Sometimes words explode. It is a safe bet that, before 2022, you had never even heard the term ‘polycrisis’. Now, there is a very good chance you have run into it; and, if you are engaged in environmental, economic or security issues, you most likely have – you might even have become frustrated with it. First virtually nobody was using polycrisis talk, and suddenly everyone seems to be.
But, as often happens, people seem to mean quite different things with the word. So, what does ‘polycrisis’ mean? The term reverberated at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Sharm El-Sheikh in November 2022, and in Davos the following January, as The New York Times noted. In the Financial Times, Jonathan Derbyshire chose it for his 2022 ‘Year in a Word’ piece, defining ‘polycrisis’ as a collective term for interlocking and simultaneous crises. Then 2023 opened with the World Economic Forum adopting this buzzword for its Global Risks Report, highlighting how ‘[c]oncurrent shocks, deeply interconnected risks and eroding resilience are giving rise to the risk of polycrises’. The report explores the interrelation of geopolitical, environmental and sociopolitical risks. The World Economic Forum used the term to advertise the report, with headlines like ‘We’re on the Brink of a “Polycrisis” – How Worried Should We Be?’ or ‘Welcome to the Age of the Polycrisis’.
A key champion of the word has been the British historian Adam Tooze, professor at Columbia University in New York, whose efforts to proselytise its fruitfulness and to define it are undoubtedly an important reason for this explosion of usage. Indeed, in October 2022, Tooze launched his monthly Financial Times column with the heading ‘Welcome to the World of Polycrisis’:
A problem becomes a crisis when it challenges our ability to cope and thus threatens our identity. In the polycrisis the shocks are disparate, but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts. At times one feels as if one is losing one’s sense of reality.
As Tooze has repeatedly noted, ‘polycrisis’ did not drop out of the blue. In the discussion paper ‘What Is a Global Polycrisis?’ (2022) from the Cascade Institute, Scott Janzwood and Thomas Homer-Dixon locate its origins in the book Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for the New Millennium (1999) by Edgar Morin and Anne Brigitte Kern. They trace its history of use in studies of sustainable transition and in studies of the European Union. A key moment often pointed out is the 2018 speech by the former president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, but he had already made an attempt at a definition in an earlier speech in 2016, when he explained how various security threats not only coincide with but also feed each other, ‘creating a sense of doubt and uncertainty in the minds of our people’.
The term has emerged from relative obscurity to wild popularity, but it is crucial to note that the meanings of the word diverge. There is ‘a’ polycrisis and ‘the’ polycrisis. That is, on the one hand, people are trying to find a clear working definition of a polycrisis, to define its key characteristics, in order to forge a research concept with which to examine a diverse range of concatenations of events. With this meaning of the word in mind, there can be multiple polycrises: for example, the combination of the financial and the food-system crises around 2008-09, or the convergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, a hunger crisis and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in more recent years.
On the other hand, ‘polycrisis’ is understood not as a common noun but as a proper noun, denoting this particular stage of world history. There is only one polycrisis: this historical epoch, when humanity has created a world interconnected and interdependent to an unprecedented degree, combining vast material wealth with radical inequality and teetering on the threshold of ecological collapse. It is a truly novel phase of history, different from anything in the track record of our species.
This diversity of meanings has prompted some people to question the usefulness of the word. Some have doubted whether it is even a proper concept or more a fancy way of saying that a lot of things are going on. In his article for Vox online earlier this year, the US political journalist Daniel Drezner notes how, to some, it sounds like ‘a confusing and redundant neologism’ and quotes the historian Niall Ferguson’s quip at Davos that it is ‘just history happening’. The background assumption seems to be that, in order for a word to be worthy, its meaning must be clear and distinct. But this misses a crucial thing about how words work. They are always wanton, impossible to rein in. In order to elucidate this, let us first take a brief detour through wider conceptual history.
For heuristic purposes, let us here distinguish words and concepts. The word ‘nature’ is a classic example. As Raymond Williams noted in his essay ‘Ideas of Nature’ (1980), there are more or less distinct concepts of nature in Western intellectual traditions beyond the terminological unity: nature as the inner essence of a being, nature as the ordered cosmos, nature as the nonhuman world – and, later, the terrestrial world including humans.
