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We Have Always Been in “Polycrisis”— And Now We Know It!

Not many social terms have gained as much prominence as ” polycrisis” in the past few years. The term “polycrisis” has been used, misused, reused, and abused over the last two years. Having gained prominence against the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian War in Ukraine, polycrisis represents the multiple, intricate, oft-conflicting crises the world grapples with today.

In October 2022, Historian Adam Tooze wrote for the Financial Times: “We are in an era of ‘polycrisis’”. A little before that, in his newsletter Chartbook, Tooze explained: “A polycrisis is just a situation where you face multiple crises. It is a situation like that mapped in the risk matrix, where the whole is even more dangerous than the sum of the parts”.

A year later, The Times called “polycrisis” the “buzzword of 2023”.

a laboratory expert takes a covid-19 swab test | Mufid Majnun on Unsplash

However, it is not Adam Tooze who coined the term—and surprisingly, it has been in use for several decades in multiple forms. The 2022 Cascade Institute paper on polycrisis traces the term to the French philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin and co-author Anne Brigitte Kern’s 1999 book Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for a New Millennium. Morin and Kern thought of polycrisis as “interwoven and overlapping crises” impacting human society.

Drawing from Morin and Kern, a South African environmental theorist Mark Swilling defined polycrisis as “a nested set of globally interactive socio-economic, ecological and cultural-institutional crises that defy reduction to a single cause”. In 2016, the then president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, deployed the term to describe the eurozone-Brexit-climate-refugee crisis.

In 2022, Tooze popularized polycrisis to think of the condition the world is in. Tooze wrote:

Pandemic, drought, floods, mega storms and wildfires, threats of a third world war—how rapidly we have become inured to the list of shocks. So much so that, from time to time, it is worth standing back to consider the sheer strangeness of our situation.” Further, he adds: “At times one feels as if one is losing one’s sense of reality.

(Tooze, 2022)

For Tooze, the overlapping crises surrounding the pandemic, sovereign debt crisis, growing inflation, worldwide food crisis, war in Ukraine, and the climate emergency are all intertwined and overlapping crises, summed up as a polycrisis. To this, let’s add the recent and ongoing violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict. If one were to think of the world we inhabit, it is all the more evident that something is really off today. Perhaps all is not well with the world—or one would even say, like I do sometimes, the world has gone mad.

polycrisis climate change
young and old take a stand for climate change | Katie Rodriguez on Unsplash

The Cascade Institute paper notes: “What may appear to be separate crisis in different global systems in fact interact, exacerbate, and reshape one another to form a conjoined ‘polycrisis’ that must be understood and addressed as a whole”. “A global polycrisis”, it argues, “occurs when crisis in multiple global systems become entangled in ways the significantly degrade humanity’s prospects.

These interacting crises produce harms greater than the sum of those crises would produce in isolation, were their host systems not so deeply interconnected.” In short, every global crisis happens less and less in isolation.

In a research paper titled: ‘An Embarrassment of Changes: International Relations and the COVID-19 Pandemic’, Mathew Davis and Christopher Hobson have outlined several key features of what makes for a polycrisis. For them, polycrisis is an enmeshed set of separate crises happening simultaneously, with each interacting with the other (in both foreseeable and unexpected ways).

These crises have no clear boundaries and can interact to exacerbate and deepen crises. As a result of such intersections and interferences of crises, there is often a breakdown of shared meaning—which often creates “layered social problems”. Polycrisis as a collection of crises is greater than the sum of its parts. It causes a sense of confusion, enabling one to wonder what is wrong with the world.

daily labourer working in the street | Chitto Cancio on Unsplash

Polycrisis is the condition we are in. Increasingly, scholars and thinkers worldwide are appealing to the term to reflect on how interconnected these crises are regarding how they came to exist and how they could be mitigated. Either way, it tells us we are all in it and no one has a free pass.

