E4 – the four crises of the 21st century

There have been a few attempts to sum up the interlocking problems we face as a human race. The UNEP proposed ‘21 issues for the 21st century‘, which is too many for most of us to get our heads round. The World Economic Forum maps global risks across five broad categories. Some talk about the ‘triple crunch’ of energy, climate and finance. Those are the first that spring to mind, and I’m sure there are others.

There is no definitive list, and organisations synthesize the challenges according to the scope of their own work rather than trying to cover everything. It can be a useful exercise in looking at the way problems interconnect. It’s impossible to deal with climate change without looking at energy, or at the growth imperative of our global economy. Even things that might seem unrelated are often connected beneath the surface – such as ISIS and the Syrian conflict, which has both energy and climate change factors in the background.

Here’s how the PostCarbon Institute understand the problem they face, as described in their latest report Six Foundations for Building Community Resilience. The problem is fourfold, as they see it – “distinct but intertwined crises” that “influence and multiply each other”. Conveniently enough, they all begin with E.

  1. the Ecological crisis – “every ecosystem has two important limiting factors: its rate of replenishment and its capacity to deal with wastes and stress”. This principle underpins climate change, biodiversity loss, water stress and much more besides.
  2. The Energy crisis – as the easy to reach fossil fuels deplete and the extractive industries reach for alternative fuels, we face rising costs and a volatile energy landscape.
  3. The Economic crisis – “The end of the age of cheap and easy energy, the vast mountains of both private and public debt that we have incurred, and the snowballing costs of climate change impacts are all forcing us into an as yet undefined post-growth economic system…whether we are ready for it or not.”
  4. The Equity crisis – economic growth has not been inclusive, leading to “ongoing inequality of economic, social, and political power”.

As I say, not a definitive summary because there’s no such thing – but a useful reminder of how things affect each other. If we don’t recognise the links between problems, we’re more likely to jump at easy answers and suffer unintended consequences elsewhere.

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