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Navigating the Polycrisis: Excerpt

April 18, 2024

Ed. note: This piece is an edited excerpt from Navigating the Polycrisis, written by Michael J. Albert and published by MIT Press. You can find out more about the book, which will be released on April 23, here.


The 2020s have gotten off to a rocky start (to put it mildly). Words like “permacrisis” and “polycrisis” have become common currency, reflecting a broadening awareness that ours is an age of interconnected systemic crises with no clear end in sight. But we know that deeper challenges loom on the horizon, from the climate and mass extinction crises to future pandemics, “net energy decline” for fossil fuels, an unsustainable and unstable global food system, the brewing new cold war between the United States and China, the simmering specter of far-right populism, the nascent threat of weaponized synthetic biology, and the destabilizing impacts of artificial intelligence on work, war, and human freedom.

This book asks where the world-system is headed as a result of these intersecting challenges. It makes three overarching arguments. First, I argue that that we must devote more systematic attention to the question of possible futures. “Business-as-usual” will come to an end—whether by choice or by disaster. Thus we need more future-oriented scholarship that can illuminate the possible roads ahead, their branching pathways, the dangers that lurk, and the opportunities that may emerge for progressive transformation. Second, I argue that to illuminate the space of possible planetary futures, we need a holistic approach that highlights the relations and feedbacks between the numerous challenges that compose our planetary predicament. As more and more analysts recognize, we confront not simply a climate crisis, nor simply a collection of numerous isolatable problems that can be studied by separate disciplines, but rather a “polycrisis” or nexus of reciprocally entwined crises characterized by complex feedback loops, blurred boundaries, cascade effects, and (in many cases) mutual amplification. Third, I argue that a theoretical framework informed by complexity theory and world-systems theory can provide a new form of critical-futures analysis capable of grappling with the polycrisis condition.

The goal of this book is thus to develop a new way of thinking about planetary futures that can help us create more useful and comprehensive maps of the possibility space. Such an approach must be planetary in scope, voraciously synthetic, and utterly indifferent toward disciplinary boundaries. In a word, it must be “transdisciplinary,” in the sense of pragmatist scholarship that emerges directly from problems in the world demanding response (rather than from stale disciplinary debates) and that synthesizes knowledge across numerous disciplinary, theoretical, and methodological traditions. In this sense, as Sanders van der Leeuw writes, transdisciplinary research analyzes “that which is at once between the disciplines, across the different disciplines, and beyond each individual discipline.” Transdisciplinary research has its risks (as I elaborate below). But it is also the necessary precondition of rigorous futures analysis that can inform contemporary strategies for progressive socioecological transformation.

In particular, this book is less concerned with “predicting” the future than with illuminating possible lines of world historical development in order to inform present-day strategies that can help shape the future in more progressive (or at least less catastrophic) directions. As I discuss in chapter 2, militaries, intelligence agencies, central banks, and corporations are all deeply engaged in various forms of future-scenario analysis, which they use to develop strategies that may “perform well under a range of future conditions.” Rather than allowing powerful actors to monopolize these techniques in their efforts to preempt and constrain the future possibility space, scholars and activists should engage in counter-hegemonic futures analyses in order to widen our imaginaries of possible futures and develop strategies to bring about more just futures. As John Urry says, the terrain of futures studies “is too important to be left to states, corporations and technologists, . . . and social science needs to be central in disentangling, debating and delivering those futures.”

