Where did the term polycrisis come from?

The concept of polycrisis is not new. Complexity theorists Edgar Morin and Anne Brigitte Kern first used the term polycrisis in their 1999 book, Homeland Earth, to argue that the world faces “no single vital problem, but many vital problems, and it is this complex intersolidarity of problems, antagonisms, crises, uncontrolled processes, and the general crisis of the planet that constitutes the number one vital problem" (p. 74). South African sociologist and sustainable transitions theorist Mark Swilling then adopted the term to capture “a nested set of globally interactive socio-economic, ecological and cultural-institutional crises that defy reduction to a single cause” (2013, p. 98). Climate change, rising inequality, and the threat of financial crises interact in complex ways that multiply their overall impact (Swilling 2013, 2019).

In the policy world, then-President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker used the term in a 2018 speech to refer to Europe’s conjoined migration, financial, and Brexit crises, asserting “we have slowly but surely turned the page from this so-called ‘polycrisis’”. A special issue of the Journal of European Public Policy titled “The European Union beyond the Polycrisis? Integration and Politicization in an Age of Shifting Cleavages” interrogated Juncker’s claim in greater detail.

Around this time in the philanthropic community, the Omega Resilience Funders Network started framing its work in the terms of the global polycrisis, concerned that “Dozens of environmental, social, technological, and economic stressors are interacting with increasing velocity. Their combined impact is causing unpredictable future shocks of greater intensity.” Then in August 2022, the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation brought together the emerging polycrisis epistemic community for the conference “Navigating the Polycrisis” in Korsør, Denmark.

Now, several scholars use the term polycrisis to capture the complex interactions between the Covid-19 pandemic and its fallout, Russia’s war on Ukraine, and climate change, amongst other issues. In his 2021 book Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy, Columbia University Historian Adam Tooze noted that “Polycrisis neatly captures the coincidence of different crises but it doesn’t tell us much about how they interact” (2021, p. 6). To explore the issue, he turned to Chinese Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission Secretary-General Chen Yixin’s effort to explain President Xi Jinping’s approach to interacting risks. In a subsequent op-ed in the Financial Times titled “Welcome to the World of the Polycrisis”, Tooze proposed that “In the polycrisis the shocks are disparate, but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts.” He has detailed the key crisis interactions that make up the polycrisis and continues to comment on the issue in his Substack blog Chartbook.

In parallel to Tooze, the Cascade Institute launched a research program on the global polycrisis. Its 2022 discussion paper “What is a Global Polycrisis? And How is it Different from a Systemic Risk?” provides a clear definition of a global polycrisis that is often quoted in polycrisis commentary:

A global polycrisis occurs when crises in multiple global systems become causally entangled in ways that significantly degrade humanity’s prospects. These interacting crises produce harms greater than the sum of those the crises would produce in isolation, were their host systems not so deeply interconnected.

The Cascade Institute also issued “A Call for an International Research Program on the Risk of a Global Polycrisis,” supported by The New York Times op-ed “What Happens when a Cascade of Crises Collide?” These pieces argue that global crises are accelerating, amplifying, and increasingly synchronizing with one another in ways we do not understand but must urgently investigate if we are to effectively address the world’s intersecting problems. And in late 2022, Phenomenal World launched its newsletter The Polycrisis, edited by Kate Mackenzie and Tim Sahey, to explore “intersecting crises with a particular emphasis on the political economy of climate change and global North/South dynamics.”

The polycrisis term, however, truly exploded into public discourse when it became the main buzzword (Serhan 2023) of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos in January 2023. The WEF’s 2023 Global Risks Report was the first of the organization’s annual reports to use the term polycrisis, proposing that “Concurrent shocks, deeply interconnected risks and eroding resilience are giving rise to the risk of polycrises – where disparate crises interact such that the overall impact far exceeds the sum of each part” (p. 9). The Report uses the term polycrisis to refer specifically to potential shortages of natural resources including food, water, metals and minerals. The WEF meeting at Davos triggered a flurry of interest in the polycrisis neologism that included important critiques (see "Why are some criticizing the concept of polycrisis?").

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