Grappling with the Metacrisis

Understanding and Responding to the Great Challenges of Our Time

“We really need both — we need big Heart to connect and be friends with each other and love each other and we need that in equal measure to big Mind.”

Nicholas Hedlund & Sean Esbjörn-Hargens are big picture philosophers with extraordinary big hearts as well as big minds, dedicated to understanding how consciousness, culture, and nature relate to each other, and to forging a path for the Earth and civilization to flourish rather than fall apart. In this dialogue, the world of metatheories comes alive with urgent, purposeful meaning, because as Sean and Nick point out, integrative metatheories like Ken Wilber’s integral theory and Roy Bhaskar’s critical realism are the only tools that provide a useful framework for us to talk about and confront the vast web of interrelated and wicked problems we face on every level at this time. Now, we are only just beginning to understand the nature of the metacrisis — how the external crises are driven by interior crises of sensemaking and meaning making—but how do we bring everyone to the table to find solutions? How do we get the wisdom of these approaches to bear upon the crises we face?

It turns out that heart connection—love, caring, and being willing to listen and to change—is a crucial, key ingredient for us to move forward in a positive way. Nick and Sean express both heartbreak and wild enthusiasm—heartbreak that our entire planetary community is so threatened and we have only a small window of time (till 2030) to transform our consciousness and culture into taking a cooperative and reverent approach to life, and enthusiasm to be alive at this pivotal time where everything hangs in the balance.

Recorded December 7, 2022.

Topics & Timestamps: Part 1

  • Introducing philosophers Nicholas Hedlund & Sean Esbjörn-Hargens, who coined the term metacrisis (01:30)
  • Nick’s mystical experiences early on and awareness of the crisis the Earth is facing led him to find a way to study the big picture beyond the partial perspectives offered in different university departments (02:57)
  • For Nick, the metacrisis is connected with his own spiritual path and the questions “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” and “What does it mean to be human at this time?” (06:34)
  • Sean started with studying animal consciousness, then added philosophy, psychology, and biology for an interdisciplinary understanding, focusing on ways of relating to the natural world—environmental philosophy (07:10)
  • Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory brought Sean into deeper contact with nature, culture, and consciousness, and opened his heart (10:45)
  • Nick & Sean coined the term “metacrisis” to illuminate more than simply the sum of all the crises, but also how they overlap and intertwine: the holistic complexity (13:01)
  • Wicked problems: if we solve any of the crises, the solution grows more problems (14:45)
  • All the crises share a network of root causes, deeper causal structures that underlie the symptoms we are experiencing—crises of  interiority & spirituality, sensemaking & meaning making, are drivers of the rest (15:17)
  • Our global problems are actually global symptoms (16:55)
  • Nick & Sean created a big picture symposium series where scholars/practitioners familiar with Roy Bashkar’s critical realism and Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory (and familiar with the work of Edgar Morin, who uses the term “polycrisis”) came together to dialogue (17:45)
  • The value of integrative metatheory: bringing the metacrisis into view, exploring the relationship between culture, consciousness, and nature, allowing us to actually talk about the situation and coordinate ourselves into action (19:18)
  • Why is having a good theory of ontology (Bashkar’s critical realism) and of consciousness (Wilber’s Integral Theory) necessary? (21:54)
  • Ontology = the study of reality, the study of being, the truth of things beyond our knowledge about them vs. epistemology which is our knowledge—how we know the world and gain knowledge about reality (22:48)
  • Critical realism: there is something real, a deep strata, beyond what we see or observe (24:44)
  • What are some of the great challenges and the core elements of the metacrisis? (26:05)
  • The ecological crisis and sense of urgency because we have crossed many of the planetary boundaries, e.g. with CO2 (28:40)
  • The ecosocial crisis, the ethical crisis, the existential crisis form the (external) polycrisis (30:17)
  • The epistemic crisis of sensemaking is an internal crisis (31:29)
  • Worldview clashes and an Integral forestry story of successfully building communication: taking perspectives, seeking perspectives, and coordinating perspectives (32:50)

Topics & Timestamps: Part 2

  • The difference between dialogue and debate: being willing to have one’s mind changed and opening up the opportunity for real dialogue (01:23)
  • The critical reality principle/truth that we all share one world (03:07)
  • The call to evolve together and mature spiritually (05:14)
  • Reasons to be optimistic and reasons to be concerned about what lies ahead: the metacrisis will be a developmental catalyst for some but not all (07:33)
  • The integral ecology mantra: things are getting better, things are also getting worse, and the eternal nature of perfection (09:33) 
  • How can we speak to the fears of the people? The failure of liberal globalism, the rise of conservatism, and the search for higher political ground (12:01)
  • Learning to listen to reality itself and what is being communicated by the profound intelligence of nature (15:03)
  • What steps can we take to contribute to the full system reboot that is needed now? Cultivating the reverent heart sensibility (21:15)
  • Applying big picture maps to addressing aspects of the metacrisis: six qualities pointing to the ways in which we need to be connected in order to make any progress (22:56) 
  • How can we all be friends? Cultivating filia, connecting heart to heart, is the secret ingredient to the success of long term collaboration (28:11)
  • How do we scale heart connection among humans? (35:43)
  • We need more expressive capacity as a humanity, which metatheories can help us with (37:47)

