Change and Crisis: A Symbiotic Relationship

Ayza AfridiMarch 4, 2024Crisis & ChangeThe Big Question

Artwork by Liz Fabiola, age 15

Does a crisis cause change or does change cause crisis?

While the concept of change is not unique to our generation, the speed and nature of change is unprecedented. Whether it is technology (considering the sheer pace of development of AI), climate, or health sciences, humanity is changing faster and faster at the same time as the world we live in. This can be described as VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous). It is no wonder that most of us conflate crisis and change as two sides of the same coin.

It is true that a crisis is often a catalyst for change (good or bad). A health crisis, for example, can sometimes permanently alter one’s life for the worse; on the other hand, the internet has changed the way we work for the better (think of Zoom and Google), the Great Depression led to fundamental changes in the financial system that led to decades of economic prosperity, and the civil rights movement led to the end of segregation. As Paul Romer said, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

Conversely, significant change can also lead to a crisis. With the advent of AI, there is fear of mass unemployment in the future. A rapidly changing environment is leading to extreme climates that are causing human catastrophes with each passing season. Winning the lottery (a seemingly happy change of circumstances) can cause a crisis of personality and lead to gambling and other destructive habits. Even simple natural changes such as puberty and moving from middle school to high school is often a precursor to anxiety about personal body shapes, social relationships, and academic prowess.

Heraclitus (an ancient Greek Philosopher) saw change as the fundamental nature of the universe. His philosophy suggests that change is constant and inevitable, likening life to a river where one never steps in the same water twice. In his view, a crisis could be seen as a moment when the river’s flow becomes turbulent, prompting adaptation and transformation until the next bend in the river. That crisis leads to change which leads to crisis is also implied by Aristotle’s notion of potential and actuality. He argued that everything has the potential to become something else. Change, according to Aristotle, occurs when the potential of something becomes actualized. In the context of crises, they serve as catalysts where latent potentials are realized by giving birth to change.

However, the notion of a linear cause-effect relationship between crisis and change might be an oversimplification. Instead, they may be parallel streams (to borrow from the imagery of Heraclitus), converging intermittently, influencing each other in intricate and unpredictable ways.

Change doesn’t always arise from crises; sometimes, it emerges from deliberate choices, visionary leadership, or collective aspirations. Learning a new language or skill is a form of change, yet not associated with any crisis. Similarly, many advancements in communication or transport (e.g. the cell phone or airplanes) are not because humanity was facing a crisis but rather a result of human innovation. Some changes are incremental. They happen gradually over time without being directly linked to a crisis. Societal shifts, such as changing attitudes toward certain social issues, often evolve slowly through education, advocacy, and generational shifts. These changes don’t always result from a single crisis but are the culmination of multiple influences over time.

Similarly, crises can occur without directly causing significant change afterward. For example, a natural disaster (tornado or earthquake) may hit a region causing damage; however, the subsequent recovery is aimed to restore life as it was before without any major modifications. In fact, as humans, we try very hard to restore rather than change original structures. Similarly, health epidemics in stable settings don’t lead to or are caused by any significant change. A new virus emerges and is eventually eliminated without any drastic change to the underlying healthcare system (COVID-19 is a recent example). In the world of finance, for example, market crashes emerge due to computer glitches or speculation, but if the existing systems cater to the crash, no fundamental change in regulations or practices takes place. Crises might prompt temporary adjustments without leading to lasting change. For example, during a temporary fuel shortage, individuals might adjust their transportation habits, but once the crisis is resolved, they may revert to their previous behaviors without instituting lasting changes. Many societies and governments try their best to maintain the status quo even in the face of economic or social crisis. The Arab Spring suggested a change in the status quo, yet subsequent years have shown a reversion to similar forms of government in that region.

These examples demonstrate that crises can occur independently of preceding changes and might not always result in substantial changes afterward. While some crises prompt adaptations or short-term adjustments, they don’t always lead to transformative shifts in systems or societal structures, showcasing a separation between crises and the consequential changes that follow.

A useful lens to summarize this conundrum can be that change is a broader concept encompassing various transformations, while a crisis typically refers to a specific, often challenging event or period that disrupts the norm. They can intersect but aren't mutually dependent. Understanding this independence can help navigate and respond to both change and crisis more effectively. Change can prompt adaptation and innovation, leading to progress and improvement. Crisis, however, demands immediate attention and often requires managing unexpected or adverse circumstances without necessarily resulting in long-term change. People can adapt to changes without going through a crisis or use a crisis as a catalyst for change.

My own perspective is best articulated by the author Alvin Toffler: "Change is not merely necessary to life; it is life." As a teenager, I would find life boring to the verge of being pointless unless there wasn’t continual change to look forward to. From graduating each year to a more advanced grade, to being exposed to marginalized children at a refugee camp during a summer internship, change is a constant. However, some of this change comes in the form of a short-term crisis (from finding the right prom dress to my computer crashing during the SAT test . . . gulp!). In the same vein, Toffler’s perspective emphasizes the inherent nature of change as an essential aspect of existence. This idea suggests that change itself is not contingent on crises; instead, it is a fundamental characteristic of life while crises are sporadic moments during life that we need to face with resilience. I cannot wait to wake up to what change tomorrow will bring.