Why is so much going wrong everywhere at once?
The answer is simple, though its implications for us are anything but.
We humans are facing what has been variously described as collapse, bottleneck overshoot, catastrophe, the long emergency, and Nature’s revenge because we are breaking Life’s paramount rule:
We are living beyond Earth’s means.
The converging economic, environmental, social and political crises we are facing are the direct and indirect consequences of living, producing and consuming in ways the planet cannot much longer sustain. And though we still address them as if they were, these crises are not separate and distinct. On the contrary, they are reinforcing, amplifying and complicating each other and converging in a way that is precipitating a syndrome, a mega-crisis for which we modern humans have no precedent. One of the reasons those of us in the organizations, institutions and movements that are tackling one or more of our present crises have failed to create a critical mass of support is that we have not given this syndrome a name around which all of us can rally, an umbrella under which we can bring all our efforts like that red Travelers insurance umbrella under which, in theory, all your insurance needs can be met. And just as Travelers promises to reduce your ignorance of what to do and fear of impoverishment after a disaster (though whether Travelers or any of the federal or private insurers can continue to do that much longer is problematic), giving a name to this package of crises can be the beginning of the end of ignorance—and fear—of it.
What’s In A Name?
What’s in a name is precisely the capacity to share what cannot be widely or effectively shared without one. We need an evocative, even provocative name for our present mega-crisis so that it gets at least the same level of attention, widespread recognition, support and devotion we give top athletes, pop singers and movie stars.
Living beyond Earth’s means has confronted us with a perfect storm of crises. While perfect storms pass away as quickly as they form, this one isn’t going anywhere soon. And since it affects the whole Earth, there’s no way to go around it the way seamen can navigate around a perfect storm.
We have most definitely arrived at or, as Bill McKibben suggests in his aptly misspelled new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (which he and I and others will be speaking about at the Brave New Planet: Imagining Ecological Communities in Claremont CA, Oct 27-29) we may have just passed the tipping point in the evolution of this crisis after which nothing will be the same. The tippers are anticipated to be the end of cheap oil, an uncongenial climate, a fragile global economy and/or the apocalyptic convergence of all three. But, though McKibben and others believe we’ve shot past the tipping point already, there is not yet widespread agreement that we have. Most people cling to the belief, or the hope, that if there is to be a tipping point, it’s still up in front of us somewhere moving away from, not toward, us.
“Collapse” is the most commonly used term for what’s wrong in the world. It’s meant to name what comes after the tipping point: the decline and fall of modern industrial civilization. But as I write, collapse is still a prediction; it’s not (quite) a present reality. It properly names what will come, and possibly quite soon, if we do not effectively and immediately face up to the real potential for worldwide system failure.
But “collapse” does not help us understand the nature or cause of the potential failure. And “collapse,” like “tipping point,” suggests a sudden breakdown, whereas we may linger just in front of total breakdown for a while longer yet, as social critic and best-selling author James Howard Kunstler proposes in The Long Emergency. And events may unfold so haphazardly and in what will seem such slow motion, each event distracting us from the others, that we will continue to overlook the real potential for collapse.
In fact, we have been able to use “collapse” to describe the demise of earlier socio-economic systems and civilizations only long after it was clear they had collapsed. It took the Roman Empire several centuries to complete the process we now call its “fall.” Decline was an
on-again-off-again affair involving many of the same kinds of challenges we face now except that it took place regionally rather than globally. Historical documents suggest that few Romans saw it coming. “Collapse” is useful to us now primarily as a warning of what’s to come if we fail to deal with the challenges already confronting us.
It seems to me that “critical mass” better suggests the full significance and weight of the collection of crises we are already experiencing. And unlike the other possible names for it, “critical mass” can serve a double purpose: It can be used to name not only the crisis but also its cure. Getting through this crisis in a way that doesn’t make the Dark Ages look good will require that critical masses of us get our minds around the nature and cause of this mega-crisis and then deal with that cause.
The term “critical mass” in itself has no positive or negative connotation. Originally used by nuclear physicists to name the amount of fissionable material required to trigger and sustain a chain reaction, it is now used more generally to identify a point in time or in a process when enough of something has been literally amassed that a spontaneous transformation occurs. After critical mass is reached, something new emerges or is created, or a new state of being is achieved.
The something new that follows on the heels of reaching critical mass may by our reckoning be good. We may deem it an improvement over what went before, like when a critical mass of neurons and synapses, wrinkles and folds and gray matter was slowly added to primate and hominid brains, resulting in the more complex, sophisticated human brain. Members of the activist cyclists’ group Critical Mass deem it good when enough of them gather in a city’s streets to stop traffic, making their point about the dark side of our dependence on fossil-fueled transportation and hopefully helping to inspire a widespread transformation to post-carbon (non-fossil fuel) forms of transportation, like cycling.
On the other hand, what comes after critical mass may be something that is by our reckoning disastrous and regrettable, as when disease amasses in the human body to the point that it takes over and then take’s the human’s life, or plague amasses in so many humans’ bodies that it takes the lives of whole communities. Or when the amount of fissionable mater-ial gathered is sufficient to set off a chain reaction in a nu-clear weapon.
If it is not dealt with soon and effectively, this critical mass of crises we are facing now will be of the latter sort. It will be so disastrous and regrettable from the human perspective that in these pages I will distinguish it from the positive and lesser kinds of critical mass with capital letters in order for us to be constantly reminded how urgent it is that we understand and deal with it.
So, here’s a second answer to the question “Why is so much going wrong everywhere at once?”
We have reached global Critical Mass.
If this name were to go viral—and that’s something Transitioners can make happen—we could begin to gather a critical mass of us, whichever specific crisis-of-the-moment we’re working on, that knows we’re all in it together. Now that could be a flash mob up to the task of taking on Washington, McKibben’s brilliant Keystone pipeline protest to the 10th power. Re-empowerment and relocalization on speed.