The Polycrisis Part Two; or, All our Futures are Humanitarian Futures

A decade ago I helped to run a series of Futures Roundtables with the Humanitarian Futures Programme at Kings College London, using futures thinking to chart possible developments in humanitarian response. I had been preoccupied with the climate crisis for several years, including trying and failing to promote environmental issues in humanitarian response (it was too early and literally nobody wanted to hear about it).

I tried to catch my thinking in an article entitled “All our Futures are Humanitarian Futures”. The basic thesis was that the climate crisis was leading to an unstable global situation in which none of us would escape environmental impacts and their associated political fallout – including the rich world, which for too long had been insulated by a combination of economic strength and political machinations.

I never finished writing that article because it was too depressing – and if you’ve read any of my other work you’ll realise how depressing that must have been – but I wish I had finished it, because increasingly I feel that we’re living in the world that I sought to describe in that article. The concept of the Anthropocene is mainstream now, and the term that I predict will rise to prominence is the Polycrisis.

In response to Adam Tooze, I wrote last week about how the Polycrisis is nothing new. Tooze has now written about Haiti in 2022 under the heading “Polycrisis Extreme”, laying out the varied reasons why Haiti finds itself in such dire straits. Given the size of his audience this will bring a basic understanding of Haiti’s situation to a much wider audience (which is a mixed blessing, frankly) but what struck me as I read it was a sense of deja vu.

This deja vu is not because Haiti has been in dire straits before – it has, and all too frequently – but because I have read a hundred analyses like this. It’s a very good synthesis, but it’s the sort of piece that I would put together as a briefing note for senior NGO management at the start of a sudden onset emergency, or as the introduction to a research piece on a longer-term crisis. This is unsurprising; this is exactly what is happening in Haiti.

What is surprising is the close identification of this particular emergency with The Polycrisis; Tooze claims that “This is not the normality of Haiti’s “ordinary” poverty or crisis. The current situation is far more dangerous and urgent.” But this is just the language of humanitarian fundraising, and the reality is that nearly all humanitarian crises involving conflicts are equally a mix of local dynamics and global trends, immediate and longstanding.

Take a look at reports from Yemen, or Afghanistan, or South Sudan, and they all fit Tooze’s description: “eminently political”, “both local and interconnected with wider global currents in politics and economics”, with factions competing “for control not only of logistics and transport, but also for territory and votes”, often “with an armory of weapons shipped in from the United States” (or other involved states). This is how it has always been.

The dynamics that make Haiti a polycrisis in Tooze’s view are the same dynamics that make for a polycrisis at the global level. So a possible argument follows: that what we are now referring to as the Polycrisis is in fact the first humanitarian crisis at global scale; and this, terrifyingly, supports the view that I formed all those years ago running those futures workshops; that All our Futures are Humanitarian Futures.

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