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Is the “Great Unraveling” Upon Us?

October 28, 2020

Introducing “The Great Unraveling?”, a series of interviews with some of the world’s foremost experts on a broad range of environmental and societal challenges, culminating with a powerful discussion on what these converging and accelerating crises mean, and how we can respond.

What if we don’t look back on 2020 as the year from hell, a painful and surreal slip on the otherwise generally smooth path of progress? What if, instead, we look back in five or ten or twenty years to 2020 as the moment when everything started to really and truly unravel?

Of course, what I’ve presented is a false choice. The truth is that for billions of people (and other species!) the unraveling has been occurring for a long time, assuming they had anything that could be unravelled to begin with. People who have been left behind or churned up by the relentless machine of exploitative capitalism. People and natural ecosystems already on the frontline of the climate crisis. Communities that have lost their social cohesion and ability to confront problems collectively.

2020 has exposed and supercharged the fragility, unsustainability, and injustice of so many of our global systems:

  • untenable economic and racial inequality;
  • brittle, globalized supply chains controlled by a relatively small number of corporations;
  • a global climate system that’s already fevered at 1.2ºC warming;
  • growing political instability and distrust, and the spread of authoritarian governments;
  • the collapse of biodiversity and the crossing of other planetary boundaries;
  • an economic system dependent on growth in consumption, debt, energy, and human population;
  • the failure of governmental institutions to respond to, let alone anticipate, crises; and
  • the likely peak in the amount of energy available to power modern society.

These crises were already here or looming long before the coronavirus pandemic hit us broadside this year. In fact, my colleagues at Post Carbon Institute, the many writers who we have featured here at resilience.org, and allies across the globe have been sounding the alarm for decades that the Great Acceleration would inevitably lead to a Great Unraveling or even collapse. That forewarning may now be moot.

To begin considering how to navigate the “Great Unraveling,” we must first try to understand how various environmental and social systems may interact. So a few months ago, Post Carbon Institute and Anthropocene Actions asked some of the world’s foremost experts to share their views of where things stand with some of our most pressing environmental and societal challenges, particularly in the wake of the pandemic.

We then hosted a powerful discussion with an esteemed, diverse panel on what these converging and accelerating crises mean, and how we can respond.

Facing up to these interconnected crises requires unprecedented cooperation and coordination, if we have any hope of creating a sustainable, equitable, and resilient world. To this end, campaigners, politicians, companies, governments, and communities all across the world are pushing for and enacting change. But these efforts will have to remain robust, flexible, and resilient in the face of growing destabilization. And they must be grounded in an understanding of the systemic nature of the predicament we face.

The wrenching disruption of the pandemic presents barriers to change, as shown by those seeking to reinforce the pre-pandemic status quo. But this historic moment also presents opportunities to move toward a sustainable society that benefits all. The key to a better future is to learn how to manage the compounding crises of a more destabilized future – how to navigate the Great Unraveling.

I hope you’ll take the time to watch these interviews and the panel discussion, and to share them with others in your life.


Photo by Kaze 0421 on Unsplash