The Role of Crises in Evolutionary Transitions

The first thing to say about strategies based on social systems analysis is that first we have to see the kind of situation we’re in from a very long time perspective: thousands of years. In fact, this is the fourth or fifth time humanity has been in this level of crisis, and each time there was a transformation of human culture to its next higher level of functioning. Humanity handled those. It was messy and full of conflict then, and it will be now. But we can handle this one too.

This runs contrary to the Victorian belief that evolution must always take many thousands or even millions of years. We now know that new species of birds, or the change from wolves to dogs, can appear in three or four generations. But in addition, we now know that natural processes like many parts of climate change can also happen in a generation or two. Our planetary climate lurches say the climate scientists. Furthermore, social and economic changes of the scope that once took centuries now happen in a few years, thanks to the speed of communication on the Internet and the continuing acceleration of technologies. And cultural changes of human evolution have lurched too. The evolution of culture in the modern era has been accelerating on ever steepening curves, going faster now than just a few centuries ago.


This first figure is a conventional stair step model of a steepening curve of cultural and economic trends. It leaves transition periods undefined and looking not problematic. They are undefined because there’s no data on ancient transitions, and the trend line takes a time scale of thousands of years. From a systems viewpoint stair-step models make no sense, as the systems scientist Ervin Laszlo shows. We suspect our history was never neat stair-steps, but has always come as a messy crisis, and different each time. So, Laszlo proposed a more realistic depiction of what some key features of evolutionary crises are during our own transition period, even if we can’t predict them all. He includes both upward lurches and downward ones.

For the last 100,000 years, proto-humans and humans alike undoubtedly did hunting and gathering to stay alive. But we only know how they lived for the last 50,000 years. In that time, culturally primitive humans that looked just like us, in small hunting and gathering bands of 20-40 people, who needed a territory of some 200-400 square miles to live in depending on their environs, slowly spread across the surface of the planet from Africa. Population and cultural complexity grew very slowly in that time. Then about 10,000 years ago, the planet’s weather systems settled down from wild gyrations as glaciers melted, and what had started as small gardens 20,000 years ago slowly evolved into agriculture, in different patterns region to region depending on how quickly hunting grounds got claimed. [We’ll discuss more of this below.]

When agriculture got productive enough to have small towns and trade, then elites could arise. They took control of the surplus and soon used it not only for religious rituals, but to support warfare and conquest against neighbors. The institution of warfare was a crisis for unprotected agricultural villages, and triggered fortified villages and towns, and defense forces or armies in response to neighbors. Kings and armies used each other’s threats to gain power at everyone else’s expense. The creation of kingdoms, priesthoods, and armies made a new level of society, controlling networks of small villages and towns. All farming peoples were forced to arm themselves, to fight off foreign conquerors, or else become slaves, or be killed. And with kings, nobles and priests extorting farmers for defense and supernatural protection against both war and bad crop years, the farmers toiled ever harder for less and less. The Biblical Garden of Eden story probably repeated an older myth that described times before agriculture and war.

Empires created the next crisis as warring petty kingdoms were absorbed into empires as a new overarching level. Empires rose and fell for millennia, alongside smaller agricultural kingdoms in fertile lands, and herding and raiding by tribal people in more marginal lands.

The next level of human development was the nation-state-system tied to industrial cities, far flung trade, literacy, standing armies, and an ever-growing technological base. The commercial empires and colonialism replaced older kings and empires. And today, we are living in a totally unsustainable world off nonrenewable fossil fuels and industrial farms, with trans-national corporations doing the imperial work of exploiting ex-colonial countries for resources.

Our planet grows unstable again, ripe for its next chaotic transition. Will it be up or down?

The Laszlo diagram applies in a general way to each transition. Do I need to draw it out?

In a very real sense, our hope has to be that the unstable modern industrial era is just a transition to a new, more stable, wiser phase of human existence, lasting for tens of thousands of years. We need to have a goal of a stable state system, rather than one that is as unstable as ours has turned out to be as we encounter our ecological limits to growth. Over the past 500 years the modernizing world hasn’t thought in terms of what keeps things stable, but merely in terms of how we get more growth, and more opportunities. Unfortunately, we can’t afford to turn to economists, who with financiers, are mostly in denial about ecological sustainability, and want unlimited growth on a finite planet that’s filling up with people and using up Nature.

