and speak. We are participants in crisis, not just spectators. We need to find the agency within and between us, and use it well.”

I experience this as a major reframing of what we face. I am appreciating its many resonances with the co-intelligence worldview.  For example, the co-intelligence worldview sees intelligence as a primary way we relate to reality – noticing patterns, creating models and stories using those patterns (aka, “understanding”) and testing those understandings in the real world (“learning from experience”).  Co-intelligence is a holistic form of this process of knowing and learning, one that takes wholeness, interconnectedness, and co-creativity seriously.

I believe that the metacrisis is calling us to realize and practice “right relationship” to each other and the world.  I believe that such right relationship would necessarily be more holistic, more relational and balanced, and more co-creative and regenerative.  I sense it therefore as more co-intelligent. 

And the co-intelligence worldview also suggests we should depend less on power-over (influence, control, destruction) and more on power-with, power-from-within, and power-from-among.  I find that view resonates strongly with Rowson’s urging us to become artists at accessing and using “the agency within and between us”. 

He also notes “We are participants in crisis, not just spectators.”  This aligns well with co-intelligence ideas about our intrinsic participation and co-creation in what seems to be a participatory universe.  

Notably, this doesn’t mean there is no “crisis out there”.  It just means that the crisis is ubiquitously present everywhere in and around us BECAUSE we are living it co-creatively in our everyday lives, largely thanks to our social activities, institutions and systems.  We are co-creating the crisis, helped along tremendously – and, indeed, channeled – by the structures, stories and energies of the systems in which we’re embedded.  

So the “solution” to the crisis starts deep inside ourselves – individually and collectively – and within those systems, structures, stories and energies.  This realization comes first.  Once we become grounded in that, the systemic drivers of collapse offer insights into how, exactly, all that distortion of life happens.  The drivers help us SEE the anti-life patterns so we can replace them – and live into them newly – with forms of right relationship in all circumstances, in all realms, at all levels.

But notice that this approach is not about “fixing” anything.  It’s about “becoming new” – realizing new identities, seeing with new eyes, playing new roles, telling new stories, living new lives, creating new cultures and systems.  It’s about moving beyond crisis by living into and out of wholeness, interconnectedness, and co-creativity.

I find that vision both more comforting and more evocative and stimulating than focusing on the historic, current, and emerging horrors of the polycrisis. It’s not a matter of optimism or positivity.  I find it simply calls to me more powerfully.

Below are my favorite excerpts from the article that delve further (if somewhat choppily, given all the text I cut out) into the ideas in 1-3 above. We’ll see what I do with all this in my upcoming blog posts (which I suspect will be quite different now than what I was planning a few days ago….!)




The roots of the idea [of “crisis”] relate to critical moments (e.g. in an illness, in a life, in a battle), the need for resolve, and the importance of judgment, but mostly crisis is used to refer to turning points that come and go in particular contexts…. [However,] we don’t quite know what crisis is asking of us [at this time]… and the world is not now changing as it needs to – mind and society are not moving with the spirit of the times. That ‘not knowing how to change at scale’ is the heart of the matter. Reflecting on what crisis means, and what prefixes like ‘poly’ and ‘meta’ evoke is not a waste of time therefore, but a critical part of not wasting more of it.

The reason I think the idea of metacrisis, in particular, is worth fighting for is that it draws attention to interiority (meta as within) and relationality (meta as between) as spiritual features of what is typically assumed to be a political challenge, while also highlighting that a fixation with crisis may preclude other and better ways of being in the world (meta as beyond)…. [It] suggests there is indeed an underlying cause of the world’s problems, and it is something like a multifaceted delusion: a deep and pervasive misreading of reality….

The metacrisis is the historically specific threat to truth, beauty, and goodness caused by our persistent misunderstanding, misvaluing, and misappropriating of reality. The metacrisis is the crisis within and between all the world’s major crises, a root cause that is at once singular and plural, a multi-faceted delusion arising from the spiritual and material exhaustion of modernity that permeates the world’s interrelated challenges and manifests institutionally and culturally to the detriment of life on earth….

Polycrisis refers to the world system of systems beginning to malfunction, with escalating risks due to emerging properties in the whole being significantly more dangerous than the sum of its parts…. In essence, polycrisis says there is a worsening geopolitical predicament confounded by the loss of intelligibility, particularly our inability to understand causal mechanisms at scale, and there is no credible conventional response in sight that is commensurate with the emergence of escalating risks to geopolitical stability….

