As Society Unravels, the Future Is Up for Grabs

As civilization faces an existential crisis, our leaders demonstrate their inability to respond. Theory of change shows that now is the time for radically new ideas to transform society before it’s too late.


Of all the terrifying news bombarding us from the burning of the Amazon, perhaps the most disturbing was the offer of $22 million made by France’s President Emmanuel Macron and other G7 leaders to help Brazil put the fires out. Why is that? The answer can help to hone in on the true structural changes needed to avert civilizational collapse.

Scientists have publicly warned that, at the current rate of deforestation, the Amazon is getting dangerously close to a die-back scenario, after which it will be gone forever, turned into sparse savanna. Quite apart from the fact that this would be the greatest human-made ecological catastrophe in history, it would also further accelerate a climate cataclysm, as one of the world’s great carbon sinks would convert overnight to a major carbon emitter, with reinforcing feedback effects causing even more extreme global heating, ultimately threatening the continued existence of our current civilization.

Macron and the other leaders meeting in late August in Biarritz were well aware of these facts. And yet, in the face of this impending disaster, these supposed leaders of the free world, representing over half the economic wealth of all humanity, offered a paltry $22 million—less than Americans spend on popcorn in a single day. By way of context, global fossil fuel subsidies (much of it from G7 members) total roughly $5.2 trillion annually—over two hundred thousand times the amount offered to help Brazil fight the Amazon fires.

The Amazon is burning, while our global leaders do nothing. (Reuters/Ricardo Moraes)

Brazil’s brutal president Bolsonaro is emerging as one of the worst perpetrators of ecocide in the modern world, but it’s difficult to criticize his immediate rejection of an amount that is, at best a pittance, at worst an insult. True to form, Donald Trump didn’t bother to turn up for the discussion on the Amazon fires, but it hardly made a difference. The ultimate message from the rest of the G7 nations was they were utterly unable, or unwilling, to lift a finger to help prevent the looming existential crisis facing our civilization.

Why Aren’t They Doing Anything?

This should not be news to anyone following the unfolding twin disasters of climate breakdown and ecological collapse. It’s easy enough to be horrified at Bolsonaro’s brazenness, encouraging lawless ranchers to burn down the Amazon rainforest to clear land for soybean plantations and cattle grazing, but the subtler, and far more powerful, forces driving us to the precipice come from the Global North. It’s the global appetite for beef consumption that lures Brazil’s farmers to devastate one of the world’s most precious treasure troves of biodiversity. It’s the global demand for fossil fuels that rewards oil companies for the wanton destruction of pristine forest.

There is no clearer evidence of the Global North’s hypocrisy in this regard than the sad story of Ecuador’s Yasuní initiative. In 2007, Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa proposed an indefinite ban on oil exploration in the pristine Yasuní National Park—representing 20% of the nation’s oil deposits—as long as the developed world would contribute half the cost that Ecuador faced by foregoing oil revenues. Initially, wealthier countries announced their support for this visionary plan, and a UN-administered fund was established. However, after six years of strenuous effort, Ecuador had received just 0.37% of the fund’s target. With sorrow, the government announced it would allow oil drilling to begin.

The Yasuni National Park is now open to oil exploration, following the Global North’s inaction. (Audubon/Neil Ever Osborne)

The simple lesson is that our global leaders currently have no intention to make even the feeblest steps toward changing the underlying drivers of our society’s self-destruction. They are merely marching in lockstep to the true forces propelling our global civilization: the transnational corporations that control virtually every aspect of economic activity. These, in turn, are driven by the requirement to relentlessly increase shareholder value at all cost, which they do by turning the living Earth into a resource for reckless exploitation, and conditioning people everywhere to become zombie consumers.

This global system of unregulated neoliberal capitalism was unleashed in full fury by the free market credo of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and has since become the underlying substrate of our politics, culture, and economics. The system’s true cruelty, destructiveness, and suicidal negligence are now showing themselves in the unraveling of our world order, as manifested in the most extreme inequality in history, the polarized intolerance of political discourse, the rise in desperate climate refugees, and a natural world that is burning up, melting down, and has already lost most of its nonhuman inhabitants.

How Change Happens

Studies of past civilizations show that all the major criteria that predictably lead to civilizational collapse are currently confronting us: climate change, environmental degradation, rising inequality, and escalation in societal complexity. As societies begin to unravel, they have to keep running faster and faster to remain in the same place, until finally an unexpected shock arrives and the whole edifice disintegrates.

