Polycrisis is not the only neologism used to characterize the intersecting global crises of the present. Similar terms have also gained prominence:
Systemic Risk: perhaps the concept most closely related to polycrisis is systemic risk, which has gained increasing currency over the last two decades. The most commonly cited definition comes from the banking sector, where George G. Kaufman and Kenneth E. Scott (2003, p. 371) characterize systemic risk as “the risk or probability of breakdowns in an entire system, as opposed to breakdowns in individual parts of components, [as] evidenced by co-movements (correlations) among most or all parts.” Conventional understandings of risk focus on the likelihood and harms of discrete events, such as a car accident, fire, terrorist attack, or bankruptcy. Systemic risk concerns the possibility that a failure in one part of a system will trigger a series of events throughout the system that disable it. As systemic risk expert Ortwin Renn (2016, p. 29) asserts, “it is the totality of the threat, the probability that the entire system can collapse, that distinguishes systemic risk from other types of risk.” In contrast to conventional notions of risk, systemic risks are interconnected and thus hard to isolate; they often involve unpredictable “fat-tail” events that buck previous trends, lack precedent, and defy quantification; and they feature complex, multivariate, and non-linear forms of causation.
The Cascade Institute’s technical paper “What is a Global Polycrisis? And How is it Different from a Systemic Risk?” provides a more detailed comparison of the two concepts. Where systemic risk involves the potential for harms, polycrisis concerns the realization of these potentials into actual chains of events in the world. Where systemic risks may spill from a system of origin into adjacent systems, polycrisis, by definition, involves cascading effects among multiple systems. And where the systemic risk literature highlights the complexity of systemic risks, polycrisis analysis focuses on the complexity of the systems that generates risk and crises.
Perfect Storm: Leaders, commentators, and policymakers often refer to the simultaneity of global crises as a “perfect storm”. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, for example, declared at the 2023 WEF meeting that “Our world is plagued by a perfect storm on a number of fronts” including economic malaise, the pandemic, geopolitical conflict, and climate change. Others (e.g., Homer-Dixon and Rockström 2022) fear that the metaphor suggests the simultaneity is just a coincidence—pure bad luck—in ways that obscure the causal connections between crises that help explain their co-occurrence. Historian Niall Ferguson notes that, at a superficial level, it’s “no more than a very nasty coincidence that the latest wave of the pandemic should happen at the same time as so many extreme weather events and a wave of social and political unrest. On closer inspection, however, we can see that there are connections between these disasters – and that they are in fact parts of interlocking trends.”
Permacrisis: The term permacrisis was one of Collins Dictionary’s 2022 words of the year, defined as “an extended period of instability and insecurity.” The Dictionary chose the term to highlight the “ongoing crises the UK and the world have faced and continue to face, including political instability, the war in Ukraine, climate change, and the cost-of-living crisis.” If a crisis constitutes an acute break from normalcy, then the term permacrisis is somewhat oxymoronic. Nonetheless, it captures the ongoing stream of problems afflicting many parts of the world, what Mosharraf Zaidi refers to in Pakistan as “Our ‘Permacrisis’ of ‘Polycrisis’”.
Megathreats: Columbia University Professor and economic commentator Nouriel Roubini defines megathreats as “severe problems that could cause vast damage and misery and cannot be solved quickly or easily (p. 4). He argues that we “are facing [ten] megathreats unlike anything we have faced before… [and] they overlap and reinforce one another” (p.5). They are:
Each of these megathreats, Roubini writes, “hampers our ability to address the others. A single threat sounds distressing. Ten megathreats happening at once is far, far worse” (p. 6).
Meta-crisis: Many argue that the socio-cultural, political, and economic structures of our societies have failed and are no longer viable. For some, these failings are manifestations of an overarching ‘meta-crisis’ of a socio-cultural and even spiritual nature: our inability to understand our current situation and our consequent inability to transform it. As Jonathan Rowson suggests, that meta-crisis manifests in the absence of a common ‘we’ identity, the lack of a shared vision, widespread disenchantment, and a dearth of public sense-making and dialogue. “There is a broader crisis of civilisational purpose that appears to necessitate political and economic transformation, and there are deeper socio-emotional, educational, epistemic and spiritual features of our predicament that manifest as many flavours of meta-crisis.” The Centre for Humane Technology argues, additionally, that technology compounds the meta-crisis: “Technology that makes us more distracted, divided, and confused reduces our ability to react wisely. And technology that gives us god-like powers increases the need to act wisely.”