How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

The Lazy Drama of ‘The Polycrisis’

If you haven’t yet heard about “the global polycrisis,” it’s coming for you.

“The global polycrisis” has caught fire in policy and pundit circles as a shorthand way of saying the world today is, not to put too fine a point on it, uniquely screwed. By labeling our world situation a “polycrisis,” advocates of the term are saying we face not just a large set of planetary challenges, but challenges that mutually reinforce each other, spiraling us all into a hellhole. Climate change is not just climate change, goes this line of analysis — it’s driving inflation, the turn to nativism and widening social inequality, just to name a few social ills, which in turn feed back to erode climate resilience and any international consensus around action for emissions mitigation. So we can’t just “solve” a global polycrisis by tackling its constituent crises; we have to tackle the feedback loops among all of them, too.

Thomas Homer-Dixon and Johan Rockström, two researchers whose careers have been long marked by doomsaying, explain the concept and the evidence for it in a recent New York Times opinion piece. (The subdirectory of the piece’s URL — coronavirus-ukraine-climate-inflation — is itself shorthand for the theory.) Problem: The piece makes clear that little hard evidence exists to confirm the global polycrisis. To their credit, Homer-Dixon and Rockström call for an establishment of a new scientific body to ferret out these links; but in the meantime, they urge, we must act now, because wouldn’t it just stand to reason that all these bad things are somehow connected? It’s no coincidence that the word “likely” appears three times in the Homer-Dixon/Rockström piece — the likelihood that a global polycrisis is upon us (and the consensus around that likelihood) at some point step into the place normally occupied by actual proof.

In his recent essay “Against polycrisis,” economist Noah Smith walks us through a multitude of reasons to be skeptical a polycrisis is actually upon us — and why buffer mechanisms in the global political economy actually make it more likely that crises can lead not to polycrisis but polysolution — policy and economic responses that combine to solve not just the targeted crisis but other crises as well. Is Smith’s reasoning motivated? Maybe. All I can say is that, unlike Homer-Dixon and Rockström, he has a multitude of examples where crisis + buffer mechanisms led to a polysolution. He leads with evidence, not supposition and mood.

In my essay “Smil and the Specificity of Happy Endings,” I wrote about a typical researcher bad habit when writing calls-to-action in research papers: The call for an absurdly general level of action, aimed at changing just about everything. Saying “everything must change” evades specifying what and who must change now; it’s laziness or even cowardice masquerading as radicalism.

“The global polycrisis” has a similar lazy appeal as an analysis, pumping up the sense of drama around challenges that are already big enough, inflating the importance of your argument through virtue signaling that costs you nothing. My recommendation: Wait for the data and don’t give into the drama. Choose instead to make the focus of your argument and the targets for your recommendations as sharp as possible.