However, there are common connotations between these meanings (eg, totality, originality, unity, essentiality). These common threads facilitate moving from one conceptual realm to another, to engage in struggles of definition. Thus, for example, ideas about morality and sexuality – about the ‘inner nature’ of humans – have been legitimised by referencing to the ‘outer’ nonhuman nature or the claimed normative order of the cosmos. In modern times, ‘freedom’ is a prime example of a word with a diverse and contested conceptual landscape. So, sometimes struggles of definition are waged around old words.
Words are wanton: no conceptualisation is immune to cooptation for radically different uses
At other times, new words become foci of struggle. In the UN report Our Common Future (1987), the word ‘sustainability’ was conceptualised as referring to the ecological underpinnings of human development: future human welfare can be safeguarded only by taking care of the ecological systems that are the foundation of welfare. But the meanings diverged quickly, and sustainability was reconceptualised around three dimensions or ‘pillars’ – economic, social and environmental – sometimes with the addition of a fourth one: say, cultural.
The key question is whether the aim should be a balance of these dimensions, or should the correct image resemble a wedding cake, with ecological sustainability forming the foundation. An added complication is that, originally, the notion of pillars of sustainability emerged because civil society movements from developing countries wanted to highlight the necessity of securing welfare for the millions of people who lack it. But, recently, the notion of balance between the dimensions has been used to criticise environmental policies. Economic growth is just as important as avoiding disastrous climate change or widespread ecosystem degradation, for example.
Words are wanton, as I said. However much care is taken to define them, no conceptualisation is immune to cooptation for radically different uses. Only by understanding these shifts and tensions can we make sense of the discussions around us and take part in them in a meaningful way. We have to understand how the meanings move, and to which uses words are put.
With ‘polycrisis’, we are again in a situation of conceptual struggle. A conceptual divergence into ‘a’ polycrisis and ‘the’ polycrisis has taken place, and the word is being defined for different kinds of uses. There is no shared social sphere within which a common conceptual framing can be agreed upon – this would be possible among a limited scientific community, but not as a word explodes into the public realm. A good recent example of this is how the word ‘Anthropocene’, a relatively obscure stratigraphical term, burst on to the scene and gained a menagerie of meanings as it was being employed by environmental researchers, artists, humanists, journalists etc. The stratigraphers continue their conceptually restricted discussion and are frustrated at the unruly discussion elsewhere.
But with ‘polycrisis’, even locally shared conceptualisations seem to be lacking at this stage, which inevitably results in a lot of talking past each other. Meaningful discussion – and meaningful disagreements – about the word is hard without such shared meanings. I have approached this with the heuristic triad word-concept-conception. The word may be common to all, but the meanings given to it, the concepts, form more or less distinct realms. Within a shared conceptual realm, ferocious debates about the substance of the matter, the conceptions, can still take place – as any researcher knows. But people are still basically talking about the same thing. If the conceptual realms in use differ, meaningful discussion and disagreement becomes harder or even impossible. People are using different tools for different uses but debating as if they are using the same ones.
If we understand the polycrisis as a description of our specific era with its existential problems, we can agree and disagree about the details. We can debate about the possibility to ‘decouple’ economic growth from environmental impact, about the tension between ‘green growth’ and a transformative change of societies. We can argue about the potential to predict and to plan for future changes. Overall, the discussion is about this stage in history, about us and those coming after us, about the situation we have inherited.
This, clearly, is a proper noun. There is nothing ‘just’ about it, in any sense of the word
It is a whole other game to see a polycrisis as a technical concept with which to analyse and understand more specific concatenations of events, some of them with significant environmental dimensions, others with none. This is what Ferguson was no doubt talking about in his ‘just history happening’ snub – whether we need a new concept to understand complex situations in history. Clearly, many parts of the world have seen simultaneous, intertwining and mutually reinforcing crises before – the First World War has been invoked in these debates. As Drezner notes in his Vox article, the current combination of war, pandemic and political upheaval is scarcely unique:
The First World War devastated Europe. The war also helped to facilitate the spread of the influenza pandemic through troop movements and information censorship. The costs of both the war and the pandemic badly weakened the postwar order, leading to spikes in hyperinflation, illiberal ideologies, and democracies that turned inward. All of that transpired during the start of the Roaring ’20s; the world turned much darker a decade later.
