Crisis Crisis – Ryan Neiheiser and Benedict Clouette. Agenda: Can We Sustain Our Ability to Crisis? 

With economists predicting that America and Europe will emerge from the “great recession” within the next year, and China already reporting stronger-than-anticipated growth, the worst of the financial crisis seems to be behind us. But even before the economic indicators began to point to the exist, the crisis was already exhausted as a topic of debate and an impetus for change.

“Crisis fatigue” set in, brought on by an endless parade of commentary shows and blogs, special issues, academic panels, and art biennials devoted to the subject and what to do next. The potential radicality of the transformations in progress were absorbed and normalized, leaving the term “crisis” overleveraged, grandiose and banal at the same time. We’re witnessing a crisis within a crisis itself: a crisis that fails to produce transformation because the apparent resolution of conflicts came too soon and the potentials of crisis were neutralized before they could have an effect.

Part of this failure can be attributed to an oversimplification of the topic; most have treated crisis as a single monolithic condition rather than the complex and multidisciplinary field of overlapping shifts that it actually is. Crisis is not merely the latest result of Wall Street greed and short-sighted political decision-making.

It is also an ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS, the result of over 200 years of escalating earth abuse that has left us with diminished energy supplies, widespread pollution, and a dramatically altered ecology. For a brief moment, the financial crisis provided an opportunity to rethink the relationship between economic production and its environmental effects, at a time when both the economic and ecological systems seemed to have reached their limits. With the easing of the financial crisis, we have lost the momentum to reshape the social and economic relationships that have contributed to climate disruption. While the global economy may rebound within a short time, the long-term damage from industrial development will require a sustained, cooperative effort at an international level to repair. Without addressing the roots of the environmental crisis – the overproduction of the market economy – a truly sustainable future remains impossible.

It is a CRISIS OF MODERN MACROECONOMIC THEORY, a field increasingly fractured and unsure of itself. Many prominent economists self-critically recognize that the discipline missed the origins of the financial crisis, were unable to recognize its worst symptoms, and cannot now agree on a cure. Paul Krugman, in a recent lecture, announced that “most macroeconomics of the past 30 years has been spectacularly useless at best, and positively harmful at worst” (1) Although the relative economic calm of this period has inspired increasingly murky macroeconomic thinking, the trauma of the past year has spurred a disciplinary crisis that has the potential to shake things up and inspire creative new directions.

It is a DEMOCRAPHIC CRISIS, an increasingly volatile combination of escalating, ageing, and migrating populations. Even if the financial crisis seems to have passed for the moment, the long-term prospects for economic security are grim. The developed world is increasingly “top-heavy”, with fewer workers supporting greater numbers of pensioners. The UN estimates that by 2050, one third of the population of developed countries will be over the age of 60(2), and the IMF recently calculated that the long-term costs of the ageing of the developed world will dwarf the impact of the current financial crisis (3). And in developing countries, the effects of the environmental crisis – agricultural disruptions, drought, polluted land, and deforestation, among many others – are directly and indirectly exacerbating civil war and migration. The International Organisation for Migration has predicted that there will be 200 million climate-change migrants by 2050(4) and economists have recently found that drought is one of the most reliable predictors of civil war (5).

It is a CRISIS OF JOURNALISM, a field in the midst of a wrenching transition from analog to digital, and from professional expertise to amateur ubiquity. The financial crisis has quickened the decline of the industry charged with interpreting and explaining its complexities. Newspaper journalism has been under threat for some time by shifts in media consumption toward free, online information sources. But since the onset of the crisis, advertising revenues have plummeted even further: revenues for US newspaper advertisements, already depressed, dropped an additional 30% in the first quarter of 2009(6). Most “news” blogs focus on commentary, not on reporting, and do not yet have the resources to do otherwise. The collapse of the business model of newspapers has made journalism’s future uncertain at a time when its role in public life is direly needed.

And it is a tangle of ongoing and emerging POLITICAL CRISES that include the rise of third-way governments in the west, democracies still-born in the middle east, and a European Union identity crisis, to name only a few. While the threat of terror in the west had already quickened a rush to the political centre-right and the rebranding of political adversaries as moral enemies, the destabilizing effects of the financial crisis has seemed to further galvanize this position. The repercussions of the combined economic, environmental, and demographic crises on nascent democracies throughout the world has placed many of them in peril of political collapse. And in Europe, the depth and persistence of the financial crisis has compelled governments to embrace a systemic response that ultimately may drive Europe towards greater economic integration; in turn forcing an uncomfortable debate about the political agency and identity of the European Union.

Globalization, as the cliché goes, makes any local crisis a global one. But it is clearly more complicated and nuanced than this; far from a single crisis writ large, what we are confronted with now is crisis fractured, splintered, multiplied, refracted and translated. Not only dispersed topically and geographically, the various incarnations of crisis are also developing and morphing along independent timelines, expanding and contracting at different rates. In short, the discomfort and instability of crisis is widespread and varied.

But more than mere doomsday pronouncements, these unmanageable moments of overlapping upheaval, when viewed in all of their systemic complexity, are also opportunities – demands in fact – for coordinated innovation and change. “Change”, the buzzword of the 2008 US presidential election, is indeed the order of the day, but with short term economic outlook improving and the sense of urgency fading, it may be too late to expect real revolutions this time around.

Our interest in progress seems to have been replaced by a need to simply survive crisis, to maintain as best as possible in the face of increasingly turbulent economic and climatic upheaval. If in fact “crisis” has replaced “progress” as our motivating concern, then change will only become possible by shifting our energies away from efforts to merely mitigate crisis and towards the paradoxical challenge of how we might more fully embrace crisis in order to move beyond it.

For the discipline of architecture, crisis has historically provided an opportunity for innovation and change. The industrial revolution spurred modernism, the great depression instigated vast social projects and infrastructural investments, the devastation of WWII put architects and urban planners to work all across Europe, and the oil crisis of the 1970s spawned a new breed of utopian thinking and ecological awareness.

But this latest crisis has been a missed opportunity for innovation. Architecture, still adrift on the free market cruise of the 1990s, had a chance to recover a directionality that it had not enjoyed since the post-war era. Is it still possible?



  1. From his lecture at the LSE on June 10th, as reported in The Economist, “The Other Worldly Philosophers”, July 16th, 2009.
  2. United Nations Press Release, March 11th, 2009. 2008 Revision, “World Population to Exceed 9 Billion by 2050).
  3. As reported in The Economist, “A Slow Burning Fuse: A Special Report on Ageing Populations”, June 27th, 2009.
  4. International Organisation for Migration: Policy Brief, May 2009.
  5. Edward Miquel, Shanker Satyanath, and Ernest Sergenti, “Economic Shocks and Civil Conflict: An Instrumental Variables Approach”, Journal of Political Economy, 2004, vol.112, no.4.
  6. Newspaper Association of America,