Michael Roberts – Polycrisis and depression in the 21st century

The horrific UN report on the state of humanity

Michael Roberts is an Economist in the City of London and a prolific blogger

Cross-posted from Michael Roberts’ blog


‘Polycrisis’ is the buzz word among leftists right now.  The word expresses the coming together and interlocking of various crises: economic (inflation and slump); environmental (climate and pandemic); and geopolitical (war and international divisions). Indeed, I raised a similar idea early last year. 

So it is no surprise that the latest Human Development Report from the UN is so shocking.  According to the HDR, the world is more pessimistic than at any point in modern history stretching back to before WW1.

The HDR analysed language trends in books over the past 125 years. It reveals a sharp increase in expressions reflecting “cognitive distortions associated with depression and other forms of mental distress”. Over the past two decades the language reflecting overly negative perceptions of the world and its future has surged. Indeed, today’s distress levels are unprecedented, exceeding those during the Great Depression and both world wars.

What’s also revealing is that negative views about the world began to soar around the turn of the century – even before the Great Recession.  This surge coincides with my own economic insight that the major economies of the world entered what I call a new Long Depression, the third in the history of modern capitalism after the depression of 1873-95 and the Great Depression of the 1930s. 

The intensity of negative views about the prospects for humanity has never been higher – way higher than in either of the two world wars of the 20th century.  We are in a combination of: an economic depression; where real incomes stagnate or even fall; poverty increases along with widening inequality; and where investment to boost the productive forces and solve the environmental disaster now engulfing the world is lacking.  And where instead of global cooperation by governments to solve this ‘polycrisis’, we have increasing conflict between nations, both economic and military.

Achim Steiner, Administrator United Nations Development Programme, presented the HDR 2022.  This is how he introduced it. “We are living in uncertain times. The Covid-19 pandemic, now in its third year, continues to spin off new variants. The war in Ukraine reverberates throughout the world, causing immense human suffering, including a cost-of-living crisis. Climate and ecological disasters threaten the world daily.” 

He went on: “Layers of uncertainty are stacking up and interacting to unsettle our lives in unprecedented ways. People have faced diseases, wars and environmental disruptions before. But the confluence of destabilizing planetary pressures with growing inequalities, sweeping societal transformations to ease those pressures and widespread polarization present new, complex, interacting sources of uncertainty for the world and everyone in it.”

“People around the world are now telling us that they feel ever more insecure.” Six out of seven people worldwide reported feeling insecure about many aspects of their lives, even before the Covid-19 pandemic.  And the political consequences: “Is it any wonder, then, that many nations are creaking under the strain of polarization, political extremism and demagoguery—all supercharged by social media, artificial intelligence and other powerful technologies?”

Steiner pointed out that “in a stunning first, the global Human Development Index value has declined for two years in a row in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The decline in the global HDI puts it back to the time just after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement!  So no progress there.  Every year a few different countries experience dips in their respective HDI values. But a whopping 90 percent of countries saw their HDI value drop in either 2020 or 2021, far exceeding the number that experienced reversals in the wake of the global financial crisis. Last year saw some recovery at the global level, but it was partial and uneven: most very high HDI countries notched improvements, while most of the rest experienced ongoing declines.

At least 15m ‘unnecessary lives’ were lost from the COVID pandemic, mostly in low- and middle-income countries.  But even the US saw its life expectancy fallen to the lowest level in 26 years.  Indeed, US life expectancy is now below that of China!

New vaccines were developed to fight COVID in double-quick time, including some based on revolutionary technology and they saved an estimated 20 million lives in one year.  But the poorest in the world received the least medical support because highly unequal vaccine access “The pandemic has been a painful reminder of how breakdowns in trust and in cooperation, among and within nations, foolishly constrain what we can achieve together.”

COVID has not gone away, but governments and people have decided to live (and die) with it.  The aftermath remains and even worsens.  Billions of people now face the greatest cost-of-living crisis in a generation.  They are already grappling with food insecurity, owing largely to inequalities in wealth and power that determine entitlements to food.  Global supply chain blockages remain, contributing to rising inflation in all countries at rates not seen in decades.

As for the climate, the HDR reminds us that in recent years have seen more record temperatures, fires and storms around the world.  The latest International Panel on Climate Change Report is a “code red for humanity.” In essence, as science has advanced, the climate models are, with better precision than before, predicting more disasters ahead.  As “the climate crisis marches on, alongside other planetary-level changes wrought by the Anthropocene.”  Biodiversity collapse is one of them. More than 1 million plant and animal species face extinction. “We have even less of an idea of how to live in a world without, say, an abundance of insects. That has not been tried for about 500 million years, when the world’s first land plants appeared. This is not a coincidence. Without an abundance of insect pollinators, we face the mindboggling challenge of growing food and other agricultural products at scale.”

The polycrisis is affecting humanity’s mental wellbeing through traumatizing events, physical illness, general climate anxiety and food insecurity. “The effects these have on children in particular are profound, altering brain and body development, especially in families on lower social rungs, potentially diminishing what children can achieve in life.”  Inequalities in human development are perpetuated across generations; “it is not difficult to see how the confluence of mental distress, inequality and insecurity foment a similarly injurious intergenerational cycle that drags on human development.”

With economic depression and ecological disaster comes uncertainty, insecurity and political polarization.  Large numbers of people feel frustrated by and alienated from their political systems. Armed conflicts are also up. For the first time ever, more than 100 million people are forcibly displaced, most of them within their own countries.

What is to be done?  The UN offers its model for a more hopeful future: investment, insurance and innovation—the three Is. 

But innovation and new technology, the UN admits, is a double-edged sword. “Artificial intelligence will both create and destroy tasks, causing tremendous disruption. Synthetic biology opens new frontiers in health and medicine while raising fundamental questions about what it means to be human.”  Indeed, will these new technologies increase inequality, reduce job possibilities or expand them?  I have discussed this issue in previous posts. 

Then there is investment.  The HDR talks about public investment, particularly for the environment.  But says nothing about the vested interests that stand in the way of such investment.  Finally, there is insurance: more protection of human rights, access to basic services and minimum incomes, and more democratic accountability.  None of this basic insurance exists for the majority of the world’s near 8bn people.

The UN report is devastating in its examination of the human condition in the 21st century.  But it offers no convincing explanation of why there is a ‘polycrisis’.  Achim Steiner tells us that “the hero and the villain in today’s uncertainty story are one in the same: human choice.”  Really, so if we chose to do things differently, we could.  So why doesn’t humanity choose a different path?  Well, it is because “not all choices are the same. Some—arguably the ones most relevant to the fate of our species—are propelled by institutional and cultural inertia, generations in the making.”  Institutional and cultural inertia?  Surely, the reason lies with the reality that only a tiny percentage of humanity can choose; the rest of us do not have the power to choose (at least not individually).  It is the class division with capitalism, between those who own and control and those who must work for them and obey, that is the fundamental cause of this polycrisis, “generations in the making.”

Michael Roberts

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