Polycrisis in autumn
Returning to Fukushima
fall every year
Recently I found myself at Suirakuen, a Japanese garden located in Fukushima prefecture, and as I took in the landscape, my mind inevitably started drawing connections with themes of decline and decay. It is that time of the year.
In a prior note, I suggested that polycrisis is effectively something of a placeholder concept for trying to name and narrate being caught up in conditions of socio-political entropy. Adam Tooze is going deeper into detailing what might bend, break or implode, while Noah Smith has decided he is ‘against’ the concept, whatever exactly that means. Regardless, it seems the term captures something in the air, the response to it perhaps reflects a growing unease. Indeed, part of our condition might be the failure of concepts and language to adequately describe what is unfolding. Yet there is still value in trying to make sense in real time of what might be happening, fumbling around for comprehension as best we can.
One aspect of Japan that I find striking is that a recognition of impermanence is a vital part of its culture, and yet the country also has a remarkable tradition of continuity. This can be seen in shinise (老舗), businesses that have continuously operated for over a century. Indeed, it appears that more than half of all companies are over two hundred years old are from Japan. Impermanence and persistence, change and continuity, sitting together, a strange kind of complementarity. These contrasts are powerfully contained within the Japanese garden, seasons come and go, leaves grow and fall. The image of the garden also offers a powerful hint of what is needed: ongoing attention and care. It is possible to shape some manifestations of entropy.
The risk of the polycrisis frame is that is misapprehends ever-present change for something more foreboding. The wager, however, is that some changes are better than others, there is a need to recognise that, and work towards avoiding worse outcomes. When it comes to political institutions, economic relations, and social bonds, entropy and decay can be profoundly damaging and harmful. Considering the then ascendant Islamic State, John Gray returned to Hobbes to offer a valuable reminder:
What we are witnessing is the rediscovery of an essential truth: our freedoms are not free-standing absolutes but fragile constructions that remain intact only under the shelter of state power.
There is plenty in his article to question, but the central point is an important one: we tend to take for granted the vital conditions of state order and functioning institutions within which we exercise our freedoms, and that ‘endemic anarchy can be a more intractable obstacle to civilised existence than many kinds of despotism’.
This offers a basic reminder of why political and social entropy should be a source of concern. When the forms and things that break are institutions that people rely on, it matters. The result is suffering, harm and loss. It is not incidental that my reflections were prompted by returning to Fukushima, a name that has become burned into our collective consciousness. This is where an unexpected - but not inconceivable - natural occurrence interacted with ageing technology, degraded regulatory institutions, misaligned economic incentives, and a denial of externalities. Bad luck and bad practice leading to a very bad outcome. What is often forgotten is that the Onagawa nuclear power plant, which was the closest to the epicentre of the earthquake, survived intact without incident. There are better and worse outcomes.
It is from being in Japan at that time, and subsequently researching the triple disasters, that I became much more attuned to the fragility of our world and more conscious of what it means when things break. To repeat the conclusion I reached from that experience:
Fukushima tragically teaches us the need to reckon with the fragility of things and people, to acknowledge the role of the unexpected and unlikely, to deal with the shortcomings of institutions and systems, and to recognise that some things cannot be undone. This, in turn, should foster an ethos of humility. A sense of care.
Being back in Fukushima, I look at the trees and the ground, I see the crimson and yellow leaves. Autumn is followed by winter, but then spring and summer. The garden is still there. The region slowly adjusts, life moves on. Yet nobody could argue in good faith that Fukushima is better off now. It is not. The landscape still bears the scars of folly and Fortuna.
Regardless of how the current crises we are facing are resolved, life will continue, in one form or another. But some forms are better than others, and it is worth seriously considering what the stakes are, and what bad resolutions to these challenges might mean. In this sense, even if all talking about polycrisis does is sharpen our minds to the problems we face, then it might serve a valuable purpose.
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