Brandon Norgaard


Preliminary Classification of Responses to the Metacrisis


THE LIMINAL WEB FEATURES many people, organizations & projects aiming to address the metacrisis -- which is a term that refers to the interdependent and interrelated crises that we are facing simultaneously, which pose an existential threat to human civilization.

This article (read the extended original) aims to provide a taxonomy that can be used to classify these projects.

What is the project’s time frame?

There are important considerations relating to time for any project that aims to alleviate or remediate large-scale threats to our civilization and our biosphere. These considerations include when the interventions can and should be enacted, how long it would take for such interventions to bear tangible results, and whether interventions would need to essentially become the new normal. In the 5th part of the Bend Not Break series, Nate Hagens and Daniel Schmachtenberger discuss how our efforts could be sorted into triage, transition, and long-term.

Triage would refer to immediate interventions that we need to enact as soon as possible in order to contain the ecological emergency.

The next time frame recognizes that we are in a time of transition, which Zak Stein has referred to as a “Time between Worlds”, and such interventions would need to be enacted in the coming years in order to foster this transition to new economic and political systems and in order to begin to live more sustainably.

Then there are interventions that are needed in the long term in order to maintain the health of our biosphere throughout the next several human generations. Even though it would be difficult, we should begin to plan for and enact long-term interventions and we should begin scaling these over the course of the coming years and decades. This is related to the Three Horizons model.

What is the project’s main focus?

In the same Bend Not Break series, Hagens and Schmachtenberger also discuss the need for projects that are focused on diverse tangible and intangible phenomena, and this can be sorted into the tripartite distinction between infrastructure, social structure, and superstructure.

Infrastructure is the basis for all other levels and includes how basic needs are met and how it interacts with the local environment. Social structure (often simply referred to as “structure” in the related literature) refers to a society’s economic, social, and political organization. Superstructure is related to cultural forms that resonate with people, including ideology and symbolism. To this triad, it would make sense to also include a special consideration for natural ecology and for the structures of our human relations with the environment, which is distinct from our human-made infrastructure and which we can call the “ecostructure”. Once this item is added, the result is a four-way distinction.

Our lives depend on the continued vibrancy and complex adaptive evolvability of each of these structures. The protection and stewardship of each of these four is assumed to be important for addressing the meta-crisis. In addition, every project is assumed to impact at least one of these four. Many projects have impacts across two or more of these, but in most cases, we evaluate a specific project and determine which of these four that the project would be expected to have the maximum impact.

To get a bit more granular than the tripartite distinction given above, we can assess what aspects of life any project aims to address. There are several aspects of life that are being threatened and any intervention might have impacts on more than one of these. Hopefully, we have a good mix of projects that can collectively promote good health in each of these important areas:

· Ecological — the health of our natural environment.

· Political — the health of our public civic space and our democratic institutions.

· Economic — the health of our businesses, industries, trade networks, and financial systems that allow people to provide an adequate living for themselves and for their families.

· Socio-cultural — the health of the fabric of society and the cultural forms that allow us to live collectively in peace.

· Psychological — the health of our minds.

· Biological — the health of our physical bodies.

· Technological — the health of our human relationship to ever-more-intelligent technology.

Where does the project fall along the sophistication spectrum, which is related to the dichotomy between the ascending path and the descending path?

This ultimately hinges upon the distinction between original research (which is ascending) and educational efforts that attempt to onboard more people to new ideas (which is descending).

The ascending path involves conscious beings who wish to invest their attention, mental effort, and emotional energy toward the development of higher states of consciousness, greater intelligence, new frontiers of life, greater complexity, and elevating their own self to higher and higher levels along any developmental dimension.

The descending path involves one devoting their mental and emotional resources to the care of other conscious beings, to promote the general well-being among the populace, and share one’s knowledge and wisdom with others. It is not that such people actually descend to lower states or stages, but to say that they are on the descending path means that they direct their finite and limited mental and emotional resources to the betterment of those who are not quite at their own level of privilege, sophistication, or well-being in some important ways. The result of the descending acts might be to lift others up so that they might end up being on approximately the same level as their descending teachers, mentors, and caregivers. Perhaps the recipients of these investments can rise higher even still. We need both ascenders and descenders in our society, and people often alternatingly play both roles in different aspects of life. Healthy and wise human individuals and human organizations operate as both ascenders and descenders in different situations.

