civilizational impasses



With the generalization of the market, which promises to reinvent itself in the post-pandemic in the form of hypervigilance capitalism, and the growing absence of the moderating power of the State, instabilities and regressions, as already seems well evidenced today, will tend to worsen in the next decades

“The conquest of man over nature reveals itself, / at the moment of its consummation, / the conquest of nature over man.” (CS Lewis)

There seems to be no more doubt about the malaise of civilization today, at least from the point of view of a considerable portion of the world's population affected by problems of all kinds: hunger and malnutrition, unemployment, chronic and infectious diseases, armed conflicts, environmental disasters and other forms of poverty generation. Just to give an example of this malaise, according to the FAO (UN food agency), about six million children under five years of age and another three million people die every year as a result of hunger. Therefore, among those who exercise some form of socio-environmental activism, there is already more than a consensus the feeling that we live in very uncomfortable and dangerously dark times, in the most diverse aspects of human experience: institutional, social, economic, ethical, spiritual and, notably with regard to climate change and issues of a political nature. On the one hand, as already amply proven by the Earth sciences, climate changes seriously threaten the conditions for maintaining biodiversity, on which the life of our planet depends, which is already putting us in a situation of extreme vulnerability, especially the enormous contingent of excluded people generated by the economic view of the world, represented by the current hegemonic capitalist system of neoliberal nature. On the other hand, in recent decades we have observed a growing weakening of States and a permanent instability of the world political order.

The moment humanity is going through is extremely serious and, therefore, the possibilities of profound regressions, barbarism and even a long-term civilizational collapse are already beginning to permeate some analyzes of the global situation. As Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns, former archbishop emeritus of São Paulo, said in the letter read during the seminar that debated Rio+20, in June 2012, “more than an environmental crisis, we are facing a civilizing crisis. A crisis of values ​​unprecedented in our civilization. Nature is exhausted, so is man, who are inseparable parts”. This malaise is also fueled by the feeling of the absence of a civilizing project. There is a void of ideas and actions that marks the present times, as the French sociologist Alain Touraine recently expressed it, in a interview (El País, 28/03/2020) on the conjuncture of the crisis generated by the coronavirus pandemic: “today, there are neither social nor political actors, nor global, nor national, nor class actors. Therefore, what happens is the complete opposite of a war, with a biological machine on one side and, on the other, people and groups without ideas, without direction, without a program, without strategy, without language. It's the silence.

Apparently, the understandings about the origin of this civilizational malaise are still very dispersed, which makes the search for consensus and the convergence of proposals and actions very difficult, which is why the more than urgent need to reconnect knowledge and reform the thinking that the French sociologist, anthropologist and philosopher Edgar Morin and others have long warned us. Deep down, this cognitive dissonance has to do with our learning difficulty with the countless negative facts experienced throughout history. The British philosopher John Gray summed up our condition well: “if there is anything unique about the human animal, it is that it has the capacity to increase its knowledge at an accelerated pace, but is chronically incapable of learning from experience”.

There are several perspectives to observe this scenario of civilizing crisis and all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, must have their validity and relevance to understand and explain this condition of our current time. In this brief article, I intend to make an approach considering the perspective that we are living a change of season historical and also based on the world reading of the new sciences of complexity (chaos theory, autopoiesis, uncertainty principle, catastrophe theory, fuzzy logic, among others), in which I always seek support for what I write. In this sense, there seem to be three major civilizational impasses to be faced by humanity in the near future: worldview, climate change and metamorphosis, which will be addressed here based on the assumption that the central ideas that permeate each of these impasses are, respectively, the ego, the anthropocene and chance.

In fact, I see such impasses as the great existential crisis of our time, which are intimately involved and, therefore, their solution will demand perhaps the greatest effort that humanity has ever faced in the course of its long history. The proposal, then, is to reflect on these three great civilizational impasses and try to show the interdependence that exists between them, and, thus, offer some light, at least to try to understand and better deal with this malaise that worries humanity, since its overcoming still seems a long way off.

