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The global polycrisis reflects a civilizational crisis that calls for systemic alternatives

June 1, 2023

This article is part of a collaboration between Commonweal and Polycrisis Transition Consultancy with support from One Project. In this article, we situate emerging definitions of polycrisis within cognate bodies of scientific literature exploring societal risk and collapse. By refining our understanding of polycrisis in relation to these existing bodies of literature, we seek to more clearly identify opportunities for further developing the concept in both research and practice. We conclude with implications for how to respond to the depth and severity of the global polycrisis via just and regenerative civilizational alternatives.

Part 1: Sketching the Interacting Systemic Risks of a Polycrisis

As globalization created increasingly networked societies to facilitate the flow of information, capital, goods, services, and people, it led to the emergence of global systemic risks that could precipitate a catastrophic failure of the system. Systemic risks are “potential threats that endanger the functionality of systems of critical importance for society.” They are complex phenomena characterized by high uncertainty and ambiguity that express ripple effects impacting other systems. The global financial crisis of 2007-8 was a watershed moment for the field of systemic risks, leading to a growth of interest and scholarship.

When multiple systemic risks combine in a network it is called a risk nexus. The water-energy-food nexus and the energy-environment-growth nexus are particularly well-known and widely discussed. Risk nexuses that interact can produce interrelated and synchronized systemic crises, generating a multi-systemic crisis—called a polycrisis— with cascading effects to society. A growing number of people argue polycrisis is already here and has been developing for some time. Though there is need for further study, there already exists some literature that measures, tracks, and analyzes the interacting systemic risks implicated in a polycrisis, and in some cases, they provide theoretical or conceptual models for understanding the relationships between these risks (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). By reviewing the literature, one can identify global systemic risks that frequently reappear.

Although by no means exhaustive, the following list identifies risks that are commonly associated with polycrisis and gives a short description highlighting some effects and interactions:

  • Environmental Degradation diminishes the Earth’s carrying capacity, including the  resources available for consumption, and causes premature deaths due to toxins and pollutants.
  • Climate Change is a threat multiplier. It significantly contributes to food and water crises, weather-related disasters, migration, and global insecurity.
  • Biodiversity Loss contributes to habitat and species loss, destroys vital ecosystem services required for subsistence, and reduces nature-based carbon sequestration, further exacerbating climate change.
  • Population Growth increases consumption of energy and resources, putting pressure on the environment.
  • Food, Water, and Energy Insecurity creates famine, premature death, and is a primary contributor of civil unrest, violence, war, terrorism, and migration.
  • Civil Unrest, War, and Terrorism leads to trauma, violence, death, environmental damage, waste, social instability and/or collapse.
  • Mass Migration leads to global insecurity, death, and contributes to the rise of racism, right wing populism, and authoritarianism.
  • Crisis of Democracy includes issues of corruption, political polarization, decreasing institutional legitimacy, and rising authoritarianism. Falling rates of democratic participation and the diminishing health of democracies exacerbate most other systemic risks, as misalignment between political elites and the public interest make progress on urgent issues less likely.
  • Decreasing Availability and Increasing Costs of Energy and Raw Materials reduces economic productivity and growth, increases the cost of living, and may eventually cause breakdown or collapse if inputs of energy and resources do not meet maintenance costs.
  • Economic Inequality drives negative social outcomes (e.g. physical and mental illness, high rates of incarceration, obesity, violence, substance-abuse, social isolation) and makes social unrest and revolution more likely.
  • Global Pandemics cause premature deaths, disrupt global supply chains, and lead to economic contractions, possibly leading to a recession or depression.
  • Debt bubbles lead to defaults, the loss of capital, and potentially financial crisis due to broader contagion effects.
  • Inflation debases the value of money, increases the cost of living, and may cause economic or financial crisis.
  • Declining Growth Rates contribute to structural (esp. financial) crises, given that capitalism depends on growth for its stability.

