The Poly-Crisis

I'm afraid the best we can hope for now is to delay the inevitable and mitigate the consequences.

The Poly-Crisis
Photo by Alina Grubnyak / Unsplash

The human body, economy, geopolitics and biosphere are remarkably similar. All are complex systems with countless known and unknown interdependencies.

Changing one variable within those systems might cause a linear change in another. Or it could be the catalyst for cascading systems failure. It's unpredictable.

For decades, we've been changing the variables of our biosphere without fully understanding the consequences. We know greater greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere will push up the temperature. What many fail to appreciate is how the second-order effects of this relationship can turn a linear change exponential and a simple two-variable correlation into a systems failure.

Ultimately, it's this systems failure that will destroy our civilization.

A civilization of our scale and complexity only survives because the web of processes, inputs and outputs holds together.

Our civilizational web

Everything is connected.

Feeding population of our size depends on industrial agriculture. Industrial farms grow crops by using fertilizer. Nitrogen based fertilizer is created using the Haber process, which relies on natural gas. Food is transported to supermarkets by diesel fueled trucks using government-built and maintained roads paid for by fiscal spending. Government spending depends on the ability to sell bonds, print money or raise taxes without enduring a significant cost. A stretched consumption based economy with a large government deficit requires debt denominated in its own currency and reserve currency status, which requires global economic and military hegemony.

I could go on.

This is just one interconnected pathway. Repeat for every industry, company, process and service and you start to see how removing a single block can cause the entire Jenga set to tumble.

While these systems have remained operational for decades, this is not an indication of their durability. In contrast, these systems become more complex and fragile with time. Remember when a relatively manageable virus - Covid-19 - brought global civilization and the entire supply chain to its knees? Those paying attention to developments in China knew the virus would become a pandemic, yet the best we could do as a civilization was to brace for impact.

We won't do anything to alter civilization's system design. By the time most people sense the urgency to do so it will be too late. It probably already is too late.

Instead of controlling our destiny we chose to wait for mother nature make the decisions for us.

A drought here a poor crop yield there. At first it might seem manageable. But eventually, we will be overwhelmed by the relentless cascade of catastrophes that seem to come out of nowhere.

Again, those paying attention know what to expect.

Once politicians feel control is slipping, they'll panic-react in the ways they know best:

  • Print money
  • Start wars
  • Oppress others

Welcome to the poly-crisis.

What do I mean by poly-crisis?

The poly-crisis, in my view, doesn't simply refer to the number of crises hitting us at the same time. This definition oversimplifies its meaning.

Rather, the defining feature of the poly-crisis is the interdependence of multiple triggers and outcomes. They are not mutually exclusive. One thing leads to another and then another, cascading at a speed and unpredictability beyond our capability to comprehend and resolve what's happening.

Climate change, ecosystem collapse, the energy crisis, geopolitics, resource depletion, agriculture, fascism, wealth inequality, AI, war are all connected and have multilateral causation. In other words, a change in any one of these issues can directly or indirectly create change in one or more of the others. There's simply no way to accurately model that.

A rambling example

Fossil fuel use is pushing CO2 into the atmosphere causing the earth to warm. This relationship has been known for a century, yet that didn't stop us. Yes, greed was certainly a big motivator. But humanity was also fighting to extend Malthusian outcomes far into the future. In succeeding, we doubled-down on our dependence on complexity.

Industrial food production is an energy intensive process. Some estimate it requires 10 calories of energy to produce one calorie of energy. Food production uses energy to fertilize, grow, harvest and transport food. Without energy inputs, we'd only be able feed about 4 billion people.

The fossil fuels that are killing us are also keeping us alive.

Compounding this irony, fossil fuel production is becoming more difficult and energy intensive (see EROEI). Oil supply is near record highs, but a rising share of that supply comes from unconventional sources - oil sands and shale.

My point is fossil fuel reserves are depleting in quality and quantity. Sometime in the future, production will no longer keep up with demand and production will eventually start to fall.

We can cut fossil fuel use now to minimize the damage to the atmosphere, or wait to be forced to cut fossil fuel use. Either way, our standard of living is on the decline and food scarcity will cause social breakdown and conflict.

As our standard of living declines, it does not shrink proportionally for everyone. Those in power will tighten their grip, oppressing others to ensure their wealth remains intact (or grows). Those without power will suffer the brunt of the decline.

Those in power also control the social narrative (by owning media) and will meticulously redirect mass anger to scapegoats. These scapegoats might be other groups within the citizenry or foreign countries. This creates fertile ground for a "strong leader" who promises a return to the better days. But to accomplish those promises requires extraordinary control, which the populous gladly hands over.

Once in power, the strong leader targets scapegoated groups foreign states. Often, the scapegoats conveniently includes people or entities critical of the leadership.

The point of this rambling example, illustrating how energy dependence might lead to fascism, is to show how we're facing multiple crises with many second and third-order effects that often require contradictory responses.

The complexity of our interconnected system is simply too great to map, minimizing our ability to manage the poly-crisis.

Mandatory Viewing
A collection of the best documentaries on climate change, civilizational collapse, nuclear war, peak oil and more.

No happy endings

If you're reading this expecting me to conclude by saying "...and here's how we avoid such a scenario", I'm sorry. The time for that was 30 years ago. Instead, we spend the past 30 years increasing our bet on business as usual.

I'm afraid the best we can hope for now is to delay the inevitable and mitigate the consequences.

Stay healthy, stay strong, stay self reliant. Not all of us can do that. Many rely on the system for medicines to keep them alive or services to help them function.

Perhaps my best advice is to be happy for every day you have freedom, food and family.