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DOES IT MATTER HOW WE BRAND THINGS?  Is there a real-world impact from terminology choices such as “metacrisis" vs. “polycrisis" vs. “permacrisis?"  Should we even use the word crisis

Jonathan Rowson takes a typically comprehensive, sensitive & strategic dive into this question on Perspectiva's new substack.  (Did you know they have a substack?  They do.)

What follows is a brutally trimmed-down version of Jonathan's full article :


Crisis is a fascinating character, and we hope to keep talking, but the task in this post is merely to understand the idea well enough to grasp my main contention here, which is that meta, not poly, should be our prefix of choice.

Really?  Does it really matter?  Yes, I really think so.

Anyone who lived through ‘Take Back Control!’ in the UK or ‘Make America Great Again!’ in the USA knows that words shape reality. Carefully crafted and relentlessly repeated terms enter our world as an invasion of semiotic aliens — identical, ubiquitous, and united. And though we may disagree, resist, query, and laugh, they soon take over, inhabiting our digital devices, colonising our media spaces, and tacitly crafting political context, contention, and atmosphere. Strategic language of this sort is a kind of landscape gardening of civic and cultural space, and the aesthetic changes what we see, where we can move, and what’s allowed to grow.

The idea of crisis goes back to Greek medicine, Latin jurisprudence, and Christian theology, it is central to Marx’s critique of capitalism, it is a premise for war, and it can even be thought of as what Reinhart Kosseleck calls ‘a structural signature of modernity’. Our world has been created through perpetual crisis construction and crisis management, and the over-use of crisis by the powerful has been critiqued as a method of control for precisely that reason. The term applies at all scales, however, and still feels indispensable. The roots of the idea relate to critical moments (e.g. in an illness, in a life, in a battle) the need for resolve, and the importance of judgment, but mostly crisis is used to refer to turning points that come and go in particular contexts. That’s not how it feels today, however, as the global news cycle beams into our pockets and handbags. The experience of crisis today is ubiquitous and enduring.

If crisis is a structural signature of modernity, and modernity is slowly dying, what we are contending with is epochal rather than merely historical. I can see why Crisis needs to talk.

We are living in a phase of an apparent shift in geological time (Holocene to Anthropocene, Capitalocene, or Novocene), a transformed information system that fosters addiction and division by design (the internet-enabled and algorithmically-driven smartphone especially), literally life-changing (or denaturing) technologies like gene editing and synthetic biology, and lifeworld-changing technologies like deep fakes and virtual reality, AI as a kind of enigmatic and accelerating threat multiplier, climate collapse as the nexus of systemic risk to food and water supply, and the resulting fallout in terms of bio-precarity and security risks, as well as socially corrosive levels of inequality, the palpable fragility of national economies and the absence of a competent political class. In light of all that, and plenty more, it is no wonder that crisis talk abounds.

In an emergency, we are above all called to act! Now! But in a crisis, we are called to discern and decide.

In a crisis, the clock is indeed ticking, but the quality of crisis time is more Kairotic than chronological – the emphasis is less on action at all costs than on discernment and commitment in the fullness of the moment. The reason we are not responding to proclamations of climate emergency with commensurate resolve, for instance, is that we are stuck in a particular way, mired in our collective immunity to change, entangled in all the other things we feel obliged or entrained to do, and trapped within what my colleague Ivo Mensch calls our ‘So-So’, our Solipsistic Society. And here I mean ‘we’ in the pre-political, pre-analytical sense of the human species as a complex whole. That We is stuck in crisis, and although I am a fan of paradoxes, this is not happy news.

One way to begin to get unstuck is to see crisis as the quality of an injunctive relationship between world and mind and society as that relationship changes through time. By ‘injunctive relationship’ I mean a relationship that asks or even demands something of us. The essence of our predicament is that this relationship is now dysfunctional because we don’t quite know what crisis is asking of us, and because the world is not now changing as it needs to – mind and society are not moving with the spirit of the times. That ‘not knowing how to change at scale’ is the heart of the matter. Reflecting on what crisis means, and what prefixes like ‘poly’ and ‘meta’ evoke is not a waste of time therefore, but a critical part of not wasting more of it.

The reason I think the idea of metacrisis, in particular, is worth fighting for is that it draws attention to interiority (meta as within) and relationality (meta as between) as spiritual features of what is typically assumed to be a political challenge, while also highlighting that a fixation with crisis may preclude other and better ways of being in the world (meta as beyond). What exactly ‘spiritual’ means is another essay, and I wrote a book about it, but if the term bothers you, think of it as our relationship to reality, or try this working definition. It is the belief in the real effects of the underlying, overarching, and inherent spiritual quality of the world that makes the idea of metacrisis distinct, because it suggests there is indeed an underlying cause of the world’s problems, and it is something like a multifaceted delusion: a deep and pervasive misreading of reality. The point is not that political problems have spiritual roots and therefore spiritual solutions, but that political problems arise in a cultural context with spiritual dimensions, and without attending to them we will continue to flounder.

