Polycrisis Four Square

There’s a game you might remember from childhood called Four Square. Four kids stand in a 2×2 grid with one kid yelling out rules on how they can hit the ball—with their hands, feet, only while grunting, etc. If you fail to pass on the ball, you’re out and some other kid takes your spot.

That’s in my head as I work on a new journal article on the question of “What Comes After the Polycrisis?”1 Much of the focus is on interventions we could take now that fit inside that four square approach. Some approaches will help with making the global polycrisis period less bad (i.e. less human and non-human suffering). Some will help make the post-polycrisis period (PPP) less bad. Some will do both, some neither.

Remember this from your childhood? (Image of kids playing four square by Stephen Coles via Flickr)

That can be seen in a 2×2 matrix (yes, which looks like a four square court). Some interventions, like carbon capture and storage (CCS) will neither help soften the polycrisis, nor the PPP. In fact, CCS will in all likelihood make the polycrisis worse, redirecting limited resources away from true societal transitions and extending oil companies’ licenses to operate (which are leading proponents and investors in CCS).2

Some efforts, like mega-scale renewables, could help us through the polycrisis (assuming this truly helps societies shift away from fossil fuels and doesn’t just expand energy demands—admittedly a huge assumption). But these projects will not help PPP peoples, who in all likelihood will neither have the dense energy sources, know-how, or ability to maintain giant fields of PV panels, mirrors, or wind turbines (particularly those in the ocean). When those fail, they’ll just be eerie remnants of a fallen empire—like Easter Island Heads or maybe Mt. Rushmore?

Other interventions might help in the PPP but less so as we weather global disruptions. Two examples: permanently securing nuclear waste, and protecting the deep sea. The first is intensely labor and resource intensive. In the U.S. alone there are 80 nuclear waste sites and 93 active nuclear reactors (which will become future radioactive waste when shut down). It would take hundreds of billions of dollars to clean all this up and place it in secure geological storage facilities, but doing so will prevent future peoples from settling in radioactive areas or foraging radioactive materials to build their tools and homes. The avoided suffering to humans and wildlife could be significant. While hard to imagine successfully citing a location for a facility in the U.S., Finland offers a potent case study in successfully doing this (though you can see how materially and financially intensive storage is).3

A far easier intervention is to prevent any mining of the deep seas. Some see this as a new source of critical minerals to power the energy transition. But the deep sea is critical for sustaining ocean health and possibly the future evolutionary potential of Gaia. Keeping this relatively untouched zone healthy is paramount for the long-term wellbeing of humans and Gaia, even if there is a financial case to be made for its liquidation. (Fortunately, the case is pretty weak: one recent study found that investing in mining the deep seas would actually lead to a $500 billion dollar loss, when factoring in ecological damages. But even just factoring in the economic realm, it’s still a money loser—costing the mining industry a projected $30-132 billion—due to the expensive equipment and difficulty accessing these minerals.)

What other interventions should be added? (Table from Erik Assadourian, 2024)

The Sweet Quadrant

The last quadrant is the sweet spot—those interventions that will help reduce suffering in the polycrisis upon us as well as the post-polycrisis period. Two examples, both of which I’ve discussed many times: reducing nuclear arsenals and degrowth (of both the economy as well as the total number of humans and their dependent species). Reducing nuclear arsenals will mean less potential for a world-ending conflict or even a limited nuclear exchange that could cause billions to suffer through the trigger of a global famine. It could also prevent the instability in the PPP of many small states (assuming empires like the United States break apart) from having nuclear weapons and local warlords using them to either hold power or spark regional conflicts.

By reducing human numbers and economic activity, we’ll take immediate pressure off Earth’s systems, reducing the severity of the polycrisis. Further, by having fewer people, by definition there will be less suffering. And while that can be reduced to absurdity (i.e. why not get rid of all humans?), ten billion people trying to survive in the polycrisis will look very different than seven billion. And by reducing population and the resultant conversion of ecological capital into stuff during our consumer era (to fulfill both real and artificially stimulated needs), the PPP will also be better, as more of Earth’s systems will be intact (at least relatively) to grow food, provide ecosystem services like water purification and climate stability, and sustain the web of life that humans depend on and are woven into.

Of course, I’d also add cultivating a deeper respect for our dependence on Gaia in this quadrant as well. Not necessarily through the Gaian Way, but if religions, which have lasted for centuries (and some for millennia) embed an ecocentric perspective, they could prove powerful and enduring institutions that help get humanity through the polycrisis and build in ways that sustain Earth and prevents another future polycrisis triggered by humans once again forgetting their dependence on Gaia and growing beyond the planet’s carrying capacity. If not, they probably deserve to be knocked out of the Four Square to let another take their place!

New rule: if you don’t integrate deep ecological understanding and deference, you’re out! (Image by Michelle TeGrootenhuis via Flickr)


1) What’s the polycrisis? In short, a converging set of crises that lead to global societal disruptions. For a deeper introduction, I invite you to read these two Gaian Reflections: Plunging into the Polycrisis and From Polycrisis to Permacrisis.

2) Just announced this week: another direct air capture facility came online in Iceland. Once fully operational, it will capture 36,000 tons of CO2 a year. Sure, that sounds good, but why not use the electricity for something useful that’ll displace energy used elsewhere. Even mining cryptocurrency might be a better use (if it shifts it away from coal-based energy)! But somebody invested in this facility as a worthwhile investment (driven by the monetization of carbon and most likely state subsidies).

3) The odds of investing in this, even in the pre-polycrisis period, are low, which is why training nuclear guardians to keep sharing awareness of taboo zones will be deeply valuable.

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