The Age of Polycrisis and the Bureaucracies That Will Prolong It

For those who love cinema, the 2022 film title Everything Everywhere All at Once is a masterpiece in itself even before one even watches the film. Film critics and reviewers have done a great job at analyzing the meanings, philosophical underpinnings and themes that the film itself looked at including nihilism and absurdism. Stripped back to the title alone without engaging with the film and the chaotic depths that it plunges one into, it is easy for anyone not oblivious to the occurrences in the world around them to be drawn to the chaotic undertones that the title implies. In the title, many of us find it easy and effortless to imagine and even remember underlying plural chaos that have befallen us or that we see in the world around us. It is a title whose underlying meaning we can easily connect to, one that speaks to how we are experiencing the world. In the plural chaos, we get caught up in one chaos, then another and another as our social positions and predispositions allow or expose us. In this chaos of many chaos, it is the compound effect or impact is worse than if the chaos were isolated and affected us individually. Such is the nature at the individual level of the age of polycrisis, an epoch that we saw coming, that we enabled and that will be with us for an indefinite time to come, displacing us from being in the driving seat ourselves, to be mostly passengers on our on life-sails, with moments inbetween where we wrestle for control and navigate the life-sea in the direction we hope has lesser of the chaos. 

Off the philosophical tone, the COVID-19 pandemic was a watershed moment that showed the whole world how much we are not prepared for what the age of polycrisis can dish out. For good measure and good reason, the COVID-19 crisis, sets a good example in the present of what the polycrisis and its entrenchments feel like. An article by Kate Whiting and HyoJin Park spotlights the entrenchment of the pandemic and that it is “overwhelming and leaves us unable to cope, questioning our identity and finding it very difficult to decide what the ground is that we stand on because it’s being destabilized from so many different directions at once.” It is tempting to once again pay homage to that film title, Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Whether the COVID-19 pandemic it is the worst of what the polycrisis can dish out or just a mere highlight of tumultuous cycles humanity stands to be confronting going forward, time is yet to tell but the fragilities of our governance, our social, our economic and our environmental systems have been displayed for almost the whole to witness and for many to be awed. Bearing in mind that the pandemic was or is not in itself the polycrisis, but serves as an inflection point at which the polycrisis peaks in its intensity and pronouncements, one would see why many people in their interpretation make the pandemic synonymous with the polycrisis, particularly under the governance context under which it was experienced.

Speaking of our governance systems, one thing is for sure, almost all governments around the world were caught with their pants down by compounded effects of the polycrisis at the pandemic inflection and none were truly prepared to confront these effects and emerge unscarred. While experiences inevitably vary for those in the Global North compared to those in the Global South, we would be kidding ourselves to say our collective world returned to its pre-pandemic state even though bits of it did, such as the business-as usual extractivism, hyper-production, hyper consumption and hyperwasting. During the pandemic phase itself, many in the South plunged into poverty and are yet to recover, while many in the North have economically recovered. Education under lock-down stopped in certain parts of the world where learning happens under conditions of poorly built basic school infrastructure and the learners are fortunate to have enough books into which to write and a pen with which to write. On the other side of the world, learners needed only to switch on their laptops and hop into a virtual classroom to continue their education under these trying times. Food ceased to be a basic human right, just as it still is not for millions at present while for others, the food waste culture thrived. In some places violence against women and children was at its highest in history, while some places have already outgrown through laws, social and economic progress the elements that precondition violence. Yet in all this, we have not given much effort to socioeconomic fortifications just in case another pandemic or another unknown trigger for an inflection in the polycrisis is looming in the shadows.

Just slightly more than a year after the world has returned to a threshold of “normalcy”, our systems show that we are nowhere out of the woods yet. Scares of potential future pandemics are still making news, the COVID19 pandemic itself, well, there are scares as well that it might return. But despite all these signs and fears, the majority governments have not taken necessary reforms to make themselves prepared for any potential future pandemics, which let us face it, are the new peak points that show us how little preparation and capacity we possess when it comes to confronting the polycrises. That modus operandi, that business as usual, one might say, is a bureaucratic mess under which the age of the polycrises stands to be prolonged.

The delays in making decisions are delays in taking decisive actions to avert problems layering on each other. The lack of flexibility and the cling to rules and laws of old mean we are self-inhibiting when it comes to situations where drastic measures must be taken to limit the severity of catastrophe. Sure, we flipped a few rules during the pandemic, vaccination development timeframes became shorter, restrictions to mobility, albeit with infringement to some rights were by popular opinion necessary to halt the spread and so forth. Yet, the lack of flexibility, the cling to the old rules, laws and guiding principles may be central to our undoing in future scenarios where another tumultuous episode of the polycrises rages on.

And beyond the pandemic, the matter of climate change stands as our longstanding example of how the bureaucratic is our undoing. For one, many governments in their yoked state with the fossil corporations continue to struggle and stand to face economic hurdles when they uncouple themselves from the economic dependence on oil and other fossil fuels. In fact, in some states, without oil, the foundations of economies will be in sandy ground and the economies at large will not stand for long, in fact, for some there will be no economy to talk about. Here lies the classical dilemma of profit over pending doom, and in instances where such doom can be externalized, this becomes the norm. A good example of the long-standing formats of externalization include fossil business as usual, pollution as usual, industry and usual coupled with reparations to the harm of these usual through forestation elsewhere. Many keenly remember the reforestation and deforestation programs that were the in thing in the last decades of the last century. The irony of these monoculture forests is that had there been social-ecological audits to measure what would be forgone against what would be derived from them, through a lens endogenous on those whose life were spatially entwined with the potent zones of afforestation, a majority if not all of them would have not seen the day for they do not present the so-conjured win-wins and win-win-wins that made them ever so enticing at the time. 

