We have become very familiar, perhaps over-familiar, with the word crisis. Everyday we hear about the environmental crisis, the economic crisis, the crisis of global warming, and the crisis of violent extremism and on and on. In seems that the efforts on the parts of many concerned individuals have successfully awakened the public to the state of global crisis that our world seems to be in the midst of.
But what do we mean when we talk about a crisis? I would propose that a crisis occurs when our circumstances change more rapidly than we can change in response. To use a mundane example let us say that you are driving a car and you see that there is a road block ahead. You certainly have a problem. But if when you turn your steering wheel or apply your brakes the car doesn’t respond you have a crisis. You are now in a situation in which you cannot respond to the problem using your ordinary means of response. You must find an extraordinary means of response. The time period between the time you realize the inadequacy of your normal means of response and the time that you come up with a sufficient way to respond to your new circumstances is the time during which you would describe yourselves as being “in crisis.”
The awareness of a crisis tends to bring with it a sense of panic and an associated desperation for immediate action to avert the crisis. Under such circumstances we are tempted to think that philosophy is a luxury that we cannot afford. For a crisis like the one in the car described above this is probably prudent because what you need in that case is quick and creative thinking, but that is not true for many of the global crises we face. Many of these require philosophical introspection because as the 20th century anthropologist and philosopher Gregory Bateson has described, “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between the way nature works and the way man thinks.”
Our actions are based upon our understanding of the nature of reality and the way the world works. That understanding is partly made up of our consciously held beliefs about what is true, but much more so by unconsciously held convictions about what is true. To the extent that our convictions about what is real are inaccurate we will find ourselves unable to respond appropriately to our challenges and problems. And it is the work of philosophical introspection that allows us to bring to awareness our unconscious assumptions about what is true so that they may be examined, altered or discarded completely.
Even this doesn’t fully describe our current state of crisis because all of the crises we face, the environmental crisis, the economic crisis, etc. are all symptoms of an overarching evolutionary crisis. This overarching crisis is caused by the fact that the circumstances of our world are changing at a faster and faster pace and human beings are not able to keep up. Our problems seem to be compounding because we are not able to respond adequately to one crisis before the next arises and then another and another. We can sometimes feel like we are being buried under a pile of insurmountable problems.
No one solution to any given problem is going to remedy this situation. What needs to change is not any particular human behavior, but our ability to respond itself. Human beings need to learn how to respond faster. What that means is that we have to learn to be able to unearth unconscious assumptions, examine them and then change the way we act with greater and greater speed and efficiency. We must all become high-speed, super-efficient philosophers and accelerating agents of change. In times of crisis, especially evolutionary crisis, philosophy is far from a luxury.
Well, not just faster but also appropriately. Which means, in the language of EE, ‘facing everything and avoiding nothing’. Many environmentalists today are not facing squarely into what is really truly at hand and pressuring for inappropriate action (to use global climate change as an example). An excellent, must read, in this regard written by a very rare scientific mind who has always ‘faced everything and avoided nothing’ is the recently published ‘The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning’ – by James Lovelock.
Thank you Jeff for your brilliant definition of “in crisis”
The dilemma is “in crisis”, our natural response is defense: “Not take risk”, “be conservative” which is ultimately “Not response” to the circumstances and environment.
But with new circumstances, old way of response doesn’t apply or works and have to respond new way which means “Take risk”.