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Planetary Boundaries and The Failure of Environmentalism
Alex Steffen, 25 Sep 09
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Planetary boundaries are the natural limits on humanity's use of the planet. Strikingly, until recently, no one had made a serious effort to quantify these limits in measurable ways. That's why a new report from the Stockholm Resilience Center, attempting to give hard numbers for most of these boundaries, is so crucial.

The Resilience Center focused in on nine boundaries: climate change, stratospheric ozone, land use change, freshwater use, biological diversity, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans, aerosol loading and chemical pollution. These are each critical in their own ways:

Stratospheric ozone layer
The stratospheric ozone layer filters out ultraviolet radiation from the sun. (Find more on the stratospheric ozone layer in our archives: Aura.)

"In the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005, it was concluded that changes in biodiversity due to human activities were more rapid in the past 50 years than at any time in human history..."
(Find more on biodiversity in our archives: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Scenarios.)

Chemicals dispersion
"Emissions of persistent toxic compounds such as metals, various organic compounds and radionuclides, represent some of the key human-driven changes to the planetary environment. [Their] effects are potentially irreversible. Of most concern are the effects of reduced fertility and especially the potential of permanent genetic damage."
(Find more on chemicals dispersion in our archives: Personal Pollution Index.)

Climate Change
"We have reached a point at which the loss of summer polar ice is almost certainly irreversible. From the perspective of the Earth as a complex system, this is one example of the sharp threshold above which large feedback mechanisms could drive the Earth system into a much warmer, greenhouse gas-rich state... Recent evidence suggests that the Earth System, now passing 387 ppmv CO2, has already transgressed this Planetary Boundary."
(Find more on Climate Change in our archives: Zero, Now.)

Ocean acidification
"Around a quarter of the CO2 humanity produces is dissolved in the oceans. Here it forms carbonic acid, altering ocean chemistry and decreasing the pH of the surface water. Increased acidity reduces the amount of available carbonate ions, an essential building block used for shell and skeleton formation in organisms such as corals, and some shellfish and plankton species. ...The ocean acidification boundary is a clear example of a boundary which, if transgressed, will involve very large change in marine ecosystems, with ramifications for the whole planet."
(Find more on ocean acidification in our archives: Oceans Are the New Atmosphere.)

Freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle
"The freshwater cycle is both a major prerequisite for staying within the climate boundary, and is strongly affected by climate change. Human pressure is now the dominating driving force determining the function and distribution of global freshwater systems. The effects are dramatic, including both global-scale river flow change and shifts in vapour flows from land use change."
(Find more on freshwater and the hydrological cycle in our archives: World Water Day: Freshwater Roundup.)

Land system change
"Land is converted to human use all over the planet. Forests, wetlands and other vegetation types are converted primarily to agricultural land. This land-use change is one driving force behind reduced biodiversity and has impacts on water flows as well as carbon and other cycles. Land cover change occurs on local and regional scales but when aggregated appears to impact the Earth System on a global scale."
(Find more on land system change in our archives: Protecting the Environment, Protecting Our Health.)

Nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans
"Human modification of the nitrogen cycle has been even greater than our modification of the carbon cycle. Human activities now convert more N2 from the atmosphere into reactive forms than all of the Earth´s terrestrial processes combined. Much of this new reactive nitrogen pollutes waterways and coastal zones, is emitted to the atmosphere in various forms, or accumulates in the terrestrial biosphere. ...[Much ends up in] the sea, and can push marine and aquatic systems across thresholds..."
(Find more on nitrogen and phosphorus in our archives: The Nitrogen Wiki.)

Atmospheric aerosol loading
"This is considered a planetary boundary for two main reasons: (i) the influence of aerosols on the climate system and (ii) their adverse effects on human health at a regional and global scale."

(Find more on atmospheric aerosol loading in our archives: No Continent is an Island.)

The research has been nicely summarized and presented in a package of articles in Nature, and seems to be generally receiving a very positive reception as an important contribution to the scientific debate.

That doesn't mean that the concept is without challenges. Nature, in an editorial on own its package, raises some concerns about the scientific defensibility of the project's choice of targets:

The exercise requires many qualifications. For the most part, the exact values chosen as boundaries by Rockström and his colleagues are arbitrary. So too, in some cases, are the indicators of change. There is, as yet, little scientific evidence to suggest that stabilizing long-term concentrations of carbon dioxide at 350 parts per million is the right target for avoiding dangerous interference with the climate system. Focusing on long-term atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gas is perhaps an unnecessary distraction from the much more immediate target of keeping warming to within 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. Nor is there a consensus on the need to cap species extinctions at ten times the background rate, as is being advised.