There are at least two main tasks for counter-hegemonic futures analysis. The first is to illuminate the most likely futures that may emerge following current tendencies and trends. As Mathias Thaler discusses, this involves “if-this-goes-on”-style scenarios that are common in dystopian science fiction. In the jargon of climate scientists and energy modelers, these are “business-as-usual” or “current-policies” scenarios in which trends in political economy, power relations, culture, energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and technological change continue to follow their recent historical patterns. As should be evident to any clear-sighted analyst of our planetary predicament, these pathways would result in increasingly “dystopian” futures over time—at least for the majority of humanity—whether they take the form of deepening climate apartheid, techno-authoritarianism, social and ecological collapse, or (at their worst extreme) human extinction. As I show in chapters 4 and 5, even more ambitious policy reforms and technological breakthroughs—if constrained within a profit- and growth-oriented “ecomodernist” framework—would likely push the world-system down a dystopian trajectory (or at best a “ustopian” future, in Margaret Atwood’s sense, combining utopian and dystopian elements). From a counter-hegemonic perspective, the purpose of exploring these futures is to understand the mechanisms and elite strategies that may prevent global capitalism from decisively shifting away from its increasingly catastrophic trajectory, anticipate the different kinds of systemic crises and disruptions that would emerge, highlight both the challenges and opportunities that these crises would create for progressive movements, and warn of the dangerous amplifying feedbacks that could make such trajectories self-reinforcing.

But this is obviously not the sole task of counter-hegemonic futures analysis. The second task is the work of developing “concrete utopias,” which involves the imagination of desirable futures that are “genuinely possible”—or that may plausibly emerge through the conjunction of ongoing structural trends and counter-hegemonic struggles seeking to transform the world-system. Concrete utopias are not idealized worlds in which all conflicts, inequalities, and forms of injustice have been eradicated. They are better understood, as Thaler puts it, as “temporary stations on a continuous, yet rocky journey” toward more just and sustainable futures. Concrete utopian speculation must negotiate the tension between radical imagination and rigorous social, political, and ecological analysis of the possible. In other words, it emerges from the always fraught encounter between utopianism and realism. The tension between utopianism and realism—or between our imagination of the desirable and clear-sighted analysis of the realistically achievable—is inescapable; it is simply impossible to objectively determine what is possible or impossible in any given political conjuncture.

But unlike many utopian scholars and visionaries, I place a bit more emphasis on the realist side of the equation. In particular, in this book I am less interested in the precise contours of concrete utopian destinations than the processes and mechanisms by which they might emerge in practice. In the words of Kim Stanley Robinson, we must “imagine the bridge over the Great Trench, given the world we’re in and the massively entrenched power of the institutions that shape our lives.” This is easily the most challenging aspect of concrete utopian speculation, but it is nonetheless essential if we want to truly inspire belief in the potential for new worlds. To do this well, in a way that moderates (but does not entirely avoid) the risk of wishful thinking, we need a rigorous, transdisciplinary approach that can illuminate the constraints, obstacles, opportunities, and mechanisms of change that structure the future possibility space. As Erik Olin Wright emphasizes, “Any plausible project of emancipatory transformation must adopt a long time horizon” that explores “not simply the obstacles and openings for strategies in the present, but how those obstacles and opportunities are likely to develop over time.” In this sense, one of the key goals of this book is to provide a futures map and “methodology”—one whose affirmation of the role of intuition, imagination, and speculation would make it hardly count as a “methodology” for most social scientists—that can deepen our understanding of how the obstacles and opportunities for progressive transformation are likely to evolve over time in an age of intersecting crises.

We should, however, acknowledge that this sort of transdisciplinary futures analysis carries risks. On one hand, there is the risk of oversimplification and mistakes as we venture into fields beyond our disciplinary expertise. The risks are real, but I make no apologies for taking them. To use an expression popularized by Dan Gardner, the “foxes” among us (rather than the “hedgehogs”) are more likely to successfully anticipate the broad contours of the future. In other words, rather than ultra-specialized experts, it is the agile and curious—those who venture far outside their disciplinary comfort zones, seeking out new insights from other fields and opposing perspectives that challenge their thinking—who are best placed to connect the dots and develop more realistic maps of the future. Martin Wolf—the chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, and a recent convert to systems thinking—makes the point well: “We need to analyse within the [disciplinary] siloes, while also analysing across them. . . . It is bound to irritate professional experts working comfortably in their silos. But . . . it has become clear that such narrowness is folly. It is to be precisely wrong rather than dare to be roughly right.” In other words, specialization is still necessary; it provides the raw material with which the foxes among us can build a more synthetic narrative. But to develop more useful and comprehensive maps that will help us navigate the planetary polycrisis, we must get outside of our disciplinary comfort zones, remain agile, take risks, and be willing to continuously address our blind spots—no matter which fields of knowledge this forces us into—and revise our maps accordingly. If we “dare to be roughly right” about the future, then there is no other option.