Many other risks exist, such as posed by a non-aligned AI, super volcanoes, and asteroid impact, though these are less often discussed as potential contributors to a polycrisis.

Part 2: Using the Science of Risk and Societal Dynamics to Understand Global Polycrisis

When examining systemic risks, it is important to clarify which system(s) are being considered. In the case of global polycrisis, one may consider multiple systemic risks in terms of their impact on the integrated global system, conceived as the human-Earth system writ large. Such an expansive point of reference complicates analysis, given that variables may be understood as exogenous or endogenous to specific systems, all the while being contained within and transmitted across the human-Earth system.

Unfortunately, few theoretical and methodological tools have yet been developed to understand global polycrisis, owing to the epistemological difficulties of studying (especially within disciplinary bounds) such a multidimensional phenomenon. Global polycrisis also often falls under the radar, because the aforementioned interacting risks that produce it accumulate more gradually over time, often involve essentially everyone, and are primarily caused by a growth-based economic paradigm, criticism of which is both highly politicized and largely ignored, in part because addressing it involves tradeoffs to individual liberty and our way of life.

Generally, risks can be differentiated in terms of their spatial and temporal scope (how many people are affected) and severity (how impactful they are). Global systemic risks that are particularly harmful are called either global catastrophic risks (GCR) or existential risks (X-risks). Global catastrophic risks are events “that might have the potential to inflict serious damage to human well-being on a global scale.” For example, a disaster causing “10 million fatalities or 10 trillion dollars worth of economic loss… would count as a global catastrophe, even if some region of the world escaped unscathed.” Other scholars have defined GCRs as “threats that can eliminate at least 10% of the global population.”

Existential risks, on the other hand, are even broader in scope and more severe in impact. They are defined as, “One where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.” Although not uniformly agreed upon, some scholars contend that global catastrophic risks may constitute existential risks if they permanently diminish human potential. “Nearly any GCR may be reasonably assumed to contain an existential outcome within the range of possible outcomes,” such that global catastrophic risks and existential risks may in fact be co-extensive.

The following table summarizes the distinctions between systemic risk, global catastrophic risk, polycrisis, and global polycrisis in terms of their origin, scope, and severity:

© Scott Janzwood and Thomas Homer-Dixon / Cascade Institute

A regional polycrisis is localized and therefore would neither qualify as a GCR, nor X-risk. A global polycrisis that irreversibly and catastrophically degrades humanity’s prospects, however, would very well constitute a GCR, and may qualify as an X-risk. In fact, the global polycrisis concept arguably provides a lens with which to view what is in many people’s estimation the most likely GCR or X-risk that we face today.

How to calculate a permanent reduction in human well-being is of course a matter of debate, though it seems reasonable to include both living and future beings, not necessarily hypothetical beings, in making such a calculation. “To date, research on global catastrophic risk scenarios has focused mainly on tracing a causal pathway from catastrophic event to global catastrophic loss of life.” What is needed is an exploration of “the interplay between many interacting critical systems and threats, beyond the narrow study of individual scenarios that are typically addressed by single disciplines.”

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction offers a holistic, interdisciplinary framework for global science in support of risk-informed sustainable development and planetary health. Other helpful scholarship to date has been published within what S.J. Beard and Phil Torres describe as the (most recent) third wave of Existential Risk Studies (ERS). This third wave dispenses with the first and second wave’s problematic commitments to transhumanism and utilitarianism and instead favors a more ethically pluralist and multi-disciplinary approach. Rather than focusing on the study of direct causes of existential risks, the third wave is:

“centred on understanding the conditions and contexts within which existential risk is emerging and on gaining a better overview of the factors that contribute [to] it by working with a wide range of expertise… Underlying this mosaic of opinion is a general emphasis on the complex systematicity of existential risks. That is, seeing existential risk as a phenomenon emergent from complex systems characterized by non-linear changes and feedback loops.”

