By februari 2, 2024 Algemeen

A dream of a sane world governed by logic and rationality has been the cry of many philosophers,  scientists for millennia. What is rational is real and what is real is rational; and if one devalues rationality, the world tends to fall apart. And yet here we are, in a world run by post-truth, post-factual and post reality politics and discourses. Anything goes and no one cares – all of us liberated in our own respective and self-serving bubbles of cognitive dissonance.

Instances of the severe destabilization or even collapse of societies are not historically unique and often occur for the same reasons. Though triggers of breakdown and collapse are nearly impossible to predict, they are usually precipitated by a combination of social and environmental stresses that can be reliably measured and managed. Archaeology and history have investigated the sociopolitical, economic and environmental reasons that have led complex societies such as Egyptians, Romans, Mayas, Incas, Minoans or Mesopotamians, to disappear or decline. Several concurrent or complementary explanations have been given by scholars and experts: environmental modifications, techno-economic decreasing returns and elite incompetency are just some examples. Interestingly, most of these works have tried to learn lessons from the past in order to warn present societies against the risks of collapse due to excessive resource exploitation, inequality, complexity, and Earth System change.

What is unique is that for the first time, a civilization of global scale could experience a collapse of such intensity and scope that a full recovery may not be possible. Prior civilizational collapses were bound to a specific region and time, whereas the collapse of today’s global civilization is planetary in scope and potentially irreversible. In the past, destabilization or collapse was followed by periods of societal transition and regeneration, allowing well-being to eventually recover. Yet today, the global interconnectedness of economic, social ecological and technological systems means that destabilization and collapse could cascade globally, impacting all societies and impairing their ability to recover. This time, our future as a species really is at stake.

WE ARE AHEAD OF SCHEDULE (at that is bad news)

At the very least since 1972, when Limits to Growth report, funded by the Club of Rome think tank, was published, we have collectively been warned that it is impossible to have limitless economic growth within a limited ecological space – i.e. planet Earth. The first advanced prospective scenarios from the Limits to Growth report, and conducted by an MIT research team in the 1970s, provide the results of a complex digital simulation composed of many variables, such as demography, production, energy, agriculture, water, pollution, etc., connected through differential equations from dynamical systems theory. The rapport and simulation predicted that rapid economic growth would lead to societal collapse in the mid 21st century. A review of iconic study from the MIT received stunning vindication (2021).  Acknowledging the challenges of accurately forecasting the future, the simulations that the current business-as-usual trajectory of global civilization repeatedly pointed to a potential societal collapse around 2040. We are unfortunately right on schedule. The MIT team also discovered that a stabilized world was possible, if society reconfigured its priorities.

The way civilization is currently organized, it is unable to meet its needs without continuing to deplete its resource base and drive ecological catastrophe in the process. Human development is for the first time in its history reaching planetary limits to growth. When a population exceeds the Earth’s carrying capacity, it eventually collapses back to a sustainable level. In the most severe cases, it is possible for the carrying capacity to be permanently lowered, making a full recovery impossible. We are currently on the cusp of a critical transition in the Earth system. A critical transition occurs when a system undergoes a regime shift from a prior state of stability to another qualitatively different state. With the complex interaction between biophysical processes and geopolitical crises and increasingly uncertain futures, there is a need to proactively identify emerging risks, opportunities and changing tides to ensure that development policies address not just our needs today, but also our aspirations for the future. But not only are we, collectively, not really getting it or doing anything substantial about it, at times we even move in the opposite direction to what evidence, logic and rationality necessitate.


Mainstream politics remains largely focused on conserving unsustainable economic systems through some incremental changes rather than transforming them. As a result, many societies are becoming increasingly vulnerable to systemic risks, because they are not adapting quickly and deeply enough to absorb mounting social and environmental pressures. In the extreme, there is a real danger that amplifying positive feedback loops between interlocking crises can precipitate a catastrophic failure of entire systems, even at the global scale. Successive waves of crises progressively diminish a system’s or a society’s adaptive capacity, making them less and less resilient over time. If they take progressively longer to recover, then they are nearing a bifurcation point — a point of no return after which society enters a protracted period of breakdown, even collapse, and reorganization.

