Unprecedented Times Call For Unprecedented Measures

Caitlin Johnstone
4 min readSep 27, 2023

Listen to a reading of this article (reading by Tim Foley):

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WONT’S
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me —
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.

~ Shel Silverstein

Whenever I talk about the kinds of changes human civilization is going to have to make if we want our species to survive into the future, I always get people saying that no such civilization has ever existed in all of human history. That at no time has there ever been a large industrialized civilization wherein human behavior was driven by collaboration rather than competition; wherein the profit motive was eliminated as a driver of civilization; wherein humans work in cooperation with the ecosystem for the good of all beings; wherein peace and harmony prevail and everyone has enough.

And of course, they are correct. At no time has any civilization like that ever existed. But at no time has humanity ever been in the situation it’s in currently, either.

At no other time in history have humans been so close to destroying the biosphere with their profit-driven behavior. At no time have there ever been this many humans on this planet. At no time have there ever been billions of human brains networked with each other in real time the way ours are now via the internet.

That last one’s kind of a big deal, by the way. The fact that billions of human beings now have access to (A) all the information known to man and (B) instantaneous communication with each other is far and away the most significant thing ever to happen to our species since the evolution of the human brain, and it will get even more significant as improved translation services network us even further. Though from the outside we might look more or less the same way we looked three decades ago, in reality there have probably been more significant changes in our species in the last three decades than in the previous three millennia. Humans are functionally a very, very different kind of organism than they were before you and I were born.

We have literally never been here before. We’ve never seen anything remotely like this. Not even close. We are in completely uncharted territory.

These are wildly unprecedented times, and unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. Because our situation is so dramatically unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, the same must also necessarily be true of the solutions to the problems we now face. If there’s a way out of this mess, it’s going to look unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

Our species is at an adaptation-or-extinction juncture at this point in spacetime. We’re staring down the barrel of total extinction via nuclear armageddon or environmental collapse. Everything that got us to this point is the result of the behavior patterns we’ve been moving in for the centuries leading up to it.

What this means is that any deviation away from our trajectory toward annihilation will necessarily entail a drastic unpatterning, since you cannot separate our circumstances from the patterns which gave rise to it. Even if you could wave a magic wand and have our biosphere perfectly healthy again and all nuclear weapons reduced to atoms, our behavior patterns would just cause us to destroy the biosphere again and rebuild the nukes in a matter of years.

So if we are to survive into the future, we’re going to have to drastically change our patterns. We’re going to have to begin acting in ways we have never acted before so that we can begin organizing civilization in a way that it has never before existed.

So sure, maybe I am being unrealistic in describing the radically divergent kind of civilization we’re going to have to create… but it’s also the only kind of future civilization that can possibly exist. If it’s impossible to create a wildly different kind of civilization than the kind we’ve been living in, then it’s also impossible that humans exist in future centuries, because we will necessarily wipe ourselves out with our self-destructive patternings otherwise.

So while I am talking about a future civilization that sounds utopian, I am also talking about the only kind of future civilization that can possibly exist. If there are future generations, they will necessarily be living in a society that functions in a completely different way than our current one does.

And I personally believe it’s possible. I really think we can make the adaptation-or-extinction jump if we want to. In wildly unprecedented times, no possibility is off the table.

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