Are we headed toward a “polycrisis”? The buzzword of the moment, explained.
There is nothing that Davos loves more than a good buzzword, and in 2023 that buzzword was “polycrisis.”
The folks at this year’s World Economic Forum adopted the term after historian Adam Tooze popularized it in his inaugural Financial Times column last year. At its annual meeting last week, the WEF released its “Global Risks Report 2023,” warning that “eroding geopolitical cooperation will have ripple effects across the global risks landscape over the medium term, including contributing to a potential polycrisis of interrelated environmental, geopolitical and socioeconomic risks relating to the supply of and demand for natural resources.”
This warning generated a lot of hand-wringing on the narrow streets of Davos. Little wonder — a “polycrisis” sounds pretty bad! But it also sounds to some like a confusing and redundant neologism. In the opening Davos panel, historian Niall Ferguson rejected the term, explaining it as “just history happening.” In a bit of hot FT-on-FT action, columnist Gideon Rachman characterized polycrisis as one of his least favorite terms, asking, “Does it actually mean anything?”
As someone who has written a book about zombie apocalypses and taught a course about the end of the world, I have a smidgen more sympathy for the polycrisis concept. I think its proponents are trying to get at something more than just history happening. They are putting a name to the belief that a more interconnected, complex world is vulnerable to an interconnected, complex global catastrophe.
That is a legitimate concern. Just because the concept of a polycrisis is real, however, does not mean that the logic behind a polycrisis is ironclad. Some of it echoes 1970s concerns about resource depletion combined with an increasing population — in other words, neo-Malthusianism gussied up to sound fancy. A lot more of it can be reduced to concerns about climate change, which are real but not poly-anything. Those warnings about a polycrisis might be well-intentioned, but they also assume the existence of powerful negative feedback effects that may not actually exist.
The future will not be crisis-free by any stretch of the imagination — but the notion of a polycrisis might do more harm than good in attempting to get a grip on the systemic risks that threaten humanity.
The history of the idea of the polycrisis
As with many buzzwords foretelling despair, the origins of polycrisis can be blamed on the French.
In their 1999 book Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for the New Millennium, French complexity theorist Edgar Morin and his co-author Anne Brigitte Kern warned of the “complex intersolidarity of problems, antagonisms, crises, uncontrollable processes, and the general crisis of the planet.” Other academics began using the term in a similar way. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker adopted the term to characterize the cluster of negative shocks triggered by the 2008 financial crisis.
So far, so redundant — none of these initial references really seem to mean much beyond “A Big, Bad Catastrophe.” Tooze’s initial column and Substack post, however, referenced the work of political scientists Michael Lawrence, Scott Janzwood, and Thomas Homer-Dixon. They work at the Cascade Institute, a Canadian research center focusing on emergent and systemic risks. In a 2022 working paper, they provide the fullest etymology of “polycrisis” and what they mean by it.
So what the hell is a polycrisis? The quick-and-dirty answer is that it’s the concatenation of shocks that generate crises that trigger crises in other systems that, in turn, worsen the initial crises, making the combined effect far, far worse than the sum of its parts.
The longer answer requires some familiarity with how complex systems work. Complex systems can range from a nuclear power plant to Earth’s ecosystem. In tightly wound and complex systems, not even experts can be entirely sure how the inner workings of the system will respond to stresses and shocks. Those who study systemic and catastrophic risks have long been aware that crises in these systems are often endogenous — i.e., they often bubble up from within the system’s inscrutable internal workings.
For example, when Lehman Brothers declared Chapter 11 in September 2008, few observers understood that Lehman’s bankruptcy would cause panic in money market funds. That was a relatively risk-free asset class seemingly far removed from the subprime mortgage debt that felled Lehman.
Except the Reserve Primary Fund, the oldest money market fund in the country, had invested some of its assets at Lehman, which had enabled it to offer a slightly higher rate of return. With those investments frozen by Lehman’s bankruptcy, the Reserve Primary Fund had to “break the buck” and price its fund below a dollar — hitherto unthinkable for a fund that was seen as pretty secure. That caused credit markets everywhere to seize up, and the Great Recession unfolded. The crisis cascaded so quickly that it was impossible for regulators and central banks to get out in front of the disaster wave.
