Polycrisis and depression in the XNUMXst century

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By MICHAEL ROBERTS*

It is the class division that is the fundamental cause of this polycrisis, as well as the blind engagement in current activities.

"Polycrisis” is, at the moment, the buzz word on the left. The word expresses the meeting and interweaving of several simultaneous crises: economic (inflation and recession); environmental (climate and pandemic); and geopolitics (war and international divisions). So it's no surprise that the latest UN Human Development Report (HDR) is so shocking. According to him, the world is more pessimistic than at any point in modern history, that is, since before the First World War.

The Human Development Report presented an analysis of the linguistic trends present in literary texts in the last 125 years. It thus revealed that there was a sharp increase in expressions that reflect “cognitive distortions associated with depression and other forms of mental suffering”. Over the past two decades, language that reflects overly negative perceptions of the world and its future has expanded. In fact, current levels of distress are unprecedented, surpassing what occurred in all past traumatic events.

What is also telling is that negative views of the world began to increase at the turn of the century – that is, before the Great Recession of 2008. This increase coincides with a realization that the world's major economies have entered what I call a new “long depression”, the third in the history of modern capitalism; before that, there is 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 – much higher than in either of the two world wars of the XNUMXth century. We are experiencing a combination of uncertainties: there is an economic depression; real incomes stagnate or even fall; poverty increases along with rising inequality; there is a lack of investment to increase the productive forces and resolve the environmental disaster that now involves the world as a whole. Faced with this situation, instead of global cooperation between governments to resolve the “polycrisis”, there is a growing conflict between nations, both economically and militarily.

Here is how Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) presented the 2022 Human Development Report:

“We are living in uncertain times. The Covid-19 pandemic, now in its third year, continues to spawn new variants. The war in Ukraine reverberates around the world, causing immense human suffering, including a cost of living and inflation crisis. Climate and ecological disasters threaten the world on a daily basis.”

“Layers of uncertainty are piling up and interacting to disrupt our lives in unprecedented ways. People have faced disease, war, and environmental disruption before. But the confluence of destabilizing planetary pressures with rising inequalities, sweeping social transformations to alleviate those pressures, and widespread polarization present new, complex, and interacting sources of uncertainty for the world and everyone in it.”

"People around the world are now saying they feel increasingly insecure." Six out of seven people across the world reported feeling insecure about many aspects of their lives, even before the Covid-19 pandemic. And this has political consequences: “Is it any wonder, then, that many nations are caving in to polarizing tensions, political extremism and demagoguery – all heightened by social media, artificial intelligence and other powerful technologies?”

Steiner also pointed out that "something impressive has happened to the value of the global Human Development Index (HDI) as it has fallen for two consecutive years after the Covid-19 pandemic".

The drop in the global HDI happened shortly after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement! It was expected, but no progress has been made. Every year, different countries experience declines in their respective HDI values. In 2021 and 2022, the HDI dropped impressively in 90% of countries; Now, this fall, in terms of the number of countries that experienced reversals, far exceeded what happened in the global financial crisis. Last year saw some recovery at the global level, but it was partial and uneven: most countries with very high HDI recorded improvements, while most of the rest experienced continued declines.

At least 15 million “unnecessary lives” have been lost to the COVID pandemic, mostly in low- and middle-income countries. But even the US has seen its life expectancy drop to a 26-year low. In fact, US life expectancy is now below that of China!

“The pandemic has been a painful reminder of how breaches of trust and lack of cooperation, between and within nations, foolishly restrict what can be achieved together,” says the Human Development Report.

New vaccines have been developed to fight COVID in record time, including some based on revolutionary technologies. They saved around 20 million lives in one year. But the world's poorest have received the least medical support because access to the vaccine is highly inequitable. In high-income countries, three in four people have been vaccinated against the new coronavirus with at least one dose by July 2022. In low-income countries, only one in five people have received at least one dose of vaccine by the same date.

COVID has not gone away and so governments and people have decided to live (and die) with this pandemic. The consequences remain and have even gotten worse. Billions of people now face the biggest cost of living crisis in a generation. They were already struggling with food insecurity, largely due to inequalities in wealth and power; as is known, such differences determine the right to food. Global supply chain roadblocks remain, contributing to rising inflation in all countries at rates not seen in decades.

As for the climate, the Report recalls that, in recent years, record temperatures, fires and storms have been seen all over the world. The last Report of the International Panel on Climate Change constitutes a “code red for humanity”. In essence, as science advances, climate models are getting better accuracy; as a result, they more accurately predict future disasters.

“Provoked by the Anthropocene, the climate crisis advances along with other bad changes at the planetary level”: the collapse of biodiversity is one of them. More than 1 million species of plants and animals are facing extinction. “We still don't have the idea of ​​how to live in a world without, for example, an abundance of insects. This did not happen for about 500 million years, since the world's first land plants appeared. And this is not unjustified. Without an abundance of insect pollinators, the difficult challenge of growing food and other agricultural products on a large scale will be faced.”

Polycrisis is taking a toll on humanity's mental well-being through traumatizing events, physical illness, general climate anxiety, and food insecurity. “The effects this has on children in particular are profound as it alters brain and body development, especially in families at lower income levels; behold, they diminish the potential that children can achieve in life”. Inequalities in human development are perpetuated between generations: “it is not difficult to see how the confluence of mental anguish, inequality and insecurity foster an equally harmful intergenerational cycle, which continues in human development”.

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

What can be done? The UN offers its ISI model for a more hopeful future: investment, security and innovation.

But innovation and new technologies, admits the UN, are double-edged swords. “Artificial intelligence will create and destroy jobs, causing tremendous disruption. Synthetic biology opens new frontiers in health and medicine, but raises fundamental questions about what it means to be human.” In fact, will these new technologies increase inequality? Will they reduce or expand job possibilities? It seems not!

But there is also investment. The report on human development talks about public investment, mainly in the environment. But it says nothing about the vested interests that surreptitiously prevent this investment from actually taking place. Finally, there is security: more protection of human rights, access to basic services and a minimum income, and more democratic accountability. None of these basic security elements exist for most of the world's nearly 8 billion people.

The UN report is devastating in its examination of the human condition in the XNUMXst century. It does not, however, offer any convincing explanation of why a “polycrisis” exists. Achim Steiner says that “the hero and the villain in this terrible story, full of uncertainties, which humanity faces today are the same thing: human choices”.

Indeed, if other ways of doing things were chosen, the situation would be different. So why doesn't humanity choose a different path? Well, that's – he says – because “not all choices are created equal. Some – arguably the most relevant to the destiny of our species – are driven by institutional and cultural inertia, by generations engaged in current activities”.

Institutional and cultural inertia? The real reason actually lies in the fact that only a small percentage of humanity can choose; the rest have no power of choice (at least not individually). It is the class division, inherent in capitalism, between those who own and control and those who must work for them and obey, which is the fundamental cause of this polycrisis, as well as the blind engagement in current activities.

*michael roberts is an economist. Author, among other books, of The Great Recession: A Marxist View.

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on the website The next recession blog.

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