ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

The New Global Buzzword Is Polycrisis – What Does It Mean & Should It Worry You?

In simple terms, a polycrisis describes the simultaneous and overlapping crises facing the world currently.

Published
Explainers
4 min read
story-hero-img
i
Aa
Aa
Small
Aa
Medium
Aa
Large
Hindi Female

There is no denying that 2022 was a chaotic year. With the COVID-19 pandemic raging, Russia invading Ukraine, and the resultant hike in energy and food prices as well as rising costs of living, the world needed something to sum up all this strife. That something is the word 'polycrisis'.

It was a buzzword at this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland.

But even before this year's summit, the WEF had published the Global Risks Reports 2023 with a warning that the world may see a ‘polycrisis’ centred around natural resource shortages by 2030.

The report stated that:

"Concurrent shocks, deeply interconnected risks, and eroding resilience are giving rise to the risk of polycrisis – where disparate crises interact such that the overall impact far exceeds the sum of each part. Eroding geopolitical cooperation will have ripple effects across the global risks landscape over the medium term, including contributing to a potential polycrisis of interrelated environmental, geopolitical and socioeconomic risks."

So, what is the history behind the term? And what are the risks that threaten a polycrisis? Read on.

The New Global Buzzword Is Polycrisis – What Does It Mean & Should It Worry You?

  1. 1. What Is the Origin of Polycrisis?

    The word polycrisis has been around for long. But it only gained traction over the past year after Columbia University historian Adam Tooze popularised it.

    Tooze broke down the term in the following manner: "A problem becomes a crisis when it challenges our ability to cope and, thus, it threatens our identity. In the polycrisis, the shocks are disparate, but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts."

    In simple terms, it describes the simultaneous and overlapping crises presently facing the world.

    And what are the overlapping crises of the world currently? A health crisis, an increase in climate change-driven events, a war in Europe, an inflation shock, democratic dysfunction, and much more.

    "The variety of different shocks of the type that we’re dealing with right now is extremely unusual," Tooze told TIME magazine.

    "That’s what the polycrisis notion is trying to get at – it’s like a bad breakfast buffet. The thing about it is that it’s an indigestible mixture of ingredients that do not normally go together in a constellation of forces," he added.

    The magazine reported that while Tooze gave the term new life, he acknowledged that he borrowed it from the former European Commission President ​​Jean-Claude Juncker, who used the term in 2016 to describe the host of challenges facing the European Union, including the Syrian refugee crisis and the Brexit referendum.

    Expand
  2. 2. History of the Term

    The term polycrisis was first used in the 1990s by French theorist of complexity Edgar Morin.

    In the book Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for a New Millennium, co-authored by Anne Brigitte Kern, Morin had written of "interwoven and overlapping crises” affecting humanity, and argued that the most 'vital' problem of the day was not any single threat but the “complex intersolidarity of problems, antagonisms, crises, uncontrollable processes, and the general crisis of the planet." The authors labelled the phenomenon as 'polycrisis'.

    Based on the concept theorised by Morin and Kern in 2013, South African sociologist and sustainable-transition theorist Mark Swilling defined a polycrisis as “a nested set of globally interactive socio-economic, ecological and cultural – institutional crises that defy reduction to a single cause."

    One key aspect from all the ways in which a polycrisis has been defined is that it's not just an isolated event/incident but rather a cluster of events.

    To get a better sense of the term, watch this clip below from Amazon Prime’s The Peripheral.

    The clip talks about a cluster of events called 'The Jackpot'. In a way it sounds similar to a polycrisis.

    Another point to be noted – polycrisis is different from permacrisis, the Collins English Dictionary word for 2022.

    Permacrisis, as defined in the British dictionary, is “an extended period of instability and insecurity.”
    Expand
  3. 3. What Does the WEF Report Say on Polycrisis?

    The WEF report said that the world is facing a set of risks that feel both wholly new and eerily familiar.

    The most severe immediate risk is the cost-of-living crisis. The failure to mitigate the climate crisis has been identified as the biggest risk 10 years from now.

    "As 2023 begins, 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," the report stated.

    It added that the problems are being compounded 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-globalisation, a decline in human development after decades of progress, and the growing pressure of climate change impacts and ambitions in an ever-shrinking window for changing to a 1.5°C world.

    Expand
  4. 4. Interconnected Risks Pose Greatest Threat

    The report also noted that "as an economic era ends, the next will bring more risks of stagnation, divergence and distress."

