PHOTO: JRP STUDIO/SHUTTERSTOCK
PHOTO: JRP STUDIO/SHUTTERSTOCK

Climate change. Ocean overfishing and dead zones. Animal extinction. Soil depletion and desertification. Environmental pollution. Overpopulation. Failed states. Debt. Chronic disease. Pandemics.

These are some of the top stressors on the planet and the human race—and while each is well-recognized, what’s nowhere near understood is the manner in which they’re connected and interdependent. Just take a look at the news of the last few months, when a disease jumped between animal species to sicken and kill people around the world, just as quickly slamming the brakes on the global economy, and sparking a humanitarian crisis of world-war proportions.

Funders and organizations take on many of these needs, but a philanthropy veteran says it is time to address what some thinkers are calling “the global challenge” or “the human predicament” or a number of similar names. But all are referring to a problem-solving approach that considers the effect of individual stressors upon human and planetary well-being as a complex, interconnected web.

“There are tens of thousands of foundations supporting hundreds of thousands of organizations on every important issue, but very few addressing the mother of all challenges—the global challenge,” said Michael Lerner, who recently created Omega: The Resilience Funders Network to help grantmakers break out of their silos of specialization and think in planet-sized systems. “The reason this is important is that these stressors are interacting in unpredictable ways.”

Lerner has several decades of experience in philanthropy, with a particular focus on health and the environment. He’s currently president of the Jenifer Altman Foundation and the Barbara Smith Fund; president and co-founder of Commonweal, a nonprofit in Bolinas, California, with programs in health, environment, education and justice. He is also co-founder of the Health and Environmental Funders Network.

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates this unpredictable interaction, Lerner said. “It’s a perfect example of the global challenge,” he said. “The disease spreads, then it crashes the markets, that exposes the debt overhang of government and corporations, and that debt threatens to take down world further,” he said. “You can’t predict what will trigger what, but what you can anticipate is that the perfect storm we’ve entered is likely to get more severe.”

Towards a Resilience Scenario

Omega’s goal, says Lerner, is simply to encourage philanthropists to think about these global questions with an eye toward creating more resilient societies and reducing the number and likelihood of disasters that threaten individuals, nations and the natural world.

The notion that planetary stressors are related in complex and important ways is, of course, not new. A number of academics and organizations around the world study these questions explicitly, among them the Foresight Analysis Nexus; the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere, at Stanford University; Reslience.org; Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, at Oxford University; and the Stockholm Resilience Center, at Stockholm University.

Omega seeks to harness the problem-solving skills of existing and former philanthropists and thinkers. “It’s a non-prescriptive way for people and philanthropists to see how their expertise links into this bigger picture,” said Joan Diamond, an Omega advisor. “The goal is not to change the minds of foundations about how to see the world, but rather how these issues fit into the broader picture, so participants could start forming own ideas about how best to move us away from a collapse scenario and into a resilience scenario.”

Lerner started assembling Omega about a year and a half ago as an invitational learning community for funders, former funders, individual donors and thought partners. The organization arranges seminars and webinars. A recent webinar addressed a framework to understand and respond to the COVID-19 crisis and plan for the future. Another online event brought in a speaker from the Post Carbon Institute. More events are planned.

Part of Omega’s approach will require philanthropists to rethink the notion of impact, said Katherine Fulton, an Omega advisor, moving from a model of devising solutions to specific, discrete problems to the creation of resilient systems and societies. Said Fulton: “If philanthropy doesn’t do the kind of integrative thinking that we need, who will?”

Share with cohorts