Health and Healthcare Systems

This is why 'polycrisis' is a useful way of looking at the world right now

A view of Earth from space.

The risk of polycrises are growing. Image: Unsplash/NASA

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
HyoJin Park
Video Producer, World Economic Forum
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  • You’re not alone if it seems there are multiple challenges affecting the world simultaneously - it can be summed up by the word ‘polycrisis’.
  • First coined in the 1970s, the word has been popularized by the historian Adam Tooze to describe the coming together of multiple crises.
  • Here, Tooze explains what the concept is about and how it can actually help to name it.

“If you've been feeling confused and as though everything is impacting on you all at the same time, this is not a personal, private experience,” says historian Adam Tooze. “This is actually a collective experience.”

And that experience has a name - ‘polycrisis’. It describes the interplay between the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the energy, cost-of-living and climate crises.

The word cropped up throughout panel discussions at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos. Experts evaluating the short- and long-term challenges facing the planet for the Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023, found the risk of polycrises is growing - “where disparate crises interact such that the overall impact far exceeds the sum of each part”.

A graphic showing the global risks landscape on an interconnections map.
The interconnected risks landscape heightens the likelihood of polycrises. Image: Global Risks Report.

Tooze, Professor of History at the University of Columbia in New York, was in Davos and explained where the word originated from and why it might be useful to use it right now.

The following is an edited transcript of his interview for Radio Davos.

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Where did the term polycrisis come from and what does it mean?

Adam Tooze: It's an idea that was launched by a French theorist of complexity called Edgar Morin, and then it was picked up by Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, in 2016, to describe the experience of trying to govern Europe when you had to deal with the Greek debt crisis, Putin's first aggression against Ukraine and the rumblings of Brexit in the background, and the refugee crisis in Syria spilling over into Europe.

What he was trying to get at, and why I think the term is still useful, is this experience of not a single crisis with a single clearly defined logic. The financial crisis [for example] was about mortgage-backed securities. But this coming together at a single moment of things which, on the face of it, don't have anything to do with each other, but seem to pile onto each other to create a situation in the minds of policymakers, business people, families, individuals.

The COVID crisis, for instance, is overwhelming and leaves us unable to cope, questioning our identity and finding it very difficult to decide what the ground is that we stand on because it's being destabilized from so many different directions at once.

When did the current polycrisis begin?

Adam Tooze: I think you could make a good case that really the unfolding of this current moment starts in 2008, which is simultaneously not just the financial crisis, which we all remember, but also Putin's first aggression against Georgia. It is also the breakdown of the WTO in the Doha Round, it is setting the stage for the disappointment of the Copenhagen climate talks. And then on top of everything else, there was a swine flu epidemic in 2008/9.

The key things for me are economics, politics, geopolitics, and then the natural environment blowing back at us. And those four things, they don't reduce to a single common denominator. They don't reduce to a single factor. The polycrisis term has a real utility descriptively, because it's arm-waving. It's going, ‘Look, there's a lot of stuff happening here all at once’. And that precisely is what we're trying to wrap our minds around.

How does a policycrisis come about - what are the key drivers?

Adam Tooze: The 1970s is really the moment where much of our modern configuration comes clearly into existence. Many of the first forecasts, whether it's new types of infectious disease or the Malthusian problematic of the Club of Rome report, date to this moment 50 years ago. It took a whole long while for those, as it were, threatening diagnoses to come true.

The key drivers are, on the one hand, the disintegration of the classic gold standard-backed monetary system which opened up international finance in a really dramatic way. This is the moment of America's defeat in Viet Nam. It's the moment of the strategic compromise between America and China in the Cold War, which are harbingers of our current, more multipolar order.

As the Club of Rome report and various types of epidemiological expertise was saying at the time, the dawning awareness that the miracle of economic growth, which had really taken off in a dramatic scale after World War Two, has a downside. So a series of really very dramatic risks are being generated by the very success of our economic growth story - on the resource environmental envelope side, but also on the pandemic disease zoonotic mutation side. Edgar Morin, the French theorist who first coined the term, is a classic 1970s environmental alarmist analyst. So there's a tightness to that chronology.

But it's one thing seeing the shape of something, it's another seeing its reality. And that's where the pandemic experience of 2020, 2021, is just the showstopper because we stop the world economy in its tracks. We've never done anything remotely like that before - a 15-20% hit to global GDP in a matter of weeks.

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How are people experiencing polycrisis?

Adam Tooze: We know that the COVID pandemic left a profound mental health crisis in its wake. It's one of the most powerful legacies of the shock. In thinking about societal and political crisis, you cannot exaggerate the significance of social psychology, but also individual psychology. I personally can't navigate my life without therapy. I need that space for reflection, for facing fears, for pulling yourself together. And Chartbook is, for me, also a medium in which I do that. It gives me a much wider canvas on which to just sift and work things through.

