Aarathi Krishnan
Life in the time of polycrisis

Why does so much feel like it’s going wrong, all at the same time? Why do so many of us feel this sense of impending doom? According to experts, we are living through a “polycrisis”, a tangled mess of multiple crises, all happening at once. In the past three years alone, we have seen multiple, parallel crises manifest – climate emergencies resulting in extreme heat and out-of-control fires, economic instability, exponential increases in costs of living, political insecurities in Israel, Palestine, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iran, South Sudan and many other nations.

Scientists say ecological, technological and social systems are highly connected, and therefore a failure in one cascades to another very quickly, similar to a row of dominoes falling. The impacts of a shock seemingly far away are felt far more quickly than anticipated. As an example, Pakistan – a nation important to Australia’s political interests and to stability in South Asia – experienced an extremely challenging year in 2022. It began on the cusp of sovereign default, with rapidly depleting foreign exchange reserves and skyrocketing inflation that was due to rising global food and fuel prices amid Russia’s war in Ukraine. The volatile economic situation was worsened by record-topping heatwaves, with parts of the country recording temperatures exceeding 50 degrees Celsius. Canal beds dried up and, with prohibitive fuel costs keeping people from cooling their homes or workplaces, Pakistanis were collapsing from heat stroke. This extreme event was compounded by floods that affected the lives of 33 million Pakistanis. Subsequently, then prime minister Imran Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote, setting in motion a chain of political crises.

When Australians or others in developed economies register these events, they often see the scenario as plausible but not a real risk. Those in places that appear safe or resilient often discard the possibility that something so awful could happen to them. In the bubble of progress, they are infallible. The truth is, when we do not pay attention to what is emerging, the seemingly implausible can very quickly become reality. No country is exempt – whether from direct or secondary impacts. What is concerning, however, is that our governance systems, entrusted with stewarding the policies meant to keep us safe, appear unprepared.

We only have to look at how governments globally responded to Covid-19 – in ways that were haphazard, at times unjust, at times harmful to some groups more than others – to realise operating in radical uncertainty is not something for which our policymakers appear to be ready. The Australian government, as with other governments, was still trying to manage the pandemic when the Russian war against Ukraine broke out – setting off dizzying increases in oil, commodity and food prices, and resulting in surging inflation.

Governments and policymakers no longer have the luxury of reactive policy decisions, nor of approaching impending shocks one at a time. We also can no longer assume things will unfold the way they always have, because we have ample evidence that nothing is as it used to be. Global alliances are cracked, global norms are being challenged, trust is fast decreasing between citizens and states, hope seems like a memory. We seem to be struggling to hold on to the status quo, allocating resources in the same old ways that protect a precious few, making policy decisions that benefit the immediate but not the long term and, arguably, sticking our heads in the sand about what this all might mean for our futures.

We need a new way of being, a new way of understanding the world and its possible futures, so we can create hope for generations to come. Merely continuing to react will fail all of us collectively. The adage that only some are prone to fragility no longer holds true – these intersecting crises mean all of us will be affected.

Siloed policy responses that continue to protect the status quo will leave the most fragile continuing to bear the brunt. Policy responses designed in urgent reaction do not consider impacts across all of society nor long-term implications. How Australia votes in international resolutions today, or with whom we align on global issues, could very likely affect all Australians’ ability to cross borders safely. Any lack of action by the government in mitigating the climate crisis today could be detrimental to our towns and cities in the future, not to mention those living in them.

For almost 20 years, I have worked with humanitarian organisations, multilaterals and governments to help lift eyes from fighting the fires in front of us to see the bigger picture, to think strategically, to spot what is coming around the corner.

To achieve this, we need policy dynamism that anticipates and is proactive in assessing intersecting threats. Without the ability to be prepared for what is coming our way, we cannot protect against its impacts. The urgent task for policymakers and government today is not only overcoming the lure of myopic decision-making, driven by short-term policy cycles premised on linear, predictable change, but equally confronting the crisis of social and moral imagination that obscures the possibility of pursuing alternative processes and paths for democracy.

What do I mean by this? Normal risk-management approaches are modelled on the past. When something new emerges, experts generally analyse it, consider its plausibility and assess its impact based on what has happened before. Many called Covid-19 a black swan event, which was fundamentally not true. Experts had predicted the probability of a global pandemic for almost a decade beforehand. Our collective downfall was that our leaders and governments didn’t pay enough attention to plausible assessments. In reality, the complex confluence of factors that made the pandemic’s impact so uncertain rendered traditional decision-making and assessment moot.

Taking the future seriously is a difficult endeavour. How can we ensure the decisions we make today consider their impact on a future that doesn’t yet exist, where the results will resonate? To grapple with this uncertainty requires us to be alert to what is coming and prepare to face it by acting today. We need to stop relying on static ideas but rather invest in policy that addresses the issues of today while also mitigating the potential impacts of multiple future shocks. If we want futures where we all can lead safe, joyful, dignified lives, we must not leave that to chance.

There are multiple examples we can look to for inspiration. The Finnish government has long integrated foresight and anticipation into the work of its prime minister’s office, to support decision-making. Closer to home, the Singapore government has invested in future-oriented policy since the 1990s, embedding foresight as a whole-of-government approach. It’s not confined to developed economies, either. In September, Tuvalu legislated a new definition of statehood. The constitution now declares Tuvalu’s maritime zones, statehood and other entitlements permanent regardless of any effects that climate change may have on land territory. On November 10, a world-first climate mobility treaty enabling some Tuvaluans to have a future in Australia was announced. The forward-thinking leadership of the prime minister of Tuvalu to protect his citizens – even if the future he is planning for seems implausible to some – indicates geopolitical decision-making is shifting in light of emerging climate risks.

Multilateral institutions are also shifting their practices to be future-oriented and anticipatory. The United Nations secretary-general, in a statement published last year on the future of global cooperation, called on governments and the UN system to think long-term and be better prepared for challenges. My past three years of work with the UN Development Programme has focused on exactly this – institutionalising anticipatory risk programs and policies so the organisation and the Asia-Pacific governments it supports can be better prepared for emerging crises.

Is Australia as prepared? What if with rising heat, and more complex fire patterns, land gets razed to the point it is unliveable for most of the population? What if the geopolitical decisions being made today might make Australians less welcome in other countries, and less able to cross borders?

Being future-oriented is integral to addressing injustices that have long prevailed. Crises, from climate emergencies to pandemics to wars, thrive in the cracks in society, exploiting and exacerbating myriad inequalities. The norms that prioritise the immediate at the expense of the future perpetuate the inequity and exclusion we must address.

Reimagining how we protect our societies in the future – to create policies that allow safety and joy for all, not just a protected few – can offer us all the chance to strengthen our moral compass, attuning it to the type of ancestor we choose to be.

A future of liberation for only some, that requires the continued subjugation of others, is not democracy or freedom. Our federal policies must be proactive. Choosing this enables us to evolve collectively in terms of how we live with each other and with our planet. 

Aarathi Krishnan will deliver the keynote address at UNSW’s Kaldor Centre Conference on November 20.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2023 as "Life in the time of polycrisis".

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