It’s a terrifying scenario, but understanding its dynamics enables us to have greater impact on what actually happens than we may realize. Scientists have studied the life cycles of all kinds of complex systems—ranging in size from single cells to vast ecosystems, and back in time all the way to earlier mass extinctions—and have derived a general theory of change called the Adaptive Cycle model. This model works equally well for human systems such as industries, markets, and societies. As a rule, complex systems pass through a life cycle consisting of four phases: a rapid growth phase when those employing innovative strategies can exploit new opportunities; a more stable conservation phase, dominated by long-established relationships that gradually become increasingly brittle and resistant to change; a release phase, which might be a collapse, characterized by chaos and uncertainty; and finally, a reorganization phase during which small, seemingly insignificant forces can drastically change the future of the new cycle.

The Adaptive Cycle model of change

Right now, many people might agree that our global civilization is at the late stage of its conservation phase, and in many segments, it feels like it’s already entering the chaotic release phase. This is a crucially important moment in the system’s life cycle for those who wish to change the predominant order. As long as the conservation phase remains stable, new ideas can barely make an impact on the established, tightly connected dominant ecosystem of power, relationships, and narrative. However, as things begin to unravel, we see increasing numbers of people begin to question foundational elements of neoliberal capitalism: an economy based on perpetual growth, seeing nature as a resource to plunder, and the pursuit of material wealth as paramount.

This is the time when new ideas can have an outsize impact. Innovative policy ideas previously considered unthinkable begin to enter the domain of mainstream political discourse (known as the Overton window). We see signs of this in the United States in the form of the Green New Deal, or Elizabeth Warren’s plan to hold corporations accountable. We also see it, disturbingly, in dark political forces such as the UK Brexit fiasco and the increasing acceptability of malevolent racist rhetoric around the world.

The stakes are always at their highest when both the economic and cultural norms of a society begin to fall apart in tandem. When Europe underwent a phase of collapse and renewal in the early twentieth-century, after the devastation of World War I, it became fertile terrain for the hate-filled ideologies of Fascism and Nazism that led to the dark abyss of genocide and concentration camps. The ensuing catastrophe of World War II led to another collapse and renewal cycle, this one providing the platform for the current globalized world order that is now entering the final stages of its own life cycle.

Shifting the Overton Window

What will emerge from the current slide into ecological and political chaos? Will the twin dark forces of billionaires’ wealth and xenophobic nationalism lead us into another abyss? Or can we somehow transform our global society peacefully into a fundamentally different system—one that affirms life rather than material wealth as paramount?

One thing is clear: the visionary ideas that will determine the shape of our future will not be based on incremental thinking within the confines of our current system. Achieving needed reforms within the current global power structure is a worthwhile goal, but is not sufficient to lead humanity to a thriving future. For that, we need bold, new ways of structuring our civilization, and of rethinking the human relationship with the natural world. We need to be ready to restructure the legal basis of corporations to serve humanity rather than faceless shareholders. We need global laws that force ecocidal thugs like Bolsonaro to face justice for their crimes against nature.

You won’t currently find these new ways of thinking in the mainstream media, nor in the speeches of politicians trying to get elected. But you will find them in the streets. You’ll find them in the courage of a Greta Thunberg: a solitary teenage girl sitting for days in front of her parliament, who has since inspired millions of schoolchildren to strike for their future. You’ll find them in the demands of the Extinction Rebellion movement, which calls for elected leaders to tell the truth about our ecological and climate crisis, and to empower citizen’s assemblies to develop truly meaningful solutions.

The Extinction Rebellion movement calls for a meaningful response to our ecological crisis

The changes needed for a hopeful future will not come about from our current leaders, which is why all of us who care for future generations and for the richness of life on Earth, must take the leadership role in their place. We need to shift the Overton window until it centers on the real issues that will determine our future. On September 20, three days before the UN Climate Summit in New York, millions of young people and adults will participate in a Global Climate Strike, taking to the streets to demand the transformative action that’s necessary to stave off ecological and civilizational collapse. Actions are being planned in over a thousand cities around the world, for what may turn out to be the single biggest coordinated grassroots global demonstration in history.

The stakes have never been higher: the threat of catastrophe never more dreadful; and the path to societal transformation never so apparent. Which future are you steering us to? There’s no opting out: anyone with an inkling of what’s happening around the world, but who does nothing about it, is implicitly adding their momentum toward the abyss of collapse. I hope you join us on September 20 in helping steer our civilization toward a path of future flourishing.


Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. He is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a sustainable worldview. For more information visit jeremylent.com.

18 thoughts on “As Society Unravels, the Future Is Up for Grabs

  1. The problem is deeper that Jeremy would like to acknowledge. I assume that he too lives an unsustainable lifestyle. Every person in the US lives unsustainably because of the government’s overhead per person regardless of how little carbon individuals release into the sky. I assume that is true of GB as well. If change is going to come he’d have to be part of the movement that is willing to return the spoils of colonialism and imperialism. His are the solutions of the victors, the wealthiest 20% of the world’s population that created these problems. Rudderless if you ask me, even though he says all the right things.

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    1. I appreciate your comment, and would like you to elaborate, if possible. If, “His are the solutions of the victors, the wealthiest 20% of the world’s population that created these problems,” then what solutions would you or others suggest? Thank you

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      1. I address that in a book I wrote, For a Future, in 2015 http://www.forafuture.com. There is too much going on to reduce it to a few sentences but I develop the concept of oversurvival. Other animals consume only what their metabolism requires. We humans oversurvive without limit. Oversurvival brings choice (we can always choose to limit our oversurvival if it causes harm to others) bringing responsibility to our actions, creating good and evil and the moral ought. Limit oversurvival and you create the opportunity to dislodge existing hierarchies that have ossified around the spoils of colonialism and imperialism and capitalism.

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    2. Hej! I found this article invaluable and cannot see the wrong in it that you apparently do Onno. (Are you Dutch like me?) Where you base your assumptions about the author’s lifestyle upon is unclear to me, so please explain if you will.

      This writing made me aware of the global climate strike next week and I’m thankful for that. I’ve marched before and learned a lot from that about how (toxic) transnational corporations operate. Since then I became very interested in regenerative agriculture.

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    3. Could you be more specific as to what “return the spoils of colonialism and imperialism” means? The phrase comes across as rant. Too often language like this at its core translates to “You’ve had your turn on the top of the pile. It’s my turn now”

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  2. Ultimately it comes down to the brutal, remorseless fact:

    (A) In order to prevent environmental collapse bringing about the death of more than six in every seven humans on the planet, we (all of us) simply have to stop using fossil carbon fuels _today_.

    (B) But if we stop using the fossil carbon fuels that currently provide the world with 85 percent of its power, our highly complex and interconnected oil-dependent economy will crash; resulting in a global famine that will kill more than six in every seven humans on the planet anyway.

    Choose (A) or (B). IF you don’t choose, but let Mother nature choose for you?… Nature, remember, is neither fair nor humane. The collapse of the environment just as our critical infrastructure fails is going to result in a massive cull of the human population.

    Without a massive reduction in population, there is no solution.
    This isnt politics.  This is physics – planetary boundaries.  Nature never apologizes for children starving to death.  That atrocity belongs to the parents – who chose to have children in spite of the facts.

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    1. “(A) In order to prevent environmental collapse bringing about the death of more than six in every seven humans on the planet, we (all of us) simply have to stop using fossil carbon fuels _today_.

      (B) But if we stop using the fossil carbon fuels that currently provide the world with 85 percent of its power, our highly complex and interconnected oil-dependent economy will crash; resulting in a global famine that will kill more than six in every seven humans on the planet anyway.”

      ….

      This may be called the Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t Scenario (DIYDDIYD). The various DIYDDIYD scenarios seem at least plausible on their face, but turn out not to be anywhere near certain upon careful examination. Rarely does anyone do a careful examination, so the DIYDDIYD scenario becomes the default setting–if not gospel–among the DIYDDIYD folks.

      This version happens to be among the more extreme versions of DIYDDIYD. The underlying premise is that fossil fuels (principally) allowed human populations to reach current levels, and since fossil fuels are deeply implicated in all we do, from transportation to eating, clothing and housing, certainly removing fossil fuels from the equation will result in mass famine, heat stroke, freezing to death and other horses of the Apocalypse.

      The DIYDDIYD folks rarely bother to take notice that almost everything that’s done with fossil fuels is ultimately not necessary and can be systemically replaced in innumerable ways by other means of meeting human needs and aims. They don’t know we have design solutions ready to employ to address almost all of their concerns, if not all of them. Anyone calling them out on DIYDDIYD will usually be dismissed with words like “hopium,” “naïve,” “utopian,” but will not hang around for a careful and thorough examination of their most basic assumptions about economics, shelter, transportation, livelihood, well-being, and how we might meet our legitimate human needs on a dramatically reduced fossil fuel basis.

