There are many lenses through which to view the metacrisis we face. I plan to share a dozen or more of them over the coming months, but for this initial post in the series, I’m offering you three very different ones: What the metacrisis looks like through (1) the eyes of official mainstream powerholders, in this case the World Economic Forum (think Davos), (2) the eyes of ancient Biblical prophets and Christian moralists, and (3) the eyes of a current advocate of fundamental human transformation who offers a radical reframe away from modernism and compulsive problem-solving.
Each of the following different ways of viewing the metacrisis offer something of value and will speak to different people. Although these are only three examples from the scores of emerging perspectives in the metacrisis “ecosystem”, they give us an initial glimpse of how diverse such viewpoints can be.
After links to each of the original versions, I offer a summary and/or commentary – occasionally with some excerpts from the original. See what you think.
This article features the World Economic Forum’s map of the “Global Risks Landscape”. It can provide useful insights into many kinds of disruption we see emerging, highlighting their interactions and disturbing synchronicity. In tune with its anthropocentric worldview, though, it depicts environmental and technological risks as less significant than economic and social disruptions.
And so this “polycrisis” analysis falls short by not adventuring into the increasing potential for civilizational collapse, ecological disaster and human extinction – prospects that we’ll later be invited to contemplate and creatively address using the deeper lens of the “metacrisis”.
The article within which WEF’s global risk map is embedded is basically an interview with historian Adam Tooze whose vast-but-narrow perspective is accentuated by (a) his assumption that the polycrisis began in 2008, (b) his failure to identify a common denominator to these crises (which the metacrisis perspective explicitly highlights) and (c) his mostly shallow analysis of what drives them all forward.
Although Tooze almost parenthetically notes that “very dramatic risks are being generated by the very success of our economic growth story”, he seems to gloss over the profundity of our situation when he says “What the polycrisis concept says is, ‘Relax, this is actually the condition of our current moment’.” He then says that’s useful because it gives our feelings of concern a name!
On the other hand, Tooze is highly aware of the psychological impact of the polycrisis on young people who sense that their future lives are in serious disarray and danger. And he wisely advocates “cross-sectoral learning”, while offering little guidance about how to put such learning into practice. (Compare this to the wise democracy patterns Inclusive Stakeholder Governance and Citizen-Stakeholder Integration.)
I also find it significant and disturbing – although not at all surprising – that the Global Economic Forum defines “long term” as 10 years. (Contrast that to the wise democracy pattern Deep Time Perspective.)
Landry is a master of evoking deeper and broader questions to help people explore any given question they consider important. But in this case he takes one thread of the metacrisis – artificial intelligence – and views it through the haunting prophetic lens of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
This dark mythic perspective taps into some fearful expectations and narratives that are currently emerging into civilization’s collective psyche. Landry weaves these mythic forces into modern understandings of the dynamics driving technology, where he introduces Christianity’s Seven Deadly Sins as another dark lens for us to consider:
He says, “far too often… nerd software engineers, and their corporate masters, define their lives on the basis of hidden drives and desires, expressed in the form of Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride” – about which he goes into some detail.
These lenses offer little explicit direction for our creative response, but they do carry a certain level of prophetic moral power insofar as we can imagine the prophetic author of the Book of Revelation (the last part of the Bible) sensing into the distant-future energies of our times and – without comprehending the exact specifics – descrying certain patterns of evil arising. He issues a warning – which is the role of a prophet – for people to change their ways before it is too late.
In this case, I think we may only be able to heed that warning by choosing to change our systems and cultures so they don’t manifest these insightfully foretold patterns of evil so thoroughly!
I find an unexpected dark clarity reverberating out of this mythic interpretation of the progressive capitalist globalist version of modernism we’re living in. I wonder how many readers will find some resonance with it.
I can easily imagine companion versions of Landry’s prophetic narrative being created to highlight the crises of climate chaos, inequity, rising authoritarianism, biodiversity loss, peak resources, rampant genetic engineering, novel pollutions, and all the other crises we find dancing together into the tight weave of the “polycrisis”.
But let us now shift into the heart of the matter – the personal and collective interior dimensions of this vast emerging polycrisis….
This fascinating video lecture shifts our attention to the “metacrisis” and starts to make clearer sense of the unprecedented challenge we actually face, all together. It is “the crisis within, between and beyond our existing conception of crisis… to the detriment of life on earth,” suggests Rowson. The metacrisis brings our attention to how we relate to crises, as such.
The metacrisis, he says, “is a sign that modernism is ending.” Our seemingly advanced modern intellect is not succeeding in making adequate sense of the world or addressing our challenges, so our consciousness needs to transform and grow in new ways. The metacrisis manifests as our “daily experience of the world falling apart…. We are entering uncharted territory.” It is becoming an open question whether Earth will continue to provide a habitat amendable to human life.
Thus we find ourselves living in a world between worlds, a story between stories. Our previously glorious civilization-enhancing Story of Progress is starting to not work. Instead, we increasingly see it generating regress and catastrophes, making it harder for us to believe in “a better future.”
And as all that is unfolding, we’re waking up to the painful reality that the metacrisis is not something we can “fix”. It is quite beyond our usual problem-solving approaches. It is a vast, long, deep historical process that is moving us towards something that will decide whether we thrive, survive, or collapse.
Although it is theoretically conceivable that technology and shifts in existing systems will somehow make it all come out ok – and many of us DO think about what transformative responses might be possible – it just doesn’t FEEL like that’s what’s happening right now. Instead, it feels like some form of collapse is already well underway.
“We live as if living a normal life, while watching news in our pocket that says everything is falling apart.” We’re “collectively living a life that no longer exists…. So there’s a sense of confusion that is now baked into our lives.”
Of course, we can’t REALLY know with any certainty what’s going to happen. So, in the face of that – and when the stakes are as high as they are – we face an existential challenge: What kind of lives will we choose to live? Is there hope?
In the midst of profound uncertainty, space may open for possibilities and transformation. So we may move towards sources of renewal and regenerativity – perhaps working on bioregionalism and globally interconnected local community efforts. We may enter a “post-tragic” kind of consciousness that pursues inspiring visions with full awareness of “the human propensity to fuck things up”. It just won’t be anything like “normal” – i.e., living into the blindly life-degrading forces of profit, production, consumerism, competition, certainty and alienation.
This radical approach – which moves us beyond problem-solving – emerges from our realization that “The entire engine that drives the progress narrative … is the perpetual construction and solving of crises…. Rather than being the solution, [that engine] is part of the problem…. [I]nstead, you’ve got to look to potential: Where is the scope to do things fundamentally differently…. [that go] beyond the underlying form or reality of [the status quo]…. [We need to tend] to what’s latent, seeing what’s unseen and moving with that in some way…. innovating in a way that prefigures the next world.”
“To get there you need to tune into something more cosmic, which is something like your own sense of what you’re meant to be doing…. That means, given the context of what’s going on in the world, what is my work in this context?” And for big picture thinkers, this may mean moving beyond grandiose plans into “trusting in the innovation of smaller groups.”
“There’s a kind of relationship between the whole (of reality) and the parts, that is constantly happening. And sometimes you can feel yourself in the whole in a way that’s quite personal and enlivening.” We need new ways of sensing into this and being together in this that “might be worthy of the challenges we face.”
Be sure to check out the original essays and video talk.
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