Plunging Into the Polycrisis

Admittedly, this idyllic setting made discussing civilizational collapse much easier (Image by Thomas Homer-Dixon)

I spent this past week talking about civilizational collapse with four score experts in the field at a workshop in a beautiful little conference center on the coast of Denmark. It’s not a place I expected to be but it was a gift. In fact, I felt a bit like Liam Neeson in Unknown, a ten-year-old action movie I never even heard of until trapped on a plane breathing through an N95 mask en route to the workshop and hoping to keep myself distracted for as long as I could.

The basic plot of this terrible little film is this: Neeson gets into a car accident and wakes up after a coma with amnesia. But when he remembers who he is a few days later, he discovers that someone else has taken over his life (and wife). After a few attempts to reinsert himself, and being arrested (after all the other guy had a passport with his name and family photos as well), he starts to accept he really is crazy and isn’t who he thought he was. Until, that is, assassins try to kill him.

Fortunately, no one has tried to kill me but coming together with 85 people who talk openly about the coming “polycrisis” (or converging environmental and societal disruptions that trigger a “runaway failure of Earth’s natural and social systems”) and what that will lead to felt similar to that moment Neeson experienced. Certainly frightening but a relief as it revealed I’m not crazy after all!* To talk openly about an event that is now essentially inevitable (or more correctly in an active state of unfolding), to not have to couch my words or self-censor, or offer platitudes or shift the conversation after a point to not trigger existential fear in my conversation partner, that is a rare space to be in, and was a balm to my being. (As was, admittedly, walking among the ancient beech trees and swimming in the cold ocean while hearing from my family how hot it was in the Northeast US.)

But in truth, I can’t say I feel I walked away from the meeting with more clarity. If anything I may be even more confused on what to do. A few years back I wrote the below Gaian kōan and while it came from my mind I wasn’t sure how I felt about it (but it being a kōan, I figured that was ok):

Domino Effect

Should we embrace the fall? (Video still by Lily Hevesh (Hevesh5 on Youtube))

“Master, you asked me to set up these four thousand dominoes in a pattern that celebrates Gaia. I am nearly done.” The teacher, looking at his work, taps his walking stick against a domino knocking them all over. The student, speechless, says nothing.

The student spends several more days making a new pattern and as he is nearing completion, the teacher comes again and knocks over his dominoes.

A third time this cycle happens. And the student says:

“Are you not pleased with my designs, master?”

The teacher responds, “If the fall is inevitable, should we not embrace it?”**

Embrace It?

This kōan kept resonating as I sat in conversation at the conference. Considering that the longer our current civilization lasts the worse the damage to life and to Gaia will be, perhaps sustaining the current system has little place and we should embrace its unravelling sooner rather than later.

Of course, there are immediate buts that suggest that’s a horrible idea. For example, all the lives that will be lost when the collapse comes (but then again more will be lost if collapse unfolds in twenty years and global population is nine billion instead of eight and Gaia’s systems are even more degraded).

Or what if a nuclear war is triggered killing nearly all the planet? We need this time to decommission and secure those weapons. (True, but will we? Or will we spend this time making a new generation of nukes?)

And we need this time to sow new philosophies and cultural adaptations—whether Gaianism, transition towns, ecovillages, or whatever else might help us cultivate a new ecocentric and restorative civilization on the other end. (But again, perhaps it’s in the collapse that these new paths will accelerate rather than now—more on that next week).

On the other hand, if systems break down quickly, perhaps when the proverbial dust settles, there will be more of Earth’s biocapacity left to sustain the remaining human and non-human populations to rebuild and create new cultures that integrate with the expectations of planetary realities—and that accept the limits that Earth demands.

Big ifs, but if the collapse comes later, those ifs only become bigger.

Six thousand years ago, near where a conference center now stands, lived an ancient and advanced civilization. (Image of ancient burial monument by Erik Assadourian)

One speaker of Indigenous heritage raised a really provocative question: Her ancestors, who experienced a collapse triggered by climate change, shifted from being a hierarchical slave-based nation to being more egalitarian. In other words, she argued that collapse may have been good for them in the long run—as difficult as it is for me to write those words knowing of the suffering experienced by Native Americans by Europeans during the centuries of colonialism that came after.

Another speaker asked the question: “What if the way we see the crisis is the crisis?” Again, hard to suggest that to people living through a cascading series of disasters—heat waves, floods, droughts, conflicts—but it certainly makes me pause. What could be gained in this transition—at least for those who make it through?

So that wasn’t an outcome I expected from this conference, but it’s certainly something to sit with. And it makes it clearer (as I’ll get to next week) that Gaians could play an important role in preparing civilizations for a humane collapse and a healthy pathway out.

So on that note, consider this another invitation to, in John Michael Greer’s words, “collapse now and avoid the rush.” Embrace the state shifts coming and start preparing, mentally, physically, and socially for the transition at our doorstep. And help those around you, as well, to prepare. This clear understanding of what’s coming is a key gift we, Gaians, can offer our communities. And perhaps we can help them accept, even embrace this future—or at least survive it and help, in the myriad small and large ways they can, to build a better one for those who make it through.

