Invitation to a Journey

Great Unraveling

Join us on May 14th, 2024, for a free online event introducing Resilience+, our new member space where you can dive deeper into the topics we cover daily at

We at Post Carbon Institute have been watching global trends for a few decades, and we’ve never before seen so many warning lights flash at once. That’s why we’ve concluded that, as of 2024, humanity is at a make-or-break crossroads in its economic, social, and environmental history. This conclusion, in turn, explains why we’ve chosen to launch Resilience+ (more on that below) to help people understand and navigate the cascading crises of the 21st century.

First, let’s take a quick look at those warning lights. After that, we’ll unpack the deeper significance of what’s happening and present our organization’s plans for Resilience+.

Things Are Deteriorating Fast

Nearly everyone knows that the climate is heating up. But a flurry of alarming recent studies about rapidly warming oceans, climate feedbacks, and tipping points suggest that the rate of warming is suddenly accelerating. Last year was the warmest on record “by far” according to NASA, with the global average temperature leaping above the next-warmest year, 2016, by an unprecedented 0.27 degree F (0.15 degree C). And it’s been revealed that the international community of climate experts, rather than fear-mongering, has actually downplayed the severity of the crisis.

For years the oceans have been devastated by plastics pollution, overfishing, and the expansion of “dead zones” fed by fertilizer runoff. But oceans also absorb most of the energy from global warming. Just within the past few months, ocean heating has accelerated dramatically, with temperature records being shattered literally every day.

At the same time, armed conflicts have erupted in Europe and the Middle East. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, which publishes an annual Armed Conflict Survey, documented 183 regional conflicts in 2023, the highest number in three decades. Far from showing signs of resolving themselves, many of these wars now threaten to intensify, drawing in more countries and combatants. Old alliances are fraying and shifting, make this one of the most perilous moments for global geopolitics in decades.

The global economy is also on a precipice. It’s always volatile, because it rests on an inherently unsteady foundation of shifting relations between natural resource extraction, energy, technology, investment, and labor. The modern economy has come to depend on perpetual GDP growth in order to repay debt, and growth has been enabled primarily by the use of fossil fuels. Those fuels require more extraction effort than they used to, due to the ongoing depletion of high-quality conventional resources. The economy has made up for the declining efficiency of its main energy sources by increasingly using debt to fund growth. Recently, total global debt, public and private, has hit a new record, both in terms of dollar amount and (for less industrialized nations) as a percentage of GDP. Meanwhile, the economy faces extraordinary headwinds, including climate impacts, energy challenges inherent in efforts to decarbonize industries, and a new tech revolution centered on artificial intelligence (AI). Technology revolutions are always transformative, but AI is potentially a wrecking ball for both industries and jobs. Tech entrepreneurs love the word “disrupt,” but disruption on this scale and at this speed is treacherous.

One of the likely impacts of both AI and climate change is increasing economic inequality. Over the past few decades, income inequality has risen in wealthy economies and rapidly industrializing economies, which together account for about two-thirds of the world’s population and 85 percent of global GDP. This increase in wealth disparity has been particularly acute in the United States, China, India, and Russia.

A macrosocial effect of rising inequality is the destabilization of governance institutions. In democratic societies, extreme inequality erodes trust in leadership and paves the way for takeovers by authoritarian regimes. Political polarization is also driven by conspiracy theories and lack of consensus among major news outlets about basic facts such as election results, both of which are increasingly driven by the algorithms and business models of hugely profitable social media enterprises. As AI begins to ramp up the volume and sophistication of fake news, public consensus may become ever harder to achieve or maintain. Altogether, democracy globally is endangered, most notably in the US, but also Britain, Europe, and India.

We’re also seeing a sea change in the relatively slow-moving realm of demographics. For decades, world population has increased. The percentage rate of growth peaked in the 1970s, but the absolute number of people added per year has continued to hover at around 80 million. The number of humans alive is still increasing. But fertility rates are now falling rapidly nearly everywhere—not because everyone has suddenly realized that the world is overpopulated, or because most people have gotten rich (the “demographic transition”), but increasingly because young would-be parents around the world fear for the future.

Humanity has seen dramatic changes in the past century—world wars, pandemics, the introduction of new technologies, and the growth of new industries. Human population more than doubled, and the world’s geopolitical map was redrawn several times. You might think that with so much change already behind us, things would start to settle down; but, given all the environmental and social turmoil described above, the pace of change is instead likely to accelerate further. This new spate of change will, in many instances, be destructive to bedrock human institutions, and will increasingly elude human efforts to direct or control it. Longstanding growth trends will reverse themselves, making past experience a poor guide for adaptation to unexpected and often frightening ecological, political, and economic events.

