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How to deal with a world of polycrisis?
We are in the age of polycrisis and need better tools for multitasking
by Steffan Heuer
Illustrations by Filippo Fontana
As the world reels from simultaneous systemic risks, experts are grappling with the age of polycrisis and coming up with better tools for multitasking.
To get a sense of what humanity is up against, consider this smattering of headlines from fall 2022. Climate change is raising the specter that viruses and bacteria will be released from melting glaciers and permafrost and could infect local wildlife, thus becoming the starting point for the next pandemic. The war in Ukraine exposed an estimated 70 million people to food insecurity, on top of the 765 million humans who already went hungry in 2021. Of the 193 countries that had agreed at the climate summit in Glasgow in 2021 to step up their climate actions, only 26 had actually followed through a year later, with some even reactivating coal-fired power plants to get through the winter.
Welcome to the age of polycrisis. It’s a handy umbrella term describing a world roiled by several systemic risks all at once, ranging from climate change and the risk of new animal-born or zoonotic diseases to geopolitical instability and the threat of nuclear war to widespread food insecurity and mass migrations triggered by all of the above. Add in seemingly further-off risks such as artificial intelligence or gene editing running amok, and the future begins to look rather dire.
While the term is not new, polycrisis has taken on a new meaning and new urgency as governments, think tanks and ordinary citizens try to get their heads around how to best respond and prepare for it. The definitions might vary, but there is consensus that short-term thinking and siloed approaches tackling just one problem won’t get humanity out of this existential pickle.
What makes a polycrisis so insidious and scary, argues Columbia historian Adam Tooze, is its compounding effect and vicious feedback loop. A risk becomes a crisis when it has negative consequences to which we have to react, for example, when a wildfire erupts into a large conflagration that darkens the skies and has millions sheltering at home. When several risks converge at the same time, though, their effects are often amplified, according to the celebrity academic who specializes in well-sourced disaster research from the financial crisis of 2008 to the Covid-induced shutdown of the global economy.
“In the polycrisis the shocks are disparate, but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts,” according to Tooze, who frequently blogs about the latest risks and maps them in so-called crisis pictures and a risk matrix.
For academics, it doesn’t matter how many crises or systemic risks are part of this maelstrom of maladies. The World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Risks Report, for instance, tracks perceptions of 37 risks, while Tooze’s matrix lists only eight “macroscopic risks.” Wall Street doomsayer Nouriel Roubini, for his part, identifies 10 what he calls “megathreats” and warns readers of his eponymous book: “Expect many dark days, my friends.”
While compiling lists of crises is tempting, it should not distract from the more fundamental task at hand, cautions Michael Lawrence, a researcher with the Cascade Institute. The Canadian think tank focuses on polycrisis to explore “interventions for rapid global change.” As Lawrence sees it, humans have not developed the foresight to deal with several smoldering or raging fires at once. “We tend to use the past as a guide and assume that the future will imitate the trends of the past. That may be increasingly misguided. We are at a truly unprecedented moment,” he says. “The basic parameters of our existence – such as the climate, or population levels – are shifting.”
Lawrence is not the only expert who laments that we still lack the mindset – and the toolset – to respond. Conventional risk analysis, he says, treats risks as isolated events whereas we need new approaches to better understand how risks and crises interact. This comprehension deficit is not for lack of trying. Going back to the 1990s, futurists, academics and intelligence analysts have tried to map out paths through uncharted territory fraught with multiple minefields, from Cold War security threats and violent extremism to securing access to natural resources and handling disruptive new technologies.
A prime example is the National Intelligence Council’s quadrennial paper on Global Trends that spins various risks and crises forward by two decades. Launched in 1997 as a classified document, it’s since become openly available and widely read. The most recent edition, released in late 2020 and looking out to 2040, carries the ominous headings “a more contested world” and “expanding uncertainty.”
CIA veteran Mathew Burrows, who was the lead author of three editions, credits the multifaceted reports with raising awareness among policy planners but adds that “Western governments seem unable to work on more than one crisis at a time, which often means that the other dangers are left to increase while they’re trying to solve one.”
Another, even broader attempt to think backward from multiple possible future scenarios to the present was the Global Futures Forum, organized by the U.S. State Department. Starting in 2005, Susan Nelson was one of the career civil servants who ran the GFF, which has since been discontinued. She describes it as a “one-of-a-kind network of intelligence and security professionals from 24 member countries friendly to the US, working together to anticipate and solve transnational security issues of common concern.” With 1,800 members, the GFF comprised self-organized communities of interest around various topics, even though the interlocking risk scenarios were not referred to as “polycrisis” back then.