Furthermore, boundaries don't always apply globally, even for processes that regulate the entire planet. Local circumstances can ultimately determine how soon water shortages or biodiversity loss reach a critical threshold.

All sorts of uncertainties present themselves in how we determine, measure and apply meaning to these planetary boundaries -- and that's before they even enter the mainstream debate, where dishonest players spin scientific uncertainty for political ends as a matter of course (look, for instance, at the geoengineering debate).

But even if we can come to some global consensus on the facts here and their meaning, the really tough work will have just begun.

That's because, fundamentally, planetary boundaries challenge two strongly cherished ideas in Industrial Age culture: that the planet's capacity for material growth is infinite, and that the answer to material poverty is to grow the total amount of material wealth.

We may well soon be able to decouple increasing prosperity from material impact, operating our economy in ever more tightly closed loops, and substituting intelligence, good design and clear thinking about the real sources of human well-being for overconsumption and wasteful living; but the fact remains that getting people the basics of life now remains a very resource- and energy-intensive (and thus ecologically destructive) business, and will remain so, at least to some degree, for several decades to come.

So if our planet has only so much ability to provide the raw material for certain fundamental building blocks of prosperity before triggering catastrophe, how we equitably divide the capacities of the planet -- both between the rich and the poor today and between the generations alive today and those to come -- poses the trickiest set of questions we face as a species.

It is with that set of questions in mind, I think, that we need now to be assessing how we think about sustainability. To be blunt, if our efforts in rich communities aren't explicitly aimed at creating a new prosperity (with almost no ecological impact) in time to be adopted by communities becoming newly wealthy (within the next couple decades, really), we're simply living in a dream world.

Small steps, personal responsibility. incremental reform, gradually better standards, 50-year targets for action -- most of the solutions offered in the green tool chest right now are, unfortunately, completely insufficient. Not insufficient in the sense that we'd like them to be better in a perfect world: insufficient in the sense that if we do them all, we still face a strong possibility of planetary catastrophe and the collapse of civilization.

We need to challenge the assumption that we can live much as we do today, with improved gadgets and standards (suburban, consumerist life with an electric car here, a green building there, a CFL in the next room). We can't. It won't work. We need to change how we live. If we're smart, we'll end up better off -- with more wealth, higher qualities of life, healthier families, and safer communities -- but we must start to talk not about doing things differently, but about doing different things.

It's been the failure of environmentalism that we haven't really engaged what a bright green, sustainably prosperous life might be like. We talk a lot about consequences, but talk too little about what prosperity in a world of hard limits can mean, and we demand far too little from the pundits and publications weighing in on these questions. If planetary boundaries mean anything, they mean it's time to stop pretending that "greener" is good enough. We need pragmatic brilliance and transformation. Anything less is just cluttering the discussion.

Image credit: NASA, Climate Change

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Excellent article. I had to write a press release for this Nature story but was wishing the whole time that I could write what you so eloquently discuss here. Many thanks!

Posted by: Jodi on 23 Sep 09

Alex, well put as usual. I have to say that we pretty much know what we need to do. It's not like we need a whole lot more talking. It would be nice to have exact hard targets, to be sure. But that's not the real issue. A sizable constituency is hell-bent on stopping *any* environmentally sound action.

This is only peripherally a fight for nature. It is centrally a fight against well-placed global saboteurs. Most common people would love to live in a bright green world. They would eventually accept the limits if they felt the urgency. They would also begin to realize it would raise GDP and living standards dramatically. Business (large and small) would realize that sustainability was the only way to continue growth on a resource-constrained planet.

But they're being prevented from even learning what that would be like by utterly relentless fearmongering on the right. Until we defeat the public perception that there is a conflict between prosperity, growth, personal freedom and protecting the environment, we will continue to get nowhere.

I've been writing on E & E issues for nearly 10 years. I'm still stunned at the vicious response I get every time I post an article about controlling carbon emissions. Same with biodiversity or changing diets. Mess with people's food and fuel at your political peril.