Worldview and ego

As I have repeatedly highlighted in other articles, the greatest obstacle to the sustainable development of societies, which ultimately hinders the integration of human action into nature (including the human condition itself in this nature), is the current mental model represented by patriarchal culture where lies the lock of conditioning that prevents us from changing our way of perceiving and relating to the world. And this affected all spheres of knowledge in human history: scientific, religious, philosophical, material, among others. The thought system that sustains this patriarchal culture is linear or binary thinking (focus on fragmentation, control and predictability) and, more recently, systemic thinking (focus on sets, patterns and totalities), which emerged in the early XNUMXth century. These two models of thought are very useful for dealing with mechanical life, but extremely limited for dealing with the totality of human life, as explained by the writer and psychotherapist Humberto Mariotti. It was from this system of thought that we arrived at the current situation, coexisting with several global problems, with climate change, as we will see later, the most emblematic.

It is these two modes of thought, especially the systemic one, widely used in the fields of administration and economics, that sustain the currently hegemonic economic worldview, which today is based on the neoliberalism that emerged in the last four decades. This logic of thought is satisfactory for economic pragmatism, however it has proved to be disastrous for dealing with our human condition and that of our planet. No wonder the idea of "disaster capitalism" denounced these days by Canadian journalist and activist Naomi Klein has been gaining a lot of attention. The examples of tragedy are many. The last data report by Oxfam International, published in January of this year, show the extremes and contradictions of the neoliberal economic model: “the richest 1% in the world hold more than twice the wealth of 6,9 billion people”, while, “a tax An additional 0,5% of the wealth of the richest 1% over the next 10 years is equivalent to the investments needed to create 117 million jobs in education, health and care for the elderly and other sectors, and eliminate service deficits”.

For the sociologist José de Souza Silva, the current change in historical times explains, on the one hand, the crisis of perception that fragments the ways of interpreting reality and, on the other hand, the genesis of institutional vulnerability that fragments the modes of intervention in that same reality. reality. There is, therefore, a crisis of legitimacy of the “rules of the game” of development and “in the eternal war between appearance (technique) and essence (worldview), appearance continues to win most battles”. For this reason, thinkers such as Morin and others propose a passage from linear (and systemic) thinking to complex thinking (focus on interactions, uncertainty and unpredictability), which is much more comprehensive to deal with the complexity of the human condition and the reality that surrounds us. fence. To put complex thinking into practice, one of the strategies, for example, is to apply the so-called cognitive operators, developed a long time ago by authors from different areas of knowledge. They are: circularity, self-production/self-organization, dialogic operator, hologrammatic operator, subject-object integration and ecology of action. Why, then, has complex thinking not yet surpassed linear (and systemic) thinking if it represents the most comprehensive mental model capable of better dealing with the complexity of the natural world in which we are inserted? There are countless factors that relate to this issue, but I will focus on one aspect that seems to me to be fundamental: the hypervaluation of the egoic dimension of human nature that has sustained patriarchal culture for millennia.

For many thinkers, with whom I associate myself, this difficulty in reaching a complex vision of the world resides especially in the question of the ego, or rather, in what it represents for the patriarchal culture. There is a false notion that the ego constitutes the center of the human psyche. Therefore, the great risk of ideas such as those disseminated in the controversial book the selfish gene (1976), by the English zoologist Richard Dawkins, induce common sense to justify individualism and predatory competition, already so ingrained in our way of life, which feeds and reinforces even more the reductionism of linear and systemic thoughts that support the view world economy. This notion ends up conveying the idea that we are condemned to live under the shackles of a culture of patriarchal domination, responsible for establishing historical social divisions such as king/subject, master/servant, master/slave house, boss/employee, boss/subordinate, master /student, among many others. These submission relationships continue to be perpetuated today with the uberization society sponsored by Silicon Valley, through even more subtle systems of domination. Indeed, this subtlety was well identified by the South Korean philosopher Byung-Chu Han, when he defends the idea of ​​the transition from the “disciplinary society”, the society of the subject of obedience, to the “performance society” (which does not cease to be disciplinary). ), the one in which the subject came to see himself as the “entrepreneur of himself”, a new alienation that makes him master and slave, executioner and victim at the same time. For Han, this “performance society” generated the current “tiredness society” that produces psychopathies (individual and collective) and various mental pathologies such as depression, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), borderline personality disorder (BPD). ) and the Burnout syndrome, which are already well known to all of us. Incidentally, a diagnosis that Nietzsche already made in his time: “due to lack of rest, our civilization is heading towards a new barbarism”.

