Meta-crisis? What Meta-Crisis


Meta-Crisis? What Meta-Crisis?

“Once you take the idea of meta-crises seriously and start looking at them closely, it
seems we are caught up in something oceanic in its depth and range,
and plural.” - Jonathan Rowson, Tasting the Pickle.

“The Meta-crisis is a single phenomenon.” -Terry Patten, Youtube video.

Apparently meta-crisis is a thing these days. Lots of writings and Youtube videos on the subject, some of them by Integral thinkers. Recently Brandon Norgaard posted a course outline on “The Metacrisis” on this website, asking for feedback. One must pay attention.

What exactly is the meta-crisis (MC)? The question contains the first problem: there is no “exactly” in the various discussions currently taking place. Everyone agrees that nations, and indeed the human race as a whole, are facing a number of wicked crises— climate change, political polarization, educational failures, pandemics, social media chaos, etc—that are unprecedented in scope because they are global and difficult to solve because they are entangled. These are sometimes referred to as a polycrisis. However, meta-crisis theory (MCT) claims that “polycrisis” does not capture the full dimensions of our predicament. We need the deeper concept of “meta-crisis” to grasp the full meaning of what’s going on, but there is no consensus on how to define the term. Some, for example Terry Patten, think the meta-crisis is a single phenomenon, somehow transcending and including all the individual crises. Others, e.g. Jonathan Rowson, deny that and insist that meta-crisis points to the underlying processes driving the world toward disaster. Still others identify a particular crisis as the Mother of All Crises, e.g. climate change or nuclear war or a crisis of meaning. Confusion rules.

After an inquiry bogs down in seemingly intractable confusion, one wonders whether something fundamental is amiss. Could it be a simple logical error? Gilbert Ryle, a prominent British philosopher of the logical positivist school, offered this colorful story to illustrate his notion of a “category mistake.” A foreign tourist who knows nothing about universities is given a tour of Oxford University. After seeing all the buildings—the lecture halls, libraries, administration offices, dormitories, etc.—he says to his guide, “Those are wonderful, but where is the university?” The tourist, Ryle wrote, has mistakenly assumed ‘university’ refers to a building, whereas it really means the institution of which the buildings are a part. That, Ryle claims, is a category mistake. By analogy, MC theorists who think ‘meta-crisis’ is something other than (“beyond”) than the polycrisis are committing the same logical error. After describing the various crises confronting us humans right now, it makes no sense to look for something else called a “meta-crisis.” The meta-crisis just is the collection of particular crises in global economics, international politics, nuclear threats, and so on, and the interconnections among them. There is no additional crisis called The Meta-crisis. To think otherwise is to commit a category mistake.


I think of “meta-crisis” along the same lines as how we think of a meta-theory, i.e., a theory of theories. So a “meta-crisis” can be thought of as a ‘crisis of crises,’ i.e. when there are so many crises (a polycrisis), that situation can create a crisis, in that attention and resources are in stupendous competition, are fragmented or overwhelmed, etc.

Have I just added to the confusion?


Maybe not. If the interactions among the various big crises, leading to competition for vital resources, is what we mean by ‘meta-crisis,’ that is a coherent idea that avoids my ‘category mistake’ criticism. Good thinking.


I find this idea a bit humorous.
The term “Meta” is one of those words that has always existed, but has just recently become fashionable (aka clickbait) in an attempt to appear to be delving more deeply into a discussion or addressing it on a higher level than before, but with blinders on and not actually understanding how the word has been popularly used by the community that made it trendy.

So - what community made this word a popular trend? Teenage Gamers.
For the past 15 years, to “Go Meta” or to “Play the Meta” has meant to not play a computer game (usually role playing games) as it is presented, but to instead look at the rules first, determine which combination is most powerful, and play that. There is a hint of derision in the usage of the word. It’s associated with “try hard” and “sweaty”. Meaning people don’t just play the game with skill, but spend dozens or even hundreds of hours trying to get whatever items are required to make their “build” just 1% better than without those items. It’s often seen as a trend that ruins the gaming experience if too many people do it. They are not playing the game - they are more analyzing the rules.

So now 15 or so years later we have the facebook company renamed “META” and I suppose some group of intellectuals got on this bandwagon and decided to coin the word “Meta Crisis”.

As a gamer, my first reaction to this term is to think "Ah, so these are intellectuals who don’t want to actually deal with the issues at hand (play the game) - but instead want to add another layer of intellectualism and pretend to be finding deeper solutions that may add 1% of value to solving the issues, but at the cost of 10 times the effort. The term “sweaty tryhard intellectuals” sounds fun.

Let’s take the issue of microplastics and nanoplastics in our water supply, drinking water and food chain. The solution is of course to reduce plastic waste. Yes, this is also one crisis in the “ploycrisis”, and of course we could also look at it from a more intellectual level and say it is part of the “Metacrisis” - but going through this intellectual exercise does not present a better solution nor does it bring us any closer to solving the crisis. It’s just so much intellectual masturbation.

Or let’s take the population crisis, the global economy and climate change. The basic problem is that this planet can only support a certain number of people at a certain level of comfort. The planet simply cannot support 8 billion people at a standard of living equal to that of the United States and Europe. That’s our current population to say nothing of the projected population growth.
The solution is pretty obvious: less population growth and also a less consumption oriented lifestyle, which also requires a version of Capitalism that does not reward reckless consumption. Going a level deeper into the “Meta” again brings us no closer to a solution and I would say is an avoidance defensive mechanism where intellectuals can believe they are getting closer to a solution while they are in fact just avoiding actually dealing with the problems.


Yes, @raybennett, I find it a bit humorous too, but who says humor can’t be educational? :sunglasses:

If you look up all the different definitions of ‘meta,’ there are many. I think in the gaming example you gave, the definition that might best fit is “referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential.”

‘Meta’ is a Greek root used as a prefix to mean “after, along with, beyond, among, behind, or to represent an abstraction that underlies or is behind another concept” (which might be what Jonathan Rawson as referenced by @Charles_Marxer was getting at with this definition of meta-crisis).

English dictionaries define ‘meta’ also as “more comprehensive or transcending of the word it latches onto” (such as in the word ‘metaphysics’) This definition might be what Terry Patten, as referenced by Charles, was using. It also might best describe meta-theory when applied to Integral Theory.

‘Meta’ can also simply mean ‘about’ (e.g. meta-economics, meta-philosophy, meta-communication, or maybe meta-meta :slightly_smiling_face:).

I have nothing against the word; it’s useful. Where the confusion appears to come in is when it’s use is not clearly defined. I do think it’s overused these days, but so are a lot of words and phrases. I think it’s The Atlantic that runs an occasional column on word and phrases that should be retired, particularly in journalism. Maybe it will show up there some day. In Hebrew, the word ‘meta’ is the feminine form of “is dead.” One day perhaps we’ll hear “Meta meta.”


LaWanna’s comments, which I agree with, remind me of what Ken Wilber wrote about the term ‘spirituality.’ In Integral Spirituality he distinguished 4 meanings of the term and that any of them is fine as long as we specify which one we are using. Good advice, applicable to our discussion of the meta-crisis. So I suggest we settle on the description that seems to enjoy widespread agreement: Meta-crisis refers to a number of wicked civilization-threatening crises that interconnect in ways that tend to defy solution.


How is this different from the poly crisis? Is it just “a deeper understanding” of the Poly crisis? Looks like we are back to:


The difference is that “meta-crisis” recognizes the interconnectedness of the various crises while “polycrisis” does not.