The great regret that will always haunt me isn’t something I did; it was something I didn’t do. In the early 1990s, I was working full-time on the transition to democracy in South Africa. Those were heady times, but even as we prepared for this hard-fought victory, I was well aware that there was a terrible poison spreading. I had friends that died of it in the 1980s in New York City. I had helped projects to arrest its spread through other parts of Africa. I saw its southward movement and knew it would devastate South Africa. Yet, I did next to nothing about the spread of HIV/AIDS.
To this day, I keep track of the long and deadly tail of HIV/AIDS in South Africa. In 2006, AIDS-related deaths peaked at 345,185 (half of all deaths that year!) and in 2017 it killed 126,755 people, or one quarter of all deaths. Of course, I could not have prevented this monumental tragedy, but I did nothing more than put a few posters on the wall of our offices and a bowl of condoms in our reception room.
I believe we are at a similar historical junction today. Whatever we most care about, whatever our individual causes or commitments to help others may be, they are at grave risk of being blown away by what is being called the Global Polycrisis.
The good news is that there is a lot that we can do about it. The less good news is that we are just about out of time and we have to do it now.
Here’s what you need to know to get started.
The Global Polycrisis is the sum total of all stressors affecting people and planet. To understand it, you need to understand how systems work, and how they are interrelated. COVID-19 and the Movement for Black Lives have shown us that America’s systems, from health to economy to infrastructure to technology to media to policing to you-name-it, are not prepared for more shocks. As individuals, we absorb all these stresses. Under this kind of stress, from multiple systems simultaneously, we break. This moment isn’t predictable, but that fact that it will happen is.
If you watched the excellent series on the Chernobyl disaster, you can see with perfect hindsight why many say that Chernobyl was the proximate cause for the collapse of the Soviet Union. You can see it in the way incentives drove bad decisions, which reinforced each other. This is what complexity science calls a positive feedback loop.
The recent winter storms in Texas offer another teachable moment, illustrating how failures in one system cascade over to other systems. Freezing rain and snow break the electric and heating grid. Pipes break and the water system collapses. Transport stalls and stores are not restocked. An already overstrained health system drops more services.
The science points to more of these breakdowns – and, let’s be clear, there is no credible dissent to the science. In this light, isn’t it time to prepare for it “just in case”?
I’m hopeful. I believe that serious philanthropy will use systems thinking to prepare for the converging of planetary stressors.
Maybe the best and most recent primer I can recommend is Thomas Homer-Dixon’s recently published, Commanding Hope: The Power We Have To Renew a World in Peril. Homer-Dixon is a preeminent systems thinker with a gift for clear explanation. Commanding Hope is dedicated to, and to an extent written to, his children. He is trying to explain the problems now facing humanity without diminishing their spirits. As a parent, it gave me courage. As a philanthropist, I was struck by the description of his Cascade Institute, “a Canadian research center addressing the full range of humanity’s converging environmental, economic, political, technological, and health crises.” It works to identify and implement “high-leverage interventions that could rapidly shift humanity’s course towards fair and sustainable prosperity.”
Most of the solutions that Homer-Dixon and many others are pursuing expand on the idea of resilience, which we might define operationally as being prepared to weather, and even thrive, in a world characterized by strong and persistent inter-systemic shocks. There is a tremendous amount of exciting work that is being done in every field of human endeavor, from agriculture to zoology. Philanthropists need to know about this work. I recommend the thinking and resources being curated by Omega: The Resilience Funders Network (I’m a member of the advisory board).
There are three interrelated pathways to resilience. For each one of these there are scores of terrific nonprofit organizations that are showing the way. In addition, there are a growing number of businesses that understand that the core purpose of business today must be sustainable progress for all.
First, we must pull back from ecological overshoot. We have to re-localize our lives, our economy. We must get below 350 parts per million of CO2 in our atmosphere. We have to reconnect with nature and reverse what is called the Sixth Great Extinction.
Second, it is our turn to advance democracy; every human being must be accorded equal dignity and respect. We now produce enough of all of life’s necessities – including health, education, and shelter -- for everyone, and we can do this while honoring pathway one, staying within ecological sustainability boundaries. This is how democracy can reorganize the economy for today’s world.
Third, we must all work together. Everyone can contribute for the good of all. Business, civil society, government, media, academia, science -- all parts of society with a singular focus on sustainable progress for all. No one person, or nation, or anything for that matter, can be resilient alone. Mutual care begins at home and builds out from there. Sufficiency is a team sport.
In summary, step one is to understand that we are beset by converging crises. Step two is to build resilience. That’s it. You are on notice. As President Biden said in his inaugural address, “We will be judged, you and I, for how we resolve the cascading crises of our era.”