The patriarchal culture that shaped the functioning of societies has always been supported by the idea of ​​competition, the greatest expression of the manifestation of the human ego. As the French historian Jacques Attali says, the long history of capitalism, for example, is “a continuum between market, democracy and violence”. However, Eastern philosophical traditions and great countercurrent thinkers such as Blaise Pascal, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Carl Jung, Gregory Bateson, Joseph Campbell, among others, had a different view of human nature and did not validate this centrality of the ego in human behavior. Currently, some leading names more connected to the cognitive sciences such as Humberto Maturana, Joachim Bauer, Daniel Dennett, Partrícia Churchland and others have already concluded that there is no egoic center controlling the human mind. For them, the mind is a complex system of neurons and their connections (synapses) that includes the totality of senses and behaviors of human nature and, therefore, if it has a characteristic that best defines the mental process, it is cooperation and not fueled competition. by the egoic dimension of the human condition. Therefore, the current gloomy time summons us to rescue the attributes of that ancient matristic culture of seven thousand years ago, which was characterized by the strong integration of man to nature. That is why it is important never to lose sight of Mariotti's idea, when remembering La Boétie's teachings regarding our conditioning to “voluntary servitude”, that “we are definitely not condemned to live under the authoritarianism and hierarchy of patriarchy. (...) our propensity to servitude is not existential but circumstantial (cultural). If it was possible to acquire a behavior mode, it is also possible to modify it. This does not mean that we will be able to do it, but that it is our choice. It is up to us to decide whether or not we want to remain conditioned by the linear mental model”.

It seems that our attachment to control and domination is perhaps the most serious of human pathologies. Overcoming our identification with the ego constitutes, therefore, the main impasse to be faced by humanity in order to reach a complex vision of the world that allows it to reintegrate with itself and with nature. For those who are open to reviewing their beliefs around this patriarchal conditioning and to freeing themselves from the ego that imprisons them and prevents them from getting in touch with the complexity of the real world and which, deep down, ends up dehumanizing them, then be alert, because, as Mariotti says, “the ego does not have the necessary innocence to learn from the flow of life”.

Climate change and the Anthropocene

The results of the patriarchal culture, which is based on the human ego and, consequently, on the idea of ​​control and domination, are now well evidenced in the interventions that human action has already provoked in the Earth system and which led us to what we now call the phase Anthropocene Planetary. Given the amount of information already produced by various research centers around the world, which focus on the conditions of the Earth's climate, climate change can already be considered a phenomenon that is part of normality, despite the strong skepticism that still persists. As the years go by, as initiatives to curb climate change so far have proven to be more rhetorical than effective, the phenomenon is gaining apocalyptic contours. Since 1979, when the British scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock, now a centenary, formulated, with the help of the American biologist Lynn Margulis, the Gaia hypothesis, that the planet behaves like a living organism, until the present day, it seems that advances were very irrelevant to mitigating climate change. Hence, the alert of activist Naomi Klein, who has been denouncing the current “disaster capitalism”, that “normal is deadly. 'Normality' is a huge crisis. We need to catalyze a massive transformation to an economy based on protecting life.”

