Today is a Sunday in northeastern Virginia. It’s a very warm afternoon now, the temperature around 88°F (31°C) and humidity driving the heat index to 100°F (38°C). The cats are resting inside, sensibly basking in air conditioning after lazing on the hot catio this morning. I’m with them, prepping for three classes starting this month, but also wanting to share a futures thought which I’ve been noodling on for a while.
This post is about big picture thinking. I don’t mean just higher education’s future, my usual area of concern, but the future of humanity.
Question: how do we understand our present time, as we think of possible futures to follow?
This is always a tricky exercise. It’s hard to get some intellectual distance from urgent matters, and perhaps harder still to apprehend key developments which, while quiet now, will grow to shape the future. History shows many thoughtful people understanding their present day in ways we find skewed or just wrong. Yet I’ve been thinking about a term one historian’s been tossing around. It feels like a productive idea to reflect with, and it’s been helping me consider a bunch of trends. It helps me think about the present as it points to futures.
It comes from the awesome Adam Tooze (check out his fine newsletter), who has lately been writing about our times as afflicted by a “polycrisis.” It’s a simple enough idea: multiple crises are in play, interacting with each other in ways which sometimes make things even more difficult.
Which crises are involved? Tooze names “climate [change], [the COVID] pandemic, immigration, financial instability, global inequality, and economic risk.” He added others to an interesting visualization:
You can easily see how these different crises, pressures, and developments cross-hatch. Then you can make other connections. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for example, increases global warming by causing an increase in petroleum production in NATO and allied nations. Inflation fuels populisms.
There’s also a meta-dimension to the polycrisis, as the accumulation of and intersections between crises become overwhelming, soaking up attention and paralyzing decision-making.
Scott Janzwood and Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote about the polycrisis model a few months ago. Their definition reminds me of what Tooze has been thinking, but with a slightly different focus:
We define a global polycrisis as any combination of three or more interacting systemic risks with the potential to cause a cascading, runaway failure of Earth’s natural and social systems that irreversibly and catastrophically degrades humanity’s prospects…
A global polycrisis, should it occur, will inherit the four core properties of systemic risks—extreme complexity, high nonlinearity, transboundary causality, and deep uncertainty—while also exhibiting causal synchronization among risks.
Three or more – if Tooze is right, we’re certainly there in metrics.
Janzwood and Homer-Dixon also offer a good example of how the different components of a polycrisis can interact:
[one] systemic risk… (drought → food scarcity and price increases → social unrest and violence) could interact with another systemic risk (global geopolitical competition among great powers → foreign election interference) to magnify negative outcomes in the social systems in question (in the form of, for example, election of authoritarian regimes and further domestic instability). These latter outcomes could then feed back to worsen the underlying food crisis. Interactions among systemic risks can also produce ramifying consequences that extend to additional systems; in this case, for example, heightened domestic instability in multiple nations could reduce international cooperation to address future pandemics.
In addition, the authors see the possibility of “synchronized inter-systemic behavior”:
In physics, synchronization refers to the alignment of periodic orbits (i.e., oscillators) of coupled systems… For instance, randomly ticking metronomes will quickly synchronize their oscillations if placed close together on a lightweight platform (which we refer to as a “substrate”) that allows some lateral movement. In a polycrisis, this type of phase synchronization, we argue, produces a temporal alignment of systemic risks. As a result, they can “go critical” simultaneously or in quick succession; this simultaneity can then produce the “synchronous failure” of the interconnected systems…
The Global Polycrisis is the sum total of all stressors affecting planetary health. It’s an unprecedented global systems problem. We need to understand it in order to respond as wisely as possible. [emphases in original]
Omega breaks down their polycrisis models into stressors, or rather groups of stressors: biosphere, societal, technological. And under each one they list a series. For example, under technology:
Electromagnetic frequency (EMF) pollution
Uncontrolled technologies: artificial intelligence (AI), biotech, nanotech & robotics
Displacement of people by robots & AI
Big Data threats to democracy, privacy & human rights
Modification of the human germline and bifurcation of the population
Omega also sees their polycrisis model as hard to think through:
The Global Polycrisis is far greater than any individual stressor. Most institutions—governments, corporations, international institutions, and civil society organizations—avoid thinking about the Global Polycrisis. They:
Don’t see how they can respond
Focus on critical sectoral questions
Largely ignore future shocks
Mostly don’t prepare…
Still others have been using the term lately. Former European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker described the EU as
challenges… mainly around the euro-area stability, the global economic crisis, and the migration crisis, to name a few. He also used the term to describe the external crises the EU had—and still has—to handle.
A London School of Economics panel used polycrisis as a springboard for discussing changes to global governance:
Mentions have been rising in print, according to Google’s N-gram:
You get the idea.
Let’s start from the assumption, then, that we’re in a polycrisis moment, at least for this post. Call it the 2022 Polycrisis for now. That gives us one way to think through our present on the way to the future.
