Why are some criticizing the concept of polycrisis?

Much ink has been spilled debating whether the notion of polycrisis is an empty buzzword or a relevant concept that can provide new and important insights (Homer-Dixon et al. 2023). In the inaugural session of the 2023 World Economic Forum (WEF) summit, “De-Globalization or Re-Globalization?”, for example, Adam Tooze advocated polycrisis as an apt characterization of the state of the world, while Historian Niall Ferguson dismissed the term as an “illusion” and “mirage,” arguing that humanity’s present troubles are “just history happening.”

At their worst, such debates are merely academic squabbles over semantics, but the consequences aren’t trivial. As Christopher Hobson notes in his blog Imperfect Notes on an Imperfect World, “The language we use to frame and comprehend our world helps shape it.” He then quotes Didier Fassin and Axel Honneth: “The way people interpret crises—exaggerate, minimize, or deny them and cope with, protest against, or resolve them—gives shape to what these crises come to be, and in return, dialectically, the crises affect the fate of those involved.” The debate over polycrisis has raised several important and consequential issues.

Polycrisis is nothing new: The most prominent source of contention over polycrisis concerns the novelty, or historical uniqueness, of today’s global crises. In his op-ed “So We’re in a Polycrisis. Is that Even a Thing?”, Andreas Kluth states the issue well: “there’s no question that the world is in the throes of many interlocking crises. The question is whether that amounts to something qualitatively new, deserving its own neologism.” Kluth argues that there is nothing fundamentally new in our situation, and that instead of coining new terms we should get back to business as usual by focussing on individual crises separately from one another.

Several critics (e.g., Subramanian 2022) point out that there have been polycrises (or “cascading crises”) in the past where multiple crises intersected with devastating effect. Examples include: the 2008-9 global financial crisis, the shocks of the 1970s, the World Wars, the Great Famine in India, The Thirty Years War, the Native American genocide, and the bubonic plague. Ferguson (2021) discusses several episodes in history when pandemics, extreme weather, civil strife, and extremist ideologies interacted. Daniel Hoyer and his colleagues have developed a Crisis Database of 150 historical instances in which societies have faced multiple crises (a sub-project of the Seshat World Databank). In their article “Navigating the Polycrisis”, they find that past polycrises produced a range of outcomes, from societal collapse to progressive adaptation.

Polycrises may be not be new, but many argue that there are unprecedented aspects of the present polycrisis that distinguish it from those of history. In October 2022, for example, former US Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers said “I can remember previous moments of equal or even greater gravity for the world economy, but I cannot remember moments when there were as many separate aspects and as many cross-currents as there are right now” (quoted in: Derbyshire 2022).

The paper “Global Polycrisis: The Casual Mechanisms of Crisis Entanglement” (pp. 9-11) argues that there are at least two unprecedented features of the present global polycrisis. First, debates about “peak globalization” and “deglobalization” notwithstanding, circum-global interconnectivity has reached a never-before-seen density that creates self-reinforcing feedback loops, sensitive interdependencies, and rapid contagions. Second, humanity has never before pushed the planet’s physical and ecological systems so far from equilibrium, constituting today the main driving force of change in the Earth system. Ferguson, in his book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe, also recognizes that increasingly complex societies generate increasingly complex—and cascading—crises but he maintains nonetheless that the present situation represents nothing fundamentally new in human history.

The WEF’s 2023 Global Risk Report (p. 6) offers an apt middle-ground in the debate by proposing that:

the world is facing a set of risks that feel both wholly new and eerily familiar. We have seen a return of “older” risks – inflation, cost-of-living crises, trade wars, capital outflows from emerging markets, widespread social unrest, geopolitical confrontation and the spectre of nuclear warfare – which few of this generation’s business leaders and public policy-makers have experienced. These are being amplified by comparatively new developments in the global risks landscape, including unsustainable levels of debt, a new era of low growth, low global investment and de-globalization, a decline in human development after decades of progress, rapid and unconstrained development of dual-use (civilian and military) technologies, and the growing pressure of climate change impacts and ambitions in an ever shrinking window for transition to a 1.5°C world. Together, these are converging to shape a unique, uncertain and turbulent decade to come.

Even if contemporary crises are not new or unique, the term polycrisis may still have considerable value. In the post “The Good News Hidden Inside Today’s Polycrisis”, Zurich Insurance Group (a collaborator on the WEF’s Global Risk Reports) proposed that “the growing use of the term polycrisis is in itself encouraging. It demonstrates that, although the problems that form the current polycrisis are neither new nor surprising, our perception of them is changing. A need for a new word to label and articulate a problem implies that a new kind of solution will also be required.”

Polycrisis is the norm in the global south: A related critique is that, with polycrisis, Western commentators are just now waking up to a crisis-prone condition that has long been normal for societies in the Global South. “For an Afghan, Yemeni or Haitian child aged 10 or so, the world has always been a continuum of so-called polycrisis” (Sial 2022). In his op-ed “Our ‘Permacrisis’ of ‘Polycrisis’”, for example, Mosharraf Zaidi points out that Pakistan has for decades suffered from some of the world’s worst poverty, gender inequality, insecurity of life and property, risk of mass killing, and threat of sovereign default, with no improvements in sight. Zaidi ultimately blames the inaction and indifference of Pakistani elites for the country’s polycrisis. Accounts of persistent polycrisis in the Global South could just as plausibly blame the legacies of imperialism, foreign interventions, and the structural inequalities of the global economy.