In the same line of thought as Klein, last year, journalist David Wallace-Wells, editor of New York Magazine, who does not consider himself an environmentalist, published the book The Uninhabitable Earth – A History of the Future, seems to have given a big reality shock to anyone who still thinks that climate change is part of the Earth's natural cycles or that they will be easily managed by new technologies. Wallace-Wells describes, with a wealth of scientific data, twelve “elements of chaos” that could very well represent today the commonalities (issues of a global scope that cannot be resolved within national borders) of the Copenhagen Consensus, whose last update took place in 2012. : lethal heat, starvation, drowning, forest fires, unnatural disasters, freshwater depletion, death of the oceans, unbreathable air, warming plagues, economic collapse, climate conflicts and “systems”. The latter refers to the impacts on human beings, especially regarding mental health, as is the case with millions of environmental refugees. The descriptions of each of these elements are supported by scientific information anchored in 76 pages of the book, which contains notes linked to the best sources of research on the subject, produced by science in the last decade.

Wallace-Wells's warning that his book contains "enough horror to induce a panic attack in even the most optimistic imagination" is no exaggeration. He sees in climate change a real “existential crisis”, in which we are leaving dramatically hellish possibilities to chance for the very near future, whose “result of the best scenario is death and suffering on a scale of 25 Holocausts and the result of the worst scenario is leaves us on the brink of extinction.” In fact, science has already proven that there are some climate change triggers, or active tipping points, that can at any time trigger unthinkable catastrophic reactions in the Earth's climate.

Sociologist and doctor in demography, José Eustáquio Alves, who systematically monitors environmental issues, recently wrote an article on the EcoDebate website about the environmental threats ahead, referring to a group of renowned climate researchers, who had published the article “Climate tipping points — too risky to bet against”, in the influential journal Nature (27/11/2019). This article shows the growing evidence that irreversible changes are already taking place in Earth's environmental systems, which is generating a "planetary emergency". The active tipping points pointed out in the article are: Arctic sea ice; Greenland Ice Sheet; boreal forests; Permafrost; Atlantic Southern Circulation; Amazon rainforest; Warm water corals; West Antarctic ice sheet and parts of East Antarctica.

All of these triggers, if triggered, will trigger global impacts. For example, the speed of the Gulf Stream, also known as the “conveyor belt”, has already been reduced by 15% since it started being monitored in the 1980s. The Gulf Stream is part of the system called the Atlantic Meridional Circulation, the main responsible for regulating the planet's regional temperatures and its deceleration, according to the climatologists who follow the phenomenon, will remodel the planet's oceans to an unrecognizable level. Another active tipping point is the permafrost (permanently frozen land, ice and rocks) of the Arctic Region that traps 1,8 trillion tons of carbon, which can escape uncontrollably due to the melting of Arctic ice and be released in the form of methane, whose greenhouse effect reaches be 86 times more harmful than that of carbon dioxide, considering its leakage on a two-decade timescale. There are countless situations like these, reported in Wallace-Wells' book, which leads him to conclude that "we have already abandoned the state of environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve, in an uncertain and unforeseen bet on what this animal is capable of supporting".

The fact is that throughout human history, since the Neolithic, in the beginnings of patriarchal culture, the cyclical processes of nature have been slowly broken by the predominantly extractive way in which successive civilizations have related to the Earth's living system. This is how we gradually inaugurated the current geological era of the Anthropocene, in which the effects of human activity began to modify the geological structure of the Earth. The term “Anthropocene” was initially coined in an unpretentious way by the biologist Eugene F. Stoermer, and later popularized and formalized in the scientific community by his colleague, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist, Paul Crutzen. Many attribute the beginning of the Anthropocene to the time of the Industrial Revolution (1th century), in which the process of environmental devastation became too accentuated, coinciding with the short period in which the world population jumped from 1800 billion (6) to more than 2000 billion (XNUMX), and in which humanity began to live with behavior patterns and consumption habits that are incompatible with our planet's replacement capacity.

