The Great Unravelling

Richard David Hames
4 min readJun 18, 2020

In case you hadn’t noticed, although I am not at all sure how you could miss it, many of our most life-critical systems are rapidly unravelling. The current pandemic has exposed some very deep fault lines in our civilisational model. Some of these are cracking wide open to reveal the abuse of power and the accumulation of wealth on a scale previously unimaginable. Both threaten our very existence.

Political systems are in crisis. Globalism has stalled. Work has dried up. Conflicts and state-imposed sanctions are being prosecuted with greater enthusiasm under a media smokescreen of public safety and healthcare. Meanwhile, the production of goods and services has slowed to the extent that the entire world is in recession. At the same time, inspired by nature showing us a gentler, brighter side to our existence in terms of what might be possible, our ability to break through the cognitive threshold in which we have been trapped for so long is picking up pace.

Some individuals, who wield enormous power and influence, are insisting that we return to what was as soon as we can. But even their minions are having doubts. Those whose task it was to lull us into an obedient slumber, so as to manipulate a contrived need for more and more stuff, have themselves been distracted. Having taken their eyes off the ball they are now frightened we might simply refuse to do as we are told in future.

This failure has meant that we no longer need to waste emotional energy on the hope that life will eventually return to normal. The probability is it will not. That is good news. It means what we habitually ascribed to be “normal” behaviour was as irrational and self-destructive as any sentient species could have contrived. It also means that life is clumsily and casually edging towards new-found wisdom, where health and well-being are at least on par with material wealth.

This is the inestimable gift left by the pandemic in memory of its many victims. But, like the virus itself, this gift is useless without the physical life-force of informed action to cling to. Ranging from fresh models and mindsets to more sophisticated moral codes designed from alternative ontological perspectives, and including peaceful civil disobedience if and when that is needed, we must not wait for others to undertake the work each one of us is being called to do. This is our destiny. This is the moment we have been waiting for.

The history of human evolution has taught us one fundamental thing about life: it is abundantly vibrant and hard to keep in check. It will not, indeed it cannot be confined. Sooner or later it will break free. Rejecting all manner of repression and censorship it proliferates, expanding into new territories and crashing, awkwardly at first, through barriers that would otherwise contain it.

And so when we look at the struggle universities are facing today — declining student numbers and staff redundancies, the provision for anyone, anywhere, to study anything online, mounting debts for courses where credentials trump content, and intensifying vocational irrelevance given workplace automation — it is not time to get back to normal but an opportunity to challenge the very notion of what a university education is for.

When we witness police officers blatantly and unashamedly abusing their power, when we are given no reason for killings in custody, when police are armed to the teeth with automatic weapons and tear gas in order to keep order, and when racism is ingrained within the policing fraternity and culture, it is not time to get back to normal but an opportunity to find better ways of protecting the public.

When economists continue to insist that there are no better alternatives to market capitalism, with its array of increasingly prejudiced features of growth, debt, and the unimpeded accrual of personal wealth within the framework of unbridled competition, it is not time to return to normal but an opportunity to reinvent economics to work within planetary boundaries, utilise natural laws and create prosperity for everyone rather than an ever-shrinking minority.

When both corporate and social media resort to blatant bias accompanied by histrionic frenzy, constant attempts to misinform, opinion bubbles substituting for the truth, trivial fictions and the celebration of celebrities behaving badly, it is not time to return to normal but an opportunity to recast the role of information in a complex pluriversal world.

And when nation-states fall back on their sovereign powers to suppress human rights, destroy smaller nations branded as “enemies” through the imposition of tariffs, sanctions, and state-endorsed assassinations, refuse to act in cooperation with others to curb carbon emissions, and continue to patch up the present rather than to confront the future, it is not time to get back to normal but an opportunity to reinvent the concept of the nation-state in a borderless world.

Right now our civilisation is on the brink of a physical, psychological and moral collapse — a punctuation point of momentous significance. For this point happens also to be a crossroads where only the path ahead leads to a world in which human enterprise can flourish, generating a society of healthy abundance, in a world that works for everyone.

Which path we choose has yet to be determined. The path ahead will be an adventure, full of hurdles and unforeseen problems. That is in our nature. If we baulk at that prospect, considering it too risky, if we dawdle, recoiling at the thought of so much uncertainty, or if we prefer the comfort of retracing a familiar track, our lives will return to some level of what used to be considered normal. To some extent.

Taking those few retrograde steps will at least guarantee certainty. The certainty of more pollution, of continuing global heating, loss of species, and of an uninhabitable planet. More to the point, each one of us will have to deal with our personal shame, the knowledge that our generation is leaving an insurmountable problem to our children, burdening them with the dilemma of how to construct a future from the remnants of a world we stole from under them, while they were watching.



Richard David Hames

Philosopher-Activist and Executive Director at Centre for the Future