Noun: collective term for interlocking and simultaneous crises of an environmental, geopolitical and economic nature
Shortly before October’s IMF and World Bank meetings in Washington DC, former US Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers surveyed the global scene. “I can remember previous moments of equal or even greater gravity for the world economy,” he said. “But I cannot remember moments when there were . . . as many cross-currents as there are right now.”
Galloping inflation had set in across the developed world, Summers noted, forcing central banks to tighten monetary policy more or less simultaneously. Meanwhile, an energy shock caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine was hitting Europe particularly hard. And concerns were growing about the direction of Chinese policymaking, notably the country’s handling of Covid-19, not to mention Beijing’s designs on Taiwan.
Summers thought the term “polycrisis”, popularised in recent months by the economic historian and FT contributing editor Adam Tooze, “apt” as a way of capturing a historical moment characterised by multiple global crises unfolding at the same time on an almost unprecedented scale.
Tooze didn’t coin the word, however. It appears to have first been used in the late 1990s by the French social scientists Edgar Morin and Anne Brigitte Kern, who employed it to describe the “interwoven and overlapping crises” facing humanity, especially in the ecological sphere.
The term re-entered wider circulation in 2018, in a speech delivered by Jean-Claude Juncker, then president of the European Commission. He recalled that in the middle of that decade, the EU had been in danger of “sleepwalking from one crisis to another without waking up” — from the sovereign debt crisis, through the influx of migrants and refugees fleeing war in the Middle East, to Brexit and the rise of populism. But since then, he declared, “We have slowly but surely turned the page from this so-called polycrisis”.
In the wake of the global dislocations caused by the pandemic and the intensification of the contest between great powers, Juncker’s confidence that Europe, or the world for that matter, have put the polycrisis behind them looks sublimely misplaced.