Today, evidence of climate change verified by science shows that we have reached an almost terminal situation, in which the greatest challenge of the XNUMXst century will be the construction, still in our generation, of a new man-nature relationship, of a new civilizational paradigm that be able to establish a relationship of respect and tolerance with Gaia, under penalty of compromising future generations and the entire community of life on Earth.

metamorphosis and chance

Faced with this adverse and seemingly insoluble scenario in which humanity finds itself today, produced by a patriarchal culture of millenary hegemony, how can we envision changes in such a close horizon, since we no longer have that much time to avoid climate collapse? This seems to me to be the key question of our time, the impasse of impasses of the ego and the Anthropocene. To answer it, I resort to Hölderlin's verses quoted by the philosopher Martin Heidegger: “Well, where danger lives / that's where it also grows / what saves”. “Saving” here is associated with rescuing the human essence that was distorted by our submission to technology. That is, it has to do with what the Austrian thinker Ivan Illich already said: “As I master the tool, I fill the world with meaning; As the tool dominates me, it shapes its structure on me, and imposes on me an idea of ​​myself”. Rescuing the human essence is, therefore, about changing our way of thinking currently dominated by the linear or Aristotelian model, which is not an easy project to carry out, since it implies changing beliefs, values ​​and worldviews .

For this reason, I also resort to the ideas of Edgar Morin, for whom “disintegration is likely. The improbable but possible is metamorphosis”. The metamorphosis, to which Morin refers, is the catalytic element of the human capacity, faced with the possibility of self-destruction, of changing its way of seeing and interacting with the world and, in this way, resignifying itself in the face of such a profound crisis, as , in the current conditions of our planet, without a radical change in our way of being in the world we will have no future. The English historian Eric Hobsbawm had already intuited our great impasse when, diving into the history of the brief and turbulent XNUMXth century, he said that “the future cannot be a continuation of the past, and there are signs, both externally and internally, that we have arrived. to a point of historic crisis. The forces generated by the technoscientific economy are now great enough to destroy the environment, that is, the material foundations of human life. The very structures of human societies, including even some of the social foundations of the capitalist economy, are on the verge of being destroyed by the erosion of what we have inherited from the human past. Our world is in danger of exploding and imploding. It has to change”. Thus, it seems that the coming decades will be marked by a true metamorphosis, with all the undesirable hardships that this type of phenomenon entails. It is from this perspective that the new complexity sciences find some possibility of redemption, even though there is a strong and widespread feeling of hopelessness that sees no more alternatives to civilization. As Morin says, “although, for Fukuyama, it is the creative capacities of human evolution that were exhausted with representative democracy and the liberal economy, we must think that, on the contrary, it is history that is exhausted and not the creative abilities of humanity. ”.

If we look closely, from Fukuyama to the present day, both democracy and the market have gone through and continue to go through many transformations. The course of History has never been so changeable and this dynamism has always been driven by a great vector: the pursuit of freedom. According to Attali, History has always followed, from century to century, in a single direction, so that none of the countless upheavals that have occurred along its trajectory managed to distort it, since “humanity imposes the primacy of individual freedom over any other value ”. This is how the long evolution of History took place, a permanent resistance to the various forms of coercion. Power structures have always been questioned, giving birth to new forces. It was in this way that power passed from the hands of priests and princes, who dominated kingdoms and empires, until around the fifteenth century, to the merchant class who created, by the standards of the time, two revolutionary mechanisms for the distribution of wealth: the market and the State, generating what we now know as market democracy (which I believe is more reasonable to call democracy for the market). However, this long marriage seems to show clear signs that it is coming to an end.

From the 1980s, an inflection began that points to the decline of the State and the supremacy of the market (the latter absorbing the former – new totalitarianism), which will probably lead to a self-destruction of the capitalist model, fulfilling in a way what Marx already intuited when he understood that “the most favorable situation for the worker is the growth of capital, we have to admit it (...) free speeds up the revolution”. With the generalization of the market, which promises to reinvent itself in the post-pandemic in the form of a hypervigilance capitalism, and the growing absence of the State's moderating power, the instabilities and regressions, as it seems well evidenced today, will tend to get worse in the coming decades and, then, we will be left with the metamorphosis that the disintegration of everything that is established on bases patriarchal causes. We will also be left to chance, which is also an inherent factor in evolutionary ruptures, those unpredictability that have always accompanied History. Just as for the French biochemist Jacques Monod, Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1965, the adaptive evolution of living beings stems from the interaction between chance and necessity, the changes in civilization seem to follow a similar course. In order to take its evolutionary leaps, History depends on chance and metamorphosis.

