World View: Global threats have evolved from crisis to polycrisis

We need new ways to analyse what is happening in a world where challenges no longer fit into neat siloes

“Polycrisis” is becoming an established concept to characterise contemporary global challenges which have multiple, simultaneous, separate yet entangling manifestations and in which the whole is even more dangerous than the sum of its parts.

The economic historian Adam Tooze has publicised the term in a Financial Times column and online commentary. He says it is needed to understand how economic problems like decoupling of globalisation supply chain links, energy shortages, Covid-19 and recession are linked to political ones like growing competition between the United States and China, war in Ukraine, emerging multipolarity against western hegemony – and overall to climate catastrophe. Some of these are defined as existential and a principal danger is that they might escalate towards nuclear war.

The Greek word “poly” signifies there are many distinct issues at play. One is not necessarily dominant. Their entanglement requires analysis using new methods. Feedback loops, amplified effects, complex layering, a breakdown of shared meaning, and emergent properties of the whole are involved that pose a real challenge to conventional analysis and policymaking.

The economist Martin Wolf, taking up Tooze’s lead, argues such conventional analysis may work well for econometrics in a reasonably stable world, like the one we got used to during decades of globalisation. That has changed radically in the last year, he says: “The world we know now does not divide into neat silos. Our thinking must not remain stuck narrowly within them either.”


‘Doubt and uncertainty’

Tooze notes that Jean-Claude Juncker, when president of the European Commission, used the term during an Athens speech in 2016. He dealt with the fallout of the 2008-2012 financial crash and euro-crisis on Greece and linked it to more recent security threats from the Syrian war, refugee migration and Brexit. They not only coincided, but “feed each other and create a sense of doubt and uncertainty in the minds of our people”. Two years later, he argued that a more resilient EU had “slowly but surely turned the page” on that polycrisis.

Juncker was influenced by the French philosophical sociologist Edgar Morin who argued that the term polycrisis best expresses the challenges facing humanity after the modern era of industrial capitalism and its associated intellectual traditions of linear, unicausal analysis. There is a crisis of the future, he wrote, showing up in a loss of belief in progress, direction, possibility and value.

His work on complexity in the social and natural sciences was an immense and influential effort to overcome divisions of method between them and deserves wider Anglophone attention. So does that of the recently deceased Bruno Latour, another French theorist who brought social and natural analysis together in his environmental work.

Combining a number of these themes, a recent research initiative by the Cascade Institute defines a global polycrisis as “any combination of three or more interacting systemic risks with the potential to cause a cascading, runaway failure of Earth’s natural and social systems that irreversibly and catastrophically degrades humanity’s prospects. A systemic risk is a threat emerging within one natural, technological or social system with impacts extending beyond that system to endanger the functionality of one or more other systems.”

Alarming and dangerous

They conclude that a global polycrisis, should it occur, “will inherit the four core properties of systemic risks – extreme complexity, high nonlinearity, transboundary causality and deep uncertainty – while also exhibiting causal synchronisation among risks”.

These are alarming thoughts reflecting an increasingly alarming and dangerous world. They are worth airing in public debate because there is a widespread demand for better tools to think about and understand contemporary realities. Some of the ideas are highly abstract; but they suddenly become concrete when applied to accelerating events.

One of Tooze’s most noteworthy skills as a contemporary historian is to relate political choices to structural change, emphasising contingency and individual agency. Morin relates crisis to diagnosis while Juncker notes the word derives from the Greek verb krinein, meaning “to separate, decide and judge”. It originated in Greek medical practice to describe the turning point between life and death, having a fateful character as a harbinger of survival or disintegration.

During crises a great deal depends on individual agency, social actors and political leaders. Their decisions make a difference. Juncker had this remark by one of the EU’s founding spirits, Jean Monnet, in mind when he spoke in Athens: “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for these crises.”

That challenge is more comprehensively global now.