Permacrisis. That’s a new word Collins Dictionary has chosen as the word of the year for 2022, defining it as an extended period of instability and insecurity, esp one resulting from a series of catastrophic events. It’s synonymous with polycrisis and meta-crisis. Whatever you call it, we’ve never seen anything like this before.
Catastrophes like hurricanes, floods, wildfires, or the war in Ukraine get our attention, but less obvious are the many ongoing problems in the background. We probably don’t notice or hear on the news that we are in the midst of the 6th major extinction event, or that sea level is rising, or that we are dumping 15 million tons of plastics into the oceans every year, or that over 6,000 children in the U.S. were killed or injured by gunfire last year.
Humanity is now in a permanent state of crisis, yet heroic efforts are being made to solve our problems – by non-profits, businesses, governments, and people – and there are some amazingly good things happening. If you want a bit of a lift, take a look at What Went Right in 2022 from Positive News. But on the whole, new problems are appearing faster than old ones can be solved, and the overall trend is in the wrong direction. Our current path is not sustainable, and it can only end badly. Is there any hope?
The Symptoms Versus the Disease
Solving hundreds of problems individually seems impossible, especially when so many of them are interrelated. But what if there was a root cause that could be addressed? What if these problems are actually symptoms of some deeper disease? What if we are putting out fires without asking, why are there so many fires? Relieving symptoms and putting out fires is necessary and good, but if we want to understand and relieve our permacrisis we need to look deeper and remember Einstein’s insight: We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. Einstein, who died in 1955, could never have imagined the magnitude and complexity of the problems we now face, and it’s more than just our “thinking” that created this. It’s how we see the world, and how we think it works. It’s our entire theory of the world – our worldview.
For thousands of years most people have operated from the assumption that the world is a collection of separate, material objects we can manipulate as we please, with no consequences. With the first civilizations some 5,000 years ago, people started manipulating the material world on a scale never seen before – think of the giant stone blocks used to build the Great Pyramids or Stonehenge. The armies of slaves who built the temples and pyramids were also objects, as were the people ruled by the emperor, the animals domesticated for food, and the forests that were clear-cut for fuel and farming. In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond shows that most civilizations fail because they outstrip their natural resources. They destroy the very environment that supports them. This seems terribly short-sighted and very stupid, yet we have repeated the same mistake for 5,000 years, today on a planetary scale.
Examples of material culture, when people and Nature are objects. (left) A Slave Auction from Cassell’s History of the United States (1874-77). (right) Strip mining near Globe, AZ, 1990 by Phillip Capper.
Our intoxicating success since the Industrial Revolution has fed the belief that we are the rulers of a planet that God gave us to exploit. This gross misunderstanding, this belief in a material world with us in charge, is the hubris that underlies virtually all our problems today. The material worldview – and the material culture it supports – is the disease. It’s so ubiquitous, so deeply ingrained, it’s almost impossible for us to recognize, like a fish who can’t recognize water.
What’s the Alternative?
“Uncivilized” indigenous people have a very different view of the world. Nature-based societies recognize connectedness rather than separateness as the primary feature of the world. Relationships, not objects, are fundamental. The South African Bushman or Native American who kills an animal for food has a relationship with that animal. They thank the animal. They also thank the sun, the moon, the stars, the forest, the waters, their ancestors, and their community because they see all of this as interconnected.
The interconnectedness and interdependence of everything has been a core tenet of Buddhism for a thousand years, and finally modern science has “discovered” this in the last century. The science of ecology studies the interdependence among living things and with their nonliving environment. We can no longer escape the fact that the air we breathe and the waters that sustain us are shared by all living things, and viruses like Covid-19 are agnostic to borders, religions, skin tones, or political persuasion.
One of the most mind-boggling discoveries in all of science is quantum entanglement. This was predicted mathematically almost a hundred years ago and has now been observed in recent decades. What experiments show is that two particles such as electrons, can be separated by long distances yet somehow still be connected, or entangled, through empty space. Entanglement casts doubt on the very notion of empty space. Physicists have recently proposed that residing “behind” empty space is a sort of invisible “connective tissue” that has been variously called dark energy, the unified field, zero-point energy, and the implicate order. We still don’t know if these are all the same thing or different things, but we can be sure that our prevailing material view of the world as objects-in-space is a very dumbed-down version of reality. It’s this misunderstanding of what the world actually is – our blindness to the connectedness of everything – that has produced our permacrisis.
Is connectedness real or some New Age fantasy? I don’t see any wires or bluetooth. Ancient wisdom holds that we experience connectedness not through the eyes and the brain, but through the heart. Connectedness is not a concept, it’s a feeling, just like love, empathy, beauty, joy, and intuition. Many people feel connectedness with their children – could this feeling be extended to all people? – and with the ocean, the mountains, the deserts, the forests, and our animal friends. But civilized people operate mostly from their heads, not their hearts, and the head logically demands me first. Maybe it’s our instinct to survive. But when we feel connectedness we care what happens to other people, to other living things, and to our Mother Earth. Connectedness naturally leads to social justice and environmental stewardship. What a contrast this is to the objectivization and exploitation of people and nature that has been the hallmark of western civilization.
The Planet Project
Humanity is now in the midst of a major evolutionary transformation from the fragmented, self-centered material worldview to a bigger, more connected planetary perspective. This has been recognized by visionaries and scholars since at least the 1600s when John Comenius advocated a planetary society built around an educational system that served all people. In the twentieth century Pierre Teillard de Chardin anticipated an emerging global, connected consciousness – the noosphere – that would bring humanity together as a planetary species. In 1932 Jean Gebser envisioned a new evolutionary stage emerging for humans, and called it the integral consciousness because it brings separateness into wholeness. Today, even scientists have proposed that humans – or any intelligent species – must acquire “planetary intelligence” in order to survive (see our blog detailing this).
We are now birthing a planetary worldview and culture, but the outcome is far from certain. Like childbirth, it’s a painful and perilous process, and change is terrifying for most people. The good news is that we are the first species of life on Earth that can consciously shape our own evolution, and that is the purpose of the Planet Project. We are trying to help this process along, to nurture and support the emergence of planetary culture and consciousness on Earth. There are now many people and organizations with similar aims, using different language and strategies. But most of these efforts are still siloed and territorial. One of our main strategies is to help unify and amplify these aligned efforts and co-create a critical mass that tips the scales towards a just and sustainable world. We are in the process of reaching out to aligned partners throughout the world to help build a super-alliance, a network of networks, that will catalyze and accelerate the shift from the material to the planetary culture.
As we pursue this grand vision, we will continue to curate the internet and bring you the best things going on in the world through our Positive Culture and Change Agents databases. We’ll also keep posting these blogs about the planetary culture, and we will continue to grow our online Planet Community, a safe space where you can participate in discussions, share resources, meet like-minded planetarians, and help grow planetary culture. If you want to learn about real actions you can take that have a positive impact, our ongoing Campaigns can inspire and support you. And since most of us need more real live community, we will continue supporting the emergence of Planet Circles that grow planetary culture from the grass roots. We hope you’ll join us however you can and be part of the Planet Movement.