Hi Quartz Members,
Everything is inflated these days, including thought leadership. A simple “debacle” is no longer enough; the word in the wind is “polycrisis”, fanned to feverish popularity by historian-turned-expert Adam Tooze.
There is no doubt that you encounter this term everywhere: the headlines in the pink newspapers, the briefings of important policy makers, Twitter, book titles, climate change programs (pdf). The notion behind the “polycrisis” is that humanity’s problems – economic uncertainty and inequality, political instability, and above all the threat of climate change – must be understood through their interactions with each other.
And it’s not a bad frame. But is it a novel? Does it help to better diagnose our problems, let alone solve them?
Tooze, at least, says yes, because “it no longer seems plausible to point to a single cause and, by implication, a single solution”, to the world’s problems, as might have been the case in the past. But that was never plausible. The ills of the 1980s could no more be solved by the market alone – or the state alone, or civil society, or your solution of choice – than they can be today (or ever, from somewhere else). And when champions of the term insist that this polycrisis is the first multicausal crisis in history, it sounds, well, ahistorical (see below).
The other novelty of Tooze’s analysis is how global development and climate change are raising the stakes of our economic and political difficulties. The increase in climate-related disasters is new, even though it is a path we took 200 years ago. But if potential global self-destruction is the underlying requirement for a polycrisis, we have been there since Hiroshima.
Other definitions offer more specificity, focusing on multiple sources of systemic risk that amplify each other and break down a common understanding of the issues – what Tooze calls a “vacillating inability to grasp our situation.” You could call it the human condition.
Arguably, we have never had greater clarity about humanity’s threats and how to respond to them. We have developed vaccines against the covid-19 pandemic on the fly, which was not possible a century ago during the Spanish flu epidemic. Economic policy is far from perfect, but recession fighting and safety nets have come a long way since the great depression. Climate change (and what needs to be done to combat it) is now better understood than ever.
On the contrary, our main crisis is social – a paralysis that fails to advance solutions thoroughly in the face of thorny issues. Naming this complexity is just the beginning. Businesses and governments already know that there is no one size fits all solution to our problems. But a better diagnostic concept would help them understand where to start.
The job of an intellectual in a complex world is to clarify, and it is not clear that the “polycrisis” means anything other than its Greek roots: We have many problems.
GREAT POLYCRISES IN HISTORY
Is the polycrisis new? Good…
💀 First World War, 1914-1918. The global conflict that kick-started modernity involved a technological arms race, geopolitical competition, and new political ideas about self-government. But it also took place during a global cold spell that increased mortality and paved the way for the spread of the Spanish flu around the world, which is believed to have killed one in 100 people on the planet.
💀 The great famine in India, 1876-1877. The Madras famine, which killed between 6 and 10 million people in India, was part of a larger weather phenomenon that ruined crops in the South. Its effects were hastened by the British East India Company, which continued economic exploitation and blocked relief efforts.
💀 Thirty Years’ War, 1618-1648. It was not just a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics. The wars that devastated central Europe chaotically overlapped with dynastic strife, new forms of political propaganda and the rise of absolutism, while the Little Ice Age wreaked havoc with harvests. Oh, and there were plagues.
💀 The Native American Genocide, 1491-present. European colonialism emerged from political, economic and religious motivations, and was driven by technological leaps. But the polycrisis of indigenous peoples also included infectious diseases to which they had no immunity and ecological disasters caused by the resulting population collapse.
THE BIRTH OF A WORD
Tooze heard the term “polycrisis” from Jean-Claude Juncker, the former President of the European Commission who in 2018 used the p-word to refer to the EU’s challenges on migration, climate change, debt and economic growth, although he also said that Europe had “surely turned the page on this so-called ‘polycrisis'”. That’s it for that.
Juncker, in turn, borrowed “polycrisis” from French theorist Edgar Morin, who co-authored a 1999 book that introduced the idea. Morin, who fought with the French Resistance during World War II, did much of his later intellectual work on complex systems in different disciplines.
According to Google’s Body of English Publications, the term was briefly in vogue around the turn of the century (perhaps a Y2K vibe) but really took off after the 2008 financial crisis.
A 🚨 THING
Either Collins English Dictionary didn’t get the “polycrisis” memo, or it decided to be a maverick. In choosing his word of the year 2022, Collins opted for “permacrisis” – a term defined as “a long period of instability and insecurity”. That seems fair, especially given the number of other Collins nominees for Word of the Year who have all emerged from one or another of the current global crises. Here are a few:
hot banks: The winter equivalent of food banks: places where people unable to heat their homes can congregate during a cold snap.
sports washing: The sporting equivalent of “greenwashing”, in which countries hold big sporting events to cover up their poor human rights or climate records.
party portal: The British scandal involving government officials and civil servants meeting for long drunken evenings during periods of strict confinement. Its repercussions brought down Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Right: The use of lawsuits to intimidate or stumble a rival.
Quiet stop: As Collins describes it: “doing no more work than you are contractually obligated to do.” A product of the pandemic era, silent abandonment has been touted as a solution to burnout or a reaction to companies hogging employee time.
QUARTZ STORIES TO START THE CONVERSATION
5 GREAT STORIES FROM ELSEWHERE
🤑 The crypto vote. Amid news that America’s billionaires have spent a record amount on the upcoming US midterm elections, there’s another constituency trying to bite into a crumb of influence: crypto executives. As Vox reveals, crypto trading groups are working to form a Web3 voting bloc to push pro-crypto candidates to power. The crypto coterie, still in its infancy, uses midterms as a test, but could become a real political contender in future elections.
🪖 Military broadcasts. An opinion piece from Nature points out that military emissions are missing from the global climate agenda. According to some estimates, the armed forces could contribute between 1% and 5% of global emissions, but there are no international agreements, tracking methods or regulatory standards to hold them accountable. The authors lay out four points in their call to action to decarbonize armies.
🥫 Artistic attacks. In recent months, there have been several incidents in which climate activists attacked revered works of art: a Van Gogh was given a can of tomato soup, a Monet was smeared in mashed potatoes land and a Vermeer got stuck on a man’s head. The Atlantic explains why the effectiveness of these protests is questionable, not just from a social science perspective, but also because the whole optics are a bit…creepy. And finally: “Aesthetics matter in politics.”
🧠 Hey, are you listening? More adults are being diagnosed with ADHD and also receiving medication, with Adderall prescriptions in the US jumping 16% between 2021 and 2022. The New Statesman explains that underdiagnosis is a major reasons for the rise of ADHD in adults, but other factors may be at play, including the frenetic attention economy of the internet, the lasting effects of the pandemic, and the growing struggle to meet unrealistic cultural expectations. .
🐚 Cool as shell. Eva Donckers, an enterprising journalist from Vice, stumbled across the website of the Royal Belgian Conchology Association. Soon she found herself attending the Shell Show, an international convention for shell collectors that has been taking place in towns around Antwerp for over 30 years. A delightful story and photo set documents the many characters she encounters, including Eddy, a homicide detective by day and a collector of predatory snails by night.
Thanks for reading! And feel free to send us any comments, questions, or topics you want to learn more about.
Have a crisis-free weekend,
— Tim Fernholz, senior reporter, space, economics and geopolitics
Additional contributions by Julia Malleck, Alex Citrin-Safadi and Samanth Subramanian