It is probably in these terms that humanity will have to face the great transmutation that is approaching. The course of History is full of examples in which, for better or for worse, chance had surprising consequences: the ascendancy of General Bonaparte in 1799 (French Revolution); the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914 (World War I); Hitler's invasion of Russia in June 1941 and Japan's attack on the United States that same year (World War II); the death of Yuri Andropov, in 1984, leading Mikhail Gorbachev to take over the Soviet Union (end of real socialism); and, in the present day, the spillover of a tiny virus from wild animals to humans. It's events like these that speed up or slow down history. We can only hope that the unforeseen events that will arise from now on will be more positive, at least mitigating the pain of the metamorphosis we are heading towards, as was the unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis.

What could we, then, envision as an unfolding of the possible metamorphosis that is announced on the horizon? There are some “universal lessons” from History, identified by Attali, which serve as excellent guides to understand not only the turbulent current days but also to foresee the future. One of them is that "when a superpower is attacked by a rival, in general a third party emerges victorious". To better understand the change of historical epoch that is underway, we can restate this lesson as follows: “when two great forces are in conflict, a third usually comes to the fore”. In this way, it is possible to observe the sociocultural revolution that has been emerging since the 1960s, in search of another possible world. While the current conflict between the State and capital (patriarchal politics and the market) is pointing to an increasingly belligerent and self-destructive scenario, on the margins of this stupidity, a third global force begins to emerge, which is the one integrated by supranational initiatives such as Amnesty International, the Convention on Biodiversity, the Paris Agreement, among others, and the thousands of organizations that operate today in the so-called third sector of the economy (NGOs), which silently advance with their attributes closest to a complex world view: cooperation, inclusion, plurality , dialogue, tolerance, care, creativity, flexibility and man-nature integration. It is these new actors who, putting the ego in its proper place, can play a leading role, in the near future, in the construction of a recognizable world, overcoming our civilizational impasses.

We can only believe that the long night ahead will make human beings, when faced with the real possibility of their extinction, look inside themselves and realize that the illusion of order, control and domination is, deep down, , a death wish (Thanatos), so much so that we are in the process of realizing it globally after we inaugurate the Anthropocene. Just like Attali, who foresees, after going through the possible metamorphosis that lies ahead, the conquest of a “planetary hyperdemocracy” in the next forty years, we must also believe and act in the search for convergence towards a new planetary governance, under the leadership of altruistic and universalist forces, in the construction of a biocentric global community (Eros), driven by a relational economy and supported by gratuity and good weather, as the greatest expression of the great gifts of the universe: freedom and life. And so be it, so we can keep loving!

*Antonio Sales Rios Neto is a civil engineer and organizational consultant.


ATTALI, Jacques. Karl Marx or the spirit of the world. Translation: Clovis Marques. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2007.

ATTALI, Jacques. A brief history of the future. Translation by Renata Cordeiro. São Paulo: Novo Século Editora, 2008.

HAN, Byung-Chul. tiredness society. Translation: Enio Paulo Giachini. Petropolis: Voices, 2015.

HOBSBAWM, Eric. Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century: 1914-1991. Translation: Marcos Santarrita. 2nd ed. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1995.

MARIOTTI, Humberto. The passions of the ego: complexity, politics and solidarity. São Paulo: Palas Athena, 2000.

MARIOTTI, Humberto. Complex thinking: its applications to leadership, learning and sustainable development. Sao Paulo: Atlas, 2007.

MORIN, Edgar. praise of metamorphosis. EcoDebate, 12 January 2010 [accessed 20 May 2020]. Available at:

SOUZA SILVA, José de. Changing times and the changing global context: implications for institutional change in development organizations. In: LIMA, Suzana Maria Valle, et al. Organizational Change: theory and management. Rio de Janeiro: Editora FGV, 2003.

WALLACE-WELLS, David. The uninhabitable earth: a history of the future. Translation: Cássio de Arantes Leite. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2019.

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