Question: Is the world about to fall apart? Gaza, war in Ukraine, the cost of living crisis, my radiator won’t work: all signs point to an endemic and irreparable state of desperation. This situation, seemingly our current situation, has been given the pseudo-scientific name of ‘polycrisis’. This is not a term that has wormed its way from the popular vernacular into the mouths of politicians like Brexit did – the World Economic Forum were keen to declare an ‘Age of Polycrisis’ at their 2023 Davos summit. What can we do, then, when the people who run our governments and institutions have apparently written everything off already?
Maybe, just maybe, it’s all an overreaction. Have we really entered an unprecedented age of calamity? Because by dubbing our present state of affairs a ‘polycrisis’, we are suggesting that past years were relatively crisis-free, or at least could be put under the umbrella of ‘monocrisis’. But that simply isn’t true.
the World Economic Forum were keen to declare an ‘Age of Polycrisis’ at their 2023 Davos Summit.
The 2010s, the 2000s, the 90s all had their fair share of problems. It is frankly impossible to think of a time without war, pestilence, famine, etc. wreaking havoc in some part of the world. The 90s are often seen as an especially bright decade, a period of good living best exemplified by Bill Clinton playing the saxophone with his shades on; Bill Clinton would go on to order questionable missile strikes against Iraq but sit on his hands throughout the genocide in Bosnia, all while the UK struggled its way out of recession.
The issue we really have, I think, is not that we are now concurrently suffering more crises than ever before, but that we are much more aware of them. I’ve seen many people post online about which modern innovations would most astound a Victorian child – I reckon scrolling through TikTok for just three minutes would fry their poor, pale brain. The sheer amount of information that is thrown at you in rapid succession is insane.
You can go from the frontlines in Ukraine to SAG-AFTRA picket lines to Prayag to dying coral reefs in seconds, without any time to process what you’ve just seen. It’s a deluge of quick snapshots about the current state of the world that would have been incomprehensible in the 90s, let alone the Victorian era. I just don’t think that we, as humans, were designed to be able to process this much stuff. Climate depression is one manifestation of the clash between our newfound omniscience and galling impotence as individuals. It looks as if the world is on fire, and it is all too easy to feel utterly powerless to put it out.
So, even if the diagnosis is slightly different, the symptoms are ultimately the same. Great. What, then, is the cure? Dispassion is tempting, but it can’t be the answer. If we become apathetic, we lose all hope of ever affecting the changes we want to see in the world. I wrote last time about the power of the public in raising nearly £50,000 for the family of Elianne Andam, and it would be simply tragic to lose that positive power in an attempt to guard ourselves from the negativity that seems all-pervasive at the moment.
Truth be told though, I didn’t really write about the money that kind people donated to Elianne’s family. I wrote about the awful circumstances of her passing, and about the bizarre felling of the Sycamore Gap tree. There was a moment of light, but it was buried in the dark. Because the thing is, our media is rarely predominantly about the many good things that happen every day despite the state of the world. Maybe it’s some quirk of evolution that compels us to remain aware of the dangers around us, rather than taking in all those things that make our lives so much better.
The Age of Polycrisis, I’d argue, may be a result of this focus on the potentially harmful becoming more acute as our base of knowledge becomes more broad. We now have so much that we could read, watch, or listen to; with the finite time we have at our disposal, we choose to spend it staying vigilant about all those possible dangers that are out there.
Dispassion is tempting, but it can’t be the answer
In this vein, it was sad to see the New York Times close their ‘This Week in Good News’ column back in early 2019. Yes, that was just one column in an enormous world of journalism and social media, but its closure seems indicative of the increasingly tense media landscape we now seem to be in.
And what gets reported does matter: ‘Cost of Living Crisis’ is a memorable little phrase that seems to be everywhere you look nowadays, but maybe its catchiness has had the ill-effect of inducing 64% of the British public to believe that we are currently in a recession. Not-so-breaking news: we aren’t. Of course, we aren’t in an exactly stellar economic situation either, but I think this is just one example that goes to show how the media’s focus on the negative can even lead us to see negatives that aren’t actually there.
So while there may not be any complete cure for our current hyper-awareness that makes us perceive a ‘polycrisis’, one remedy may be remaining cognisant of the negative skew that pervades the media we all consume. What’s happening in Gaza right now is tragic and condemnable, but allow yourself the brief levity of knowing that over 30,000 Palestinian people were housed and fed by humanitarian efforts in just twenty-four hours. Maybe give yourself a moment to feel lifted by the fact that university staff pension payments have just been fully restored. They’re even sending someone to fix my radiator this week. Good news is out there, we just have to look a little bit harder for it.