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A Review of ‘Navigating the Polycrisis’: A Map of Collapse, Utopia, and The Many Paths In Between

May 2, 2024

bookcoverThe Polycrisis is the breakdown of our future.

It represents the end of established narratives and understandings, stretching from geopolitical rules to the biophysical basis of the planet itself. With old trajectories seemingly out of reach, speculation about the future has enjoyed a Renaissance — predicting everything from an AI utopia to a climate apocalypse.

Into this setting emerges Navigating the Polycrisis by Michael J. Albert. His new work proposes multiple pathways upon which the Polycrisis may take us — from utopia to apocalypse, socialism to capitalism, and the many winding possibilities in between. But beyond these scenarios, it also shows us how change occurs in tumultuous times, where new futures can emerge out of the breakdown of old ones.

Through interlocking explorations of climate change, existential crisis, class conflict, mass extinction and granular insights into energy and resource availability, this book lives up to its name. It is not just an explication of potential futures, but a guide to how we might navigate them.

Mapping the Future

How can we predict, with any degree of utility, the branching pathways of our planetary future? And how can we do so when these maps must necessarily be: “provisional, partial, and subject to continuous revision as we proceed ever-more deeply into this terrain”?

Many others have already attempted to map such possibilities. Albert explores a range of these, from the famous Limits to Growth paper to the US National Intelligence Council and its Global Trends report. Plucking them apart to reveal their strengths, flaws, and omissions. Where they are useful to plotting pathways out of the current polycrisis, and where they lack.

What all these previous models rely on is the continuation of current trends — though they naturally come to differing conclusions. Yet if the polycrisis has taught us one thing, it is that ‘trends’ alone cannot explain our planetary pathway, because none exist free of entanglements.

Albert therefore presents the polycrisis not as a series of crises, but of ‘problematics’:

A problematic is more than just a nexus of intersecting problems: it [is a] structure of reciprocal relations that shapes…the possible trajectories of a complex system.

A problematic emerges from the encounter between the core goals of a systemfor example, to survive and flourishand the intersecting challenges, tensions, and obstacles that force the system to creatively adapt or transform in order to pursue these goals.

To map the trajectories of these ‘problematics’, and how they interact, Albert’s response is to look for ‘nodal points’. These are moments when the ordinary functioning of a complex system is somehow disrupted, either by exogenous factors or (often as not) by its own internal forces reaching some critical threshold. When a complex system reaches a nodal point, its potential trajectories ‘bifurcate’. It is in these moments that great potential is stored, either for a pathway to break, correct course, or be steered towards something new. When applied to future studies, it allows for a systemic way to predict and justify likely changes within a planetary system.

This is the great strength of the book. Rather than just outlining future scenarios, it leads us through them and shows where their trajectories are likely to rupture and split. Each crisis is an opportunity for positive change as much as it is an opening for further disorder. By tracking the future as a series of nodal points, Navigating the Polycrisis gives readers a heuristic guide with which to approach political, economic, and socio-ecological change.

Our current polycrisis moment could be considered one of these nodal points, where the fractures in our world system give rise to the possibility of new futures. One such bifurcation could be a devolution into further disorder, with multipolar conflict exacerbating authoritarianism, ecological disaster, and humanitarian strife. Yet it may also open an opportunity for positive change.

One of those preferable (though not necessarily ideal) pathways is a Green Keynesian trajectory, where global capitalists unify and seriously grapple with the polycrisis — even though this may merely set the stage for the next nodal point.

Seeds of dissolution

Albert’s Green Keynesian scenario is a masterpiece. Not only has he perfectly articulated what mainstream ‘green’ capitalists strive for, but has done so far better than its advocates ever have themselves.

In this scenario, solar becomes the cheapest source of energy, central banks turn their monetary policy towards climate, and activist investors push major financial institutions towards decarbonisation. Thus green industrial policies are scaled up, international carbon prices are instituted and billions poured into greening energy, agriculture, and industry — whilst sufficient money is given to the global south so that they can adapt to inevitable climate impacts and avoid fossil-based development.

Such a program would change the world. It is unlikely to avoid 1.5°C, but could avoid 2°C if instituted early enough. Growth continues and it may provide the right conditions for a fourth industrial revolution of AI, nuclear fusion, nanotechnology and more. After a rough 2020s, the global south would continue to develop along a capitalist trajectory.

However, this bright future is host to its own limitations, which can lead to bifurcations. One major nodal point is ‘greenflation’. This is inflationary pressure that results from the EROI, mineral demands, and other economic requirements of a renewable energy system. This sustained, grinding inflationary pressure could inflict widespread economic disruption and socio-political unrest. Richer nations would likely secure their own supplies at the expense of the poorer, derailing their economic development.