A representative method for analyzing global polycrisis in this third wave is the Boundary Risk for Humanity and Nature (BRIHN) framework which combines two research paradigms— the planetary boundaries (PB) paradigm and the global catastrophic risk (GCR) paradigm. The PB paradigm is informed by a system resilience perspective, whereas the GCR paradigm is informed by a probabilistic risk perspective. The integration of these two provides a good approach to understanding the parameters and likely impacts of global polycrisis on society and the environment.

There are also several bodies of literature taking different, but complementary approaches to studying how and why societies change. These include studies of collapse, growth, resilience, complexity studies, and complex societal dynamics (e.g. cliodynamics). Whereas the former three literatures often provide stronger accounts of historical case studies, they often focus on discrete phases in the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations. Although some authors combine analyses of several phases, they often fail to produce a generalizable understanding of collapse across cultures. By contrast, complexity studies is less refined in its historical analysis, but is more able to identify mechanisms of collapse. The fifth and most recent body of literature on complex societal dynamics attempts to combine the other four in an integrative framework. It works across disciplines and uses advanced computational methods to analyze large empirical data sets, identifying cross-cultural patterns of societal development.

Across this literature, collapse is defined as the result of social and/or environmental pressures that increase instability and produce crises beyond society’s capacity to adapt. Collapse is generally caused by multiple risks interacting at different scales, as the term polycrisis suggests. The systemic risks mentioned in part 1 illustrate many of the social and environmental dynamics causing the breakdown and collapse of contemporary societies. “Climate change, topsoil degradation and erosion, biodiversity loss, overfishing, freshwater scarcity, mass un- and under- employment, fiscal unsustainability, and… overpopulation” are multidimensional wicked problems that “arise from gradual damage to collective goods.” These common goods are “indispensable to the survival and flourishing of human beings and human societies.” As such, collectively destroying them is leading us to social and ecological breakdown and collapse.

Although we can learn from past collapses, no one can predict them, and we should be careful interpreting the history of past collapses through the lens of present-day social and environmental concerns and vice versa (1, 2). Nonetheless, several literature reviews provide various scientific approaches to understanding the likely mechanisms of collapse (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 67). Most past collapses were precipitated by both social and environmental causes, and most were not apocalyptic. Collapse is usually never sudden and complete; it occurs progressively over time.

Dmitry Orlov provides the following taxonomy of five general stages that help clarify how societal collapse unfolds (excerpted with permission from The Five Stages of Collapse):

Stage 1: Financial Collapse. Faith in “business as usual” is lost. The future is no longer assumed to resemble the past in any way that allows risk to be assessed and financial assets to be guaranteed. Financial institutions become insolvent; savings are wiped out and access to capital is lost.

Stage 2: Commercial Collapse. Faith that “the market shall provide” is lost. Money is devalued and/or becomes scarce, commodities are hoarded, import and retail chains break down and widespread shortages of survival necessities become the norm.

Stage 3: Political Collapse. Faith that “the government will take care of you” is lost. As official attempts to mitigate widespread loss of access to commercial sources of survival necessities fail to make a difference, the political establishment loses legitimacy and relevance.

Stage 4: Social Collapse. Faith that “your people will take care of you” is lost, as social institutions, be they charities or other groups that rush in to fill the power vacuum, run out of resources or fail through internal conflict.

Stage 5: Cultural Collapse. Faith in the goodness of humanity is lost. People lose their capacity for “kindness, generosity, consideration, affection, honesty, hospitality, compassion, charity.” Families disband and compete as individuals for scarce resources. The new motto becomes “May you die today so that I can die tomorrow.”

There’s not a linear progression from one stage to the next, but there is a sense of progressive deepening of collapse from stages 1 to 5. There is a vital stopgap between stages 3 and 4 which is important to note, as it marks an important qualitative difference in the severity of collapse, determining whether society reorganizes around the new reality or devolves into a violent competition over resources. A key determinant of whether society proactively responds to collapse depends on the degree to which societal levels of trust and cooperation enable widespread systems transformation.