      They are often right, however, about one thing. We cannot replace current energy intensity — not even close — in the so-called “developed world” with renewables in the necessary time frame if we are to honestly address the climate and ecological crisis. That’s true. Energy descent will be necessary for any path forward, and while some people are already dying and will die in the future from this overshoot, there is no reason to presume that several billion must die if we take the energy descent pathway we must.

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      1. Not talking about extinction here but reduced population (1 out of 6 or 7 people). Back in time like we used to live in the early 19th century because that was possible with the given energy and rescourses available.

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  3. Hi Andrea –

    Yeah, as you may have surmised, I’ve dialogued with perhaps hundreds of subscribers to the DIYDDIYD hypothesis, though this is the first time I’ve named it DIDYID (which I suppose we can pronounce did-yid).

    Unfortunately for people like me, who want to get to work on Energy Descent, DIYDDIYD very often stands in the way of even so much as getting started — as do other scenario hypothesis and entrenched assumptions about what is and is not possible for us … or how bad and how rapidly climate disruption will knock down all possible efforts.

    DIYDDIYD has been expressed in many variant forms, some emphasizing food production, others emphasizing home heating and cooling, transportation, etc. And solid arguments have been levied against each of these narratives. Now, mind you, I don’t subscribe to any of the narratives which propose to sustain economic growth and fancy new technological interventions of the eco-modernism sort. These seem to me entirely unrealistic. But what is realistic, to me, are pathways which are often labelled “energy descent pathways”.

    Nor do I believe we can now prevent all climate emergency and energy descent pathway deaths. Climate deaths and refugees are a fact of our present moment in history, not just a speculation about what may happen in the future. But to say “billions must die” seems to me to be a claim requiring serious testing — and it appears that most DIYDDIYD folks aren’t really very much interested in testing their hypothesis down into the many nitty-gritty details. And so the DIYDDIYD hypothesis, in my opinion, functions more ideologically than factually, or as a statement of a well-developed theory.

    If the emphasis is on food, as it often is, we’d have to unpack many details about how it is true that modern industrial agriculture (MIA) is fossil fuel intensive, and presently feeds most of the people in our world now, there may be some very good reasons to think that this need not be so. MIA now feeds most of the people in the world because of economic factors, not ecological ones — mostly. That is, it outcompetes more labor-intensive, locally oriented, sustainable, regenerative and organic methods of food production. Research shows that sustainable organic agriculture and horticulture (SOAH) can be at least as productive of necessary nutrition (and calories) per acre or hectare as MIA, though such food production is more expensive per unit than MIA food production. The additional cost is mostly in the form of the additional labor costs, when measured in market economic terms.

    There are many limiting factors to be discussed, regards meeting human needs in a low carbon economy, and it is my informed view that we actually have the knowledge and capacity to meet the needs of most people in a post-carbon economy on an energy descent pathway. It would be challenging, for sure, but it can be done. There is no reason to believe billions of us must die. There is, reason to believe we will have to abandon major swaths of the industrial economy, however. The shift to a sustainable, regenerative culture would be bumpy and difficult, but I can’t think of any valid reason not to begin immediately.

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  4. We humans would need new ethics to deal with each other in ways that can build such a society. In For a Future (my book) I attempt to provide the basis for such an ethic. While overpopulation is a problem, the real culprit is oversurvival, or wealth, and as Shelley says, “So dear is power that the tyrants themselves neither then, nor now, nor ever, left or leave a path to freedom but through their own blood.”

    We could adapt and make a win win world that works into the future, but not with how we think today. The sad part is that we’re headed towards oblivion out of frivolous desires.

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  5. Onno,

    I’m slowly exploring your website / book…. http://www.forafuture.com/

    “While overpopulation is a problem, the real culprit is oversurvival, or wealth….”

    Years ago I explored the etymology of the word wealth an discovered something quite remarkable. The world “wealth” is a modern English word rooted in the Middle English word, wele, which meant “well-being”. It did not mean an accumulation of market tradable stuff which could be measured in value terms as money. It meant well-being!

    I’ve since been arguing for a paradigm shift in economics which re-embeds, re-roots, wealth in wele, and in well-being.