Ecosocialists might use this crisis to drive for systemic change, removing the profit motive from the transition and spreading its fruits more equitably across class and geographic divides. So too might reactionary forces utilise the moment. Fossil fuel lobbies and right-wing populism could – In a climate of discontent and disillusion – rail against the green transition and reverse it. This derailment would worsen climate change, creating further chaos that could birth resurgent fascism. With a total derailment of the transition, the climate breakdown would worsen and feedback loops would kick in. Temperatures could breach 3°C, 4°C, maybe even 5°C. Such a scenario would again bifurcate, as no political organisation would be capable of weathering the combined crises of breadbasket collapse, sea-level rise, zoonotic plagues, mass migration, endless drought, and repeated hammering of severe climate disasters. Such a scenario would likely lead to a global—though uneven—collapse of civilization.

This is just a brief overview of one of the myriad scenarios Albert covers. Navigating delves into the future of fossil nationalism, eco-socialist potentials, neo-feudal dissipation, and the near future if we continue on our current “Neoliberal drift”, to name but a few. Each trend-line is approached from multiple angles, and their great explanatory power lies in that each trajectory is punctuated by nodal points. No pathway (save runaway climate change) is set, and a detour through one is no guarantee the world will remain on that course. Each scenario is host to its own limitations, and each bifurcation offers the chance of positive progress as much as it does further chaos.

What is so successful about Albert’s thinking is that it gains clarity the wider the scope, something any study of the polycrisis — let alone the future — will inevitably have to grapple with. Political trends gain clarity when cross-referenced with economic patterns, which are in turn determined by energy pathways, and all are ultimately moulded by planetary ecology, and so on. Another form of analysis would either prove insufficient to capture this complexity or become too overloaded to determine any useful insights.

As rich and granular as Navigating the Polycrisis’s evidential base is, the book is as much about creating a cartography of the future as it is about specific maps. The point of studying both the future (and the polycrisis) is, after all, not to list everything that could happen, but to determine the ways it could unfold. Albert’s scenarios are interesting and thought-provoking, but their true strength lies in the common method they are all constructed from.

Polycrisis Cartography

One book that is much cited is Climate Leviathan (Mann and Wainwright, 2018). Albert discusses it as if they are engaged in a common task of mapping planetary futures. Whilst rhetorically this is indeed what Mann and Wainwright are attempting, in reality, there is a stark divergence between the two books.

Climate Leviathan is most concerned with sketching out future scenarios of climate governance, but as other criticisms have pointed out, seems much less concerned with how we get to them. The result is not rich scenarios with lacklustre pathways, but hollow theories and leaps of logic.

In Navigating the Polycrisis, the depth of thought put into pathway analysis is what leads to such satisfying and thought-provoking conclusions. Two of Albert’s concluding ‘world system pathways’ (WSPs) even take a hint of inspiration from Mann and Wainright in their names, the stable and unstable “Techno-Leviathan” scenarios. Yet these WSPs are the result of working through Albert’s systems thinking maps and ‘plugging in’ polycrisis stressors, finding nodal points where pathways may bifurcate. By deploying a theoretical model of how a certain scenario may be arrived at, they gain a level of credibility even when they must always be “provisional, partial, and subject to continuous revision”.

Though the conclusions are still broad theories they are nevertheless plausible outcomes — and with the likely pathways towards them laid out, they can provide useful guides as to where practical action should be directed.

Concrete utopias

Because of the strong framework, the book’s occasional shortcomings have little impact on its overall quality. Its discussion of the existential problematic, for example, felt a lot less thorough than the rest, relying more on the author’s sympathies than a broad assessment of the world. This is not to say, however, that the rest of the book is without strong convictions. The author clearly has his own political and moral ideals — and Navigating the Polycrisis is far better for it.

With clear (though not overbearing) demarcations of what is just and what is not, the book becomes not just a speculative academic exercise but a study of planning and steering future change. Each nodal point is thus given life as a moment of contest, conflict, and decision; assuaging the notion that any future is set by impersonal forces. So too does it show that progress and regression are not necessarily incompatible. A complex system is capable of both on different fronts, and in WSP6 ‘fortress degrowth’, many eco-socialist proposals are carried through, but at the expense of the global south and with a violent security apparatus to prop them up.

If nodal points are inevitable, they can be planned for in order to ensure that the most positive exit trajectory is achieved. If a desirable pathway is achieved, then its potential nodal crises can be guarded against or prepared for. This is what elevates this book from a great text to an important one, for its study of the future is constructed with a mind to altering it.

Navigating the Polycrisis’s discussions of our planetary system and its likely trajectories are as rich as most Masters degree curricula, but the action-oriented framework it uses to do so elevates it to an instant classic of the polycrisis canon.

Ben Shread-Hewitt

Ben is a Polycrisis researcher who studies the feedback loops between change in ecological, political, and economic systems. He currently works at the Climate Bonds Initiative, where he is building financial networks to drive forward climate action and combat fossil fuel proliferation.

He has an MSc in Sustainability, Planning, and Environmental Policy. Find him on TwitterLinkedIn, and Medium.