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How big crisis has to be to provoke radical social change, according to a philosopher


Between the wars in Ukraine, Gaza and elsewhere, the floods and droughts amplified by climate change, viral misinformation and actual viruses, the world is facing multiple crises at once, right now. If there's any good news in here, philosophers and historians have long argued that a crisis is what spurs change, enough change to transform a society. But how big does a crisis have to be to provoke radical social change? Well, Oxford University social philosopher Roman Krznaric set out to answer that question in a book called "History For Tomorrow." Welcome.

ROMAN KRZNARIC: Great to be talking to you, Ailsa.

CHANG: And great to be talking to you. So I'm curious, Roman. Was there a particular crisis, a moment that drove you to start asking this big question, what causes change to happen?

KRZNARIC: Well, I've actually been driven through a frustration by the fact that there are all these multiple crises - things like climate change-related floods and droughts - and yet, governments just don't seem to take action. They just seem to be sitting still. They are obsessed with gradual change. And actually, what we need to deal with these crises are much more rapid and transformative change.

So out of that frustration, I thought, I'm going to look into history and see when is it exactly that governments have taken more rapid and radical action? What kind of situations does that happen in?

And actually, I found that, of course, there's situations that we know about, like wars or pandemics, when governments do step up and kick-start themselves into bigger changes. But actually, what we know is that most crises don't bring about change, so other ingredients are needed, and that's what I've tried to explore.

CHANG: Yes. And there's an essay that you wrote for Aeon called "The Disruption Nexus." Can you just very briefly define what you mean by the disruption nexus?

KRZNARIC: What history tells us is that these kind of changes tend to happen when three things come together. Imagine three corners of a triangle. That's what the disruption nexus is. In one corner is a crisis. So you need some kind of crisis like a financial crash or climate change-related wildfires or droughts.

The second thing you need are disruptive movements. You need people going onto the streets, pressuring governments for change, amplifying the crisis.

But the third factor you need are powerful and visionary ideas to inspire change. The economist Milton Friedman famously said that although a crisis is an opportunity for change, just to quote him, he said, when that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.

So you need all three of those factors, and you can really see an action in an historical example like the fall of the Berlin Wall in...


KRZNARIC: ...1989, right?

CHANG: Apply your disruption nexus theory to the Berlin Wall fall.

KRZNARIC: At that time, the three factors of the disruption nexus came together. First, you had a political crisis brewing in the summer of 1989. There was chaos in the East German leadership, partly 'cause there were internal power struggles and debates about the reforms that Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev had introduced.

Secondly, you had ideas - in fact, in some ways, quite old ideas - around Democratic freedoms and human rights that were brewing - the desire for free and fair elections, freedom of movement, freedom of speech.

And then finally, you had the third factor - the movements. You had the disruptive movements in the German city of Leipzig in October 1989, 100,000 people in the streets. And then finally, in early November, you had the tipping point protests that brought down the Berlin Wall on November 9.

And the thing is that those movements had been protesting for some years, but without the crisis and without the ideas, that change probably wouldn't have happen or would have taken a lot longer. So I think that really shows how that nexus happens and the power and the importance of disruption.

CHANG: OK, so that is one example. But you call climate change, in contrast - so far has been the, quote, "wrong kind of crisis." What do you mean by that?

KRZNARIC: Climate change isn't quite like a pandemic. It's not an immediate crisis in that sense that we can act on after it happens. We need to act before, and it's not like a war. So what we need is to think about this disruption nexus model to try and get these three corners of the triangle in place.

So, of course, we have the crisis going on. We've got the water shortages in California or hurricanes hitting other parts of the United States and other parts of the world. We've got the ideas emerging to deal with the climate crisis. So...

CHANG: Right.

KRZNARIC: ...New ideas around ecological stewardship or the rights of future generations to a clean and healthy atmosphere, a clean climate - and we're starting to see some of the disruptive movements emerge. I mean, think, for example, about the movement to divest investment from fossil fuels that emerged in the U.S. around 2008 with the founding of the organization 350.org. And since then, over $40 trillion has been divested from investment funds and from university endowments.


KRZNARIC: So it's been very successful.

CHANG: So then what's the problem here? Are those ideas, those movements, just not big enough, somehow?

KRZNARIC: Well, sometimes you need more of them. I mean, if you think back to the Vietnam War in the late '60s, you had the anti-Vietnam War protests. And they were enough to start changing public opinion but weren't big enough to really tip the system. There was too much power in the system that was still supporting involvement in the war.

So I think today what we're seeing is the need for more of these disruptive movements to emerge in the climate change space, in the ecological space. They're having big impacts in some countries. Like, in the Netherlands, in the movement Extinction Rebellion, scientists who were supporters of direct action went onto the streets, blocked the roads and the government was forced into making a declaration that they were going to stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industry. So I think we need more of this going on. It's not going to go away.

I know a lot of people find these direct action movements - you know, climate protesters blocking roads - to be disruptive, and I found them disruptive myself. But I've also found myself lying on the street with my daughter in front of the Houses of Parliament in London with...

CHANG: (Laughter).

KRZNARIC: ...Commuters honking their horns because I realized that the best way to be a good ancestor, I've found, is actually to join those movements, even though I like spending most of my time in libraries writing books like the one that I've just written.

CHANG: Not lying down in the middle of a road - but can I ask you, when it comes to change, change that is spurred by crisis - there can be good change, and there can be bad change, right? It can be like the civil rights movement - good change. Or change can be like - I don't know - World War II fascism. Like, do you have any idea how people can avoid bad change and create good change instead?

KRZNARIC: The challenge of a crisis is that it can be taken in multiple directions. And I think that's the problem of where we are today with a lot of our contemporary crises. For example, the crises around rising food and energy prices, job insecurity - this is being picked up by far-right movements across Europe and the United States, of course, as well.

So I think it's up to the progressive movements, for example, to recognize that they need to be prepared for - when the moments of crisis come, are you going to be ready with the strategic organization and with the ideas seeded in society that are going to bring about change?

I think the great lesson from history is summed up beautifully by the historian Howard Zinn, who said, the crucial problems of our time no longer can be left to simmer on the low flame of gradualism. You know, we've got these urgent problems now, and the history lesson is that disruption actually works.

CHANG: Oxford University scholar Roman Krznaric. Thank you very much for your big ideas about big change.

KRZNARIC: Thanks so much, Ailsa - great to talk to you.

CHANG: And you can read more about his theory of social change in his book, History For Tomorrow: Inspiration From The Past For The Future Of Humanity," or in his essay in Aeon, "The Disruption Nexus."

(SOUNDBITE OF DORIAN CONCEPT'S "HIDE (CS01 VERSION)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.