Mind over matter?

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Earlier this month, Resilience.org published a blog post analyzing Jonathan Rowson’s 2023 article, “Prefixing the World”, in which Rowson argues that “meta[crisis], not poly, should be our prefix of choice” and emphasizes that what is most needed to effectively address the interconnected issues facing humanity is a shift in societal beliefs.

The surfacing of the Rowson piece prompted an engaging discussion between Cascade Institute Executive Director Thomas Homer-Dixon (THD) and Polycrisis Fellow Megan Shipman (MS), below:

THD: The Rowson piece is important, with a discernible and credible argument (aside from the quiz*). I’m receptive to his ideational turn, but he seems to be suggesting that it’s ultimately ideas all the way down. That if we fix the spiritual and human consciousness problems underlying our challenges, we’ll ultimate fix everything else higher up.

MS: I think you’re right, that his strongest idea is that (in one interpretation) we need to fix our internal issues. But I’m not sure that word choice for the issues that we’re facing actually addresses this. One of Rowson’s main problems with the word polycrisis is that he considers it to be descriptive (and promoting crisis thinking) rather than prescriptive. Polycrisis is descriptive; it is how we explain the mess that we’re in. And we are in a crisis situation—labeling the world as it is does not seem counterproductive.

THD: At one point he alludes to “the denial of death at the root of climate inertia”. Here, Rowson is getting to the nub of the matter, I think, and a place where we might have a fascinating, meaningful, and productive conversation—the need to adopt a relational ontology, as argued by Lee Smolin and others, citing Iain McGilchrist (“relationships are prior to relata”).

MS: “The denial of death at the root of climate inertia” doesn’t feel like it gets to the heart of any matter. What does it mean? This language (that’s present throughout all of his arguments) obfuscates any sort of clarity about his thinking.

THD: Here (in endnote #2!) he lays out his most succinct statement of this critique and his alternative perspective with hints of interesting ideas.

“Theorists of polycrisis say it has no discernible underlying cause (Q1 above); polycrisis theorists do not appear to entertain the idea that existing approaches to action at scale might be deluded or self-destructive (e.g. complicated approaches to complex systems), or that they might be missing something fundamental (Q2); they also appear to make no connection between the data-rich comparative historical analysis of the present moment and what that implies for the limitations of our overarching view of the world or cosmology (Q3); the term also seems to polycrisis theorists to be ‘good enough’, and there is little reflection on the choice of prefix (Q4); they seem to believe in the need for a crisis mentality to focus attention, and do not entertain the possibility that the idea of crisis might be part of the problem, or self-perpetuating in some way (Q5).

In the absence of solutions, polycrisis is an indefinite feature of our predicament and implies a permacrisis, but each of these ideas is symptomatic of the fact, to echo Einstein, that we cannot solve the problems of the world with the same thinking that caused them. The idea of metacrisis is therefore essential (Q4) mostly because it takes depth seriously, and it says there is indeed a crisis within the crisis that we need to attend to. More precisely, it serves to highlight the spiritual crisis within the systemic crisis (Q1), it reveals the necessity of transcending our self-subverting logics (Q2), it establishes the need to contend with meaning and metaphysics at a crucial turning point (Q3), and it points towards forms of collective action informed not just by political economy and complexity theory, but also by an intellectually dignified commitment to the transformation of human consciousness, part of which is about getting beyond a crisis mentality (Q5) in the most literal of many senses of the term of metacrisis, i.e. ‘after crisis’, or not really a crisis at all.”

MS: He cites a valid concern about the importance of changing our own beliefs in addressing today’s issues, that if we don’t have a different mindset that solving a systems problem will create the same issue again in the future. However, I disagree that, first, “descriptive” words are not helpful, and second, that the word metacrisis addresses his concerns. Naming brings about studying which brings about understanding. We’re still early on in understanding the intertwinement of these complex systems. Understanding is essential prior to action. Choosing a word that focuses crises as internal risks overstates the internal power that we have.

THD: He seems insensitive to the material aspects of our predicament—the thermodynamic crisis we face and how profoundly we’ve become addicted to the unprecedented energy density of fossil fuels.

MS: “Meta” actually detracts from the suffix crisis by making the current issues seem to come entirely from within our own heads (i.e. imagined), or at worst, muddles complex systems thinking with a product of Mark Zuckerberg. Shying away from accuracy for the sake of averting “crisis -thinking” (which seems to be code for negativity) is simply avoidant. Are there worldviews that need to shift for transformative change? Absolutely. But focusing on the multitude of causally entangled crises (polycrises) that need to be addressed does not diminish the attention that mental and behavioural changes need to be made.   

*THD: Of his “quiz,” Rowson writes: “If you think the answer to each of these questions is no, there’s a good chance you’ll share an outlook with advocates for the idea of the polycrisis. If you think the answer to each of the questions is yes, as I do, you are more likely to share an outlook with those who feel we are contending with the metacrisis.”

The polycrisis research team at the Cascade Institute–one of the groups leading the development of the global polycrisis research program–would answer questions 2, 3, and 4 with a resounding “yes.” We’d answer question 1 with a “no” only because we believe that the “world’s problems” don’t have a singular cause, and that any attempt to find one is reductionist. And we’d say, in response to 5, “perhaps, but not necessarily.”

In his broader article, Rowson makes a number of deeply insightful arguments worth pursuing. The quiz, however, is an exercise in straw-man construction. It confuses and obscures key elements of the debate more than it clarifies them.


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