The competing existential crises of our time
Watching the reactions of different people and groups around the world, one might surmise that humanity is on the verge of extinction. Reactions and the intensity of emotions are at survival levels in at least four areas: political, cultural, economic and climate.
Human survival is often measured by poverty levels around the globe. Reports declare global poverty was at historic lows, prior to the pandemic. Yet our collective survival instincts In the United States were already on high alert when the pandemic hit; centered around things that are not food, safety or shelter, in other words, not really survival level for most working and middle-class Americans. At least, not for Euro-Americans.
For more than 10 years, people working in civil society have noted a decline in adherence to social norms and a reduction of volunteers as we’ve self-sorted into like-minded groups, neighborhoods and media streams. The pandemic exacerbated what was already present — our fear of personal identity and global extinction — despite evidence to the contrary. What is really going on?
Throughout recorded Euro-centric history, humans have turned to conspiracy theories, wars and dehumanization of others during times immediately prior to great cultural, economic and political advances. Think the Dark Ages and the Renaissance. Or more recently the Great Depression and World War II and its depravities, followed by the advancement of civil rights.
Is it possible that what feels existential is in fact, a sign of growth? If this is the case, how might we use our sense of existential threat and dread to grow as individuals and as a society?
The Dark Ages saw the rise of authoritarian impulses via the Catholic Church. There was a great migration and the Black Death. This parallel seems eerie.
The Great Depression was the aftermath of an economic collapse that was preceded by a pandemic and World War I (or the Great War, as it was then known). Migration was spurred by atrocities of war and hunger. This parallel also seems eerie.
And here we are again.
What are the parallels to today so that we might navigate our current existential crisis? And what might this mean for our future in the United States? As in historical times, a way of life is ending. But another way of life is about to be born.
History shows that the advancement of society is never a straight line. We move forward two steps, we move back one step. There is small advancement and then a regression, followed by a big advancement. Then more regression. Society is always changing. And there will always be resistance to change, resistance to the death of what we know. It is part of how we humans are biologically wired.
We humans are also wired to be social creatures. We are stronger in community and weaker in isolation. The pandemic has highlighted our need for community in a period where rugged individualism has reigned supreme.
Like historical times, people are migrating at historic levels, for survival reasons. They flee war zones and famine. Refugees are seeking a better life for their children. The existential crises we feel in the United States seem less about actual survival; there is no war or famine here.
Why are we feeling an existential threat? And what exactly is dying? Some possibilities include our dreams and our expectations about the future. We might assume those seeking a better future for their children will change the United States, and if so, will the United States we know be forever transformed?
From our current view in the middle of competing existential crises, we have options. We can choose to fight or we can choose to create. I hope we choose a new Renaissance. We can co-create it together.
Debilyn Molineaux is co-publisher of The Fulcrum and president/CEO of the Bridge Alliance Education Fund.