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Permacrisis: A New Phenomenon or a Human Inevitability?

Our world seems to be permanently in crisis. Brexit, the pandemic, and the war in Ukraine are making us wonder whether something good will come out of it all. Is this new?

People pushing a button, man in suit watching

Maybe governments can learn from businesses. It seems businesses actually do a better job at protecting themselves.

In 2022 permacrisis became the word of the year. We live in a world that is permanently in crisis, and I think this will resonate with many people because we seem to all agree that it’s been quite hard, lately.

Brexit, the pandemic, climate change, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. All of these make many of us feel like we’re jumping from one catastrophic event to another. Are these events a coincidence or are the crises just going to keep on coming? It is really permacrisis, or is it globalization that puts our world at risk? And can these things eventually be proven beneficial?

What is Permacrisis?

Permacrisis was chosen as the word of the year by the Collins Dictionary. We have seen political analysts and journalists use it before, although crisis is a concept that has long been debated by psychologists. In the long term, crises are sometimes deemed necessary. Even beneficial. They mean that there’s a new concern arising, and people need to map out new paths. But we're not talking about single events; rather, the issue is with one global crisis following another... following another.

Today, permacrisis refers more to the idea that a situation can get so complicated that it’s just impossible to predict its outcome. After all, what we're facing today is real, potential extinction. And there’s a risk the whole is much, much more dangerous than the sum of the parts. One catastrophe leads to another, and in interconnected systems this can just bring the whole thing down.

A Global World, A Fragile World

Let’s pick one of the catastrophes people are going through today: The war in Ukraine. We humans have always made war. In fact, it’s estimated that the total number of people killed in war throughout all of our history is between 150 million and one billion. Of the last 3,400 years, only 268 have been peaceful. That’s just 8% of recorded history without being at war. Now, why does Ukraine feel so different?

For one, we are a global world now. We are constantly communicating; we have international relationships. And we are organised into countries, so when one of these countries is used to supply energy to many others and decides to become a global pariah… well, that’s a problem we can all feel. The war has caused massive issues all around the world, not just because of the energy supply but also all the food and commodities that were exported from Ukraine. And this is happening right after a pandemic that, at the point of writing this article, continues to affect China and its supply chain.

There have been massive crises before, and the world as a whole has suffered. In the middle ages, the black death completely changed the face of mediaeval Europe, eventually improving peasants’ working conditions. And it’s believed that 3,500 thousand years ago, almost all of the Mediterranean suffered societal ruin when volcanic eruptions, disease, droughts and invasions caused what is known now as the Late Bronze Age collapse.

However, our world as a whole feels a lot more fragile today than it used to be. We have better technology and better medicine, but everything and everyone is much more interconnected. All these relationships, which have added so much value to the planet, also mean that a single country dropping out of the system can cause massive issues for all others.

A Chain of Catastrophes

A lot of us try to think what is happening now is a one-off case. We hadn’t had Covid before, but multiple viruses have killed people throughout history. Unfortunately, there was very little we could do back then to control their consequences, at least in terms of prevention and treatment.

Man pushing dominoes over

As tragic as the pandemic was, we were, in a way, rather lucky. We had the technology to move our work online, so we could stay at home and minimise social contact. We put mechanisms in place that understand how to stop the virus from spreading, and we could see a solution. It helped, also, that the virus was not as lethal as many of the older diseases that have destroyed entire civilizations. However, the price of stopping the virus resulted in a different type of catastrophe. The economy was massively impacted, and what did governments do? Expand the money supply to pay for it. So we got inflation. Now on top of economic issues, we have supply issues and higher prices for everything.

In an old world, the solution would have been simple: Let the virus do its thing and hope people will be able to cope. This, although in many ways more devastating, wouldn’t have caused the type of waterfall we are seeing today.

Enhanced Crisis

Sometimes, it feels like having all this technology is a problem in itself. Of course, it is not, really, because how many people would have died of Covid should countries have done nothing? We have a solution to things like this, but the solution has a price. And the price, in this case, was very high.

So, is permacrisis really a new phenomenon? Or, to rephrase this vital question: Is it really a permanent crisis we're talking about, or is it just globalisation? As much as we continue to improve on certain things, it seems there is always a knock-on effect on something else. And this can only get worse as things grow even more complex and more interconnected.

Our world will never be perfect, and we know that. We try to improve what we can and minimise the damage of the challenges we have to face. I think we’ll always be in permacrisis, but because we can have continuous development, we can react to these events in a different way. At least, what we are doing is building resilience in the system.

Here’s an interesting case to bring some good news to the table. I am an Angel Investor and I invest in different start-ups that are looking for new ways to do things. One of them, called Crossr, simulates the human body and how it can react to drugs. A complete simulation that measures how any drug affects the body without having to get close to a real person. How wonderful is that? If this works, you could increase drug understanding exponentially, it all just becomes a trial and error.

So, in a country like England, even though the NHS struggled to get through the worst of the pandemic (and continues to do so), can you say it’s also learning? That it’s becoming more resilient? What about Ukraine? Are we improving the system?

We Should Have Known

I think we should have predicted the pandemic before it happened. We should have been working on RMA vaccines and getting ready for what could occur. Just like we should have also known that our dependence on food and biomass fuel coming from a country bordering an unstable neighbour wasn’t a great idea. It wasn’t rocket science, was it? Russia had been meddling with Ukraine for almost ten years.

We need to focus more on prediction. On dealing with things at a global level. If we have to face global issues, maybe what we need is a global body who can monitor these potential crises. Covid cost us hundreds of billions, while a lot of it could have been prevented if we had invested 1% of that number. Maybe the scientists knew, but the politicians didn’t want to do it because there’s no votes in prevention.

Light bulb with scrunched up paper

Now, do you want to run your business like that, too? They said there was a one in a hundred chance of an epidemic. We’ve had many before, so we know they happen. Just look at the Spanish flu, or Ebola. Imagine Covid’s level of spread if it had been something as deadly as that. Are we actually preparing for an Ebola outbreak? Because that could take out a large proportion of the population. Ebola is out there, and killed 40% of people that caught it in 2014.

If you have a 1% chance of something going fatally wrong in your business, for example, if a service can disappear and the company gets destroyed, shouldn’t you invest in preventing that from happening? You probably already do. This is why it makes sense to have standards. To future-proof your business by taking a step back and figuring out where your failure points are. And, of course, by creating backup plans should anything go wrong.

Maybe governments can learn from businesses. It seems businesses actually do a better job at protecting themselves.


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