From polycrisis to polyopportunity?
Watching and reading the news these days can be a numbing experience. How do we make sense of a world of multiple crises? It feels a bit like living in a tangled web. And what can we do about it?
“If you are feeling confused and overwhelmed you aren’t on your own.” That is the reassuring advice from Christopher Hobson. He is one of the leading figures in arguing that we will advance our understanding of what’s going wrong in the world when we realise, we are in a ‘polycrisis’.
In his blog, Imperfect Notes on an Imperfect World, Christopher Hobson says: “The problem is not war in Ukraine, COVID-19, debt and inflation, energy shortages and environmental concerns, it is all of those problems tumbling around together like clothes in a dryer.”
“In reality, the likelihood that the current mess is a coincidence is vanishingly small,’ wrote Johan Rockström, director of PIK, the largest climate research centre in Europe, and Thomas Homer Dixon, Executive Director of the Cascade Institute, in the New York Times: “We’re almost certainly confronting something far more persistent and dangerous. We can see the crises of the moment, but we’re substantially blind to the hidden processes by which those crises worsen one another — and to the true dangers that may be enveloping us all.”
A polycrisis, they warn, “implies that humanity is dealing with a complex knot of seemingly distinct but actually deeply entangled crises.”
‘Polycrisis’ became a buzzword at Davos last month after it was picked up in the Global Risks Report. Gideon Rachman, the Financial Times commentator, asked fellow attendees; “does it actually mean anything?” In another panel, historian Neil Ferguson dismissed it by saying, “It’s just history happening.”
In response, another historian, Adam Tooze, most persuasive proponent of the term, hit back: “Polycrisis has its critics, and at Davos 2023 it risked becoming something of a cliché. But as a catchword it serves three purposes:
• It registers the unfamiliar diversity of the shocks that are assailing what had previously seemed a settled trajectory of global development.”
• “It insists that this coincidence of shocks is not accidental but cumulative and endogenous”.
• And, by its currency, it marks the moment at which bullish self-confidence about our ability to decipher either the future or recent history has begun to seem at the same time facile and passé.”
Tooze is one of a number of scholars trying to make sense of seemingly unconnected events. Laura Wellesley and Tim Benton of Chatham House are doing brilliant work highlighting the fragility of connected human systems, most recently on Ukraine.
Here is another of their examples simplified here by me: climate change in Syria from 2006 onwards led to a drought which caused hunger in the country. Food insecurity was a major cause of the civil war. The conflict led to the refugee surge into Europe that was one of the triggers of the rise of the anti-immigrant sentiments. And right-wing parties mushroomed in many European countries on the back of these concerns. Not everybody would agree with the analysis as all these events had multiple causes. But it is an example of how thinking on cascading systems can bring remarkable insights on the polycrisis.
Such cascades are currently hard to predict in advance. We need to get into the “guts”’ of what is a polycrisis and what lies behind it. Rockström and Homer Dixon believe that: “Something else is also happening — risk synchronization. Complex and largely unrecognized causal links among the world’s economic, social and ecological systems may be causing many risks to go critical at nearly the same time. If so, the apparent simultaneity isn’t just a temporary coincidence; it’s likely to persist and could ultimately overwhelm the capacity of society to adapt, and push some places into outright collapse.”
To mitigate the risk such a collapse we need to know urgently what a polycrisis consists of. Christopher Hobson has identified eight properties. Here they are as simplified by me. It is based on his blog post available here. [He has also co-written an academic paper with Matthew Davies available here.
Multiple, separate crises that occur simultaneously with:
• Feedback loops
Individual crises interact in foreseeable and unpredictable ways.
The interactions cause crises to magnify or accelerate.
Each crisis ceases to be clearly demarcated in time and space.
• Layered problems.
The complex, multiple layers intersect and interfere with one another.
• Breakdown of shared meaning
Different crises & interactions perceived differently.
• Cross purposes
Addressing one crisis takes attention from another crisis.
• Emergent properties
The polycrisis is ultimately much more than a collection of smaller, separate crises.
Simplified from: Christopher Hobson: In this Valley of Dying Stars, Imperfect Notes on an Imperfect World: 18 August 2022.
Polycrisis certainly needs much more research to make it a useful tool for decision-makers. It encourages us to see risks that are studied separately, from climate change to epidemics to food systems to finance to conflict – and many more.
How do we bridge the silos in thinking? Johan Rockström and Homer Dixon propose: “a worldwide scientific collaboration to identify the causal mechanisms operating among these risks. It would be dedicated, first, to studying mechanisms that are amplifying, accelerating and synchronizing global systemic risks and, second, to determining practical ways humanity might intervene.”
They add: “It would also look for ways these feedbacks might be harnessed to tip key economic, social, and ecological systems toward better outcomes.”
Ways of tipping positive human change will be essential if humanity is to survive the polycrisis. Thinking the Unthinkable has worked with Johan Rockström and his fellow earth scientist and systems thinker, Tim Lenton of the University of Exeter, at the very successful Tipping Points Conference they co-hosted last September.
Tim Lenton also urges us all to also look also for the ‘polyopportunity.’ Professor Lenton is currently leading a large multi-disciplinary Survey of Tipping Points – including positive social tipping points that could lead to major policy changes. It will be released in time for COP-28 in December.
It is not just the scientists engaging on positive changes that might help address the polycrisis. There are moves now in the world of finance as well. The President of the European Investment Bank (EIB), Werner Hoyer wrote: “If every crisis is an opportunity and we are faced with so many, then this is the time of “polyopportunity”. He committed the EIB to a leadership role on making major investments for the long term. Read his Davos blog post here.
Radical reform of the financial system is being actively discussed in London. Aviva’s Steve Waygood calls the system, as it currently exists, the ‘biggest market failure in history.” I have been part of the first international cohort of the School of System Change in Finance. It is run by the Forum for the Future for Aviva Investors. The goal is to being people from finance together to understand systems thinking and how they can use leverage points to address change finance. So far, these are small steps, given the enormity of the challenges. The energy and commitment is infectious. They are recruiting for the next cohorts now.
Thinking the Unthinkable has been arguing for the past nine years that we are entering a period of extraordinary change – both crisis and opportunity. Now – not before time - there is a realisation of the complexity both of what we are facing and what to do about it.
Image caption: A polycrisis as a tangled web in the style of Vincent van Gogh imagined by DALL·E 2 and Chris Langdon