The possibility of global catastrophic and existential risk may begin to emerge after hitting stages 4 and 5 of collapse. Society can introduce new financial, commercial, and political institutions via processes of adaptive reorganization in response to collapse. It is comparatively more difficult and potentially impossible to fully recover from social and cultural collapses, as bodies of knowledge and forms of social practice and identity are lost. Arguably, there will always be some aspects of society sustained even in the most dramatic collapses, and often what develops in the aftermath incorporates elements of the antecedent society, albeit with some modifications and adaptations. Nevertheless, “the more complex and developed a civilization becomes, the less likely it is that its techniques and norms will be repeated or replicated elsewhere.” Losing key aspects of cumulative cultural evolution could thus constitute an existential threat.

Part 3: Civilizational Collapse as an Existential Risk

Collapse events are not historically unique, as all civilizations have collapsed, on average every 336 years, and often for the same reasons, due to excessive resource exploitation, inequality, complexity, and climate change. What is unique is that for the first time, a civilization of global scale could experience a collapse of such intensity and scope that a full recovery may not be possible. Prior civilizational collapses were bound to a specific region and time, whereas the collapse of today’s global civilization is planetary in scope and potentially irreversible. This time, our future as a species really is at stake.

The way civilization is currently organized, it is unable to meet its needs without continuing to deplete its resource base and drive ecological catastrophe in the process. Human development is for the first time in its history reaching planetary limits to growth. When a population exceeds the environment’s carrying capacity, it eventually collapses back to a sustainable level. In the most severe cases, it is possible for the carrying capacity to be permanently lowered, making a full recovery impossible.

We are currently on the cusp of a critical transition in the Earth system. A critical transition occurs when a system undergoes a regime shift from a prior state of stability to another qualitatively different state. The development of civilization coincided with the advent of agriculture which was supported by a period of relative climatic stability known as the Holocene. Permanently leaving the Holocene and entering an Earth state characterized by climatic instability poses serious risks. If certain tipping points are crossed, systems can undergo a critical transition and cannot revert to previous states due to an effect called hysteresis.

At around 1.5-2°C of warming, many scientists predict we will trigger a critical transition to a Hothouse Earth scenario where self-reinforcing feedbacks lead to continued warming. This planetary scale tipping point is a boundary we unequivocally do not want to cross. Scientists predict there is only a 5% chance of limiting warming below 2°C, and a 1% chance of limiting it below 1.5°C by 2100. Even if national governments succeed in achieving their current commitments to the 2015 Paris Agreement, UNEP estimates that we will still experience planetary warming of about 3.4°C by 2100. The best current estimate gives a likely range of between 2.6°C and 3.9°C of warming. Taking climate tipping points into account, the resulting warming could be as high as 5°C by 2100. Scientists say that 4°C of warming is incompatible with an organized global community and is likely to be beyond adaptation (1, 2). Current forecasts suggest that unless we reorganize society and stabilize the Earth system, we will experience a catastrophic collapse.

Resource depletion poses yet another potential existential risk tied to ecological destruction. The stability of the current system is predicated on the exploitation of widely available, high-quality raw materials and energy which are becoming increasingly scarce and costlier to extract. Renewables may not provide the energy required to sustain the complexity of a civilization built by fossil fuels, and they require increasing mineral extraction, raising emissions during the transition, building an alternative global energy infrastructure, and electrifying most energy-using technology (123456789).

The explosive growth of modern civilization is a historical event predicated on the exploitation of cheap material and energy reserves buried beneath the Earth’s surface. Harnessing the concentrated energetic potential of planetary history can only happen once. “With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair.” Unless we use what remains within our global carbon budget to transition to a sustainable civilization, we may very well be reaching the peak of civilization’s technological development.

