How do we think of our present time, looking to the future? The 2022 Polycrisis and what comes next

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:

Tooze_polycrisis_one schematic

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 Omega Group (great name) also uses polycrisis language. Their definition is similar, but also a little different:

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

Cyber threats

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 2020 book similarly pondered a Eurozone polycrisis. The term seems to be in use within the World Trade Organization as well.

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:

polycrisis Google NGram

The actual number of hits is still small. Click through the link to see more.

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.

Age_of_stupid_poster (2)

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.

Solarpunk college, imagined by craiyon

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?

(attached image is generated by craiyon; thanks to friends on Patreon, Facbook, and elsewhere for contributing thoughts to this post)

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11 Responses to How do we think of our present time, looking to the future? The 2022 Polycrisis and what comes next

  1. Nathan Lind says:

    Feeling an odd mix of dismay and tentative slivers of hope. Feeling like we are living on the edge of a knife. I want to believe we will embrace intentional interdependence, which is truth. As a Christian, I feel called to love [God and] neighbor, and am abhorred by the false narrative of the religious right (wrong) that we must divide, exclude, blame, and punish our way to some kind of imagined future purity. Thank you Bryan for once again calling out truth and possibility and giving us yet another opportunity to choose.

  2. Tom Haymes says:

    Maybe a useful analogy would be the 1919-1922 world. That was also a polycrisis. We had an immensely destructive pandemic, the impacts of which on social psyches are still poorly understood, IMHO. We had a collapsed world order as a result of World War I and countries feeling through what to do next there (and doing so badly). We had a major anchor of world economics (Germany) in free fall. We had the rise of Bolshevism as a global force and all of the attendant Red Scares (Palmer Raids, etc.), which resembles in many ways our abiding fascination with terrorism.

    Out of this crisis we see the rise of fascist parties whose primary appeal was often one of a restoration of order (usually hearkening back to some glorified past – in Italy’s case all the way back to Rome). We also see the emergence of chronic instability on the margins of the ex-Empires (Czarist Russia, Hapsburg Austria-Hungary, and the Second Reich in Germany). Colonialist interests continued to bump against each other, particularly in the Far East where Japan, Britain, and the US bumped against each other’s interests, particularly in China. Arguably, in many other parts of the world we’re seeing “late-stage colonialism” on an ongoing basis.

    Of course, this scenario led to WWII. This is not a good path. Societies drawing inward is a natural consequence of a polycrisis. We can’t fix the world so we’ll worry about ours and you worry about yours. That didn’t work then and really doesn’t work now. To me, the approach is obvious:

    1) Avoid autarkical solutions – particularly in economics
    2) Recognize that there is no going back (in the 1920s it was to an idealized agrarian past, now it’s to an idealized industrial one)
    3) Recognize that you are part of a system of interconnected parts even if it’s hard to understand all of those parts and how they work together.

    To me, the hope here lies in the fact that communications technology had advanced a lot since the 1920s. The idea of a Volksradio tuned to only one channel is quaint. (I know North Korea is still doing this but they are behind the technological curve of practically everyone in this area – and even then I question how effective this strategy is.) It’s much harder to stop cross border communication entirely. We also have a much better idea of what’s going on in other countries (if we bother to take the time to look carefully) than was the case then. Strategic and technological surprises are not as likely to be a product of this polycrisis as advances in aircraft and other industrial technologies became in the 1930s.

    We also have a much more sophisticated understanding of system dynamics and the tools with which to visualize them (such the excellent Tooze diagram).

    Uncertainty contributes to a crisis mentality. Both of these technologies reduce uncertainty in the system even if we don’t feel like we can see the future clearly.

    Just a few random thoughts on a Sunday afternoon. I know I’m missing a lot of detail. However, this does seem to me to be a similar scenario faced back then. Let’s hope we navigate it better this time or I fear William Gibson’s prognostications is a not unlikely scenario.

  3. Bob Ubell says:

    Thanks so much for leading us on a grand tour of our present uncomfortable and distressing situation. It’s difficult to see the road ahead with so many obstacles crowding out everything. Just one thought—your analysis might lead us to abandon the notion of progress altogether, since even though there’s been so much positive movement in our history, there’s been a troubling, terrorizing parallel path. Just one instance seems fraught with both progress and despair—our nuclear age, Bob

    • Tom Haymes says:

      The notion of “progress” is baked into capitalism. This paradigm has not been the norm throughout most of human history. There are many crises threatening “progress” in the capitalist sense – climate change, post-colonialism, and demographics (most economists agree that expanding populations are closely tied to economic growth) to name just the three big ones.

      The mythology of “progress” in both capitalism and it’s chief ideological rival, communism, toward some ideal has led to many systemic failures such as war, resource depletion, and climate change itself. Maybe it’s time we rethink how society can achieve a stable equilibrium instead. I really like the work of Kate Raworth and her idea of “Doughnut Economics” which emphasizes striving toward equity as the highest form of progress. So, it’s important to define our terms carefully. Economic progress does not necessarily mean human progress. One of the crises afflicting us (late stage capitalism) reflects the “developed” world’s struggle to come to terms with that.

