I’ve noticed a marked increase in the use of the term “polycrisis” over the last year, at least in US/Western media. First, it was the influential economic historian/pundit Adam Tooze who started using the term to describe simultaneous economic, energy, and geopolitical challenges. Then the Jain Family Institute’s website, Phenomenal World, launched a series entitled “The Polycrisis“. But then things really took off when the uber-wealthy and corporate and political leaders met in Davos last month for the World Economic Forum. A number of US media outlets picked up on “polycrisis” as a popular concept, with the US National Public Radio naming it as one of 9 buzzwords for 2023.
Unsurprisingly, the term has come under increasing scrutiny, with a number of mainstream outlets publishing pieces dismissing the concept. Most of these aren’t worth commenting on, but Vox Media recently published a more thoughtful piece by Daniel Drezner that is worth reading. To his credit, Drezner takes the time to understand and explore the central argument of the polycrisis, quoting our friends at the Cascade Institute:
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.
Unfortunately, Drezner succumbs to simplistic tropes and seems to dismiss the interrelationships among systems in order to challenge the notion of a polycrisis:
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.
Anytime someone resorts to attacking people or viewpoints by calling them things like “neo-Malthusian” I find it either intellectually lazy or suffering from a form of pathetic denialism. (Malthus, the late 18th-century cleric, is the favorite poster child of wrong predictions about ecological limits for those pundits who believe technology and/or progress will always triumph.) How Drezner dismisses the systemic connections between climate change and, say, global food supplies, is even more confounding.
Consistent with the technique of empty name-calling, Drezner challenges the notion of a polycrisis and planetary/ecological limits by pointing to the fact that near-term supply chain issues or energy shocks have eased.
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.
But as the American anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter documents in his seminal book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, this is what “advanced,” hierarchical human societies do—they respond to challenges created by their complexity with ever more complexity. This may work in the short-term but usually leads to the underlying crises worsening and less capacity in the long run to withstand the consequences when the music finally stops.
Ultimately, I think Drezner tips his hand—exposing the psychological and emotional drivers (all understandable) behind his attempts to dismiss the risks of a polycrisis:
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.
I share the deep concern about the risks of fatalism and lack of agency as more and more of us have to contend with the reality that the status quo can no longer (and should no longer) continue, and that we must anticipate profound changes and difficulties as the consequences of centuries-long exploitation of humans and the more-than-human come due. But only in understanding the true nature of our predicament and accepting the need for systemic shifts in virtually all aspects of the modern world can we find the agency to step into a liminal space of possibility — a sort of “in-betweenness” or transition period full of uncertainty — of possibility with courage, compassion, and creativity.
Teaser photo credit: Forum of Gerasa (Jerash in present-day Jordan), with columns marking a covered walkway (stoa) for vendor stalls, and a semicircular space for public speaking. By Berthold Werner – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8494856