Topics & Timestamps: Part 3

  • What metatheory is and what it is not: integrative metatheories explore how consciousness, culture, and nature relate to each other (01:35)
  • Big picture models are antidotes to the single focus fallacies, single issue fallacies, single cause fallacies, and single solution fallacies (04:07)
  • Developmentally, the majority of people are at a stage of “advanced linear thinking” and the metacrisis requires “advanced systems thinking” (05:21)
  • People need 3 things to grow under stress instead of regress: context, pointing a way out, and being told what we can do individually (06:46)
  • How do we communicate the urgency without invoking the psychology of fear? (09:08)
  • The crucial window to transform the very foundations of our civilization is between now and 2030 (10:18)
  • What can we do? We’re still working on the context but we need to have a collective conversation to figure out what is the path out, or the possible paths out (11:20)
  • A core developmental practice we can actually do is perspective taking, perspective seeking, and perspective coordinating (14:28)
  • Ego death is all along the path; we need to keep opening up to a bigger version of ourselves (16:15)
  • Taking perspectives is not enough (18:37)
  • Business as usual is not going to happen—how do we create new educational systems to transform the world in the ways that are needed? (21:10)
  • The importance of sounding our note, sitting in prayer in humility, and asking, what can I do? (25:10)
  • Pessimism and optimism are both ego strategies to deal with uncertainty; we need to learn to rest in uncertainty individually and collectively because no one knows what will happen (27:20)
  • How has grappling with the problems of the metacrisis changed Nick and Sean? (31:16)
  • Where is the hope? (36:44)

I listened to these episodes and took notes and I incorporated some of the content into this course I am developing The Meta-Crisis – What it is and what you can do about it

Notably the outline includes a section for Roger Walsh’s “single focus fallacy”. Here’s the link to the course outline::

If anyone has time to check it out, you can let me know what you think. I’m interested in collaborating with people to help launch this course. Something like this could potentially be an offering within Integral Life and/or IAM.

I was also on the Green Pill podcast recently talking about this course on the meta-crisis that we’re developing:

I’m looking forward to listening to Parts 2 and 3. In Part 1, a stand-out for me was Hedlund’s model for categorizing the different crises into the 4 Es: existential, ethical, ecosocial, and the interior-related one, epistemological. There are so many crises, and an organizational tool like this that gathers and bundles them into sensible groupings is less fragmenting and less overwhelming. Now, if we could all just agree to use the terms…:slightly_smiling_face:

In addition to Big Heart and Big Mind, we also need Big Will. I suspect I’ll hear something about that in the next episodes.

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“Big Will”. I really like that category. I sometimes call it something similar: “Big Mind, Big Heart, Big Hands”.

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This curriculum looks very cool! Look forward to seeing what kind of meat you put on dem bones!

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Thanks yeah I have quite a bit written already for what would be a textbook and lesson notes. I’m in a position where I have potential impact investors inquiring about this but I don’t have a legal entity that I’m working through, which is a hurdle. I haven’t created a nonprofit or public benefit corporation or anything like that. I want to explore how we might partner on this initiative. You and Robb have my email. Maybe we could schedule a meeting.

Having listened to all three parts of this conversation, which was a great presentation on the “big picture” and how integral metatheories provide a context for understanding and conversing about the metacrisis, I think if we want to motivate people to help “grow corn,” then the last 15 minutes or so of Part 3 should perhaps be part of the early ‘lead’ in presentations of this kind.

Specifically, Sean and Nick were asked how delving deeply into this topic has changed them. Their 1st pp on their experiences highlighted the significant and wonderful personal growth/development/transformation, including spiritual growth and an enhanced sense of “aliveness,” that occurred. Their answers were beautiful, illustrating the depth and sincerity of consciousness and feeling they have brought to this work. That in itself is moving, motivating.

To the question “where is the hope?” I was struck by how Sean and Nick’s individual answers made a ‘whole,’ with Sean speaking to a personal interior facet around Trust and Nick speaking to allowing for new emergents through the radical intelligence of evolution itself. Together, their answers present a “big picture” too, one that shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of fostering a saner humanity, and a saner humanity bodes well for the planet.