The ascending and descending paths have many manifestations, including in education and research. This dichotomy can be seen as a spectrum, where at the high end we have original research that is highly sophisticated. This is where the educated elites are pushing the bounds of human knowledge in certain ways. This form of the ascending path is only cognitively accessible to those who have already mentally ascended quite high in their life to be able to understand the extremely complicated material that is being produced. This highly complicated research has the potential to change the world as we know it, but hopefully the most advanced forms of human knowledge should not be the domain of a select elite.

At the lowest end of the sophistication spectrum, we have the most basic forms of early childhood education, and this spectrum continues through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood and extends into all stages of higher education. The educational efforts that aim to bring people to higher levels of sophistication in some way can be seen as descending paths that are essential for the intergenerational transfer of knowledge that sustains our society and culture. Teachers act as descenders as they work to educate people and lift them to higher levels of knowledge and understanding so that they might provide for themselves an adequate life and so that they might meet the challenges that they will inevitably face and so that they might thrive in the face of such adversity. A balance is needed between the ascent of original research and the descent of education.

What is the project’s holonic relation, which might involve either emergence from below or emanation from above?

This is essentially the distinction between grassroots efforts (emergence from below) and reforming the status quo (emanation from above).

Projects can also be classified by their holonic relations. All people, all groups of people, and all projects are holons in some way or another. Holons are inherently related to their constituent parts and also form parts of larger holons and this forms what is known as a holarchy.

In the context of human society, we can identify emanation from above as including people in positions of power, authority, influence, and leadership working within the context of some well-established mainstream institution (governmental entity, business, or other organization). These people have levers of power available to them. If they can use this power more wisely then this can have a meaningful impact on our greatest challenges.

In human society there are many examples of people not in positions of power who self-organize and innovate and create new businesses, organizations, and technologies. We can call this phenomenon emergence from below and it involves grass-roots autopoietic development of new ideas and new ways of doing things. Projects in this category often stay small or fizzle out shortly after creation, but they have the potential to go viral and to have significant impacts on the larger society in unpredictable ways.

Emergence from below and emanation from above are mutually interdependent and mutually interpenetrating. In the two loops model, the top loop represents emanation and will inevitably start to decay and fail over time. All human institutions and cultural forms have a lifespan. At the height of their power as mainstream institutions, they are essential to overall stability, but eventually, they will give way to the new emerging order. The bottom loop forms naturally through grass-roots innovation and people’s efforts to respond to new challenges that arise in changing circumstances. The bottom loop becomes stronger in part due to the failing of the top loop, and a transition occurs in which the emerging new order becomes dominant and mainstream while the legacy institutions that once were emanant are allowed to die peacefully.


The taxonomy given here is intended to help us keep in mind a diversity of issues, causes, and solutions. We should not be reductive in our thinking for issues nor for causes nor for solutions. We should instead welcome diversity for each of these three.

It is important to develop mental maps that allow us to conceptualize each of these three in a way that is realistic but not overwhelmingly complex. We have to believe that we have the collective power to address the meta-crisis and to save our civilization and our biosphere from collapse. It would be defeatist to concede that solutions are beyond our ability to understand and coordinate. As such, we should create and maintain maps that have the needed depth and complexity such that we can use them effectively to address real-world problems and we should not allow our maps to become so extremely complex to the point where they would be impossible for us to mentally manage.


This taxonomy does include several elements and the number of possible combinations is quite large already, but it might be useful to group some of these elements together and to create maps showing their interrelations. We can also create small grids to visualize how these concepts are adjacent to each other and this should also help us recognize that every combination is important.

One such grouping was suggested by Schmachtenberger, which would involve looking at every combination that would connect elements of the two triads Triage, Transition, and Long Term with Infrastructure, Social Structure, and Superstructure. If we add ecostructure to this list then the result is a 3 x 4 grid.

In addition, we can think of the two dichotomies represented by ascending vs. descending and emergence vs. emanation intersecting to form quadrants. We can map projects into these quadrants.
Words by Brandon Norgaard