I’ve recently learned a new word that I wish we hadn’t needed: polycrisis, first offered by Edgar Morin and Anne Brigitte Kern in their 1999 book Terre-Patrie (Homeland). It describes the complex enmeshment of large scale problems that must be understood and tackled as interconnected parts of a whole rather than separate and independent issues. Unsurprisingly, it’s gained traction in recent years. Last week’s World Economic Forum pushed it squarely into 2023 buzzword territory.
Relatedly, Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, shook people up by announcing that she will not seek re-election in the fall, and furthermore that she will step down in just a few weeks. Like all world leaders, Ardern has been swept into the chaos of the polycrisis as it has ricocheted around the globe. She distinguished herself and won admiration with swift, compassionate, and decisive responses to multiple major crises, including the Christchurch mosque shootings, which were the first ideologically-motivated mass killings and by far the deadliest attack in New Zealand’s history.
At the helm of an island nation with over 3,000 melting glaciers, she’s confronted the escalating climate emergency. She focused her government’s attention on reducing child poverty, including food and housing insecurity. There’s also been the small matter of protecting New Zealanders from a global pandemic—interwoven with a vitriolic, sometimes violent backlash from those who apparently resented living in one of the only places in the world where life expectancy actually increased from 2020 to 2022.
New Zealand is also part of the larger global community, so in addition to the above, Ardern has led through multiple other intertwined crises, including the war in Ukraine, wobbly democracies around the world, an unpredictable global economy, high energy costs, supply chain disruptions, global food shortages, and refugee and human rights crises.
Announcing her resignation, Ardern said “I know there will be much discussion in the aftermath of this decision as to what the so-called “real” reason was. I can tell you that what I am sharing today is it. The only interesting angle that you will find is that after going on six years of some big challenges, I am human.”
She was correct about the widespread discussion; much initial speculation centered around her falling approval ratings. Mere moments after the news broke, talking heads theorized with knowing smirks that, waning in popularity, she was reluctant to face an uncertain re-election effort. I believe the Prime Minister’s explanation, which is simpler yet more complex. Her ‘surprise’ announcement wasn’t surprising to anyone paying attention to leaders of all kinds and at all levels—especially women—in recent years. She joins a strikingly high number of CEOs, college presidents, hospital executives, school principals, elected officials, and business owners who have made similar decisions. Their specific roles and stressors, and the scale and nature of the pressures upon them vary, but for many people in positions of responsibility, the equation of resources versus demands has become impossible to balance. For a lot of accomplished and ambitious people, the expectation to carry on with business as usual is no longer viable, or simply no longer worth the cost.
Such is the nature of the polycrisis: too immersive to perceive clearly; too entangled to unravel one thread at a time; too fast-paced and widespread for standard problem-solving methods. Danny Ralph, Professor of Operations Research at Cambridge University, notes “If you don’t have this word in your vocabulary you might think ‘Don’t worry, we’ll fix this problem and get back to normal.’” Normal was reasonably predictable seasonal patterns, an upward trend in average human life expectancy, and democratic leaders reliably staying in power as long as, but not longer than, their electorally-secured terms in office.
The polycrisis resonates from the highest geopolitical and global business stratosphere to the grassrootsiest levels of community, family, and individual. The effect is burnout and exhaustion and a level of social and market dysfunction that the world is reluctant to acknowledge, much less fix.
It sounds serious because it is. When a shooting star at the pinnacle of her career like Jacinda Ardern needs a timeout, something has to change. But there was a lot about normal that was never optimal, and change can bring improvement, if we let it. Just as the polycrisis has begun to scare us into using energy more responsibly, it could begin to encourage systems and institutions to use human capital with a little more care.
We haven’t yet discovered how this might look. Preventing the demands of leadership from destroying our leaders’ ability to lead may be even more complex than saving the planet for future generations while protecting and supporting today’s population with today’s technology and resources.
We can’t answer these questions on an individual level. What we can do is accept the complexity, recognize the needs directly in front of us, and offer grace and compassion to each other. We can believe that, in Jacinda Ardern’s words, “you can be kind but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused. And that you can be your own kind of leader – one who knows when it’s time to go.”