Welcome to the world of crises
The writer is a contributing editor for the FT and teaches history at Columbia University
Pandemics, droughts, floods, hurricanes and wildfires, the threats of a third world war – how quickly we have become on the list of concussions. So much so that, from time to time, we should stand back and consider the utter strangeness of our circumstances.
As former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers recently remarked, “This is the most complex, disparate, and cross-cutting set of challenges I can remember in the 40 years that I’ve noticed them.” .
Of course, familiar economic mechanisms are still very powerful. A panicked bond market brought down an incompetent British government. You could say it’s a textbook case of market discipline. But why did the gold plating market skyrocket in the first place? The backdrop is the massive energy subsidy bill and the Bank of England’s determination to shrink the huge bond portfolio it has piled up to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
With economic and non-economic shocks lingering all the way, it’s no surprise that an unfamiliar term is increasing in monetary value – polycrisis.
A problem becomes a crisis when it challenges our ability to cope and thus threatens our identity. In a multi-crisis, the shocks are different, but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts. Sometimes one feels as if one loses the sense of reality. Is the mighty Mississippi really running out and threatening to cut off the Midwest’s farms from the world economy? Did the January 6 riots really threaten the US Capitol? Do we really care? separate economies of the west from China? Things that once seemed fanciful are now becoming reality.
This came as a shock. But what is it really like? Remember the years 2008-2009. Vladimir Putin invades Georgia. John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. Banks have been overthrown. The Doha World Trade Organization round of negotiations was fraught with grief, as were the climate talks in Copenhagen next year. And, on top of that, swine fever is breaking out.
Former European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, to whom we owe the currency of the term polycrisis, borrowed it in 2016 from French complexity theorist Edgar Morin, who first used it. in the 1990s. As Morin himself emphasized, it was with the ecological warning in the early 1970s that a new sense of global risk entered the public’s consciousness.
So are we ever living in a diversity crisis? We should be careful with complacency.
In the 1970s, whether you were a European communitarian, an ecologist, or an angry conservative, you could attribute your anxieties to a single cause–the late capitalism, too much or too little economic growth, or overpowering. A single cause also means that one can envision a far-reaching solution, be it social revolution or neoliberalism.
What has made the crises of the past 15 years so disorienting is that it no longer seems reasonable to point to a single cause and, to imply a single solution. While in the 1980s, you might still believe that the “market” would effectively guide the economy, bring about growth, defuse controversial political issues, and win wars. cold, who would make the same claim today? It turns out that democracy is fragile. Sustainable development will require controversial industrial policy. And the new cold war between Beijing and Washington is just beginning.
Meanwhile, the diversity of problems is compounded by growing anxiety that social and economic development is hurting us towards catastrophic ecological tipping points.
The speed of change is amazing. In the early 1970s, the global population was less than half what it is today, and China and India were very poor. Today, much of the world organized into powerful nations has come a long way toward eradicating absolute poverty, generating a global gross domestic product of $90 billion, and maintaining a fusion of 12,705 nuclear weapons, while depleting the carbon budget at a rate of 35 billion tons of CO₂ a year. Imagining that our future problems will be those of 50 years ago is failing to capture the speed and scale of historical transformation.
So, what is the outlook? In a world where one could conceivably be dominated by a single underlying source of stress, you can imagine a climactic crisis from which the solution might emerge. But Wagnerian’s script doesn’t seem to make sense anymore. Modern history emerges as a story of progress in terms of improvisation, innovation, reform and crisis management. We’ve avoided major recessions, invented vaccines to stop epidemics, and avoided nuclear war. Perhaps innovation will also allow us to master the looming environmental crises.
Probably. But it’s a never-ending race, because what fighting crises and fixing technology very rarely does is addressing underlying trends. The more successfully we cope, the more stress increases. If the past few years have been stressful and disorienting, if your life has been disrupted, it’s time to brace yourself. Our never-ending walk will become more precarious and stressful.