How to fix a fearful, new world riven by polycrisis

The energy crisis, food insecurity, corruption and state capture are among the forces fuelling SA’s polycrisis

06 March 2023 - 22:54
By Claire Keeton
The world is being hit by multiple, major problems which intertwine and make each other worse, but there are solutions to mitigate the energy, water and food shortages which abound.
Image: 123RF\nitsuki POLYCRISIS The world is being hit by multiple, major problems which intertwine and make each other worse, but there are solutions to mitigate the energy, water and food shortages which abound.

2023 is the Year of the Polycrisis global leaders warned at the January meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. What this means to certain elites with their heads in the snow is worlds apart from its impact on the South Africans who wake up to load-shedding, hunger, dry taps, increasing debt, excessive heat, infectious diseases and violence.

Solutions to mitigate the worst effects of these cascading crises exist but will take time and require a fundamental shift in the way we live — starting with how we consume water, energy and food, and learn and work.

 “What’s most important for South Africans to realise is that there is no quick fix. None,” says Prof Mark Swilling, chair of the Development Bank of Southern Africa and co-director of Centre for Sustainability Transitions at Stellenbosch University.

“We need to maximise what we can do to solve our own problems and minimise our dependence on the state,” he says.

Unprecedented polycrisis

Polycrisis is the concept of multiple, major problems that intertwine and affect each other causally in harmful ways. SA’s load-shedding crisis, for example, forced the culling of 10 million chicks in six weeks, worsening food shortages and prices.

Dr Michael Lawrence, polycrisis research lead at the Cascade Institute in Canada, says: “The current polycrisis is unprecedented in key respects, particularly about climate change and the way it is pushing the limits of ecological systems.” Unlike earlier polycrises, this one threatens our survival and the planet on which we depend.

“So much of our decision-making and our governance is set up to address these crises in isolation, without necessarily seeing the intersystemic effects,” says Lawrence, whose research focuses on the bigger picture.

‘Permacrisis’, a term that describes 'an extended period of instability and insecurity’.
Collins Word of the Year 2022

“The speed of global connectivity means we are more deeply and densely connected than ever before. Sometimes a solution to one crisis could end up worsening another crisis,” he says.

“For example, during Covid especially in wealthy countries ... There was a lot of emergency spending and what some would say almost amounts to printing money. This had a positive impact in the short term, but now we’re starting to see the longer-term repercussions of that spending in the form of stagflation and debt crises.”

Global risks report

The “cost of living crisis” is ranked as the top risk over for the next two years in the Global Risks Report 2023, published by the World Economic Forum last month. Natural disasters and extreme weather events were next, with geo-economic confrontations in third place.

The number-one risk “likely to be the most severe in the long term over the next 10 years” is identified as the climate crisis (ranked fourth under short-term risks). The failure of climate-change adaptation is second, natural disasters and extreme weather events third and biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse is fourth under long-term risks.

Wits University professor in international relations Vishwas Satgar says: “Climate shocks are hitting the vulnerable countries hardest, and they are not just singular shocks. It is not like we’ve had a drought, and now we have a bit of respite to get back on our feet.

“Multiple shocks are hitting countries at the same time. They are coming thick and fast and disrupting systems.”

Fundamental change unavoidable

The Global Risks Report uses polycrisis, a theme at Davos, “to emphasise coming resource shortages” including water and the rare earth minerals, which are going to be needed for the green transition, says Lawrence.

“That is certainly a big part of it, but we are using the concept more broadly,” he says, specifying the institute is not part of the elite Davos crowd who “think they can tinker at the edges of neoliberal style economies” and solve these crisis with the help of technological advances.

We need to maximise what we can do to solve our own problems and minimise our dependence on the state.
Professor Mark Swilling, chair of the Development Bank of Southern Africa

“Ultimately we’re going to need much more fundamental transformations, whether that is something we do deliberately through democratic consultations and transitions, or reality bites back,” says Lawrence.

That reality check could be political insurrection, social instability or climate impacts escalating to the point where they disrupt or paralyse global economic activities, he warns.

Incremental changes needed, not big bang

Leaders on SA’s polycrisis in SA share similar perspectives. Swilling says: “People think that a revolutionary rupture that will solve their problems, or that there are enough clever people in the world at Davos to come up with clever solutions and slowly the system will pull back from the brink with reforms. Neither of these is true.

“Big bang structural changes aren’t the solution. I like the image of a multiplicity of acupuncture points. Incremental changes need to come about at a local level.”

A commissioner on the National Planning Commission, he identifies policy interventions, changes in business practices and social movements as pivotal to build a more secure future.

“The notion of a polycrisis is useful “not just in terms of describing the sad state of the world but to come up with solutions”, says Swilling, who wrote about it 10 years before it made headlines at Davos.

Energy-water-food at heart of sustainability

The energy crisis, food insecurity, corruption and state capture are among the forces fuelling SA’s polycrisis, while global factors such as climate change, make it worse, says Dr Tawanda Jimu, who focuses on sustainability transitions at UCT’s African Climate and Development Initiative.