And it’s all coming to a head now—i.e., roughly in the period from 2024 through 2030.

We’re Not the Only Ones Who See It This Way

The word “polycrisis” became a buzzword in 2023, and, during the last couple of years, a network of think tanks has sprung up to study the confluence of worrisome global trends. Post Carbon Institute is part of that network, and we’ve contributed to the literature on the polycrisis (in a long-form report and a shorter summary article, as well as other articles and podcasts).

However, we do see things a little differently from some who use the term. Many seem to think the polycrisis is just a rough patch in the inevitable evolution of larger, more powerful, and more technologically sophisticated societies. Human groups have always had problems, say these optimists, but eventually challenges are overcome. In this view, the source of the polycrisis has a lot to do with increasing human connectivity: old problems (e.g., geopolitical rivalries, financial panics, and ecological issues) are compounding each other faster than before. Humanity just needs to find ways to speed up its responses. According to this widespread view, AI may help us not only respond more quickly, but finally overcome seemingly intractable challenges like the development of clean energy and technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

We at PCI take both a systems-oriented view and a deep historical view of the world situation. From these perspectives, the growth trends of the past century are inherently unsustainable. They arose from a series of prior developments (innovations in metallurgy and finance, the introduction of fuel-burning technologies like heat engines, and European colonialism)—but especially the increasing use of fossil fuels. The early results, in the forms of wealth and mobility, expanding food production, and rising population numbers, appeared miraculous. However, fuel-based growth is intrinsically self-limiting because of the finite size of nature’s resource base and waste sinks. The growth of consumption and population merely accelerates our overshoot of Earth’s long-term environmental carrying capacity for humans.

The most important pioneering work in global systems analysis was “The Limits to Growth,” a computer-based system dynamics project undertaken at MIT in the early 1970s and updated several times since (most recently in 2023). The goal of the project was not to produce a forecast of future events, but to provide a set of scenarios showing likely interactions between resource depletion, pollution, industrial output, food production, and population. The actual evolution of these societal growth drivers, inputs, and outputs has followed the “standard run” scenario, in which growth trends continue until the early-to-middle decades of 21st century, but then reverse themselves, initiating decades of decline.

From our perspective, the polycrisis can be seen as an expected foreshock of peaks in resource availability, industrial output, population, and food production. As growth sputters, economic, ecological, and political events will present disturbing surprises on a nearly daily basis.

One of the defining characteristics of a polycrisis, by all accounts, and one of the sources of its surprises, is the increasingly chaotic interactions between system drivers and outputs. For example, as the climate heats up and triggers worsening droughts, heat waves, and storms, resulting waves of refugees will seek to move to places less affected. But rising immigration sometimes leads to more political polarization in host nations or regions, which in turn makes consensus on climate action harder to achieve.

Another example: efforts to tackle climate change often involve a build-out of renewable energy generation capacity and the electrification of industries. The amount of new infrastructure that would be needed in order to phase out fossil fuels altogether, while providing the same energy services as today, would be vast. Building that infrastructure will take energy and raw materials, which requires a lot of mining and transport. So, ironically, efforts to solve one environmental problem (climate change) will likely worsen others (resource depletion and habitat destruction), and deepen inequities between the Global North and Global South.

These sorts of complex interactions make for wicked problems—i.e., ones whose solution requires sacrificing something that society currently holds dear, or ones that generate still more problems.

The polycrisis marks a historic inflection point in the story of civilization. Once we’re past a rapidly approaching moment, society won’t be able to maintain business as usual, even with significant reforms. The economy will behave according to new rules. Solutions will backfire. And few people will understand why all of this is happening.

New Context, New Strategies

This changing context has inspired new efforts here at Post Carbon Institute. During the past 20 years, PCI has created a heap of products (books, videos, articles, reports, podcasts, websites, and webinars) to help our audience understand fossil-fueled environmental overshoot—its historic roots and its consequences. We will continue this work. However, as forecasts of the future turn into current impacts, we know that our audience’s needs are changing.

In response, PCI is introducing a new program we’re calling Resilience+. Our goal is to explore what the polycrisis means not just in terms of Earth history and the overall trajectory of human events, but also our own personal lives. Dealing with the chaotic manifestations of the polycrisis will call for new thinking and behavior on everyone’s part. It will challenge us emotionally and spiritually as well as intellectually.

We’re not just seeking to host a discussion about “solving” climate change, though of course we should all be doing what we can. There are three reasons for this. First, that discussion is already happening in many venues. Second, humanity’s existential risks are not limited to climate change. And third, it’s likely that the opportunity for a painless solution to both climate change and the more fundamental overshoot dilemma expired in the 1980s, as global society pursued further growth rather than undertaking the reforms—voluntary reduction in global population and overall consumption, along with maximization of efficiency—that, in the “Limits to Growth” scenarios, appeared to lead to a “soft landing.” That’s why, today, we are confronted increasingly not with discrete solvable problems, but with mutually exacerbating predicaments.

