Navigating polycrisis: long-run socio-cultural factors shape response to changing climate

Daniel Hoyer, James S. Bennett, Jenny Reddish, Samantha Holder, Robert Howard, Majid Benam, Jill Levine, Francis Ludlow, Gary Feinman and Peter Turchin
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B September 18, 2023 Journal Link


Climate variability and natural hazards like floods and earthquakes can act as environmental shocks or socioecological stressors leading to instability and suffering throughout human history. Yet, societies experience a wide range of outcomes when facing such challenges: some suffer from social unrest, civil violence or complete collapse; others prove more resilient and maintain key social functions. We currently lack a clear, generally agreed-upon conceptual framework and evidentiary base to explore what causes these divergent outcomes. Here, we discuss efforts to develop such a framework through the Crisis Database (CrisisDB) programme. We illustrate that the impact of environmental stressors is mediated through extant cultural, political and economic structures that evolve over extended timescales (decades to centuries). These structures can generate high resilience to major shocks, facilitate positive adaptation, or, alternatively, undermine collective action and lead to unrest, violence and even societal collapse. By exposing the ways that different societies have reacted to crises over their lifetime, this framework can help identify the factors and complex social–ecological interactions that either bolster or undermine resilience to contemporary climate shocks.
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