So our strategies need ecologists for this level of problem. For ecological stability, we’d need to leave our descendants a developmental S-curve arriving at what ecologists call a climax phase ecology, not a bubble bursting at its peak, combined with population crash, of the kind that occurs when the carrying capacity of the environment is degraded by droughts and dustbowls of climate change. This is actually about the relationship between the size of a population and the carrying capacity of its environment. What humans can’t afford is to foul our own nests: 

      The S curve to a Stable State              Overshoot and Collapse


Source: World3 simulation model, used for Meadows, et al. The Limits to Growth

But as it turns out, such simple distinctions are about idealized processes, and not true in detail. A smooth S curve to a stable state might be typical of an industry within an economy over a decade or two, and it might work for an ancient civilization within its ecosystem over centuries. And it might be true of a slow growing forest for a century or two. However, none of these describe the unending growth curve for economies on a finite planet that investors have been told is true of globalizing markets. For much as investors, bankers and neoclassical economists might long to believe in that fantasy, in reality it already has physically degraded the resources and environments of our finite planet. Worse yet, to accelerate growth it has used the energy of fossil fuels that triggered our climate crisis. Ecologists say aiming for a stable state is a good thing, for overshoot and collapse is what happens to any living system if its environment degrades, as with climate crisis. But ecosystems do eventually decline too. This diagram is simplified to make the distinction, but if we’re stupid, it could be the picture for humanity at the end of our past 50,000 years of growth. So the stair-step diagram is a good starting place, but it’s still not good enough.

There is a crucial lesson in all this say the geophysicists and ecologists: More of the same is no longer possible, for our planet is now in transition to a new stable state: At worst, a desert planet that won’t support even 1 billion people, much less 7 to 9 billion. At best, if we collectively act in time, it might be somewhat like what we have now, but with shorelines that are miles inland from now, and worse prospects for agriculture, and drastic restrictions on the amount of carbon we put into the air. Our slightly modified world would still be hotter, and will still support fewer people than now, but most of humanity could survive – if we manage to preserve some crucial technologies through our planetary crisis and transition time.

In short, humanity will either wisely grow up together, or catastrophically fall down together. Growing up means some kind of planetary controls and a new kind of civilization. Falling down means a major die-off, or a permanent collapse into barbarism, or both. That’s where the environmental, social, and systems scientists who’ve looked at the issues all net out.

Don’t buy into the magical thinking of the radical right, or its hostility to anyone different than themselves. We’re ALL in the same boat. It’s called Planet Earth.

To have a picture closer to the actual transition process within one stairstep is crucial. So let’s focus on the next figure, a time span of a few lifetimes, not thousands of years. The point to Ervin Laszlo’s model, diagrammed below, is that we can indeed see our present crisis as a chance to go from one level of civilization to another. But it’s crucial to see that in all living systems, our own included, the whole pattern is built out of ups and downs of irregular cycles, oscillations. We must not see an our present climate crisis as just another storm to weather for a season, or for a couple of years, to take care of our own, and batten down the hatches to ride it out survivalist-style on an individual, family, community or tribal basis. That would create a worse disaster, and fall prey to the sum of all our worst fears. It would create a self-fulfilling prophecy of a reversion to barbarism and a war of all against all, snatching and grabbing for the last resources as civilization falls apart.

Rather, we need to see that there is a split in possible histories, a bifurcation process. A fork in the road implies a strategic choice-point. The downward path to the death of civilization is not inevitable. We can rebound from crisis with a creative, emergency response, and build anew. That’s because we share an image of what the next civilization might become, and because it’s really possible with today’s technologies—if certain conditions are met.

Rather than depicting change as economic growth in GNP terms, the diagram below is for a whole social system, plus a physical economy and its environment. On the left hand side the ups and downs of oscillation that you can see for our past show a system wandering ever farther from equilibrium, with higher highs and lower lows. Things are both getting better and better, and worse and worse! Efficiency and complexity can increase or decrease, but what the diagram depicts is a system that is not resilient in the face of shocks, because today’s gyrations are getting wilder. And we all see it, and are puzzled and frightened by something we don’t understand: our 500-year old, familiar ways of the Modern system are not working. Our culture feels complete, but in fact it’s unstable: because we are destroying our underlying ecological support system.

