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'Polycrisis': sporadic 'outbursts' or labelling an 'age'?

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One message was clear when the World Economic Forum (WEF) noted how "the risk of polycrisis was rising," in January 2023. It specifically pointed out "the interrelation of geopolitical, environmental and sociopolitical risks." Coining a new word to describe a multitude of crises is fashionable among scholars, except that 'polycrisis' is no longer new. French environmentalist Edgar Morin built the term and Adam Tooze, a Columbia University historian, popularised it from the 1970s when war, poverty, population explosion, and economic decline posed too many challenges simultaneously. 'Polycrisis' captured that multitude aptly, became widely used in European Union exchanges in this century, and poses an independent riddle the World Economic Forum is seeking to resolve: as Ville Lähde asks, is it a common noun or a proper noun, that is, lots of simultaneous problems or an Age of Crisis?

Being about as old as this new paradigm, Bangladesh may be an appropriate test-case of both contexts. In the 1970s the name Bangladesh was synonymous with all the crises Morin and Tooze alluded to, on top of which were rebuilding from the liberation war, being pushed into military dictatorship, and finding social, national, and global anchor. The independent advent of micro-financing rural women, expiration of GATT's MultiFibre Agreement (MFA), and dispatching low-wage workers to foreign countries contributed to recovery very handsomely.

Implicitly or explicitly they fed new simultaneous problems by the 1990s: urban migration, and with it congestion and pollution as the population raced towards doubling the 1970s tally by early 21st century (remarkably at that, as the country became more or less self-sufficient in food production), and on top of that political repression matched the huge infrastructural deficiencies preventing the country from shedding its agricultural identity. Bangladesh entered the 21st century saddled with such an inheritance. By today Bangladesh has pushed the military back into the barracks, taken up numerous mega projects to supply the needed infrastructures, begun diversifying the economy, albeit all too niggardly, and plunged into eliminating poverty and promoting sustainability on multiple fronts.

How then would the WEF's "interrelation of geopolitical, environmental and sociopolitical risks" observation fit the Bangladesh of 2023? On the one hand has been the toll exacted by all the problems observed from the 1970s; and on the other has emerged a far different context within which Bangladesh functions.

On the geopolitical front, at least three clusters of developments beg attention: domestic, regional, and international. On the home front, Bangladesh managed to join a host of other countries in the democratic surge of the 1990s. Coupled with a commitment to a neo-liberal economic order, Bangladesh's democracy has progressed much like it has for a majority of countries over the initial three-decade of efforts: ups and downs alternate, but the commitment to continue remains unconditional still. When one considers the sunny post-Cold War global atmosphere in the 1990s, no one should be surprised with the broader 21st Century democratic hiccups and slide-backs when underlying military and economic conditions reverberating across a wide variety of frayed countries: the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria; the 2008-11 Great Recession; interpreting China's Belt Road Initiative from 2013 as a strategic challenge when all it seeks is an economic breakthrough; the 2019-22 pandemic; and the Ukraine War from February 2022 have all taken their toll on country-specific democratic tone.

Regionally, the 2017 Rohingya exodus not only created the world's largest refugee camp, that too in the most congested country in the world, but it also camouflaged China's access to the Bay of Bengal, thus opening the waterway to crisscrossing dynamics spilling from one country (Myanmar) to the region (South Asia). So much hullaballoo on it has been aired this year that the geopolitical front has become too pregnant too ominously.

Turning to the 'environmental' component, Bangladesh's plight as the most vulnerable country against climate-change consequences has become a case of 'holding the fort': satisfactory performances on several of the 17 SDG fronts belie the complete inadequacy in tackling the few areas Bangladesh has not performed well in: life below water (SDG #14), on land (#15), and against institutionalised peace/justice (#16). Be these as they may, secular threats may be even more unsettling. Bangladeshis remember so crisply how the 2022 Monsoon failed, indeed, how the glaciers feeding its mightiest rivers had shifted direction, thrashing Pakistan of all places with the most unlikeliest of floods. Being the El Niño year, 2023 may expose our coasts to unprecedented challenges, aggravate river salinity and threaten forests. The environmental 'plot' only thickens not for policy-making deficits but for inherited global carbon content emanating in other parts of the world.

Finally, the 'sociopolitical risks' emanate as much from both kinds of inheritances already discussed: those domestic ones of the 1970s and the global contributions just mentioned. Congestion and pollution pose not just the obvious threats that any mention of the terms entails but also the hidden cost of being taken as routine life: those born under such conditions simply do not know if there is a Plan B, and by the time they find out, instincts, mindsets, and values have already been both nurtured, and matured to be easily dislodged. This may turn out to be the most crippling of concerns for society at large and policy-makers in particular.

'Never a dull day' might most appropriately encapsulate Bangladesh's fifty-odd years. Just the terrain and a multifaceted climate (political, economic, and most environmental) fit the 'polycrisis' bill. Yet, do they, in the net, belong to such an 'Age'?

Globally one can talk of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union being succeeded by brewing tensions between the United States and China. Bangladesh's closest seat to both of those contestations was the Bay of Bengal encounters: a Soviet fleet prevented the U.S. Seventh Fleet from boosting Pakistan military morale in November-December 1971; and the current BRI-Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) permeating the Bay.

Regionally, the age of India-Pakistan rivalry was supplanted by India-China skirmishes. Bangladesh's alignment with India remained strong on both occasions, suggesting perhaps more than meets the eye: a brewing Bangla-India partnership in the mold of the Franco-German axis in West Europe, or Australia and New Zealand Down Under.

Locally, Rabindranath Tagore's 'Sonar Bangla' age is being displaced by Adam Smith's 'nation of shopkeepers' age (built upon the very subject of Smith's Wealth of Nations: the First Industrial Revolution highlighting ready-made garments.

Mixing the local, regional, and global suggests a 'Polycrisis of Transition' Age for Bangladesh: from a traditional agricultural country now aiming to become a 'developed' industrialised counterpart against a regional context dominated by India and within a global context of creating robotic Fourth Industrial Revolution contraptions while harnessing diminishing 'sustainability' credentials as the fulcrum of global tensions shift from the North Atlantic to the adjoining Bay of Bengal, Malacca Straits, and the South China Sea.

Our priorities have been handed down and deliberately cultivated, predicting the transformation of mini-'crises' into an 'Age'.


Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor, Department of Global Studies & Governance (GSG), Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).
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