The metacrisis is the historically specific threat to truth, beauty, and goodness caused by our persistent misunderstanding, misvaluing, and misappropriating of reality. The metacrisis is the crisis within and between all the world’s major crises, a root cause that is at once singular and plural, a multi-faceted delusion arising from the spiritual and material exhaustion of modernity that permeates the world’s interrelated challenges and manifests institutionally and culturally to the detriment of life on earth.

That’s my latest definition, but it’s not exhaustive and might change. Meta is alive, and is more like a perspective-shifting manoeuvre in language games than a word with semantic content, and it can move you in several ways at once: within and throughout; between and across; after and beyond. We should not get high on meta, because the meta-move can easily become a kind of escapism, a recurring spasm of indulgent abstraction taking us away from lived experience and embodied reality. Yet when it is used with discernment, meta serves to highlight a dynamic and reflexive relationship with any crisis that is potentially alive in all of us.

Polycrisis refers to the world system of systems beginning to malfunction, with escalating risks due to emerging properties in the whole being significantly more dangerous than the sum of its parts; polycrisis was chosen by The Financial Times as the word to describe 2022, it has become a buzzword in Davos circles, and is growing in popularity among academics, philanthropists and journalists. Polycrisis already has some theoretical sophistication (see below) that will no doubt grow but I believe the term is ultimately insidious because it fetishizes complexity, and amounts to a kind of performative lamentation about the world spinning out of control.

The unit of analysis in polycrisis is the world system as a whole, which is a system of systems, with ‘system’ usually meaning a group of interrelated elements that act according to a discernible set of rules within a unified whole that usually has some kind of goal. Polycrisis typically refers to a situation in which at least three such systems are in a state of crisis, unable to function properly, and affecting other systems to which they are inextricably linked. This kind of effect was palpable during the pandemic when financial, health, and educational systems were so clearly intertwined, but it applies more broadly.

The term polycrisis was recently popularised by historian Adam Tooze, but it has an intellectual pedigree in the thought of Edgar Morin and Anne Brigitte Kern from their book Homeland Earth in 1999. There have been rigorous attempts to clarify the concept for a policy context by The Cascade Institute and more recent excellent overviews by the Post Carbon Institute (relatively empirical) and an elegant reflection by Ville Lahde in Aeon magazine (relatively philosophical). There have also been some early academic considerations in International Relations and Anthropology. In essence, polycrisis says there is a worsening geopolitical predicament confounded by the loss of intelligibility, particularly our inability to understand causal mechanisms at scale, and there is no credible conventional response in sight that is commensurate with the emergence of escalating risks to geopolitical stability.

Poly gives us a lot, but it does not give us Meta’s interiority or relationality, which is where all hope engendered by meaningful action at the level of civil society lies (action gives rise to hope, not vice versa). Poly might help us to stand back and see what is ‘out there’ in perspective, but that is not enough. Just standing back to see the big picture risks delusion, because it is a partial view pretending to be whole. Meta highlights that we also need to look within ourselves to psyche and soul, and also beyond, for a renewal in our worldview or cosmovision which has a direct bearing on prevailing ideologies and social imaginaries. (Paul Marshall’s work on New Axial Vision details this idea well.)

Poly and meta mean very different things. While ‘poly’ highlights the multiplicity and variety of crises, their emergent properties, and cascading risks, it leaves us as a kind of despairing spectator in suspended animation, awaiting instructions. ‘Poly’ tacitly compounds the problem of subject/object dualism that is driving the global problematic, with an emphasis on propositional rather than participatory knowing, minds separate from bodies, humanity separate from nature, technology separate from culture, and people separate from power. The elasticity and ambiguity of ‘meta’ (within, between, after, beyond) not only provides a richer context for our predicament, but serves to highlight different qualities of crisis.

The metacrisis says there is a spiritual crisis within the political failure to attend to myriad crises (e.g. the destruction of our only liveable planet is clearly delusional but also sacrilegious); it also says that there is an epistemic crisis in the apparent inability to see between different features of problems (e.g. the emotional needs driving consumerism, the denial of death at the root of climate inertia, the scapegoat mechanism as a threat to democracy).

In my inquiry into crisis over the last few months, I have come to realise that pathways to viable futures may depend less upon solving a crisis than freeing ourselves from the hold that the idea of crisis has on our minds. If we are stuck in crisis, we may need to let the idea of crisis go, or at least relegate it somehow. All of which is to say, with meta still in mind, that there is also an imperative to start to move beyond crisis perception and mentality toward a more discerning relationship with the world.

A statement from Robert Pirsig’s classic multi-million copy bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (p104) helps to clarify what metacrisis illuminates that polycrisis does not:

> The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality that produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.

For people working on bigger-than-self issues like ecological collapse, democratic revival, or the wise governance of technology, the language used for the macro context acts as a kind of shared premise and social mandate, and is, therefore, a critical part of the work, because it sets agendas and budgets and priorities. What lies within us (souls) and between us (society) matters every bit as much if not more than what lies (inside and) outside of us (systems), and metacrisis helps us work from and for the relationship between those three worlds.

To choose terminology is to commit to an architecture for thinking and deciding, and a sensibility for feeling and evaluating. Today, as the world teeters and everyone struggles to perceive context clearly, we have a sacred responsibility to get it right.
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