Perspectives 11.30.2018

Confronting the Perfect Storm of Climate Change, Biodiversity Loss, and Social Inequity

By Doug Pierce

The following is an essay by Doug Pierce, director of Perkins&Will’s Resilience Research Lab, in response to The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released on November 23, 2018, by the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

The perfect storm is charging across the horizon. It’s coming straight at us with the fury of a thousand stampeding horses. It’s composed of extreme climate change and a water crisis, extreme biodiversity loss, and extreme social inequity. While this storm seems mostly physical in nature, nothing short of a transformative upgrade in our thinking and a new story about who we are as a society will dissipate the unprecedented power and scale of this storm. We humans unintentionally generated this storm through our capacity for thought and the ability to physically shape the world around us. We will have to use that same capacity to mitigate the bulk of this storm’s strength and radically adapt to whatever disruptive power remains.

Make no mistake: This is a deeply transformative and unprecedented moment for humanity and the planet. The vitality of both are seriously at risk and our fundamental story as a civilization is failing us. The situation demands a new story in almost every department. Moreover, the status quo cannot stop this storm because it has been playing the central role in its development.

That’s the bad news. While this is unsettling to say the least, there’s lots of good news to offset the bad. Over the past 50 years, a wide range of creative individuals and organizations around the planet have imprinted the elements of a new, transformative story for society. Along with those imprints, most of the mature technology to support that new story exists. No one that truly understands the magnitude of this storm is saying this will be an easy transformation. It will cut across everything, and the path will be strewn with rocks, boulders, and the occasional beast. But it’s a far more appealing option than standing still and being overtaken by the perfect storm we face.

The new story is like one of the deep, clear pools of water you find at a big natural spring in places like Yellowstone, or in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas. You can see only so far into it but you know there’s more there, and you can see different things depending on where you stand. This makes it difficult to describe the story succinctly. One of the best ways to offer some perspective on it is to describe a few of its essential attributes, all of which mostly fall outside of the status quo. They are, in fact, remarkably disruptive.


We must transform our economy into one that is generative by removing excess from our current economic infrastructure. Adam Smith published the first book on modern economics, “The Wealth of Nations,” 242 years ago during the American Revolution. Since then, the modern economic system that streams from his thesis has not delivered on a basic promise to reduce poverty and inequity. All the while, that same thesis has compounded on the environmental threat of climate change and biodiversity destruction. The thesis has fatal flaws.

This is not a call for an end to markets, business, or enterprise. However, business must be an authentic force for holistic regeneration if we hope to have a vital, inspiring future. Generative economics is based on mission driven, democratically owned enterprises that are locally accountable. They purposefully allow for competition, but intentionally and smartly curb excess. Long-standing examples exist around the world, including the Organic Valley agricultural cooperative in Wisconsin and Spain’s highly successful multi-billion dollar Mondragon workers cooperative, started in the 1950s by a Catholic priest.


If there is any hope for fully developing and implementing a new story, we must quickly realign how we see the world, and how we develop our solutions. Shifting from the prevailing perspective that sees the world through a reductive and mechanistic lens, to one that is systemic and living, is essential.åÊ The mechanistic lens of physics has shaped our current mental model of the world for over 300 years since time of Newton and Descartes. Both are brilliant thinkers, but their perspective excessively narrows the scope of our vision and the boundary of our problems. It strips the life and diversity from our thinking. Our cities, organizations and businesses are not machines and we should not be using machine metaphors to shape them. Not only is this inefficient, but also it is damaging to their integrity, productivity and life. Monoculture agriculture and our deep dependence on oil are both examples. Darwin, along with the science of ecology and biology have forged a new living systems perspective that is far more expansive. We absolutely must start using a holistic living systems perspective when we design or create anything – whether it’s the economy, a business, a city, a building, or a chair.

New Tools

We must fully use our new tools. Having said that, not every tool we have should be used, but we do have relatively new, amazing technologies at hand. Photovoltaic cells and modern wind turbines can effectively and efficiently produce electricity, which can energize a new modern world. Computers, applied appropriately, can leverage other technologies to greatly improve their effectiveness. The internet can continue to connect people around the world and bring information to our fingertips. We even have new tools for democracy, like rank choice voting, that can help move political accountability from the status quo elite over to citizens and the public. A fundamental shift toward social diversity and equity. The list goes on and on.


Our society and civilization are living systems, and living systems thrive on diversity. Whether it’s energy diversity, biological diversity, or cultural diversity, our new story must embrace the knowledge and inherent value of multiple methods, perspectives and resources. At the same time, everything and everyone must be in relative balance, or the system’s vitality will quickly decline. Simultaneously cultivating and harmonizing diversity is a tall order, but living systems have been doing it for over 3.4 billion years. It distinguishes them from machines. In addition, it is the reductive aspect of machine thinking that is responsible for most of our biggest challenges.

In short, we have the tools, the technology, much of the philosophy, and most of the parts for creating a transformative new story.

The new story is emergent from a wide diversity of sources, and in simple terms, someone needs to lead the way in making our new story whole. The parts and pieces need to be thoughtfully woven together in a meaningful way and made visible for a global audience. That’s where designers, artists, architects, planners, creatives, and mission-driven entrepreneurs come in. We collectively have the capacity to bring this new story to life. After all, we make dreams tangible on a daily basis. We synthesize parts, pieces, and fragments into beautiful, functional compositions. We may be our best hope of making this diverse new story visible to the world. Of course, as professionals, we cannot do this without our clients and the people we serve. They are a vital, knowledgeable, and pivotal part of the story.

Creatives and mission-driven entrepreneurs of all kinds will hopefully find this challenge inspiring. There has probably never been a time in the history of humanity that has been this exciting, or bursting with this much un-channeled potential for profound transformation and change. We creatives are entrepreneurial thinkers and this may be our finest hour, if we choose to engage. We need to willfully step into the problem and collaboratively synthesize this new story into something visible, tangible, and inspiring for society as a whole. We’ll need to gather more than just our desire to do this. We’ll need to collectively gather our will, and then take action. We need to start right now, before we are all overwhelmed by the perfect storm that is charging in from the horizon.