In what follows I’ll be adding a fair amount to the original version of the Laszlo model, which was in Evolution: a General Theory, and several other of his books. He offers this as one step more realistic than the smooth transition we might imagine for a stair-step model of growth in cultural complexity. The above figure focuses on our next big step up of such a transition, one leading beyond our time. This depicts human evolution as punctuated equilibrium, after a long era of one kind of system, a sudden surge of change appears in human culture.


Adapted from Ervin Laszlo, The Choice: Evolution or Extinction? and Evolution: The General Theory

Laszlo’s diagram is still very incomplete, but this conceptual graph offers a good start on naming a few alternative scenarios, using a dynamic model, one that envisions a transition on a time path for generating possible futures. Its three branches – death, falling short and the next era – improves on foolish straight line extrapolations of the present due to uncertainty and short term thinking, but it is not yet strategic. Later strategic chapters will fix two kinds of problems with it:

a) A world becoming destabilized cannot be this neat on a single up-and-down graph: it is just as much the wounded snake slithering sideways in rough territory, ‘hunting’ for a safe and stable resting place, often at a higher level. So our graph of change over time will have more than simple cycles getting higher and lower. It will look really messy, because that’s going to be our life for the next century—messy. Pieces of the old system of financial capitalism are going to fall off. Some populations will die off even in fairly optimistic scenarios. Some inventions will flourish and transform matters. Some economies will stagnate and others flourish.

b) But there’s more! A world evolving toward planetary integration must add much more complexity in some areas of life, and simplify in others; so our strategies will need to use extra dimensions to show what is added, and what diminishes in a truly advanced and successful world. This means we will need to become much more consciously aware of what we are doing, because we are going to need to back-cast from our vision of our best scenario to see what strategies connect up to where we want to go. We will end up showing a forward-branching ‘tree’ of dozens of new dimensions along which our world has to change if it is going to survive and be worth living in. Then we will need to link up our back-casting tree to those branches of our fore-casting tree of many dimensions of change that get us to a successful state. We will see that because unplanned change lacks a systems-oriented strategy, it doesn’t give us enough.

This shows that humanity has to start getting smart, because only strategic planning of change can get us where we need to be to survive and flourish. And that is one thing worldwide networks of computers buy us. A more complex emerging planetary civilization will have the information handling capacity, and the strategic smarts, to operate on many dimensions at once. If you look at today’s media as the perceptual capabilities of the modern mind-set, you can see that they really can’t handle more than one big theme a week. If there are local wars and regional recessions, it drives climate change from media coverage and from the consciousness of our so-called ‘leaders.’ This is stupid given what we face today. But from today’s American empire back to any earlier empire in history, none could work on many kinds of themes at once, and that is an important reason each had to fall. We will have to examine this issue in later chapters, for remaining at this level of collective perception is a very grave danger in our time.


Adapted from Ervin Laszlo, The Choice: Evolution or Extinction? and Evolution: The General Theory


The advantage of Laszlo’s graph is that its three branches are good rhetoric, designed to appeal both to our minds and our emotions. It says we can’t think in terms of smoothly ramping up into the next level of civilization, because we’ve already moved into the crisis period of the destabilizing of our old, decaying order, what we’ve been pleased to call ‘the modern world.’

  • Let’s suppose our transition graph above starts a century ago, about 1900-1910, the vertical NOW is about 2000-2010, our Cascade of Crises could be deep in the pit by 2020-2050, and the possible new level of a Wisdom Culture happening as early as 2050 or late as 2150. But the good possibility is just one of three: a) Falling into a death spiral where humanity goes extinct alongside many other species we’ve killed off with our climate crisis; b) Clinging to the old ways, after we escape death, which either postpones it a little, or might fall into a permanent barbarism on an exhausted world; c) the Next Civilization, at a higher level.
  • The stair-step of transformational change before this one was the industrial revolution. What we think of as “our era” was the full establishment of the urban-industrial and nation-state paradigm, with electricity, cars, mass production, big militaries, big media companies, big banks, big corporations, and big government in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It represents a certain kind of efficiency and complexity of organization. Its process of change started 300-500 years ago. Notice the vertical is not economic growth, population growth, or any other purely economic indicator. Efficiency and complexity were the newly emerging measures that distinguished our kind of civilization from previous ones. They may seem obvious to us now because we’ve lived with them, but they would not have seemed at all obvious, or even comprehensible, to our ancestors at the ending of the Medieval era. But of course, it’s us who call their era ‘medieval,’ for to them it was ‘just how things are.’