    It warned that "governments and central banks could face stubborn inflationary pressures over the next two years."

    The report stated that the intersection of current risks with emerging crises poses the greatest risk of a polycrisis.

    It draws a link between the cost-of-living crisis, the failure to mitigate the climate crisis, and the growing pressure on finite resources as a potential catalyst for such an event.

    Demand for food, water, and energy are rising as a result of population growth and socio-economic advancement.

    The expansion of renewable energy systems is creating an unprecedented demand for rare minerals and metals. The gap between demand and supply of these resources could have catastrophic consequences, including biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, trade wars, and armed conflict between nations, the report warned.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

What Is the Origin of Polycrisis?

The word polycrisis has been around for long. But it only gained traction over the past year after Columbia University historian Adam Tooze popularised it.

Tooze broke down the term in the following manner: "A problem becomes a crisis when it challenges our ability to cope and, thus, it threatens our identity. In the polycrisis, the shocks are disparate, but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts."

In simple terms, it describes the simultaneous and overlapping crises presently facing the world.

And what are the overlapping crises of the world currently? A health crisis, an increase in climate change-driven events, a war in Europe, an inflation shock, democratic dysfunction, and much more.

"The variety of different shocks of the type that we’re dealing with right now is extremely unusual," Tooze told TIME magazine.

"That’s what the polycrisis notion is trying to get at – it’s like a bad breakfast buffet. The thing about it is that it’s an indigestible mixture of ingredients that do not normally go together in a constellation of forces," he added.

The magazine reported that while Tooze gave the term new life, he acknowledged that he borrowed it from the former European Commission President ​​Jean-Claude Juncker, who used the term in 2016 to describe the host of challenges facing the European Union, including the Syrian refugee crisis and the Brexit referendum.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

History of the Term

The term polycrisis was first used in the 1990s by French theorist of complexity Edgar Morin.

In the book Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for a New Millennium, co-authored by Anne Brigitte Kern, Morin had written of "interwoven and overlapping crises” affecting humanity, and argued that the most 'vital' problem of the day was not any single threat but the “complex intersolidarity of problems, antagonisms, crises, uncontrollable processes, and the general crisis of the planet." The authors labelled the phenomenon as 'polycrisis'.

Based on the concept theorised by Morin and Kern in 2013, South African sociologist and sustainable-transition theorist Mark Swilling defined a polycrisis as “a nested set of globally interactive socio-economic, ecological and cultural – institutional crises that defy reduction to a single cause."

One key aspect from all the ways in which a polycrisis has been defined is that it's not just an isolated event/incident but rather a cluster of events.

To get a better sense of the term, watch this clip below from Amazon Prime’s The Peripheral.

The clip talks about a cluster of events called 'The Jackpot'. In a way it sounds similar to a polycrisis.

Another point to be noted – polycrisis is different from permacrisis, the Collins English Dictionary word for 2022.

Permacrisis, as defined in the British dictionary, is “an extended period of instability and insecurity.”
0

What Does the WEF Report Say on Polycrisis?

The WEF report said that the world is facing a set of risks that feel both wholly new and eerily familiar.

The most severe immediate risk is the cost-of-living crisis. The failure to mitigate the climate crisis has been identified as the biggest risk 10 years from now.

"As 2023 begins, 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," the report stated.

It added that the problems are being compounded 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-globalisation, a decline in human development after decades of progress, and the growing pressure of climate change impacts and ambitions in an ever-shrinking window for changing to a 1.5°C world.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Interconnected Risks Pose Greatest Threat

The report also noted that "as an economic era ends, the next will bring more risks of stagnation, divergence and distress."

It warned that "governments and central banks could face stubborn inflationary pressures over the next two years."

The report stated that the intersection of current risks with emerging crises poses the greatest risk of a polycrisis.

It draws a link between the cost-of-living crisis, the failure to mitigate the climate crisis, and the growing pressure on finite resources as a potential catalyst for such an event.

Demand for food, water, and energy are rising as a result of population growth and socio-economic advancement.

The expansion of renewable energy systems is creating an unprecedented demand for rare minerals and metals. The gap between demand and supply of these resources could have catastrophic consequences, including biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, trade wars, and armed conflict between nations, the report warned.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from explainers

Topics:  WEF 

Speaking truth to power requires allies like you.
Become a Member
3 months
12 months
12 months
Check Member Benefits
Read More
×
×