  4. Jeremy Stanton says:

    Excellent post! I’ve recently found frameworks that look at the past 200 years or so through the lens of surplus energy to be helpful (and reasonably reliable as a leading indicator of events). These came out of the work of ecological economic models which include energy in a central role in all economic activity. Surplus energy is the energy left over after energy is expended to obtain an energy source and get it to its final point of use (e.g. a vehicle’s engine, or a wall socket). So think of early oil sources (the “Jed Clampett backyard gusher”) — these had an energy-cost-of-energy (ECoE) of around 1-2%; compared to today’s sources (Deepwater Horizon-like offshore, fracking, and tar sands) with an ECoE of 10% or more. GDP growth is very highly correlated with surplus energy; as surplus energy has declined due to rising ECoE, overall prosperity has declined, the cost of essentials continues to rise in relative (and real) terms, and discretionary income has been decreasing. This reared its head in 2005/2006 and via mortgage defaults amplified by CDOs led to the 2007/2008 GFC, which we only came out of using gargantuan amounts of debt and shale-oil fracking. The surplus energy frameworks suggest that (a) the inflation we’re seeing is a result of rising ECoEs and minimally the result of covid, supply chain woes, etc; (b) the policy response of raising interest rates will have little effect on inflation and will instead lead to a round of debt defaults and unwinding of the aforementioned massive amounts of debt; (c) Covid and Russia-Ukraine have been accelerants to a process that has already been going on for a while, and their conclusion will not reverse the situation.

    Good sources for this are:
    – Nate Hagens, The Great Simplification – – Nate uses the term “energy blindness” to encapsulate the way in which our institutions, policy, and conventional economics ignore the centrality of energy to our civilization.
    – Steve Keen –
    – Dr. Tim Morgan, former head of research at Tullet Prebon –
    – Richard Heinberg / Post Carbon Institute –
    – Joshua Farley –
    – Tim Murphy –
    – Dan O’Neill –

    Also, the 1972 Limits to Growth study by Meadows et al seems to be another good model for understanding our current trajectory, given how well it seems to be fitting our present reality. Gaya Herrington of KPMG published in 2020 a comparison of the models with empirical data and found “The two scenarios aligning most closely with observed data indicate a halt in welfare, food, and industrial production over the next decade or so, which puts into question the suitability of continuous economic growth as humanity’s goal in the twenty-first century.” —

  5. A thoughtful piece as always, Bryan. As I read it, I also was wondering how the polycrisis folds in to the Cynefin framework of clear problems – complicated problems – complex problems and chaotic problems. Perhaps the mix is driving everything into the chaotic sector!

  6. From Ray Dalio on U.S.-China-Russia in article posted 8-8-22:
    “… consider that China’s share of world trade is over seven times larger than Russia’s [1] and constitutes about 19% of all American manufactured goods imports. [2] Imagine if importing goods from China and doing business with China became the same as they are with Russia now. Imagine what the supply chain and economic impacts on the world would be. Imagine what sanctions on China would be like for the world. Supply chains would collapse, economic activity would dive, and inflation would soar. And that’s just what would happen to economies due to economic warfare which would pale in comparison to the impact that military warfare, which we are obviously dangerously close to, would have.”

    • Tom Haymes says:


      The think Dalio overlooks is that this would be equally, if not more, catastrophic for China. Russia took the bet that its commodity is fungible. It is a petrostate these days and you can sell oil anywhere. Also, oil is traded on a global market. When the price skyrocketed, they actually made money.

      China’s economy is built differently. They are absolutely dependent on foreign trade. At present almost 20% of their GDP is based on trade. They are also subject to the same supply chain constraints in reverse. In other words, the world would have some serious economic problems if China took military action but China’s problems would likely be even worse.

      The Chinese leadership is not sanguine about the difficulties involved in taking Taiwan militarily. Even before Russia ran into problems in Ukraine, which was seen as a relative pushover compared to Taiwan militarily, there’s also the little problem of getting across the Taiwan Straits and keeping the forces the got across supplied. The US would certainly get involved and our ability to interdict Chinese shipping is far greater than their ability to interdict ours – and they know it.

      The situation with China is serious but I don’t see a military invasion of Taiwan as a realistic outcome there. They can cause plenty of mayhem in other ways, such as disrupting shipping (and disrupting supply chains which are a driver in global inflation) with exercises around Taiwan. This also impacts Taiwanese trade with the rest of the world (again raising prices and disrupting supply chains) and they are more than happy to poke the west in this way to prove their capabilities. However, there is no incentive for them to cross the war threshold and plenty of incentive for them not to. (Bearing in mind that I said the same thing in February about Putin.) (And there is always a danger of accidents and accidental escalations when this many forces are being tossed around.)

  7. sibyledu says:

    Like you, Bryan, I find it impossible to get my ahead around a polycrisis in order to address it. Realistically, any single crisis requires so much effort and cooperation that I can’t imagine trying to cooperate around two crises simultaneously, let alone all the ones on the table.

    I think back to “The Ministry of the Future” and how in that story solving (or addressing) one crisis ended up having positive knock-on effects against other crises. I think that if we could somehow get 1,000 people in 200 countries working on the climate crisis, and a different 1,000 people in 200 countries working on the water crisis, and a third 1,000 people in 200 countries working on the energy crisis, and so on, we’d be better off than trying to have people work on all of them together.

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