The Polycrisis Part 3, or where the Apocalypse finds us

In my previous post I made the argument that descriptions of the polycrisis resemble nothing so much as a fairly standard humanitarian situation report – just on a global rather than a local scale.

I want to explain one of the implications of that statement, and why I find that implication genuinely terrifying. First of all, I need to explain in simple terms how “humanitarianism” – in this context, the formal international response that most people in the West think of when they think of disaster response – works. This will take some time, so bear with me.

The easiest way to understand humanitarian response is to imagine a stone dropped in a pond. Ripples rush out from a central point, and those closest to that point are the first affected. If the stone is relatively small, the ripples aren’t felt much further out; but if the stone is large enough, the ripples keep going, affecting more and more actors, drawing them into a response which moves back logistically towards the central point of impact.

The first affected are also first to respond, and so local actors provide the bulk of assistance to affected communities most quickly, with national actors (and particularly state institutions) moving next to provide support. In cases where that support is inadequate (or in some cases missing entirely) the “traditional” humanitarian community – primarily UN agencies, Red Cross or Red Crescent organisations, and international NGOs – are required to fill the gap.

In reality, these international actors usually just steamroll in regardless, based on existing presence, funding availability and media coverage. Nevertheless it is true that in a humanitarian emergency of sufficient size or duration, local and national systems may be overwhelmed or exhausted, and local and national expertise may not be enough to deal with the emergency. In such circumstances external actors are required to bolster the response.

My understanding of the Polycrisis is that it is not just a lot of things happening at once, but a cascading failure of the multiple overlapping systems which keep human civilisation relatively stable – political and economic systems in particular, with downstream impacts on social systems, and this failure is transmitted and amplified through the technological infrastructure that civilisation runs on. It is a very big stone dropped into a very big pond.

If this (admittedly simplified) reading of the Polycrisis is accurate, then it is a humanitarian crisis in which there are no external actors who can provide additional response capacity in the way that national or international organisations might in a “traditional” humanitarian response. The fact that there is no “outside” to the Polycrisis, and therefore no additional capacity, is what would distinguish it from crises that we have experienced before.

In addition while a large-scale humanitarian crisis is in effect, capacity is predominantly devoted to dealing with its impacts, not with its drivers. Tooze refers to this when he writes “what crisis-fighting and technological fixes all too rarely do is address the underlying trends.” If a crisis continues for long enough, it is possible to become trapped within this dynamic – a trap which it is very difficult to get out of, at least not without outside assistance.

This is terrifying to consider, as capacity (particularly in terms of funds and expertise) will continuously be absorbed before it can reach those most in need. Aside from the question of whether we possess adequate capacity, it is not even clear if we have appropriate capacity to deal with these overlapping crises; there is clearly a consensus within the traditional humanitarian community that our existing structures are not fit for purpose.

Do I think that our present civilisation could be brought down in this way? Yes, although I don’t think it’s possible (or even meaningful) to assign statistical odds to such a complex possibility. Do I think that it’s possible for us to evade the trap? I don’t know for certain, since it depends whether that trap has already been sprung, but I suspect the answer is no. As Virilio pointed out, the invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck.

Most experts in different aspects of the polycrisis – climate impacts, migration patterns, financial instability, energy transition, digital security – warn that we are in for a rough few years. In my darker moments, I suspect that it’s worse than that – that an era of relative stability in global history is coming to an end, and we will be moving into a period of persistent volatility. Which is why I say: all our futures are humanitarian futures.


Jem Bendell January 7, 2023 Reply

The global context of disasters leading to less external support is something I cover in my paper on the end of sustainable development. I offer the term metadisaster to refer to this phenomenon and implications for humanitarian strategies

Paul Currion February 23, 2023 Reply

Thanks Jem – I hadn’t picked up on that when I read the paper last year, I’ll go back to it now.

Silva January 10, 2023 Reply

Is there going to be another episode with some ideas, some glimpses of “optimism of the will”? The future will be humanitarian, but what should the meaning of “humanitarian” be, in the future?

Paul Currion February 23, 2023 Reply

It feels like humanitarian organisations haven’t really come to terms with this new reality yet, and so aren’t making the right kind of noise. We’re still stuck in an old model of humanitarian response rather than a holistic one, and we keep getting distracted by “development” actors trying to force some unholy union on us.

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