The increasing uniformity and interconnectedness of today’s societies make societies more rigid and unable to address underlying stressors. When stressors reach critical levels and overload systems, they also spread more rapidly via cascading failures.

As globalization created increasingly networked societies to facilitate the flow of information, capital, goods, services, and people, it led to the emergence of global systemic risks that could precipitate a catastrophic failure of the system. Systemic risks are potential threats that endanger the functionality of systems of critical importance for society. They are complex phenomena characterized by high uncertainty and ambiguity that express ripple effects impacting other systems.  Risks can be differentiated in terms of their spatial and temporal scope and severity. Global systemic risks that are particularly harmful are called either global catastrophic risks or existential risks. Global catastrophic risks are events that might have the potential to inflict serious damage to human well-being on a global scale and permanently diminish human potential. Existential risks are an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential. Existential risk is a emergent phenomenon from complex systems characterized by non-linear changes and feedback loops. When multiple systemic risks combine in a network it is called a risk nexus. Risk nexuses that interact can produce interrelated and synchronized systemic crises, generating a multi-systemic crisis—with cascading effects to society.

Collapse is generally caused by multiple risks interacting at different scales. Systemic risks illustrate many of the social and environmental dynamics causing the breakdown and collapse of contemporary societies. “Climate change, topsoil degradation and erosion, biodiversity loss, overfishing, freshwater scarcity, mass un- and under- employment, fiscal unsustainability, and… overpopulation are multidimensional wicked problems that arise from gradual damage to collective goods. These common goods are indispensable to the survival and flourishing of human beings and human societies. As such, collectively destroying them is leading us to social and ecological breakdown and collapse.


Successive waves of crises progressively diminish a system’s or a society’s adaptive capacity, making them less and less resilient over time. If they take progressively longer to recover, then they are nearing a bifurcation point — a point of no return after which society enters a protracted period of breakdown, even collapse, and reorganization. In the extreme, there is a real danger that amplifying positive feedback loops between interlocking crises can precipitate a catastrophic failure of entire systems, even at the global scale. Although civilization will invariably experience some degree of breakdown and collapse (it already is), we do not yet know how severe and extensive the collapse will be, because that depends, in part, on societies’ responses over the coming years and decades. It is therefore important to focus efforts on forms of transformation that diminish the severity and duration of breakdown and collapse, while improving the likelihood of a successful recovery. Our globally interconnected world system also makes nonlinear social change more feasible. Memes spread rapidly and can instill new patterns of thought, leading to new ways of living. Globally shifting worldviews may be the strongest leverage point, creating the precondition for a paradigm shift in the institutions, norms, and goals of civilization.

As a system, global capitalism organized societies around the goals of maximizing efficiency, private profit, and growth, and in doing so, it led to the accumulation of social and environmental externalities which now pose systemic risks. The unprecedented expansion of social and economic development, was based on an economic model of exponential growth on a finite planet. Now, we need systems change models that can improve quality of life in a post-growth environment.

Humanity’s short-term prospects will very likely entail much greater degrees of suffering due to political inaction and the collapse of vital systems. Current approaches to development cannot adequately respond to present-day crises and often exacerbate them. Mainstream approaches to sustainable development do not sufficiently challenge the growth imperative at the heart of today’s unsustainable system. Politics remains largely focused on conserving unsustainable economic systems through some incremental changes rather than transforming them. As a result, many societies are becoming increasingly vulnerable to systemic risks, because they are not adapting quickly and deeply enough to absorb mounting social and ecological pressures.


As societies are going to be permanently disrupted, the term crisis still involves that sense of transience and agency.  We have entered a new era of ongoing damage to existing resources, arrangements, and ideas about life. Although an implicit suggestion of agency and change means that the concept of crisis may be attractive, that can be misleading about the nature of the predicament we are in. The recognition of a crisis can be used to imply that people and societies can overcome the difficulties through better policy and management to achieve a new stable and favorable state. Unfortunately, that may now be beyond the realistic expectations of humanity. Disaster more accurately describes what millions of people are already experiencing in many parts of the world. Even worse, disaster is what far more people will face over the coming years, in an ongoing and increasing way. The increasing frequency, type, scale, and concurrence of disasters describes the increasingly irreparable loss and damage occurring over long periods of time and affecting most parts of the world. That is a harrowing realization, but it is a credible way of making sense of our predicament.

