Polycrisis: The Introduction
Our work on this manual emerged from an interest in catastrophic and existential risks. When we began our work on these global challenges—nuclear, climate, pandemics—it was common to treat them as discrete. Following the disruptions of 2020, they have merged into a complex web of entangled crises that is increasingly referred to as the polycrisis.
The Cascade Institute defines the polycrisis as a situation where crises in multiple global systems become causally entangled in ways that significantly degrade humanity’s prospects.1 Unlike systemic risks, which often focus on single sectors or issues, a polycrisis operates on a global scale, affecting a wide range of systems—from financial and environmental to social and political. This networked nature of crisesFigure 1 necessitates a rethinking of our traditional approaches to problem-solving and crisis management.
Figure 1. WEF's Global Risks Report 2023 highlights the interconnected risks landscape that "heighten the likelihood of polycrises."
Understanding the scales at which the polycrisis operates is crucial. It’s not merely a collection of individual crises but an entangled mess where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Within such inherent entanglement, the breakdown of one system causes cascading effects that inadvertently disrupt other interconnected (and sometimes invisible) systems, functioning in logics that are often beyond human comprehension. These elements contribute to the incomprehensibility of the polycrisis and present a uniquely wicked challenge to those attempting to solve it.
The Anatomy of a Polycrisis
The polycrisis is characterized by four key dimensions:
1. Extreme ComplexityA polycrisis involves erratic and dynamic networks of multiple synergistic causes and feedback loops. For instance, climate change isn’t just about rising temperatures; it’s also about how those temperatures affect sea levels, which in turn affect weather patterns, which then impact agriculture, and so on. These are not linear relationships but complex, synergistic interactions that make the crisis difficult to untangle.
2. High NonlinearityIn a polycrisis, the relationship between cause and effect is not proportional. Small changes in one system can lead to significant, and often unpredictable, changes in another. This nonlinearity is characterized by numerous equilibria, unpredictable tipping points, and hysteresis. For example, the collapse of a single financial institution can trigger a global economic meltdown, as was evident in the 2008 financial crisis.
3. Transboundary CausalityA polycrisis doesn’t respect administrative, political, or disciplinary boundaries. It operates on multiple time scales across natural, social, and technological systems. A health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, has implications not just for healthcare systems but also for economies, social behaviors, and even geopolitical relations.
4. Deep UncertaintyOne of the most challenging aspects of a polycrisis is the deep uncertainty about both its underlying causes and ultimate consequences. Traditional risk assessment models often fail because they can’t account for the unknown unknowns—factors that we can’t even conceive of yet but could have a significant impact on the crisis.
These dimensions interact in ways that exacerbate each other, creating a feedback loop of escalating problems. This diagramFigure 2 illustrates the interconnected nature of these dimensions and how they feed into the larger crisis, here contextualizing the Russia-Ukraine-US War within a broader field of triggers and effects including Omicron, inflation in Europe, the hunger crises, and more.
As planetary challenges multiply and become undeniably evident, the limitations of our current institutions have also become more apparent, leaving us with a swarm of issues—of mass coordination, social fracture, and discontinuity—that are yet to be resolved. We exist in an era where these institutions continue to erode in front of our eyes, slowly bleeding into a time when the only thing left would be the problems they caused. How do we move from this logic of extraction, so intrinsic to the institutions and systems currently at hand, to a logic of mutual sustenance?
Scott E. Page offers a lovely metaphor that might help frame how we approach the polycrisis. If we are willing to map outcomes onto landscapes, he suggests there are three kinds of distinct topographies that represent the challenges we encounter. The idea is that better outcomes are the equivalent to higher peaks.
Mount Fuji Landscapes — The Simplicity of Clear Direction
Mount Fuji landscapes are essentially conical. No matter where you are, it’s clear where you need to go to climb higher. In such landscapes, finding the path to higher ground is straightforward, much like tackling simple optimization problems. Regardless of your starting point, the way to the peak is evident. However, the polycrisis rarely presents such clarity. Traditional institutions, designed during a colonial era, have been “successful” within the constraints of their understanding but are ill-equipped to navigate the complex topography of a polycrisis.
Rugged Landscapes — The Search for the Hidden Summit
Rugged landscapes are ones where the tallest peak is not self-evident. It takes some searching to find the highest. Difficult challenges like building a nuclear bomb are rugged landscape problems. You need to invest a lot of time and effort into the search, but there is an answer and you will eventually find it. Along the way, you might find lots of good-enough answers. This is a useful metaphor for explaining to practically minded people why it’s something useful to suspend some of the constraints of reality when conducting a search. It’s easier to explore a rugged landscape if you can temporarily suspend gravity, even if—in the end—you’ll need to respect it and climb the mountain once you’ve found it. In some ways, the polycrisis, with its high nonlinearity and transboundary causality, resembles a rugged landscape. It demands a multi-disciplinary approach, suspending some of the constraints of reality to explore possible solutions.
Dancing Landscapes — The Dynamic Nature of Complexity
Page offers a third landscape in the metaphor which we believe best illustrates the polycrisis. He calls them dancing landscapes. Dancing landscapes change over time. The maxima and minima keep moving in response to all kinds of forces including your own attempts to move in them. Page struggles to describe this in terms of moving landmasses. We think the ocean is a better image.2 This dynamic oceanic nature calls for agile and adaptive solutions, challenging the notion that longer time spent on research necessarily produces better results.
Where Does That Leave Us?
In grappling with the polycrisis, we confront a complex, interwoven tapestry of existential risks that defy easy categorization or solution. The polycrisis is a mirror reflecting our collective failures, but it also offers a canvas upon which we can sketch new paradigms for mutual sustenance and resilience. As we navigate the dancing landscapes of this multifaceted crisis, we must be willing to question our existing frameworks, embrace the uncertainty, and adapt with agility. The polycrisis is a call to action—a summons to rethink, reimagine, and rebuild the very foundations of our global systems. It’s a daunting task, but it’s also an opportunity: a chance to redefine our legacy for the generations that will inherit the world we leave behind.
- Lawrence, M., Janzwood, S., & Homer-Dixon, T. (2022, September 16). What Is a Global Polycrisis? And how is it different from a systemic risk? https://cascadeinstitute.org/technical-paper/what-is-a-global-polycrisis.
- Inspired by this oceanic dance, the Center for Complexity hosted the Ocean Studio in May 2023, bringing together a cohort of multidisciplinary thinkers to locate avenues for innovative governance in the ebbs and flows of the ocean. Read more at The Ocean Teaches Governance.
Figure 1. World Economic Forum. (2023). The Global Risk Report 2023: “This is why 'polycrisis' is a useful way of looking at the world right now.”
Figure 2. Tooze, A. (2022). Chartbook #130: Defining polycrisis – from crisis pictures to the crisis matrix.