If we don't defeat vocal saboteurs James Inhofe, Glenn Beck, Matt Drudge, John Boehner, (really the entire Republican party), Czech president Vaclav Klaus, and the legacy of Michael Crighton and the bevy of other high-profile deniers, we can forget about the future. The facts have never mattered to these people at all. They just want to keep selling and burning carbon as cheaply as possible. ("Waaa. High energy prices are Un-American.")

They are sick b*stards. Based on the numbers of people they are condemning to climate-induced suffering and death, they make the great butchers of the 20th century seem like small fry.

Think about what would have happened if we had followed Jimmy Carter's advice in the late 1970s. Think about what a different world it could have been if CAFE standards and appliance standards had been raised 25 years ago. Then think about if the US had signed Kyoto 12 years ago. We are likely to blow Copenhagen this December for the same reasons. Doing the right thing about the environment is the mother of all political battles. And we will never get those years or lost opportunities back. You think health-care reform was bad? Wait 'til cap and trade comes up in the Senate. Health care was a national howl--cap and trade will be a shriek.

And wait until we go after ethanol subsidies that foster corn monocultures--and try to put a stop to the Gulf dead zone, or impose fishing limits, or rain forest protection, or limit production of certain types of toxics.

I've resigned myself. People will get exactly what they want. And what they seem to want is to cook their grandchildren and learn a lot of other really, really hard lessons. The scientists have drawn up some nice and increasingly fine-grained plans. They won't help us at all if we don't use them.

Posted by: BlackSun on 23 Sep 09

Good article. However, the environmental movement was never about the environment. The anti-War movement morphed into the Environmental movement and the entire purpose of the movement was and still is, governmental control and eventual people control. The challenge my friend is not control, but ideas.
I spend significant time in the former Soviet Union. I am still waiting for some one to show me that the Soviet system was a superior system or how we would change the Soviet system to improve it. These folks knew full well about gross environmental damage they were doing and yet there are places I will not travel because of the harm the environment could do to my wife or me. Please let go of the ad hominem attacks they vent, but they do not eliminate the anger and anger is environmentally destructive.
Keep on keeping on, hank

Posted by: Hank Hohenstein on 23 Sep 09

"the entire purpose of the movement was and still is, governmental control and eventual people control"

I rest my case. In what twisted universe would a bright green economy result in a 'Soviet' state?

Glenn Beck has done his job well. And I get these paranoid comments *every* *single* *time* I talk about any substantive policy movement. And don't even get me started with Alex Jones. He's now connected efforts toward carbon regulation with the "international bankers."

These conspiracy freaks would normally not even be a footnote. They'd be talking about chem-trails and black helicopters. But today they've gone mainstream and taken up the cause of blocking environmental regulatory progress. In so doing they've become destroyers of the world--telling the people what they want to hear while it all burns. If we want to fix this, we will have to find a way to wrest the debate from these loons.

Either way, if we survive, future history books will display a rogue's gallery of the early 21st century. If the climate eventually gets as bad as it looks like it will--and people, say, run out of fresh water, maybe Beck and Limbaugh can top Mao, Pol-Pot, and Stalin.

Posted by: BlackSun on 23 Sep 09

I must confess to being puzzled by references to the Soviet Union and ad hom attacks.

The manipulation of the message about the perils of climate change is certainly about people control. But by whom?

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 23 Sep 09

Yeah, Hank you lost me there on the Soviet Union bit: it should be abundantly clear from what I wrote above that I think the Soviet Union was a massive failure. I suspect that your basic point is that you don't like environmentalists or government, but you don't make it very coherently.

Blacksun, you make a pretty fair point about the intentionally disruptive efforts of climate skeptics: having lost the intellectual/scientific debate completely, they've fallen back on the power of being trolls in the discussion.

Which is why we delete climate skepticism out-of-hand on Worldchanging. The debate was over a long time ago, and none of us have time to waste "debating" these guys...

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 24 Sep 09

"'s time to stop pretending that "greener" is good enough. We need pragmatic brilliance and transformation. Anything less is just cluttering the discussion."

John Jopling and I provided an ensemble of concepts and methodologies that we thought would be a sensible starting point for moving beyond the hamster-work of environmental activism in "GAIAN DEMOCRACIES: REDEFINING GLOBALISATION AND PEOPLE-POWER".

The trouble is that for the 'leaders' of millions of environmental activists and would-be world-changers, the kind of global SYSTEMIC change we proposed can only be achieved by coming down into the political arena, forming political movements, fighting elections and taking power away from what we called "The Global Monetocracy".