But I am not sure we can actually think through the polycrisis framing, or at least without a lot of work. Listening to politicians, analysts, and academics, I often hear them focusing not on the poly- but on the -crisis, even at the grand strategic level. They break up the cluster into separate crises or at most clumps of two: a rising right wing political-cultural movement acting against the climate movement while also driving pandemic denial, for example. Here I agree with the Omega Group.
Further, I suspect that we all too often return to inherited 20th century (and earlier) mental frameworks to make sense of the 2022 Polycrisis.
Worse, it’s too easy to ignore most or all of the crises, sometimes for the very good reasons of being overwhelmed, exhausted, or having to focus on active, present dangers.
What I’m looking for now is for newer frameworks that include the present polycrisis and also help us think through futures to follow. Put another way, how can we think of the whole polycrisis altogether, in a better and more effective fashion?
I’ve been researching this a little bit over the past month, which has been hard, given my own exhaustion and having to deal with active, present issues. The polycrisis model has connected with some of my older research as well. I’ve also prodded my fellow futurists for their thoughts. Some frameworks have appeared, and I’d like to offer them for your consideration:
A bunch of people see the whole thing as a decline story. In this narrative the post-2000 world was shot through with problems which we haven’t been able to solve, so they whole world order is now tottering and falling apart. Our era is about managing that decline into the future, at best. Or…
Some see this as a decline on the way to truly bad stuff. Some forecast a civilizational collapse (Jane Jacobs, Roy Scranton). William Gibson, drawing on Robert Heinlein, imagines a “Jackpot” polycrisis, involving climate, atomics, pandemics, and more, after which there are… far fewer people. Some see this as inevitable, while others attribute the making of spectacular collapse to our being, well, very stupid.
One version of this model is to resurrect the old Marxist idea of late capitalism. All of the polycrisis elements here fall under a mega-crisis of neoliberal political economy. This megamachine has driven everything else: colonialism, racism, sexism, global warming. Its contradictions are finally tearing the system apart.
Andreas Malm (an astonishingly productive writer), Naomi Klein, and others have been trying to tie as much of the polycrisis as they can under the climate change rubric: racism, colonialism, economic inequality, Silicon Valley, Russia the petrostate, American policy, international finance, etc. For them modern society is the creation of petroleum power, and that civilizational design bears its impressions. In this light not only is decarbonization and climate adaptation called for, but a civilization-wide deep rethink and redesign at least, or a reformation, even revolution. That’s where a variety of forces come together: antiracism, anticapitalism, climate action, the war in Ukraine, and more.
Perhaps we’re in one of those grand phase change moments, like the second industrial revolution or the Axial Age religious movements – just broader and faster, thanks to globalization and modern technology. The various crises are friction along the way, and enable the birth of a new civilization. This phase might be the immediate and medium-term future, an era unto itself. Antonio Gramsci offered a famous formulation, a century ago:
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
I’m also fond of Paulo Freire’s similar prose:
It is a time of confrontation, this transition, the time of transition of the old society to a new one that does not exist yet, but it’s being created with the confrontation of the ghosts.
Polycrisis describes this agonizing phase change in the present. 2022 is about a planetary sweep of birth pangs. If so, then what are we conceiving next? The aforementioned truly bad stuff model is one possibility. In contrast, the Solarpunk design movement points in the direction of a positive social redesign.
Perhaps the 2022 Polycrisis is a sign that we’re restarting progress. Imagine taking the immense developmental arc of the past 200 years – and doing that level of progress again, for the next two centuries! Think of that literally extraordinary period of rises in education, science, standards of living, and so forth, and making such a leap ahead occur for another two hundred years. In this framework everything happening now is friction, false starts, and the revving up up true starts for a world aiming in the direction of Star Trek, if not Iain Banks’ Culture universe. We can lump a variety of developments or stressors under this banner: the new space race, the rise of a new gender order, the movement to rewild parts of the earth, new technologies for decarbonization.
Or perhaps we’re headed in the opposite direction. Instead of firing up the engines of progress, the 2022 Polycrisis shows humanity starting to come to terms with the downsides of the past two centuries. The tremendous advances humanity has enjoyed are now acknowledged, yes, but set to one side as we address the mistakes and horrors committed along the way: colonialism, inequalities, genocides, racisms, environmental destruction, etc. Perhaps we are now coming to view our industrial and technological expansions with dismay, and seek instead to reduce ourselves, shrinking our dangerous footprint. Our polycrisis in this understanding is the start of an epoch dedicated to reckoning and repair. Under this banner we can see the global antiracism movement, rising indigenous movements, a new decolonizing mentality, changes to gender identity, skepticism about science and technology, and more.
I have thoughts about each of those, and more to add, but this post is already too long. What do you think, when you try to wrap your head around the many crises afflicting the world? Do any of the above speak to you? Do you have another framework which works for you?