I think the pressure is rising. You cannot live through the experience of 2020 and not be profoundly shaken in your assumptions about what you can take for granted, especially as a young person. It's all very well for somebody of my age to look at the world and say, ‘Well, I can take a hiatus for 18 months’. But I know from watching my daughter's experience, that it's much more panic-inducing if you don't actually know what the rest of your life is going to be like. There's no normality from which you're taking a break. You're 20 or 21 and you're trying to figure out what you do next.

This is a huge shock that is going to reverberate through global society, especially in middle-income countries, notably in Latin America, there are literally tens and then globally hundreds of millions of young people who've been deprived of years of education, socialization and everything that goes with that. So it's very dramatic. Unless we reckon with this polycrisis experience at all these levels, we are not doing it justice.

A graphic showing the global outlook in the short and longer-term.
How experts consider the risk outlook over the coming years. Image: Global Risks Report.

How does the polycrisis impact different regions?

Adam Tooze: I was in Manhattan throughout the COVID shock in 2020 and it was evident that our highly sheltered lifestyle in a Columbia University apartment with all the wi-fi we could possibly need and three bedrooms was very different from that of, say, the woman who normally cleans our apartment, who's stuck at home with four kids and, no adequate wi-fi access, and the kids are trying to get some kind of online schooling. That's [just] within New York.

It's really incumbent on us, I think, to find ways of encompassing the vast gradients and differentials that are there. I'm no Africa specialist, but it still seems essential to constantly incorporate and explore through reading and research the experience of the three African success stories of the last decade, which are Ghana, Kenya and Ethiopia.

If you do apply that optic, you see all three of them are in trouble, which poses very profound questions for how we think about this moment, because the US real-estate market may get through this fine and it may turn out that the eurozone doesn't blow up. But Ghana is having to renegotiate its debt, and it is a pivotal success story for West Africa, which is going to be the demographic hub of the next 20 to 30 years.

How do we untangle or reverse the polycrisis?

Adam Tooze: I don't think there's any reversing. I always end up with analogies which seem kind of trivial, but it's like riding a bicycle. The bike is inherently unstable. It should fall over, if it falls over you get hurt. On the other hand, if you learn how to ride it, it's God's gift. It’s a good image for the challenge of modernity. Or talk about the nuclear reactor: incredibly dangerous, incredibly powerful. It's all down to who's running it and what the politics of running it are. That for me is the essence of our current situation.

[English philosopher John Maynard] Keynes is one of the most interesting meta-theorists of how you deal with complex, entangled problems which are much worse than they need to be as a result of failed political coordination. In the wake of World War One, a very different polycrisis from our current moment, he's trying to demarcate and arbitrate this question of which bits of the problem we should handle and how.

He thinks you need to take certain problems off the agenda. So the problem of unemployment or excessively high interest rates can be addressed by economic policy. He's trying to offer a set of technical fixes that allow you to take those issues off the board so that then you can concentrate the limited political capital, the building consensus of a functioning democracy, on issues which are harder to resolve and where genuine political agreement is needed. And that seems to me to be a model for thinking about our current moment.

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What are the fixes for our current moment?

Adam Tooze: Renewable energy is an example of the sorts of solutions we eagerly need to grasp onto in a situation which is otherwise going to be hugely challenging to our collective capacity to organize. We should be, in a structural sense, spending vastly more money on enhancing our ability to produce those kinds of fixes.

One of the things that's been happening in Germany right now is a sustained conversation between the public health authorities who had to deal with the COVID crisis in 2020, 2021, and the Bundesnetzagentur, the agency which dispatches energy within the German system, as to how they engage in public information campaigns about energy saving. And so that seems to me the kind of cross-sectoral learning the current crisis moment really demands.

They're not the same kind of problem, obviously, but in both cases, you have technical public bodies which are not party-political, but are part of the government apparatus that are making decisions that affect people in their everyday lives. The level of your heating, whether you can send your kids to school and they are communicating with each other, expert to expert, about the problems of effectively communicating in a democracy about those kinds of risks. That’s the kind of cross-sectoral learning we need more of.

How can knowing the concept of a polycrisis help people?

Adam Tooze: I think it's basically a kind of message of relief in a sense. If you've been having a hard time reducing all of this to a common denominator, then join the club. If your ability to insulate your house, because you want to pursue an agenda of climate neutrality, is being foiled by the fact that all of the raw materials cost too much because supply chains are screwed up, that is the reality that we currently face.

The purpose, the idea of the concept is simply to open up the threads through which you can begin to see the connections. If you just read a newspaper or watch the news, you are presented with this collage that begins to just look incoherent and crazy to the point where you begin to wonder whether you will actually be able to trust your own senses.

What the polycrisis concept says is, ‘Relax, this is actually the condition of our current moment’. I think that's useful, giving the sense a name. It's therapeutic. ‘Here is your fear, here is something that fundamentally distresses you. This is what it might be called’.

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