the great unraveling, the polycrisis

the great unraveling, the polycrisis

After an addictive period of progress and as the result of several, mutually reinforcing crises, in the Great Unraveling the world is falling apart both ecologically and socially. That process now has a name: polycrisis. 

Richard Heinberg and Asher Miller of the Post Carbon Institute wrote an extensive report on it. In fact, anyone who’s in some way involved in sustainability and climate protection – and who isn’t – should read it. Here’s what it’s about:

During the 20th century, and especially the latter half of the century, humanity’s increasing adoption of fossil fuels as sources of cheap and abundant energy enabled rapid industrialization. The result was a massive increase in nearly all human activities and their ecological and social impacts, a process that has been called the Great Acceleration.

The first two decades of the 21st century saw a new phase of the Great Acceleration, with wars fought over the last sources of cheap oil, expensive and destructive exploitation of remaining natural resources, the massive use of debt and speculation to expand energy production and maintain economic growth, and the arrival of environmental and social impacts too overwhelming for even the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people and nations to ignore.

Acceleration in reverse

Now, in the 2020s, the Great Acceleration is losing steam and shows signs of reversing direction. Thought leaders and policy think tanks have invented a new word—polycrisis—to refer to the tangles of global environmental and social dilemmas that are accumulating, mutually interacting, and worsening.

The central claim of this report is that the polycrisis is evidence that humanity is entering what some have called the Great Unraveling —a time of consequences in which individual impacts are compounding to threaten the very environmental and social systems that support modern human civilization. The Great Unraveling challenges us to grapple with the prospect of a far more difficult future, one of mutually exacerbating crises—some acute, others chronic—interacting across environmental and social systems in complex ways, at different rates, in many places, and with different results.

Welcome to the Great Unraveling is intended to help the general public—but particularly academics and researchers, environmental and social justice nongovernmental organizations and their funders, and the media—recognize what the Great Unraveling is, what it means for both human civilization and the global ecosystem, and what we can do in response. The paper calls attention to four main things:

  1. the alarming, rapidly changing environmental and social conditions of the Great Unraveling;
  2. the need to grapple with complexity, uncertainty, and conflicting priorities—hallmarks of the Great Unraveling;
  3. the need to maintain social cohesion within societies and peaceful relations between them during the Great Unraveling, while implementing key changes in collective behavior and managing the negative consequences of past failures to act; and
  4. the personal competencies that are needed to understand what’s happening during the Great Unraveling and to respond constructively, primarily by building household and community resilience for this precarious time.

The turning point

The Great Unraveling is a turning point in the timeline of human existence. As such, it carries significance on par with the emergence of language, the development of agriculture, and the Industrial Revolution. But it will likely be more perilous than those earlier watersheds. Never has humanity had so much to lose, and never has it faced so many challenges at once across so many sectors and over so short a period of time.

In responding to the Great Unraveling, we must allow and deliberately encourage some things to change, even going so far as to actively resist the forces that worsen our situation, while other things must be protected from destructive change.

In the category of things that must change: people with higher incomes, both globally and within nations, will have to give up some advantages (such as easy mobility and high levels of consumption).

The things we must protect include natural systems and humanity’s past achievements in science, the arts, and rights.

Without deliberate efforts along these lines, the Great Unraveling could leave humanity not just poorer, but culturally bereft. If humanity descends into blame and desperate efforts to maintain a status quo that by its very nature cannot persist, the future looks dark indeed. Imagine what a young person a few decades from now, living in a depleted and ravaged world, might feel when looking at surviving images of today’s “influencers” enjoying comfort, convenience, and privilege on an epic scale.

What could we do now to change that scenario? Perhaps, if we work together to build a truly sustainable way of life, future generations will have some reasons to thank us.