A lot of the folks trying to sound profound in the hallways at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week had just the word: "Polycrisis." That's what we're in, apparently.
If so, this polycrisis presumably replaces the "tripledemic" we recently survived, and may yet blend into the "permacrisis" (Collins Dictionary Word of the Year in 2022). It could also join the "megathreats" out there. Or it may revert to being a good old-fashioned "perfect storm."
Mind you, I'm not a categorical enemy of buzzwords, as long as they actually capture a phenomenon. For example, Zeitenwende does seem to describe the historical turning point marked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine — and also has the requisite Teutonic oomph.
And at a linguistic level "polycrisis" is surely preferable to "permacrisis" — or even yuckier possibilities such as "multicrisis." I've always agreed with the purist who, a century ago, rejected "television" on the grounds that it's "half Greek, half Latin: No good can come of it." Call me a pedant.
So at least polycrisis is all Greek. "Poly" means "many" and "crisis" means…. Ah, here it gets iffy again. Originally, krisis meant something like "decision," especially the moment when a patient with a fever either lives or dies. (Permacrisis, therefore, is actually an oxymoron.) These days, however, crisis has come to mean almost any difficult situation that needs seeing to.
The question is whether polycrisis — as a concept rather than a portmanteau — is useful or banal. To have meaning, it would have to encapsulate more than the obvious: that we have an awful lot of problems nowadays, and that many of them are connected.
Here's a partial map. We've long worried about climate change and inequality. Those two are connected because global warming hurts the poor — both people and countries — more than the rich. Both in turn also cause wars, hunger and mass migrations, and therefore "refugee crises" such as the one of 2015. Via "zoonotic spillover," climate change even accelerates the emergence of new superbugs and pandemics.
Global warming didn't directly cause SARS-CoV-2, but that virus interacted with all those pre-existing problems. It devastated economies, again hitting the poor worse than the rich. And it caused supply-chain stoppages that, from 2021, caused certain prices to rise. This primed our economies for inflation, and thereby hooked into the adjacent fiscal and monetary crises of excessive debt and money supply.
All the while, these upheavals stoked cynicism, escapism, mendacity, denial and sheer idiocy within electorates and political elites. This contributed to a decline in the quality of democracy and a corresponding spread of populism and conspiracy theories. That led to all sorts of distractions — from Brexit to anti-vax hysteria — and a widespread rejection of rationality in dealing with the actual problems.
Then Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to throw a bomb into this mix, by launching an old-style war of imperialist and genocidal aggression. That disrupted the flows of Russian gas and oil, causing an acute energy crisis, a food emergency (because Putin didn't allow grain to leave Ukrainian ports for much of last year) and even higher inflation, necessitating higher interest rates too. Putin also added yet another refugee crisis and distracted us from the necessary green transition.
On it goes. So 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. That was the implication of Edgar Morin, a French philosopher who first used the term "polycrisis" in 1999. Other intellectuals, notably the economist Adam Tooze, have since popularised it.
The new aspect, as one research institute attempts to nail it down, could be that the interaction of the various crises causes "a cascading, runaway failure of Earth's natural and social systems." The hallmarks of the polycrisis, then, are "extreme complexity, high nonlinearity, transboundary causality, and deep uncertainty [and also] causal synchronisation." As Tooze puts it, "the shocks are disparate, but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts."
Forgive me, but I'm still wondering what's new. We've long known about such dynamics in other contexts, under more familiar labels such as feedback loops, tipping points, emergent properties, chaos theory and the butterfly effect (so named because a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world can allegedly affect the weather on the other).
Similarly, myriad (Greek for "ten thousand") factors interlocked to cause, say, the fall of the Western Roman empire in late antiquity, or pretty much any development in history. So complexity, the interaction of factors and nonlinear consequences are old hat.
The difference, if there is one, is that human beings in the past had even less of a clue about this bewildering reality, and, being human, feigned more confidence in attributing any given phenomenon to whichever explanation they preferred. If Rome fell, it must have been because the Romans lost their "virtue," or because of those pesky Goths.
Tooze seems to be almost nostalgic about this. "In the 1970s," he writes, "whether you were a Eurocommunist, an ecologist or an angst-ridden conservative, you could still attribute your worries to a single cause — late capitalism, too much or too little economic growth, or an excess of entitlement. A single cause also meant that one could imagine a sweeping solution, be it social revolution or neoliberalism."
Well, thank heavens we're over all that nonsense — single causes, sweeping solutions and messianic hubris in general. These days, the only people with the simplistic answers are the populists.
So what's new is not that humanity suddenly has uncountable problems that are all linked — that's always been true — but that it's finally dawning on us how little we understand about the mess we're in. And we hate, hate, hate that feeling. This apocalyptic angst — we don't comprehend what's going on but it'll end badly — is what the highfalutin word polycrisis expresses.
My practical advice is to stop coining Greek neologisms and attack complexity with simple words. We have problems, emergencies and catastrophes, but we also have solutions — from mRNA vaccines to, who knows, maybe fusion energy one day. I suggest the Davos honchos boarding their return flights, and the rest of us, just pick whichever crisis they know something about, and get back to work solving it.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.