Understanding is vital if we are to avert the worst likely outcomes and lay the groundwork for sustainable societies in the future. Preventing harm requires us to anticipate coming shocks to our communities as much as we can, both so that we can protect ourselves and our loved ones, and so we can promote and model more sustainable ways of living.

Given the momentum of events, it’s easy to become fatalistic, and to conclude that nothing we do matters. But, in fact, there’s much we can do to adapt positively to the polycrisis. More than ever before, it’s important to undertake strategic efforts to save nature and culture. We can do that by identifying and pursuing “no regrets” (or “multisolving”) strategies such as restoring nature as a way to capture and store carbon.

At the core personal level, we all yearn to find meaning in what’s happening, and to make our lives a contribution to others, rather than a burden. That requires finding our place within networks of restorative thinkers and activists around the world, and finding our unique voice.

Sometimes it means learning more about what’s going wrong, without jumping immediately to the first “solution” that presents itself. As Donna Haraway puts it, we must “stay with the trouble.” That’s often uncomfortable, and it’s why many people merely seek escape—which usually takes the form of either fatalism or techno-optimism.

Fatalism is certainly no help. It just leads to depression and irrelevance.

More people take the route of techno-optimism, but that’s just the path of delusion, since it rests on a misdiagnosis of the polycrisis. Our essential human problem is not that we’ve somehow chosen the wrong (i.e., fossil-fuel based) set of technologies, while another set (that’s renewable-energy based) will fix everything. Our problem is that a momentary energy bonanza has enabled humanity to grow its population and consumption levels far beyond what’s sustainable long-term. The only real solution will be for humanity to inhabit the planet differently. That will require vision, persuasion, and time. It will require humility, solidarity and cooperation. It will require new stories of progress and purpose. And it will require (re)turning to the wisdom of both nature and Indigenous peoples—who have learned over countless millennia how to live sustainably. But, critically, this adaptation process will have to proceed in the context of societal and ecological breakdown.

We’re here for the duration, so let’s stay with the trouble, understand as much of the predicament and its possible remedies as we can, and try to minimize the suffering of humanity and other species now and throughout the period of polycrisis and adaptation.

What We Offer, What We Ask

What do we have in mind?

We invite you join us on a journey of discovery. We don’t know everything you might need in order to understand the polycrisis and navigate your way through it. But we do have access to brilliant thinkers and people doing fascinating and inspiring things in their lives.

We’re a think tank: what we’ve always done is to aid our audience in understanding so that their actions are more grounded and strategic, while also providing a hub of engagement. And we have a good track record in this regard. It makes sense for us to build on these skills and accomplishments.

Fortunately, we’ve gained access to diverse networks of global activists, writers, artists, and experts, which is important because it’s going to take a diversity of perspectives and experiences.

Resilience+ will feature a series of “Deep Dive” events, spaced roughly two months apart. Each Deep Dive will feature a webinar with experts. That webinar will be followed by a discussion session designed to engage the audience directly. Additional materials will include recorded and transcribed interviews with other experts and activists, framing essays, and curated lists of resources for further study. In the first year, our deep dives will explore emotional resilience, climate change, political polarization, and capitalism/degrowth. In between Deep Dives, we will provide supplemental videos and articles meant to share actionable ideas and inspiration for how to navigate the polycrisis. And of course, we’ll continue to offer a daily dose of insightful articles on the Resilience website.

On May 14, we are hosting a free introductory event—a general exploration of the polycrisis—to provide context for upcoming Deep Dives. At that event we’ll lay out what we have planned in more detail.

In return, we’ll need something from you. Some stuff will be free, some will be behind a paywall. We’re doing this because, if you’re getting something valuable, it’s reasonable to ask you to help support our organization. (We will have scholarships to help make the material more broadly accessible.) Being part of Resilience+ will mean being part of a community of fellow explorers.

But more important, we need you to take the information and use it.

All of what we’re doing proceeds from an ethical stance: we’re interested in what’s good not just for us, but for future generations, Earth, and other species.

If you share that ethical stance, we ask you to stay with the trouble, make alliances, and work from where you are. We are all on a journey, one that’s sure to be met with extreme weather, tough times, and untold obstacles. We hope you’ll share some of your journey with us, as together we’ll stand a better chance of arriving at the destination we aim for: a sustainable, equitable society that works for all.

Join us on May 14th, 2024, for our free online event introducing Resilience+.


Teaser photo credit: “The Great Unravelling” (detail) ©2023 Michele Guieu