Participants constructed plausible future scenarios around a best case and worst case, plus a muddling through middle path, and then tried to identify events or actions that could happen to move from each imagined future back to the present. “The value of the scenarios approach is to give decision makers more room to shape the future rather than just reacting as it occurs,” Nelson says.
In the final analysis, though, translating those insights into policy was always a challenge. “It was difficult to get busy policymakers to participate in these time-consuming exercises, and briefing [them] on the findings didn’t have the same impact it would if policymakers had been able to participate directly.” Getting decision makers to understand how multiple crises interact is still a tall order, yet more urgently needed than ever, she adds.
The reason why thinking about the polycrisis hasn’t evolved much comes down to one fact: institutional disregard for the long term. Politicians tend to be in office a relatively short time and need to deliver results during that short time. Sensitizing them always requires a trade-off, says former State Department official Sue Nelson who ran planning exercises: “We learned that when trying to get policymakers to consider how their decisions today might impact the future, it was vital to include a short-term win.” Scoring quick points on national security issues, for instance, or making a more near-term climate change commitment that can be sold to constituents. Yet short- and long-term goals don’t always align.
Driven by the new sense of urgency, the perspective of decision-makers in politics and business seems to be finally shifting further out. Take Cat Tully, who worked as a strategic planner in the UK government of Tony Blair and went on to found the School of International Futures. When she pitches her global non-profit collective to international bodies and governments around the world, she usually opens with an eye-catching statement: “Systems are cracking. We are excited.” By that she means the opportunity to use the dysfunctional state of affairs to create new systems and institutions to act as a scaffolding to build new, positive futures.
“We can’t let old doomsayers colonize the future with their misery,” Tully says. Instead, she works with a network of young activists to compel CEOs and politicians to think about future generations. “Intergenerational fairness is baked into everything, from Covid to climate change. Leaders and CEOs know what’s coming,” Tully reports from her regular high-level meetings. Examples include the UN Secretary-General creating a Special Envoy for Future Generations and the EU declaration of 10 commitments, including the pledge to “safeguard the future for the next generations of Europeans.”
Consultants and influential thought leaders try to leverage this growing openness to look beyond the next few quarters and drive a lasting change in mindset and business practices. One of them is New York-based academic Ari Wallach, author of the book Longpath who runs workshops under the same name. He tells executives in the US and Europe that we are at an “intertidal moment,” a historic event where unprecedented waves of change and upheaval are crashing onto the shore, washing away the status quo.
“The hyper-rationalized way of looking at the world, or what you could call techno-solutionism, is coming to an end,” Wallach argues. Yet instead of despairing at all system failures in full view, he exhorts leaders to develop a positive outlook and develop a new narrative from within. “If you don’t develop an idea where you want to head to, you will wallow in this crisis moment. We need to have something on the other side.” For him, that means personal introspection what actions taken today can turn us into “great ancestors,” or the best stewards for the future.
Covid, he points out, has made executives from Hollywood and Wall Street to German industrial powerhouses more receptive to reassessing their lives and work. Exercises such as leaving one chair empty around the table to represent future stakeholders may sound trite but work well, Wallach says. “I work with big companies, but they increasingly prefer to convene small groups. It gives C-level people a safe space to have a conversation about future generations and engage in exercises around multiple possible futures.”
Willing a positive outcome in the face of polycrisis is also what drives the success and celebrity status of Oxford philosopher William MacAskill. His data-soaked musings on What We Owe the Future has found eager readers who want to ponder what decisions they can make now that will impact billions of fellow humans yet unborn.
The path toward longtermism is “a risky expedition into uncharted terrain,” MacAskill writes. “In trying to make the future better, we don’t know exactly what threats we will face or even exactly where we are trying to go, but, nonetheless, we can prepare ourselves. We can scout out the landscape ahead of us, ensure the expedition is well resourced and well coordinated, and, despite uncertainty, guard against those threats we are aware of.”
Among the known threats and solutions we can currently prepare for, he counts climate change and decarbonization, engineered pandemics and biosecurity, as well as “wisely governing the ascent of artificial intelligence.” Focusing resources on combatting the dangers in sight is the main thrust of the Effective Altruism movement of which MacAskill has become a “reluctant prophet,” as The New Yorker magazine puts it. Entrepreneurs and philanthropists have pledged billions for this solutions-driven quest.
While a growing cadre of academics and theoreticians are laying the groundwork for understanding what humanity is up against, one big unanswered question remains. Are humans even cut out to multitask when dealing with an increasingly chaotic world? As Cascade’s Michael Lawrence sees it, “we are good at solving one problem at a time. That kind of siloed problem solving is not suited to our present predicament.”
That’s why he urges more research on the feedback mechanisms between crises which reinforce and escalate one another. “We need to think more about how the disruptions wrought by global polycrisis can be turned into moments of opportunity to reconfigure our societies.