Global polycrisis: The causal mechanisms of crisis entanglement

Technical Paper #2023-1

Version Number: 1.1

January 17, 2024

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Michael Lawrence, Thomas Homer-Dixon, Scott Janzwood, Johan Rockström, Ortwin Renn, and Jonathan F. Donges

On January 17, 2024, the Cambridge University Press journal Global Sustainability published the peer-reviewed, Cascade Institute-led paper, “Global Polycrisis: The causal mechanisms of crisis entanglement”.

Global Sustainability also launched a call for papers for a special upcoming issue titled “Polycrisis in the Anthropocene” and welcomes paper proposals on a range of topics. The special issue will publish articles on a rolling basis, and presently includes two introductory texts:

A commentary that explores three key debates around the polycrisis concept and provides some possible directions for contributions.

A theoretical framework for polycrisis analysis titled “Global Polycrisis: The Causal Mechanisms of Crisis Entanglement”. A press release for this article can be found here.

Contributors will be invited to a workshop at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in late May to develop their ideas. Manuscripts are due before or shortly after the event.
The special issue is a collaboration between Global Sustainability, the Cascade Institute (Thomas Homer-Dixon and Michael Lawrence), the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (Johan Rockström), and the Research Institute for Sustainability, Helmholtz Centre Potsdam (Ortwin Renn).

Paper summary: Multiple global crises—including the pandemic, climate change, and Russia’s war on Ukraine—have recently linked together in ways that are significant in scope, devastating in effect, but poorly understood. A growing number of scholars and policymakers characterize the situation as a “polycrisis.” Yet this neologism remains poorly defined. We provide the concept with a substantive definition, highlight its value-added in comparison to related concepts, and provide a theoretical framework to explain the causal mechanisms currently entangling many of the world’s crises. In this framework, a global crisis arises when one or more fast-moving trigger events combines with slow-moving stresses to push a global system out of its established equilibrium and into a volatile and harmful state of disequilibrium. We then identify three causal pathways—common stresses, domino effects, and inter-systemic feedbacks—that can connect multiple global systems to produce synchronized crises. Drawing on current examples, we show that the polycrisis concept is a valuable tool for understanding unfolding crises, generating actionable insights, and opening avenues for future research.

Dr. Michael Lawrence is a Fellow at the Cascade Institute.

Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon is the Founder and Director of the Cascade Institute.

Dr. Scott Janzwood is the Research Director at the Cascade Institute.

Prof. Dr. Johan Rockström is the Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Potsdam, Germany.

Prof. Dr. Dr. Ortwin Renn is an Affiliate Scholar at the Research Institute for Sustainability, Helmholtz Center Potsdam.

Dr. Jonathan F. Donges is the Co-Leader of the FutureLab on Earth Resilience in the Anthropocene and Working Group Leader on Whole Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Potsdam, Germany.