Or why stop there? Why not look at 1848, ‘the turning point that did not turn’, to paraphrase the historian A J P Taylor, a unique flashpoint of history if there ever was? Industrialisation and the plight of the artisanal classes, the potato blight, the decades of Metternichian repression, the rise of nationalism and a host of other ideas, and a legion of other causes formed a complex European-wide web of tension that exploded into years of revolutions, revolts and repression.
If one uses polycrisis as a generic research concept, applicable from national to regional and global scales and across wildly different timescales, it is indeed a valid question to ask whether it grasps anything new, or whether it adds anything substantial to the toolkit. This is a practical question, unanswerable without experience.
But to claim that ‘the’ polycrisis, our current turning point in history (and one that will turn inevitably, some way or the other), is ‘just history happening’, would be missing the point. The CO2 levels in the atmosphere are higher than ever in human history, global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass, wild mammals make up only around 4 per cent of mammals, and a new mass extinction is already in the works. We are in effect living on a different planet than all the previous human generations – and people around the world are increasingly inhabiting very different planets from each other. Some of them may become uninhabitable pretty soon. The definition in the Cascade Institute’s working paper puts it like this: ‘a cascading, runaway failure of Earth’s natural and social systems that irreversibly and catastrophically degrades humanity’s prospects.’ This, clearly, is a proper noun. There is nothing ‘just’ about it, in any sense of the word.
Any discussion that fails to take this divergence of meanings into account will be confused. We can debate fruitfully about conceptions only if we share the conceptual realm. Otherwise, we are blinded by the surface similarity of words. (Often this is intentional: jumping from one conceptual realm to the next is an old rhetoric trick – like making claims about human nature based on sweeping observations of the natural world at large.) As I stated, the viability of ‘a’ polycrisis as a research concept is an empirical question. But how about the value of ‘the’ polycrisis as the description of our historical situation?
What key features does the polycrisis, our specific historical situation, have? Some features are often noted, and they speak to the origins of the term in Morin and Kern, and in complexity studies: the increasing complexity, interrelatedness and the lack of ‘buffering’ between eco-social systems has resulted in increasing vulnerability to cascades of changes, domino effects across ecological, social, political and economic systems. Thus, several system-level crises (eg, food systems, energy systems, international politics, logistics) can meet and amplify each other. In essence, there is nothing absolutely novel here, as sudden regime shifts are part and parcel of how complex systems behave. However, the global context has altered, and ‘a global production ecosystem’ has emerged, linking the localities of the world much tighter than ever before. The results of this could be clearly seen with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another way to approach this is to note how the complexifying world situation challenges our inherited ways of causal thinking. This idea has been forcefully put forward by Tooze, and Christopher Hobson stated it thus:
This points us to another way of thinking about polycrisis, viewing it as an accumulation of unresolved crises, where stark outcomes have been fudged, clear resolutions denied. Moreover, temporary fixes might have provisionally forestalled reckoning, but increased the magnitude of the remaining challenges.
Tooze notes how the polycrisis questions the old notions of ‘fundamental’ political struggles, of underlying tensions beneath the plethora of surface problems. He has, in turn, been criticised for evading the root causes of contemporary problems. A post by the economist Baki Güney Işıkara in the Developing Economics blog argues that the notion of polycrisis carries a notable reluctance to acknowledge capitalism as the underlying force behind overlapping emergencies: ‘The analysis and implications thereof are confined to the level of appearances, and, therefore, become incapable of grasping the web of contradictions that give rise to them.’
There is no root cause to the totality of environmental problems, nor can there be a unified solution
However, if we examine the diversity of environmental problems, such causal reduction has always been suspect. Environmental problems are legion, radically divergent in their geographical and temporal scale, very different in their ecological dynamics. Some of them, like climate change, are truly global and can be tracked, unproblematically, to the history of industrialisation and the global spread of capitalism. But many forms of pollution are down to specific chemical compounds, some of which are novel (eg, ozone depletion), others common ones that have caused serious problems in precapitalist societies (eg, lead emissions). Biodiversity degradation is linked to a host of phenomena, some to do with overconsumption and wealth, others with poverty and insecurity. Trying to force this diversity into one mould does violence to it.