Poly might help us to stand back and see what is ‘out there’ in perspective, but that is not enough. Just standing back to see the big picture risks delusion, because it is a partial view pretending to be whole. Meta highlights that we also need to look within ourselves to psyche and soul, and also beyond, for a renewal in our worldview or cosmovision which has a direct bearing on prevailing ideologies and social imaginaries….

Poly and meta mean very different things. While ‘poly’ highlights the multiplicity and variety of crises, their emergent properties, and cascading risks, it leaves us as a kind of despairing spectator in suspended animation, awaiting instructions. ‘Poly’ tacitly compounds the problem of subject/object dualism that is driving the global problematic, with an emphasis on propositional rather than participatory knowing, minds separate from bodies, humanity separate from nature, technology separate from culture, and people separate from power. The elasticity and ambiguity of ‘meta’ (within, between, after, beyond) not only provides a richer context for our predicament, but serves to highlight different qualities of crisis.

The metacrisis says there is a spiritual crisis within the political failure to attend to myriad crises (e.g. the destruction of our only liveable planet is clearly delusional but also sacrilegious); it also says that there is an epistemic crisis in the apparent inability to see between different features of problems (e.g. the emotional needs driving consumerism, the denial of death at the root of climate inertia, the scapegoat mechanism as a threat to democracy).

In my inquiry into crisis over the last few months, I have also felt a growing realisation that pathways to viable futures may depend less upon solving a crisis than freeing ourselves from the hold that the idea of crisis has on our minds. If we are stuck in crisis, we may need to let the idea of crisis go, or at least relegate it somehow. All of which is to say, with meta still in mind, that there is also an imperative to start to move beyond crisis perception and mentality toward a more discerning relationship to the world.

As we free ourselves from our attachment to crisis (at its most literal, metacrisis means ‘after crisis’) we start to pay more and better attention to what crisis thinking may unhelpfully perpetuate or occlude. For instance, we may start to attend better to …. the value of what is latent, unseen, and yet perceptible through the kinds of subtle and appreciative inquiry that are precluded by the ‘I-can-fix-it’ crisis mentality….

[All] of these perspectives and initiatives can be thought of as in some sense ‘non-dual’ in which the mind and the world, the subject and the object are at once separate and united, and somehow reciprocally constituted…. the unity of multiplicity and unity, and the union of union and division…. [But] transformation is precisely what is hard to see through the mere idea of crisis, which helps us see a problem out there in the world, without really knowing the eye that’s looking. The heart of the matter is that this deep limitation is not allayed, but compounded by ‘polycrisis’, which merely amplifies the limitations of a crisis mentality. Unlike metacrisis, which in principle shows us a way within, between, and ultimately beyond crisis, polycrisis leaves us stuck there….

[This] sense of being stuck, of the story of progress having played itself out, means we need to look within, between, and beyond our current conception of the problem, perhaps through a new metaphysics, maybe a new social imaginary, and certainly through new forms of praxis that help us move from stuckness to collective unfolding…. [U]nlike ‘polycrisis’, theorists of metacrisis diagnose our predicament in a way that highlights things we can and must get to work on, even if they might feel slow or oblique or speculative.

The implication is not that we set down our political, economic, and technological tools, but it does mean that ‘a new government’ is definitely not enough, and widely touted plans for ‘a new economy’ or ‘a new politics’ will not take root without arising alongside some kind of spiritual innovation to shift perception and understanding about the nature of the self and the meaning of life, often through art broadly conceived as work of a contemplative, creative, philosophical and aesthetic in nature…. which broadly says that if we want to save the world from itself, we need to make much better art, as if our lives depended on it (because they do)….

Meta says there is a crisis that is not just ‘out there’ in the world, but ‘in here’ in your heart and mind, and ‘between us and reality’ in the way we relate, notice, imagine, understand, listen and speak. We are participants in crisis, not just spectators. We need to find the agency within and between us, and use it well….[and stop] collectively… ‘acting out’ our misreading of how things are…. The audacious task is to collectively learn how to relate to the world differently and better, and that includes reckoning with existing patterns of power that perpetuate existing patterns of attending, understanding, and valuing…. [and] actually start to act in a way that fits the crisis at hand, through the kind of reflection needed to inform effective action.

Table of Contents for CII’s September Newsletter

*  Join Us For Our Celebratory & Exploratory 3-Session Gathering: The Tao of Democracy and Beyond!

* Responding to Daniel Schmachtenberger

* Appreciating the Work of Marjorie Kelly and her book Wealth Supremacy

* Our New Season of Real World Co-Intelligence Community Calls

* September’s Wise Democracy Pattern: Wise Use of Uncertainty

* September’s Co-Intelligence Poem: Becoming Whole

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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