However, if you were to think of the term “polycrisis” carefully, you may ask: Is this a new phenomenon of our times? Is it, as Niall Fergusson has argued, “just history happening”?  Or is it both? I have often found myself discomforted with the use of polycrisis as a phenomenon of our times–a condition of coupled-up crises unique to our times.

My sense is that polycrisis, as a general condition of how the world is structured, has always persisted, is persisting and will continue to persist through time. However, it is only now—an age mediated by virtual media—that we are aware of the polycrisis. I argue we have always lived through polycrisis, except that we are only now aware of it. Therefore, for me, polycrisis as a condition of social life has always persisted, and polycrisis as an awareness of this condition is nascent.

While the general condition points us to human complexity, it is only with awareness that one acknowledges and comes to appreciate it. Now, let’s take any historical time (for simplicity, say, a period of five years since 1945), and it is interesting to note that almost all of these historical times are mediated by a polycrisis-like situation.

an Indian sadhu sitting on the pedestle, when several men look on. | Tiago Rosado on Unsplash

Since the Second World War, communities have been facing turbulence and acting resilient every historical time. Poverty as a general condition of societies in Africa and Asia has continued to persist since. Authoritarian dictators have been stomping over humans from time to time. Systemic violence, in the form of wars, ethnic cleansing, xenophobia and terrorism, has been on the rise.

Inequality as a human constant still exists as it did through time. Humans have designed weapons that would wipe them off the face of the earth in seconds. The climate crisis has both widened and deepened. In their various forms, these conditions have—and continue to—exist(ed) through time. Therefore, for me, polycrisis is nothing new but “just history happening!”

One may then ask, what is new about polycrisis today? Societies must also internalise polycrisis as a general condition. And it is only now, an era mediated by virtual media, that societies are aware of polycrisis as a general condition of today’s world.

Despite Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens’ conceptualisations of “risk society”, predicated on the notions of global solidarities in the face of risks induced by modernisation, adequate awareness about the intricated nature of risks or crises did not exist.

Polycrisis helps make sense of the entangled nature of our livelihoods. It tells us we are not all as individualistic as we once thought. Today, one’s poverty is interlaced with another’s affluence. One’s suffering is adduced by another’s. One’s actions in part of Asia have adverse implications on another’s in Europe, and vice-versa.

We live in a complex world. This new complexity emanating from interconnectedness results from socio-political and economic integration spearheaded by globalisation and mediated by virtual spaces we share—through the smartphones and laptops we carry around.

We are a complex web of interconnected and interdependent beings. Polycrisis directly threatens the intricate nature of lives we lead today, often directly impinging on the normative sense of what a good life looks like. As individuals of the 21st century, we live in the information age.

Social media feeds not only keep us aware of what is happening around the world, but they also tell us that human lives are deeply intricate and interrelated.

entanglements as a representation | Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

Our problems do not just remain ours to deal with; their resolutions depend on other problems others face. That is why when there is an attack on Ukraine, we have an opinion; when there is violence on civilians in Gaza, we have another opinion; when world leaders meet at a climate summit, we have yet another opinion; and so on. In each of these instances, we feel.

We strongly feel for others—as if their lives depend on how we feel about them.

Looking through social media feeds is a kind of exposition to crisis after crisis, and we feel that there is no end to human suffering, misery, and violence. Therefore, Alastair Benn writes, “Modern technology creates the effect of confusion in our already over-stimulated, over-worked brains. It also has a secondary effect: interconnections between disparate events where none may exist seem suddenly plausible”.

As Benn writes, perhaps Tooze’s “sheer strangeness of our situation” lies not so much “in the events themselves as in the media through which we view and interpret them.” Virtual media perpetrates shared anxieties. These shared anxieties cause us to be aware of polycrisis.

Polycrisis makes us feel—and feel for one another—about things that we encounter through the virtual spaces one shares. It is this constant condition of knowing/feeling and having known/felt now which makes the polycrisis all the immanent, on our face, out to get us all.

Cover Photo by Diana khwaelid on Unsplash

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