    As for our need for a new ethics, a new (and old) ethos, I could not agree more. We could start with seeking to live in such a way which, whenever possible, refuses participation in games of oppression, domination and control — including the exploitative use of others (human and non-human) which seeks to “benefit” one’s self without regard for the well-being of these others. But it is not enough to refuse the entrenched, systematized structures and forms of oppression — which are woven into the fabric of our modern lives. We will also need to create new and better systems, institutions, communities, “games”…. Or ways of life that don’t require domination, harmful exploitation and oppression.

    This is all very challenging to do, of course, but it is worth the effort.

    What are your ideas about ethics / ethos?

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      1. Lovely, thanks! jrivermartin at gmail dot com

        I’d like to recommend Resilience.org to you, if you are not already aware of it. I’m a frequent commenter on articles posted there, and posted in a conversation on the present article (above, from Jeremy Lent — which was republished) over there as well. Soon I will begin publishing my own articles there as well.

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  6. ONNO, you said “We could adapt and make a win win world that works into the future, but not with how we think today.”

    I’m reading your book now, and paused to comment here on these words. (Thanks for the gift of your book!)

    Sadly, very little of what we do with our minds in our contemporary culture qualifies as “thinking,” per se. True thinking is a creative, flowing, connected, alive process which connects us with others and with our world, our selves. Mostly what we call “thinking” is the repetition of “information” which is provided to us by the dominant culture, which I also take to be a dominator culture. It’s not a culture which wants us to truly think, because to truly think we’d begin to doubt the dominant/dominator stories about who we are as people, what is valuable, what is good, what is bad, what is right and wrong, and how to make sense of things so we can make informed decisions. We’d also begin to doubt the popular stories, provided by the dominant/dominator culture about what is possible for us as human beings, how we might live, etc. The dominant/dominator culture wishes for us not to be thinking humans, but to be more like robots which repeat the “data” and perform the “functions” programmed into us. It prefers that we don’t doubt, and we cannot think without some doubting, some wonder, some uncertainty, some curiosity, some open-mindedness….

    Real, true thinking, is always connected to wholes, of which we are always no more than a part — even though parts are wholes within a whole. True thinking connects with the larger whole of which “parts” are a part — while never being apart (separate). The dominant/dominator culture hallucinates parts which are not connected to the whole — to the biosphere and the cosmos — and of course the biosphere is part of the cosmos, which is the whole. We really are stardust, and golden, just like the song goes.

    Learning to think, therefore, means — implies — the ability to care, to love, to nurture, to give…. It equally implies the ability to feel. Our culture too sharply divides our thinking ability from our feeling ability. (That’s the dominator/dominant culture.) This culture segregates ethics from aesthetics, value from fact, meaning from living…; it seems to me entirely mad, estranged, lunatic, crazy.

    Unfortunately, the dominator/dominant culture owns and controls our schools, our universities, our media system, our churches, our businesses, our governments…. Our institutions. It’s not quite that simple, I know, but this characterization is a good rough sketch, anyway. We’re going to have to create new cultural forms and institutions — embedded in place — where sane, wakeful people can gather and re-imagine and re-create our culture from the ground up!

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    1. There is a lot to be said about thinking. I studied philosophy at the graduate level and have the last 2500 years as a perspective on the current dominant culture. In the chapter on the Modern World, I trace the origins of the birth of capitalism from the Dutch through the Glorious Revolution in England to the Industrial Revolution. We live, as a consequence, with a glut of information where nothing means much, including the end of the world. Within a few generations, the smartphone will kill off the diversity of global cultures (I don’t say that in the book). The basis for this technologically driven culture is Enlightenment thinking in philosophy and the sciences.

      My comment about thinking is more general and deals with how we act, think and are. I touch on your lament about the missing whole and lack of feeling in the chapter on Purpose in the Universe. It is a critique of the Enlightenment though it arises out of the archetypical Enlightenment philosophy of Immanuel Kant.

      I just came back from listening to Naomi Klein talking about grabbing the future at Cooper Union’s Great Hall in conversation with the Sunrise Movement and will listen to Greta Thunberg at the protest this Friday (to tie the conversation back into commentary for the article). There is a need for philosophic coherence to support these movements if they are to change society at large. 

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  7. Accepting the value of an ecological society (or any replacement to neo-liberalism) would require a replacement for money as currently issued surely? If we left things as they are, then the rich would still be rich and the resources still controlled by the same people as today hence they’d have a far greater say in our future than everyone else.

    This suggests that there needs to be a ‘great levelling’ of some sort followed by power being related to viable ecological principles and the reconceptualising of money in some way compatible with ecologies (e.g. Odum’s work) How do we get there given the resistance likely from the existing rich?

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