The author is an FT assistant editor and teaches history at Columbia University
Epidemics, droughts, floods, hurricanes and wildfires, threats of a third world war – that’s how far we’ve come on the list of disasters. So much so that, from time to time, it is good to stand back and consider the strangeness of our situation.
As former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers recently put it: “This is the most complex, diverse, and complex series I can recall in the 40 years I’ve been in charge of such things.”
Yes, traditional economic methods still have great power. The bond market crash ended Britain’s inefficient government. It was, you might say, a textbook case of the market. But why were gilt markets bullish to begin with? Behind it was a huge energy support bill and the Bank of England’s determination to unwind the huge bond issue it had piled up to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
With the economic and non-economic crisis that has been going to the bottom, it is not surprising that an unknown term is gaining currency – polycrisis.
A problem becomes a problem when it challenges our ability to cope and thus threatens who we are. In polycrisis the paradoxes are different, but they are combined so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Sometimes a person feels as if he is losing his true meaning. Is the mighty Mississippi really drying up and threatening to cut Midwest farms off from the global economy? Did the January 6 riots really threaten the US Capitol? Are we on the brink of Western economic disruption from China? Things that once seemed like fiction are now reality.
This comes as a surprise. But how new is it? Think back to 2008-2009. Vladimir Putin conquered Georgia. John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. Banks collapsed. The Doha World Trade Organization meeting turned out to be a disappointment, as were the climate talks in Copenhagen the following year. And to top it all off, the swine flu had taken hold.
The former president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, to whom we owe the term polycrisis, borrowed it in 2016 from the French crisis expert Edgar Morin, who first used it in the 1990s. As Morin himself insisted, it was with the environmental warnings of the early 1970s that new ideas of global danger entered the public consciousness.
So have we been living in a polycrisis all this time? Let us not be ashamed.
In the 1970s, whether you were a Eurocommunist, an environmentalist or an environmentalist, you could attribute your concerns to one cause – late capitalism, too much or too little economic growth, or too much libertarianism. One reason also meant that one could think of a radical solution, whether it was social reform or neoliberalism.
What makes the problems of the last 15 years so confusing is that it no longer seems reasonable to point to one thing, and, by implication, one fix. While in the 1980s you still believed that the “market” could manage the economy, bring growth, resolve political conflicts and win the cold war, who would say the same today? It seems that democracy is weak. Sustainable development will require conflicting corporate policies. And a new cold war between Beijing and Washington is just beginning.
Meanwhile, the diversity of problems is exacerbated by the growing concern that economic and social development is leading us to an ecologically dangerous place.
The speed of change is amazing. In the early 1970s the world population was less than half of what it is today, and China and India were very poor. Today the world has become more and more powerful countries that have gone a long way to eradicate absolute poverty, generating a total global income of $90tn and maintaining 12,705 nuclear weapons, while reducing the carbon budget to the same extent. of 35bn metric tonnes of CO₂ per year. To think that our future problems will be the same as those of 50 years ago is to fail to realize the speed and magnitude of historical change.
So what is his opinion? In a world that can be thought of as being dominated by one main source of conflict, you can imagine the huge problem that resolution can create. But such a Wagnerian version no longer seems plausible. Modern history is seen as a tale of progress through change, reform, improvement and problem solving. We have avoided several diseases, developed vaccines and avoided nuclear war. Perhaps new technologies will allow us to be more aware of future environmental challenges.
Maybe. But it’s a competitive race, because dealing with problems and improving technology rarely works to deal with the situation. The more successful we are in dealing with this problem, the greater the conflict. If you have found the last few years to be difficult and confusing, if your life is already messed up, it is time to get ready. Our walk on the endless ropes will be dangerous and stressful.