Beyond externalization, which is part of a grand culture of problem-shifting that bureaucracies have come to make normative without suffering any ethical guilt or remorse under conditions of unequal bureaucratic deal-making, there are many a ways too innumerable to count and condense in a single article that stand in the way of averting the polycrises by shutting critical doors where imminent and decisive actions must be taken, one of which is climate change. Recent developments in Germany surrounding the debt brake possibly serve as a good example of how the bureaucratic functions as an effective hurdle that requires high jumping to reach at a solution to the polycrises. Let us indulge this logic for a moment. Bureaucrats and bureaucracy serve to uphold rules, laws and regulations that sustain a system and its strength. 

In November of 2023, a constitutional court ruling in Germany regarded it as unlawful and thus inhibited the reallocation of sixty billion Euros to the fight against climate change. This money was initially intended for the pandemic. Two reasons composed the ruling, first that budget allocations should not be moved across sectors, in this case from pandemic to climate. The second is that fiscal debt of one year must not be carried into the next, feeding into logic of the so-called rule of the debt brake. The debt brake in many ways epitomizes bureaucratic wisdoms for those who have lived in any country with lesser wisdoms that enable debt to run wild only to be alleviated by taxation or many other means that exert pressure on the public. I dare say thus, that the debt brake induced bureaucratic ordering and discipline on fiscal expenditure is a thing of marvel when one looks at deplorable fiscal and debt conditions in states where debt is not put in check and deficit spending is the norm. 

It must be stated however, that there are limits to this marvel, especially in the face of the polycrisis. For those who look at the budget lines of pandemic and climate change through the spectacles of crisis, it is easy to see how the two are interdependent. For one, the more our climate changes, the more likely we are to live under frequently occurring and possibly in the near future overlapping pandemics. Bureaucratic orders of administration, it must be understood, must have structures and if one were to go into the politics of efficiency, the more streamlined an order or sector is, the more efficient it becomes. A bureaucracy administering agriculture is by far most effective when it concerns itself with the affairs of turning seed into food that we put on our tables. In the same breath, the one for water management is as efficient as is allowed by its propensity to manage water resources and only that without concerning itself with matters of energy. Yet for one who is awake to the reality of our world, water, energy and food are inexorably interconnected to the point of bureaucratic administration needing overlaps, nexus or whatever other phrase we might conjure for this natural inexorability. The use of fresh water by agriculture is the highest across the globe at 70%, in a world clamoring to breathe healthy and eat healthy, agriculture is the gateway to clean bio-energy, to the point that complexities surrounding these three require equally boundary-defiant administrations capable of attenuating complex nexus problems while ensuring that security of one does not produce harm or insecurities that spill over into another across highly porous, fluid and unstable sectoral boundaries. This is all of course even more daunting a task with climate change which exerts its shadow indiscriminately across all the sectors and unshering in specific sectoral problems that cannot be solved completely if those in another sector are not simultaneously solved. 

Through the lens of crisis, the logics are not any different really. With the two in the case under the spotlight here, pandemics and a climate out of control, performance of an economy can easily come to its knees, and for other nation states less financially resilient without any bailout mechanisms, they can be easily crippled. Remember these two, pandemic and climate do not exist in bubbles of their own and their complexity pervades modular, bubbles thinking. Farmers who feed the nation for example, added to their already ongoing economic struggles under conditions of corrective measures to environmental damage which they must adhere to, will be plunged into further struggles when their subsidies are cut (as a direct implication of the brake) and are likely to protest – to the possible point that food prices will increase. 

This case presented here is not a hypothetical what-if, but an actuality that has so far progressed and might progress even further with new other crises likely to be sucked into the vortex, a storm that may be too hard to correct. The point that is worthy to reiterate here is that the bureaucratic order, the laws and regulations that be are really important for a prosperous and resilient society, yet, without sufficient bureaucratic adaptation and flexibility, the bureaucratic order may as well be the eye of the polycrisis storm. Bureaucratic orders are not instituted to be ‘flexible’, for to be flexible implies that they are prone to abuses, and yet the chain of problems surrounding the German debt brake, the inflexibility begs the question as to the relevancy of the order,  and in this case its adaptability to the polycrisis conditions that were possibly not accounted for during the time the orders and their rules were instituted. To retain an order may as well be the spanner in the cogwheels of resilience one might argue that without reform and adaptation in the bureaucracies themselves, the age of the polycrisis is here to stay and here to be prolonged. By the time there is admission to deficits or shortcomings in the bureaucratic order and corrective measures are taken, it may be too late to curb a polycrisis deeply rooted and possibly mutated into yet another degree of monstrosity that requires yet more new sets of corrections. From this point on, it will be a perpetual race to catch-up, a bureaucratic race that will simply add more decades, if not centuries into the age of the polycrisis.