The folks who warn about a polycrisis argue that it is not just components within a single system that are tightly interconnected. It is the systems themselves — health, geopolitics, the environment — that are increasingly interacting and tightly coupled. Therefore, if one system malfunctions, the crisis might trigger other systems to fail, leading to catastrophic negative feedback effects across multiple systems and affecting the entire world. Or, as Lawrence, Janzwood, and Homer-Dixon put it in their paper:
The core concern of the concept is that a crisis in one global system has knock-on effects that cascade (or spill over) into other global systems, creating or worsening crises there. Global crises happen less and less in isolation; they interact with one another so that one crisis makes a second more likely and deepens their overall harms. The polycrisis concept thus highlights the causal interaction of crises across global systems.
Think of rising commodity prices triggering the Arab Spring in 2010. Or think of the vicissitudes of the Covid-19 pandemic helping to trigger both the stresses in global supply chains and social dysfunction. These are examples of one systemic crisis generating another systemic crisis. Imagine all the myriad crises that climate change can trigger — from food scarcity to new pandemics to a surge in migration. The Cascade Institute paper defines a polycrisis as when three or more systems wind up being in crisis at the same time.
Given all the interconnections in the current moment, a polycrisis is not hard to conceive. To contemplate it is to be overwhelmed by catastrophic possibilities. Here, look at Tooze’s chart:
Or look at the World Economic Forum’s similar chart:
Or, if you prefer sci-fi narratives as a means to better comprehension, watch this clip from Amazon Prime’s The Peripheral, which talks about a cluster of events called “The Jackpot” in a way that sounds awfully similar to a polycrisis.
How real is the polycrisis?
Take a second now and consider all the shocks that have buffeted you, dear reader, in the past few years alone.
There is the largest land war in Europe in recent memory, a devastating pandemic, the surge in refugee flows, high inflation, fragile global governance, and the leading democracies turning inward as they face populist challenges at home. It seems easy — and enervating — to believe that the polycrisis is upon us.
The thing about the previous paragraph is that it does not just describe the current moment; it also captures the global situation almost exactly a century ago. The First World War devastated Europe. The war also helped to facilitate the spread of the influenza pandemic through troop movements and information censorship. The costs of both the war and the pandemic badly weakened the postwar order, leading to spikes in hyperinflation, illiberal ideologies, and democracies that turned inward. All of that transpired during the start of the Roaring ’20s; the world turned much darker a decade later.
So maybe Niall Ferguson has a point; what some are calling a polycrisis could just be history rhyming with itself.
Those warning about a polycrisis vigorously dispute this. They argue that the growing synchronization and interconnectivity of systemic risks increases the chance of a polycrisis. As one recent New York Times op-ed co-authored by Homer-Dixon explained, “complex and largely unrecognized causal links among the world’s economic, social and ecological systems may be causing many risks to go critical at nearly the same time.”
These concerns are borderline Malthusian. Thomas Malthus famously warned that the human population would exponentially outstrip mankind’s capacity to grow food. This proved to be spectacularly wrong, but the power of Malthusian logic remains. Neo-Malthusians are less concerned about food specifically and more about human civilization outstripping other necessary resources.
In the same op-ed, Homer-Dixon and co-author Johan Rockström worry that “the magnitude of humanity’s resource consumption and pollution output is weakening the resilience of natural systems.” The WEF report ranked a “cost-of-living crisis” as the most severe global risk over the next two years.
Concerns about climate change should not be minimized. At the same time, there are ways in which the notion of a polycrisis obfuscates more than it reveals.
Looking at the charts above makes it seem as though little can be done to prevent a polycrisis. Indeed, the Cascade Institute paper is written as though the polycrisis has already happened.
This sort of framing is bound to generate a sense of helplessness in the face of overwhelming complexity and crisis. In The Rhetoric of Reaction, Albert Hirschman warned about the “futility thesis” — the rejection of preventive action due to a fatalistic belief that it is simply too late.
It is far from obvious that there will be a polycrisis (let alone that we’re already in one). As the economist Noah Smith pointed out in his rejoinder to Tooze, its proponents underestimate how much “the global economy and political system are full of mechanisms that push back against shocks.” Indeed, for all the concerns that have been voiced over the past two years about global supply chain stresses and rampant inflation, both of those trends appear to have reversed themselves quite nicely. Complaints about scarce container ships and computer chips that dominated 2021 have turned into stories about gluts in both markets.
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