Of course, how people define catastrophe depends in part on whether they value what is collapsing. Normative perspectives which define global catastrophic and existential risk in terms of socially constructed, value-laden views on civilization, human potential, and technological progress should be critically interrogated. The collapse of today’s civilization would not be considered an existential risk if it were not also tied to the potential for improving life in the future. There are many desirable futures articulated by black, indigenous, people of color, for example, in which humanity’s prospects improve under more liberating conditions. High resource and energy use and advanced technology do not determine quality of life and social, political, and cultural advancement.

Part 4: The Need for Civilizational Alternatives

The collapse of today’s civilization would be catastrophic, if there are not viable alternatives in place, given that most people critically depend on the social and environmental systems currently at risk. Articulating civilizational alternatives that can sustainably improve human potential after the breakdown or loss of many of today’s critical systems is an essential, though daunting task. As we are currently breaching planetary boundaries and limits to growth, the future of civilization rests on its capacity to transition to a sustainable model before depleting the energy and resources needed for a recovery within a healthy Earth system.

Sadly, humanity’s short-term prospects will very likely entail much greater degrees of suffering due to political inaction and the collapse of vital systems. Although civilization will invariably experience some degree of breakdown and collapse (it already is), we do not yet know how severe and extensive the collapse will be, because that depends, in part, on societies’ responses over the coming years and decades. It is therefore important to focus efforts on forms of mitigation, adaptation, and transformation that diminish the severity and duration of breakdown and collapse, while improving the likelihood of a successful recovery.

Global polycrisis provides a context for understanding the critical constraints and opportunities for developing alternative systems not just to survive, but to thrive. Although the future is impossible to predict, it is possible to use strategic forecasting methods to model future scenarios and estimate their likelihood of occurring, depending on whether certain parameters are met. Comparing current data to projected forecasts yields a probabilistic range describing the likelihood of achieving certain outcomes. Predictive models are always imperfect but still useful in their capacity to elucidate systemic relationships, probable trajectories, and likely outcomes, as well as to test possible interventions and assess their possible side-effects. The Safe and Just Corridor for People and the Planet provides one example of how to define the parameters of a just transition using predictive models. Additional studies further illustrate important social and biophysical parameters for how to sustain quality of living above the threshold for a good life within planetary boundaries (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

Punctuated collapses can provide catalysts that introduce more adaptable and resilient systems to a dominant regime. By evaluating the landscape of systemic alternatives against the evolving parameters of the global polycrisis, we can identify which transformative social innovations are more likely to succeed, because they are more fit (adaptive and resilient) under specific systemic constraints. Real-world examples of communities transitioning to a plausible and desirable future abound. Systems that are resilient and regenerative generally perform well under collapse scenarios because they both mitigate the effects of destabilization and breakdown in the short-term and advance a future horizon for greater flourishing in the long-term.

The silver lining of this predicament is that our globally interconnected world system also makes nonlinear social change more feasible. Memes spread rapidly and can instill new patterns of thought, leading to new ways of living. Globally shifting worldviews may be the strongest leverage point, creating the precondition for a paradigm shift in the institutions, norms, and goals of civilization. People’s confidence in dominant institutions is at record lows and people are increasingly pessimistic about the future (1, 2, 3). Positive visions of the future that address the underlying stressors of the global polycrisis and provide pathways toward greater flourishing are needed now more than ever. Such visions must convince people they can fulfill their material and psychological needs better than the dominant, failing system. Exploring pathways for systems transformation amidst the global polycrisis is therefore essential for our shared future.


Photo by Raph Howald on Unsplash

Zack Walsh

Zack Walsh, Ph.D. is an independent researcher and founder of Polycrisis Transition Consultancy— a research agency that focuses on equitable, regenerative, and systemic responses to the global polycrisis. His trans-disciplinary work combines insights on inter-systemic risk, societal dynamics, and the environment with robust evidence-based assessments of systems change and economic transitions. He has most recently worked with Post Carbon Institute, UNDP, Omega, One Project, the Research Institute... Read more.

Tags: building resilient societies, collapse of industrial civilization, global polycrisis