It is increasingly apparent that superficially separate global crises are synchronizing—occurring at the same time or in quick succession. Their combined impacts are both greater than and different from the sum of the harms they would create in isolation, were they not so deeply interconnected. Yet the causal mechanisms that produce this synchronization remain opaque and underexplored.
A confluence of ecological, social, technological, financial-economic, natural and other forces are interacting These unpredictable interactions are causing future shocks of ever greater frequency and amplitude. Today’s crises simultaneously span ecological, natural, political, economic and technological systems, with ever increasing unpredictability, rapidity and power. Because they’re driven by a multiplicity of underlying systemic risks, from climate heating and zoonotic viral disease (disease transmitted from animals to humans) to economic insecurity, ideological extremism and geopolitical tensions. Biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, change in Earth’s global ocean circulation, resource depletion are the fastest global risk over the next decade. Artificial -General- Intelligence, and neural nets are unleashing exponential increase in autonomous computational power -Symbiotic Autonomous Systems- the design of novel materials, synthetic biology, and new scientific and technological modes have the profound enabling power has the potential to bring about real change. Deep Tech’s cutting-edge technologies to create tangible ecological, economic and societal shifts, and never has it been more relevant.
Most of these risks are not only worse than they were one or two decades ago, they are also getting worse faster, while the crises they’re generating are happening more often simultaneously. Put simply, today’s global risks are amplifying, accelerating and synchronizing.
The polycrisis has many names—cascading crises, the metacrisis, the permacrisis, eco-social collapse, the great unraveling. Or one can simply call it turbulent times or a rapidly changing world. It doesn’t matter much what we call the polycrisis. Because the polycrisis looks different, feels different, and is explained differently everywhere, there won’t be any single understanding of it.
Dismissing the polycrisis as an illusion will only help make its ultimate effects immeasurably worse. By example, the huge injection of extra energy is supercharging storms, droughts and heat waves – extreme events that are then generating cascading, synchronized damage to our infrastructure and food systems, forest resources and physical health. The worldwide cost is already in the trillions of dollars and escalating fast. These effects are not an illusion.
What matters is whether we recognize that it is real, that we are living in it, and that it is changing our lives. If we accept that much, we will recognize that we have to navigate it—and that good maps are essential to skillful navigation.
It looks more and more as if the future will be a multi-centric world of ever-shifting alliances in which hybrid warfare and lower level conflicts among state, corporate, and non-state actors will launch us into an entirely unpredictable sci-fi future. The novelty of humanity’s predicament demands novelty in our thinking as well. The polycrisis idea can motivate urgent scientific investigation into the architecture of global crisis interaction. If we’re going to have a clue about how we can address humanity’s intensifying challenges – as an integrated, compounding system of crises, rather than as discrete problems – we need to figure out why and how they’re becoming entangled.
Our knowledge of polycrisis remains much poorer than critics might like to believe. We still struggle to see the full picture of crisis interactions. Experts know a lot about individual systemic risks (such as pandemics) and the vulnerabilities of particular global systems (such as finance or food), but our understanding of interactions between systems and their crises remains weak and underdeveloped. Epidemiologists warned that a major pandemic was coming, for example, but who could predict that the government’s response would interact with political polarization, misinformation, and radicalization? And we have yet to witness the full macroeconomic fallout of fiscal stimulus as high inflation interacts with energy shocks and supply chain disruptions.
At every level, we must learn to navigate the polycrisis. We have no choice. The only choice is whether we prepare to navigate it consciously—or just let it unfold and respond as it does.
The debate around the polycrisis boils down to whether we really understand the nature of the mess we are in. And clearly, we do not. Scientists, commentators and policy makers still address the world’s crises mainly from inside their disciplinary and institutional silos, which means they generally can’t see why and how the world’s crises have become so entangled.
Is polycrisis just the latest buzzword in the litany of doom and gloom. Is our predicament so unprecedented that we need a new perspective on crisis? It should generate new and unique insights that can help reduce at least some of the prevailing uncertainty of current events to inform more effective action. It has to be more than a shell concept. Let us begin to fill that shell with a long and plausible list of the polycrisis’s key features.