But there is also a second key risk we must be mindful of: that by focusing on the “big picture” of world-system and planetary-scale futures, we may ignore or subsume diverse experiences and temporalities within a homogenized planetary narrative. As Carl Death writes, the risk is that analyses of planetary futures produce “visions of universal, homogeneous time,” which can close down “a sense of hetero-topic time, in which multiple timescales and trajectories exist simultaneously.” Put differently, we do not want to pretend as if “the future” will involve one universally shared trajectory, or that the planetary problematic means the same thing for all peoples and places. Far from it. Instead we must emphasize, following Alex Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu, that global historical processes “are always the outcome of a multiplicity of spatially diverse nonlinear causal chains that combine in any given conjuncture.”

In other words, the future—like the history of global capitalism—will be spatiotemporally uneven and combined, involving a multiplicity of local struggles and trajectories across the world-system as well as a planetary trajectory that emerges from the combination between them. This means, as Stefanie Fishel and company write, that our analysis of the planetary future should be “simultaneously singular and plural, combining the universality of a common entangled existence on planet Earth and the particular and multiple differences of culture, gender, privilege, location, species and temporality.” Of course, in practice this is easier said than done. This book places a bit more accent on the combined rather than the uneven nature of the planetary future, which is in part simply the result of my own cognitive constraints, though it is also justified by the globally integrative tendencies of capitalism and the deepening reality of planetary entanglement. I also focus primarily on developments in the world-system “core”—mainly the US, China, and Europe—since what happens in the core will probably have the most influence over the planetary future as a whole. I counterbalance this by showing how trajectories in the core will be shaped and constrained by political struggles across the periphery and semi-periphery (or global south). But this is a limitation of the present study, and further scholarship is needed to develop more fine-grained narratives of possible futures in diverse states, regions, and localities across the world-system.


  1. Adam Tooze, “Welcome to the World of the Polycrisis,” Financial Times, October 28, 2022,
  2. Thomas Homer-Dixon, Michael Lawrence and Scott Janzwood, “What Is a Global Polycrisis? And How Is It Different from a Systemic Risk?,” Cascade Institute, September 16, 2022, https://
  3. Sander van der Leeuw, Social Sustainability, Past and Future: Undoing Unintended Con- sequences for the Earth’s Survival (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 57.
  4. Heikki Patomaki, “A Realist Ontology for Future Studies,” Journal of Critical Realism 5, no. 1 (2006): 1–30.
  5. Holger R. Maier, Joseph H. A. Guillaume, Hedwig van Delden, et al., “An Uncertain Future, Deep Uncertainty, Scenarios, Robustness and Adaptation: How Do They Fit Together?,” Environmental Modelling & Software 81 (2016).
  6. John Urry, What Is the Future? (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2016), 7.
  7. Mathias Thaler, No Other Planet: Utopian Visions for a Climate Changed World (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2022), 44.
  8. Ruth Levitas, Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 6. .
  9. Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias (London: Verso, 2010), 27.
  10. Dan Gardner, Future Babble: Why Pundits Are Hedgehogs and Foxes Know Best (New York: Dutton, 2012).
  11. Martin Wolf, “How to Think About Policy in a Polycrisis,”Financial Times, November 29, 2022,
  12. Carl Death, “Climate Fiction, Climate Theory: Decolonizing Imaginations of Global Futures” Millennium: Journal of International Studies (2022).
  13. Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nisancioglu, How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism (London: Pluto Press, 2015), 61.
  14. Stefanie Fishel, Anthony Burke, Simon Dalby, et al., “Defending Planet Politics,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies (2018).



Michael J. Albert

I am a Lecturer in Global Environmental Politics, University of Edinburgh School of Social and Political Sciences. Before that I was a Lecturer in International Relations at SOAS University of London. I completed my PhD in 2020 at Johns Hopkins University.