“The water-energy-food nexus means if there is a crisis in one of these, there is going to be a ripple effect on all of them because of the linkages.”

SA needs to create the conditions to eliminate fossil-fuel dependency, phase out coal dependency and put a price on carbon, he says. Jimu adds: “We need to reuse water, encourage water recycling and reduce the use of municipal water in residences. We need to do rainwater and stormwater harvesting.”

He advocates a “community of practice” that gets citizens, government, international partners and non-government organisations to work together to co-create solutions to crises.

Rapid, seismic shifts are possible, as the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated. For example, says Lawrence: “One of the most positive things to come out of the pandemic is the shift to remote working. We need to brace ourselves that we are running out of high-quality fossil fuels and make the transition low-carbon energy.

“With less energy per capita, this will mean pretty big changes in lifestyle.”

Fixing the energy crisis

Ending energy shortages is top of the agenda in SA, says Swilling, listing short-term interventions that could eliminate load-shedding in two years, such as removing regulations about solar on rooftops, getting diesel to Eskom and empowering coal power station managers.

I think (a National State of Disaster around the energy crisis) will help. We do need to short circuit of lot of red tape and (enable) public-private action. 
Stellenbosch professor Mark Swilling, chair of the Development Board of Southern Africa

But he cautions: “Even if we get everything else right, if the security situation remains disrupted it will not be possible ... if we spend billions on cables and people with AK47s are ripping them out.”

In the medium term, the generation of renewable energy must be coupled with an extension to the grid and SA must make “the big decision” to adopt renewable energy, he says. “It will be the lowest cost and the quickest to end the energy crisis.”

If SA transitions rapidly to renewable energy, this could open up opportunities with multinationals, to whom low labour costs are no longer that important, says Swilling.

No more waste

“This is all situated in the wider framework of sustainability, which also relates to water [shortages], which will be harder to solve than the energy crisis. The real trick will be not to waste it,” Swilling says. “Energy, water and food are at the heart of the challenge of sustainability.”

At Davos, world leaders have started to rethink global supply chains and a new appreciation of clustered (interconnected) local networks has developed, he says.

On a micro-scale, South Africans developed community networks during Covid, which lessened the shocks of food shortages and poverty, and support for local food producers and businesses blossomed.

Climate famines

“Climate famine” will threaten the food systems of the Global South if the world fails to hold the rise in warming below 1.5°C, says Satgar.

“We saw that with the El Nino drought in Southern Africa,” he says, of the hotter ocean cycle predicted to return this year, stoking the problems on land linked to rising temperatures.

“By the end of last year, 22-million people [in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia] were facing starvation,” he says, of the worst drought in decades in the conflict-torn Horn of Africa.

“If you don’t solve the climate crisis, you feed into the food crisis. If you continue with the same industrialised, monoculture model, you feed into the climate crisis and the water crisis.”

This type of agricultural system is particularly vulnerable to the shocks of the climate crisis, he says, pointing to Madagascar, which has been hit by drought and hurricanes, leaving about a million people facing hunger.

“This is one of the poorest countries in the world, but if you look at its agricultural system, it is largely globalised and exporting most of what it produces. It is producing monocrops like vanilla, and yet it cannot feed its population,” says Satgar.

Swilling also flagged negative practices in SA’s food system, from an overreliance on chemicals in agriculture to the highly concentrated retail system that “forces the public to buy from supermarkets”.

Case for food sovereignty

An academic and activist for the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign, Satgar says: “We have got to have a transition in our food system, to localise it and embed it within our own ecological approach, which is sustainable.

“The weaknesses in our food system came out in early 2020 when there were food flashpoints on the ground and people were storming food trucks,” he says, adding food insecurity was a force driving the July 2021 riots.

Prof Pumla Godobo-Madikizela, research chair of historical trauma and transformation at Stellenbosch University, foresaw the July violence before it exploded in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng because of deprivation like this.

“Violence was bound to explode. People are marginalised every day,” she said at the time.

Way forward

To cope with the polycrisis, Lawrence urges consultation with young people and greater collaboration across society and the world.

“We are not as stuck as we think,” he says. “Looking at the pandemic, at least in wealthy countries, governments were able to relatively quickly enact policies I would have thought were totally off the table, never going to happen.”

Smaller institutions and communities can also make a difference, says Swilling, despite the South African tendency to think “bigger is better”.

“The trend globally is the growth of smaller institutions. They can create jobs and the kind of community dynamic that makes life worth living, where you feel secure, trust your neighbour and get things done.”  

ChatGPT wrote this poem about the polycrisis

The world’s in trouble, that’s plain to see,
With crisis after crisis hitting constantly,
The climate change, the economies,
The pandemics, the refugees.

Political strife and social unrest,
All these challenges are truly the best test,
Of our resolve, our strength and our might,
To come together and make things right.