The myriad forces that have been reshaping the world over the last 15-plus years have created conditions of deep, accelerating and systemic global risk, which has enabled the emergence of the polycrisis. The polycrisis is not simply the convergence of multiple simultaneous crises, such as the ecological emergency, economic inequality and fragility, geopolitical instability, global health concerns, ideological extremism, and technological disruption, but also the increasing entanglement among them that further deepens and exacerbates their collective negative impact on humanity.

In The Age of Polycrisis, our most important institutions, including associations, have a clear and demanding responsibility to work together to identify and implement solutions to address each underlying crisis without worsening the other crises. The sources of knowledge we generally use to inform multilateral development policy, solutions and portfolios of action however often emerge from a small set of stakeholders that have historically been in positions of power. Current mainstream processes for knowledge creation and sensemaking to formulate development agendas privilege forms of evidence that are quantitative, and which are legitimized by fitting into the logics and language of existing analytical frameworks within institutions. To move from development characterized by incremental changes that fix what is broken in existing systems, to development that serves to create entirely new systems for equity and justice, there is need to test and learn from more pluralistic ways to decide, design, and deliver. Reimagining development outcomes requires reflection and intentionality to generate a deeper understanding of power structures and information sources currently defining operating development architectures, methodologies and (socio-ecological-technical) tools.

In The Turbulent Twenties and into the 2030s, decision makers must discard the orthodox linear view of crises occurring one at a time in favor of a more adaptive perspective that recognizes and examines the complex and dynamic interactions among multiple crises happening at once. By choosing to think and act beyond this and other detrimental orthodox beliefs, decision makers can reclaim their agency and build their associations to become true 21st-century institutions capable of making a positive-sum impact on the polycrisis.


The transformations now required are more fundamental than those implemented during past periods of crisis. The long-term success of global development efforts depends on innovations that fundamentally transform society and its economic principles to reduce the risks and severity of breakdown and collapse, while ensuring a successful transition. The context of global polycrisis thus calls for greater attention to be paid to aspects of systems transformation, beyond efforts to improve resilience and adaptation within the current failing system.

Global polycrisis provides a context for understanding the critical constraints and opportunities for developing alternative systems not just to survive, but to thrive. Although the future is impossible to predict, it is possible to rethink possible and desirable futures and estimate their likelihood of occurring, depending on whether certain parameters are met.

The collapse of today’s civilization would be catastrophic, if there are not viable alternatives in place, given that most people critically depend on the social and environmental systems currently at risk. Articulating civilizational alternatives that can sustainably improve human potential after the breakdown or loss of many of today’s critical systems is an essential, though daunting task. As we are currently breaching planetary boundaries and limits to growth, the future of civilization rests on its capacity to transition to a sustainable model before depleting the energy and resources needed for a recovery within a healthy Earth system.


As the future, also by definition, has not happened yet, it cannot be empirically observed and measure). At the same time, anticipating and influencing future outcomes is at the core of human cognition. Foresight is critical to any decision we make, so it stands to reason that we should constructively engage with futures thinking in order to improve our present decision making. Given that the future is not predetermined, and that we cannot really study something which has not yet happened, every study of the future is strictly speaking, the study of possible futures. Infusing imagination as a key co-creative process towards alternative and contextual perspectives, visions for future development. This reimagining requires a reconfiguration of not only the overarching goal but also a fundamental restructuring of how humanity views itself and its relationship with nature and technology. Visualizing possible futures to constrain reasoning and deliberation, to make visible the expected cognitive and normative frames that make some future directions more plausible and more desirable than others. As for the future, certainly, we cannot know something which has not yet happened, and so we can never know what exactly the future is to bring. Which does not stop us from thinking about and talking about various futures or from acting for or against specific futures. Most difficult decisions require making a choice between alternative futures but only insofar as we are aware of the existence of these alternative futures in the first place.

We are facing a challenging, inhospitable probable future. We need to challenge expectations and identify practical, tangible ways to change our path toward the future we want. If we don’t, we risk sleepwalking into a future we don’t want to be in.

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