Polycrisis is nothing new for many countries and regions of the world. The increased concern about a global polycrisis, however, may reflect the growing inability of richer parts of the globe to insulate themselves from such disasters as extreme weather, pandemics, economic stagnation, and violent conflict—disasters that might earlier have been dismissed as problems of the “developing” world rather than “developed” countries. Russia’s war on Ukraine has upended assumptions that international war has declined, that great power war is obsolete, and that the use of nuclear weapons is taboo. The rise of authoritarian populism has raised the spectre of insurrection and civil war in poor and rich countries alike. Richer segments of humanity can no longer ignore intersecting crises, nor shield themselves against the effects. In this sense polycrisis has become truly global (though persistently uneven).

The term polycrisis masks the real underlying problem: For proponents like Adam Tooze, the polycrisis has no single underlying source. For some critics, however the multiple crises facing humanity today do have a single underlying cause. In the blog post “Beating around the Bush”, development critic Güney Işikara argues that “Obscure jargon of ‘overlapping emergencies’ and ‘polycrisis’ are brought up [by the powerful] to describe the complexity of the situation, and they serve, with or without intention, to conceal the culprit, namely the totality of capitalist relations.” Işikara continues to argue that:

Problems such as ecological breakdown, militarization, inadequate and unjust responses to an ongoing pandemic, the rise of openly racist and anti-immigrant politics, which appear to be independent, are integral parts of the capitalist totality with its peculiar property, production and exchange relations, structural imperatives and limitations, the resulting exploitative and oppressive dynamics along with their conflictual subjectivities.

Capitalism is at the root of the world’s overlapping crises, and the notion of polycrisis provides a “depoliticizing and neutralizing narrative” in which “capitalism at best looms as an imperceptible, shadowy figure in the background, not worth problematizing, especially as the bells are constantly tolling, heralding crisis after crisis” (Işikara 2022).

The abstract language of systems thinking, in this critique, obscures the operations of power that are really at the heart of contemporary crises. It occludes the agency and interests at play. In her blog post “Whose Polycrisis?”, Farwa Sial argues that “Pandemics, climate breakdown, wars and global deflationary pressures are not mere externalities of the capitalist system but intrinsic to its operations… That these events converge in time is a political outcome, subject to planetary limits, not abstract systemisation, as the Polycrisis seems to imply.”

For proponents of the polycrisis concept (e.g., Ville Lähde), this critique is implausibly reductionistic given the multiple causes operating. Nevertheless, one polycrisis analyst—Zack Walsh—warns that “Progressive uses of the polycrisis concept must include an understanding of its drivers and the unjust power relations constituting them, lest the term’s abstraction obfuscate and reinforce those structures of power.”

Polycrisis may excuse inaction because it’s all just too complex: Some, such as International Relations scholar Dan Drezner, worry that the global systemic complexities highlighted by the polycrisis concept will fuel a sense of helplessness and futility, leading people to reject “preventive action due to a fatalistic belief that it is simply too late.” The overwhelming nature of the contemporary polycrisis offers political leaders, international institutions, and the private sector a handy excuse to resist major changes to their practices and carry on with business as usual. As “poly-perpetrators”, Farwa Sial argues that the Bretton Woods Institutions endorse the polycrisis concept because its emphasis on complex and uncontrollable nature of our problems allows these agencies to continue their “ongoing technocratic approach to poverty” which involves a “gospel of ad-hoc solutionism to political problems, and the linear mantra of debt-ridden liquidity for vulnerable countries.”

Christopher Hobson, however, warns of the opposite problem—of over-reaction rather than inaction. For him, “arguably one of the greatest dangers with the frame of polycrisis” is that it “risks pushing us towards the realm of emergency politics, of necessity, of games in which the stakes are too high. How can we recognize the very real and significant problems we collectively must deal with, without ending up in a world of emergency decrees and ‘unavoidable decisions’?”

Are we in a global polycrisis, at risk of a global polycrisis, or neither? In a final area of ambiguity and disagreement, authors and critics disagree over the immediacy of global polycrisis. The Post-Carbon Institute asserts that there is “abundant evidence that humanity is already in the throes of a polycrisis” (p. 2). The Cascade Institute paper “Global Polycrisis: The Causal Mechanisms of Crisis Entanglement” argues that we world is indeed in the midst of a polycrisis, and the situation is worsening.

Constituent crises include: the lingering health, social, and economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic; stagflation (a persistent combination of inflation and low growth); volatility in global food and energy markets; geopolitical conflict, especially between assertive authoritarian regimes (including China and Russia) and the democratic West, which is leading to a partial decoupling of American and Chinese economies; political instability and civil unrest in countries both rich and poor arising from economic insecurity, ideological extremism, political polarization, and declining institutional legitimacy; and increasingly frequent and devastating weather events generated by climate heating.

The Omega Resilience Funding Network and others also argue that we are in the midst of a global polycrisis. The World Economic Forum is more hesitant. It titled its press release for the 2023 Global Risks ReportWe are on the Brink of a ‘Polycrisis’—How Worried Should we be?” The Report itself (p. 7) considers polycrisis in terms of “mid-term futures” in which present-day risks “may collectively evolve into a ‘polycrisis’ centred around natural resource shortages by 2030.”

Others argue that we are neither in, nor at risk of, a global polycrisis. In the blog post “Against ‘Polycrisis’”, economics commentator Noah Smith argues that the notion of polycrisis over-estimates the interconnectedness of today’s global problems, He proposes that the world economy has a series of buffer mechanisms that temper crisis impacts and help resolve multiple problems. While many forces are pushing the world towards crisis, many others push in the opposite direction. China’s economic slowdown, for example has dampened the energy price shock of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Those shocks are nonetheless speeding the transition toward green energy sources. Russia’s failed invasion should deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and could help dampen Sino-American tensions. “In other words, sometimes instead of a polycrisis we get a polysolution.”

Scroll to Top