Understanding the environmental triple crisis

Whether you’re familiar with more advanced environmental and climate change topics or not, the environmental triple crisis (often just called the triple crisis) is something we don’t talk about nearly enough. Or perhaps we talk about it, but usually, it is one at a time. But part of the problem of the environmental triple crisis is that the whole is much bigger than the sum of its parts. In other words, the three problems work together to enlarge and worsen each other.

But what are these problems? And what can we do to lessen the effects and weather the storms?

Exponential growth

The first of the tree is exponential growth. In finances, this is also known as compound interest, and Einstein himself declared it as the 8th wonder of the world.

Exponential growth is exemplified in the old story about the sultan who was bored and wanted to learn a new game. One of the many who came to show him games to try out was the inventor of chess. The sultan liked the game and asked the inventor how much he would like for the game.

The inventor answered that he wanted rice. But not just any amount of rice. He wanted 1 grain of rice on the first square of his board. 2 on the next, 4 on the next, 8 on the next etc. etc.

The sultan laughed, thought this a ridiculously low price and told a servant to start counting out rice for the man. But as he turned to walk away, one of his mathematicians ran up to him with terror, letting the sultan know that the man had asked for more rice than they had in their granaries. More rice than there were stars in the sky!

This story illustrates to power of exponential growth well. Because it also illustrates how we are prone to ignore it in the beginning. The growth seems so small and insignificant. By the end of the first row, we are only up to 255 individual grains of rice, or 7.4 grams (0.26 ounces). But by the middle of the board, one square is worth 2,147,483,648 grains of rice (over 62,000 kg/2,200,000 ounces)! The last square on the board alone, not even adding the previous squares contains 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 grains of rice, which is 26,747 tonnes/943,500,103 ounces, with the total almost twice that!

That’s a lot of rice.

The problem with exponential growth is that it assumes limitless resources. Think of how the human population has gone from around 2 billion 100 years ago to almost 7 billion today. How are we going to feed everyone if we keep growing at the same rate? What about other creatures that share our planet with us? Our planet does not have infinite resources. In fact, last year we used 0.75 planets more than our earth can replenish in a year, and we have been getting ever deeper into eco-debt since 1971!

Source: https://www.overshootday.org/

Like anyone amassing ever more credit card debt will tell you. At one point the system collapses. At one point creditors come to your door demanding payback.

Overshoot and collapse

Instead of rice and people, we can think about plants and animals growing in an exponential fashion. In Norway, the classical example is the lemming, a small rodent loved by birds of prey. Anyone who has lived in lemming territory can attest to the ridiculous overcrowded roads and forests during a lemming year. They are everywhere. Eating, breeding, running.

The increase in lemming leads to an increase in prey for the birds of prey, who are able to care for more of their young, so their populations muliply too.

By the time food for the lemmings is running out, there are a lot of birds of prey hunting them. Without food the lemmings die out, and the predators who depend on them die with them. Only a few remain, and the cycle begins all over again.

That is why the overshoot graph above is so terrifying. We are already far into overshoot. When will a collapse follow?

Limits to growth

Following logically along with the last two points for the environmental triple crisis is that there are limits to growth. We can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. A statement so simple it is easily ignored in our hectic, modern life. At some point, we will hit rock bottom, and there will be consequences.

A much-criticized and debated publication by The Club of Rome from MIT called Limits of Growth talks about exactly this. It came out in 1974 and still holds water today. It stated that we would feel the effects of resource overuse by now (hey extreme weather events), and would be scraping the bottom of our resources by mid-century if we don’t make serious changes to our consumption. No one believed them then. After all, they are uncomfortable subjects to think about. Our comfortable lifestyle, reduced? Impossible!

What can we do?

Of course. This is a large question with a very large and multi-faceted answer. Much too large for a single blogpost. And much of the reason why this blog exists in the first place! But for a few, simple but not easy points, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Simplify your life – The less we own, the less we need to repair, maintain, and store. Especially electronics that need to be charged and require complex mixtures of rare earth metals. Do you really need an electric can opener, nose hair trimmer, or 50 different electric toys or your kids?
  2. Learn to grow some food and buy local when you can – Even if you don’t have space for a whole garden, you can still learn by growing in containers in your apartment. The more we can do ourselves locally, the more resilient our communities will be to change.
  3. Repair and reuse – Use what you have until it can no longer be used. Wear out your clothes before buying anything new. Work on being content with what you already have.

And since we were inspired by Vicki Robin’s Blessing the Hands that Feed Us for this post, we leave you with this poem by Drew Dellinger, also cited in the book:

It’s 3:23 in the morning
and I am awake
because my great great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?

Drew Dellinger – Hieroglyphic Stairway

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