Also part of the conference center: a 400-year old cottage and enough arable land to feed a post-collapse village. (Image by Erik Assadourian)


*Yes, yes, we could all be collectively crazy but the odds of that are much smaller.

**As I retold this a few times while at the conference, it started to evolve from “facilitate it” to “give it a nudge.” But that suggests an intentional, even violent, intervention. The more I listened to participants, though, the more I realized perhaps most accurate word is “embrace” for is it really possible to manage this polycrisis? Each of us may be able to manage a small aspect and maybe even steer it slightly, but ultimately it may be more like a Chinese finger trap, where resisting, trying to control, or trying to run from this reality may cause it to worsen, and the gentle acceptance and movement through it may be the most effective response.

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6 Responses

  1. Catherine Folio

    As one nears 70 years old, one does not “embrace” falls. One gets hurt more and more in physical falls, mental falls (not remembering why you walked into a room), emotional falls (saying to others whatever strikes our fancy at the moment). Yes, some falls are inevitable as we age, but I wouldn’t embrace their danger. And all falls are dangerous: breaking bones and getting concussions, not remembering to turn off the stove, breaking relationships with someone you dearly love because you decided to say something stupid to them. Would any of you want to embrace these falls?
    The same idea applies to our approach with Gaia. We think we can do with her whatever we wish and not get hurt. This is the greatest fallacy of our age. We were warned about the Greenhouse Effect by Arrhenius in 1900 and by Bell Telephone Laboratories in the 1950’s. We paid no attention because the economy and GNP always come first. Now we are experiencing the greatest Fall of all time because we have so severely damaged Gaia and ourselves. Should we embrace this?! Ludicrous. We should be following the lead of California and Japan into the Hydrogen Revolution, following the lead of RMI (formerly The Rocky Mountain Institute) into cutting-edge carbon capture, following the lead into jet fuel being made from waste cooking oil, reinvesting in national mass transit systems, turning our backs on Big Oil and King Coal.
    Embrace the fall? “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”. Embrace Gaia instead!

    • dale

      Sadly hydrogen would not accomplish anything. Jevons paradox after all. Entropy is well established and any new “free” energy will only be used to destroy the planet faster. Fossil fuels were an extremely cheap energy(up front costs) and look where it got us

  2. Liz Connor

    I used to think I had a duty to use my long and wide-ranging teaching experience by explaining to other people what was in store for us and why, and then how to embrace simplicity and as much self-sufficiency and/or community-sufficiency as possible.

    But as I’ve grown older I’ve had to embrace two realities:
    1. most people won’t give up what they’ve been persuaded to think is their due until or unless they’re forced to; & 2. all I was doing was making myself feel dissatisfied – and also exhausted.

    Now I’ve embraced making my own life much simpler, eg
    a. without a car and within walking distance (accompanied by my rescued greyhound) of a local shopping centre;
    b. on a block that I’m gradually rewilding around a more and more productive fruit and vegetable garden; &
    c. maintaining regular contact with my two children, both of whom are in their early fifties, happily married but without children, and also living simply on their own land (one nearby and the other in Scotland);

    I’m also embracing the opportunity to begin sharing my house and block of land with a younger single woman (with or without a child) – each of us with a private living area, but sharing the work of producing fruit and vegetables and drying/preserving any bountiful seasonal crops, and also enjoying the seasonal visits of insects, birds and small native mammals and frogs to our maturing natural forest.

    But I’m really trying to cut down the rage – in my experience it usually ends in tears, and it’s much easier cutting my expectations down to what one aging woman can hope to manage. Even if the rest of the world is going to Hell, where I now live is far enough away from the madness for me to focus my gaze on my local neighbourhood.

    • Erik Assadourian

      What a lovely story. Thanks for sharing, Liz. Sounds like a great idea to reduce one’s rage and increase one’s local rewilding activities. And sharing your home is a wonderful way to reduce your impact (and hopefully increase your community connections and social support).

  3. Jerry McManus

    There is a “climate action” style protest planned for the state capital where I live in a few days.
    I was deeply conflicted about attending, I dreaded trying to explain to people why there’s nothing we can do to stop the global “polycrisis” unfolding around us.
    The comment by Liz Connor above has set my mind at ease. Why bother? People see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear. I already know in my heart the protest will be an utter waste of what little precious time we have left.
    So, I still get to live my life for a little while longer, no matter what the rest of the world is doing.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Hi Jerry. Thanks for your comment. I would push back that action does very much have an impact (including climate protests–imagine what policymakers would think if no one shows up). The bigger question is what type of action you can do that you can sustain (or sustains you). If that means prioritizing resilience at the local level, engaging with local organizations and governance to make your community a bit more climate resilient then focus there. Or if you get energy from acting globally, or nationally, by protesting or innovating, then choose those. There are a hundred if not a thousand meaningful ways you can work to help bring humans back in balance with Gaia (and not just on climate but on other key environmental issues–from biodiversity to nuclear security, from dark skies to diet).

      A few essays for further consideration: (This one specifically addresses your point. One of our goals is to spread an understanding of the need for degrowth to the climate activist community. That is a key awareness lacking in most activists but disengaging because of that isn’t doing anyone any favors.)


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