How to adapt to a polycrisis

In a world of multiple, interconnected crises, we need different strategies to adapt. And we need to adapt to adaptation.

“Love it, change it or leave it” is a popular mantra in the German business coaching scene, sometimes attributed to Henry Ford. (I couldn’t find a valid source for this.) What makes this saying so successful is that it captures the three basic adaptation strategies in a nutshell:

  • ignore the crisis
  • do something about it
  • move away from it

For a crisis that starts slowly, ignoring it is the default strategy. Climate change is perhaps the most prominent and drastic example. Collectively, we ignored it until we couldn’t anymore. Many businesses, confronted with exponential technologies, employ the same strategy, often until it’s very late. We usually do not act until we feel compelled to do so.

In every crisis, there are early warning voices, and in hindsight, they’re mostly right. However, there are invariably multiple potential crises at the same time, making discernment difficult. How can we know which crisis is worth tackling early on? Resources are limited, so we can’t address everything.

Thus, when we finally move from ignoring to acting and adapting, we again have three strategic options: containment, protection, and mitigation.

  • Containment: Can we keep the threat under control?
  • Protection: Can we protect ourselves against it?
  • Mitigation: Can we minimise the impact?

This is a model I borrowed from the German National Pandemic Plan. Typically, we start with containment before we escalate our way up the strategic ladder. In this phase, there might already be drastic measures being taken, but only locally. For global challenges like climate change, containment isn’t an option. Climate changes everywhere, and everything we can do has a global impact. So far, the West has successfully contained the war in Ukraine. If that effort fails, the Baltics and Poland could be at risk, possibly triggering NATO Article 5 and thus further escalation.

We can’t turn back the clock

When containment fails or isn’t available in the first place, protection comes into play. If we can’t limit the spread of a virus to certain places, can we at least protect the most vulnerable? The focus moves from points of outbreaks to areas we want to defend. Often, when we can’t protect ourselves or the vulnerable, we can at least protect ourselves and others against second- and third-order effects.

Rich countries like Germany simply throw money on the problem at hand to protect their citizens from its impact. To a certain degree, this strategy works. The bill is shelved until after the crisis. However, this solution is risky in times of permacrisis. When one crisis chases the other, we will end up with a very large bill. Or with inflation. Or with both.

At some point, we reach the mitigation stage. It becomes clear that we can’t turn back the clock. We need to face the inevitable and adapt to the new normal (if there is one). Climate has already changed and will continue to do so, we must deal with the consequences. The virus continues to spread, and non-pharmaceutical interventions are making less and less sense.

So what do we do? We leave the pandemic to the healthcare system. We start adding adaptation strategies to our climate change response, as the World Bank proposed in 2020 and the EU did in 2021. We distribute helicopter money to the population to cushion rising energy prices.

A reassessment of priorities

Inflation can be seen as an adaptation mechanism for national economies. But it’s a brutal one. The forced adaptation to inflation hits vulnerable parts of the population in much harder ways than richer ones. Inflation is what happens when national economies can’t make ends meet. Central banks are wary of it because they fear devastating consequences.

Adaptation to inflation compels a reassessment of priorities. What do we really need to buy (and pay for), and what is merely nice to have? We must heat our flats and buy food, so this kind of demand isn’t very elastic. If skyrocketing inflation forces a choice between heating or eating, people will get understandably upset, and there could be civic unrest.

The forced adaptation to inflation directly translates into a loss of wealth. Now the question is: Will that be permanent or temporary? If we can’t recover the wealth lost, or we even move into a degrowth world of permanent recession, adaption will look very different than if we’re just talking about a minor blip. In a world of recession, resource allocation conflicts will intensify drastically. This will fuel further decline, demanding new rounds of adaptation. And more unrest.

With climate change, we face a dilemma: mitigating it and adapting to it will cost a lot, but if we do nothing, it is likely to cost even more in the long run. This leads us to a strategy of early response: often, it pays off to address a potential crisis early on. Avoiding bigger crises in the future is a good long-term investment, although there is often no political glory in prevention.

Adapt to adaptation

If all else fails, we can only try to move away from the crisis. That’s why migration will be a permanent issue in the 21st century. People adapt to changing conditions by leaving their homes and countries. Wars, climate change, inflation, loss of wealth and other crises will be spread unevenly, spurring migration as a response. Our strategies for adaptation to migration are often not very clear, fluctuating between containment, protection, and mitigation.

Migration as an adaptation process is an example of a strategy that leads to further rounds of adaptation: the people who are migrating are adapting, but the regions they migrate to need to adapt as well. This is a pattern we’ll see a lot in our polycrisis world. We may adapt to a single crisis, but our strategy prompts further adaptation elsewhere.

We’ll see lots of systemic change ahead:

Systems will change, but we will not always like the results. Some of the changes will spur further change. And overall, change will speed up further. The pandemic has already been a catalyst of rapid change. We’ve seen exponential change caused by new technologies. We’ve learned that our crises are interconnected, leading to a polycrisis that will only accelerate change, for better or worse.

And maybe both.

Thus, we need to adapt to adaptation. We need to anticipate change and adaptation to inform our strategies.

Is this really new? I doubt it. The problems of yesteryear were pretty severe as well, as Steven Pinker puts it. The main thing that’s changing is the speed of change.

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