What does the term polycrisis mean?

Uses of the term polycrisis presented in the previous two sections vary considerably but feature several recurring themes.

The interaction, not just simultaneity, of crises: Collins Dictionary recently added the term polycrisis with the definition: “The simultaneous occurrence of several catastrophic events.” Most authors, however, emphasize not just the simultaneity of crises, but the interactions between them. Polycrisis, in this view, is not a laundry list of concurrent problems; it is rather a complex entanglement of crises that must be understood in connection with one another. As Christopher Hobson puts it in his blog, “Polycrisis encourages not simply a recognition of a multiplication of crises, but the ways in which they interact.”

Emergent harms: Many definitions (e.g., Tooze 2022, Lawrence et al. 2022, WEF 2023) emphasize that the combined harms of intersecting crises are worse than the sum of the harms those crises would have in isolation from one another. The overall impacts of intersecting crises are emergent. Emergence is often defined by the adage “the whole is more than the sum of its parts,” but it may be more accurate to say that the whole is different from its parts, displaying novel qualities and behaviors that are not possessed by the parts. Constituent crises take different directions and have different impacts when they occur together than they would separately. The broader context of an ongoing energy transition, for example, affects the geopolitics of Russian and Chinese assertiveness on the world stage.

The absence of single causes and solutions: Contemporary crises arise from the interaction of multiple causes, and consequently resist simple solutions. In his Financial Times op-ed, Adam Tooze proposed that “What makes the crises of the past 15 years so disorienting is that it no longer seems plausible to point to a single cause, and, by implication, a single fix.” In past eras, such as the 1970s, it was possible to identify a single source of tensions, whether capitalism’s late stage or East-West geopolitical competition, and thus possible to “imagine a climactic crisis from which resolution might emerge. But that kind of Wagnerian scenario no longer seems plausible.” Critics (e.g., Subramanian 2022; see next section), however, dispute the novelty of this condition, noting that many past crises resulted from a multitude of intersecting causes that precluded simple resolutions.

An unprecedented situation: The debate over single causes and simple solutions relates to broader contention over the novelty of the world’s current problems. For many authors, the polycrisis neologism helps capture the unprecedented nature of today’s state of affairs. Such an unprecedented situation requires new language. But others counter that contemporary challenges are not unique in human history, and thus do not require a new label (see next section).

Global interconnectivity: Many propose that the polycrisis arises from the dense interconnectivity between different parts of the globe and different spheres of human activity—that is, that polycrisis is a consequence of globalization. The UNDP’s foresight report “Polycrisis and Long-Term Thinking”, for example, argues that globalization has produced an unprecedented number of existential and systemic risks (see section below) that intersect to threaten humanity’s future and defy conventional risk management strategies. Ian Goldin and Mike Mariathisan, in their book The Butterfly Defect, similarly argue that globalization is a double-edged sword. It has produced considerable improvements to quality of life around the globe while simultaneously generating systemic risks that “cannot be removed because [they are] endemic to globalization.” Systemic risk is thus “a process to be managed, not a problem to be solved” (p. xiii). And Duan Biggs and colleagues understand the 2007-9 global financial crisis to portend “an era of concatenating global crises” in which "Growing global connectivity increases the potential for crises to spread, synchronize, and interact in novel ways as social-ecological systems (SESs) around the world become increasingly connected” (p. 1). And

Our inability to grasp the mess we are in: Some authors like the term polycrisis because (for them) it captures the “challenge of change outpacing comprehension, reality exceeding imagination” (as Christopher Hobson puts it in a blog post), and our general inability to understand what is happening in the world today. Hobson argues that we do not grasp the scale of the transformations unfolding, in part because our ordering concepts no longer apply and “the breakdown of meaning is part of what is occurring.” In his blog, Tooze notes somewhat paradoxically that “we have every reason to think that we are at a dramatic threshold point, but also that our need to reach for a term as unspecific as polycrisis indicates our failing inability to grasp our situation with the confidence and conceptual clarity that we might once have hoped for.” Critics such as Samanth Subramanian, however, propose the opposite:

Arguably, we’ve never had more clarity about humanity’s threats and how to respond to them. We developed vaccines to the covid-19 pandemic on the fly, which wasn’t possible a century ago during the Spanish flu epidemic. Economic policy is far from perfect, but recession-fighting and safety nets have come a long way since the Great Depression. Climate change (and what must be done to fight it) is better understood today than ever. If anything, our chief crisis is a social one—a paralysis that fails to push solutions forward thoroughly in the face of knotty problems.

Towards theory: The six themes outlined above add content to the polycrisis concept, but many argue that more substance is required to justify the neologism. Subramanian lays out the challenge well: “The notion behind ‘polycrisis’ is that humanity’s problems—economic uncertainty and inequality, political instability, and especially the threat of climate change—need to be understood through their interactions with each other. And that’s not a bad frame. But is it a novel one? Does it help diagnose our problems better, let alone address them?”

He answers negatively. A positive response would require polycrisis to be more than a buzzword; the concept needs greater theorization if it is to guide productive inquiry and generate novel insights. As a first step in this direction, Davies and Hobson (p. 160) draw upon complex systems thinking to articulate eight key features of the polycrisis:

  • the simultaneity of multiple crises;
  • feedback loops between crises that create unexpected behaviors;
  • amplification (or acceleration) of one crisis by another;
  • a lack of clear boundaries between crises in time and space;
  • layering of different interest group concerns over crises;
  • the absence of common definitions of crises due to a broader breakdown of shared meaning;
  • cross-purposes in which efforts to remediate one crisis worsen another; and
  • emergent properties in which the harms of the polycrisis are greater than the sum of its parts.

These features notwithstanding, Davies and Hobson caution against premature attempts to force the polycrisis into existing frameworks and organizing concepts. Instead, they propose that we should "stay with the ambivalence and discomfort of the present moment" (p. 162).

In the paper “Global Polycrisis: The Causal Mechanisms of Crisis Entanglement”, the Cascade Institute provides further theorization of the polycrisis concept by developing a framework with which to analyze its constituent crisis interactions. The paper presents a distinctly systemic understanding of crisis as the harmful disequilibrium that occurs when one or more fast moving trigger events interacts with one or more slow moving systemic stresses to force a global system from its established equilibrium. The paper then outlines a “grammar” of crisis interactions across systems that includes common stresses, domino effects, and inter-systemic feedbacks. These contributions help translate polycrisis from a concept into an empirical research agenda.

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