The fact that human societies across history have met very different environmental problems is crucial for understanding how to (and how not to) live with nonhuman nature. This does not diminish the force of the argument that the world after the fossil-fuel revolution and the spread of global capitalism, ‘the Great Acceleration’, has pushed ecological systems around the globe to the brink and created highly unequal patterns of exchange. But there is no root cause to the totality of environmental problems, nor can there be a unified solution.
We have always required a diverse toolkit to understand this, and the era of polycrisis highlights that we take this idea even more seriously. One can quite easily envision a development where a successful energy transformation would take place but, leaning heavily on the use of biomass and carbon capture, it would exacerbate biodiversity decline. Failure to combat poverty, hunger and inequality in many poorer parts of the globe would, in the end, make sustainable food systems or preservation of ecosystems impossible, but powering the required change with fossil fuels would be detrimental.
Living in the polycrisis does not invalidate criticism of our current dominant sociopolitical systems. But the fact that we are living among myriad trajectories of change, already in the midst of ruin, requires humility from dreams of social transformation. There is no promised land, whereupon arriving we can lay aside all our troubles. Even in the best of possible worlds, we will have to learn to live with some of our troubles, our historical inheritance.
We also face radically different temporal scales, more than ever in the history of human civilisations. Mitigating and adapting to climate change is not only a question of halting global heating. That is of course necessary, and the point where the heating stops determines whether societies and ecosystems around the world reach dangerous or disastrous zones. That is a question on a decadal scale. But if high CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere endure for a long time, huge changes are in store, on a millennial scale. This is why a long period of negative emissions will be necessary in order to reach a safer climatic zone: action on a centennial scale.
The ‘the’ in polycrisis is crucial, because our historical condition is truly unique
More immediately, the polycrisis requires us to take seriously the coexistence of quick (pandemic, war) and slow (climate change, biodiversity decline) crises. We have to inhabit these temporalities at the same time. It is hard to exist and to act on multiple timescales at the same time, to truly recognise the multiplicity of our troubles, but this is the key challenge of the polycrisis. Focusing on the acute crises and waiting for the normal times to return, in order to handle the creeping crises, is simply a recipe for disaster. To quote Laurie Leybourn of the think-tank IPPR speaking to The Guardian in February: ‘We absolutely can drive towards a more sustainable, more equitable world. But our ability to navigate through the shocks while staying focused on steering out the storm is key.’
The ‘the’ in polycrisis is crucial, because our historical condition is truly unique. Our ability to learn from history is negligible, because such a concatenation of social, political, economic and ecological factors has never taken place. Extraction and consumption of natural resources is still on the rise, while the ecological systems that facilitate this are eroding. The old linear models of development are questioned on a deep material level. But changing the current trajectories of extraction and consumption risks degrading societal cohesion or creating new conflicts – as, for example, when old fossil-fuel powerhouses lose their dominant position or when cutting consumption exacerbates inequalities, both within and between nations.
The ‘poly’ in polycrisis is crucial, too. We are not facing merely a host of disparate problems but a radical challenge to the very network of systems that maintain the ‘metabolism’ of existing societies. Holding climate change away from the truly disastrous realm requires transformation of key systems: energy, traffic and transport, housing and heating, food, industry. This requires social coordination on an unprecedented scale – lest these changes obstruct each other by competing over the same limited resources. But these transformations must be made in a way that does not undermine other vital ecological functions. The ecological transition can succeed on the climate front and fail fatally on others.
But this is not merely a technical issue: avoiding fatal conflicts and spiralling inequality requires new political coalitions. In the long run, navigating through the polycrisis benefits all, but in the short run the benefits and costs will spread unevenly. There is no avoiding politics. In the era of the polycrisis, environmental politics has to be deeply interwoven with the questions of justice, equality, security and power.