Because most of the well-known leaders hold quasi-anarchist views, the notion of taking and using political / governmental power is an anathema.

Thus the huge political potential of their millions of 'followers'is thrown away. Business-friendly governments are allowed to continue with 'business-as-usual', and herd the human family towards species suicide untroubled by any real challenge to their political power.

Posted by: Roy Madron on 25 Sep 09

Bear in mind no scientific principle precludes us from using resources from outer space. The one planet mentality is absurd if you are conceiving of long term sustainability.

Posted by: anon on 25 Sep 09

The trouble with 'long-term sustainability' is that you've got to consider 'short-term sustainability' first, or you won't survive to enjoy those riches from outer space. Besides, it sounds like another example of the 'growth is good' mindset.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 25 Sep 09

Great. The depletion of non-renewable resources (metals) is missing, however. Just as fossil fuel shortages increase the cost of living and drain money from the environment, so will the depletion of metals. The failure of environmentalism lies greatly in its inability to recognize economic reality.

The strategy proposed at Cap-and-Trade Problems and Alternative Strategies for Global Warming, Conservation and Pollution does recognize this and is not based on additional funding but on using markets. It also has a much more comprehensive agenda than cap-and-trade.

Posted by: Pierre Champagne on 26 Sep 09

I think that a figure that accompanied the nature article neatly summarizes the main points, and could be used to convey the importance of planetary boundaries to more people

Posted by: kyle on 26 Sep 09

What I'm hearing Alex say is that we all (i.e. everybody reading this - forget the others, as they'll likely follow when us trendsetters show how much more fulfilling it is) need to start living in small, dense housing; ditching cars and planes in favor of seldom leaving our home metropolis with good public transportation - getting to know and love our neighbors and our neighborhoods (if NYC or London is cooler, it's because you haven't been meeting enough people!); exclusively using products which either a) we'll keep, use, and value for a decade or more or b) are environmentally neutral over their entire lifecycle; and, finally and most difficult, quit your job if you can't figure out how to get your company to stop counteracting these behaviors.

Posted by: Daniel Erwin on 26 Sep 09

The dilemma, it seems like, is that we have these massive, planet-scale problems that require the immediate, full attention of the human race, but we as a species can hardly think about such things because we’re still busy shooting at each other over a million tribal stupidities regarding what everyone’s favorite religion/ethnicity/geographic location is. We may be wired to think small and short term, regardless of the fact that our problems are big and long term. If we can overcome our own biological predisposition and learn to behave in a manner that’s intelligent for the world we live in now, rather than intelligent for the world as it was five thousand years ago, that’ll be something.

Posted by: John G on 26 Sep 09

Please I want to know how terrestrial radiation affects in sand dredging. I appreciate every thing in the news.

Posted by: Daniel on 27 Sep 09

I think environmentalism has failed because it focused on stopping the end of chain probems of our consumerist/capitalist/growth-based economic system. For too long it focused on saving this forest, that river, this bay. It focused on restricting pollution, and creating regulations at the end of the process. It's all fine, but as long as we think we're gonna grow the economy ad infinitim, and as long as Americans (and increasingly the world) live their lives as "consumers" then we won't solve the root sickness.

And the root sickness is that our economic system does not literally value nature. Until finite sources of natural resources, and the effects of pollution on the irreplaceable "ecosystem services" are accounted for properly in the economic system. ( the very types of limits categorized by this Stockholm Resilience center ) then we will only be curing the symptoms, not the root system that leads to this destruction.

Posted by: Bill Reiswig on 28 Sep 09

Hi Alex,

Excellent article, just forwarded to me by the Chair of the Transition Network.

I don't know if you've had a look at my book "The Transition Timeline", which fleshes out the Transition Vision for the next twenty years, but I'd be very interested to hear your opinion on the Transition movement, and whether you see the visioning coming out of it as radical enough, or whether we too are still struggling to escape from an inductive 'dream world'?

Something I'm always mulling over.

All the best,

Posted by: Shaun Chamberlin on 28 Sep 09

The failure really is the failure of the human species, which in reality the environmental movement at WorldChanging is trying to keep from going extinct.

Perhaps if we take the Ecocosmology approach, that there is a certainty of extinction from the sun, more folks will come to the WorldChanging boat and get on board to save the species?

Posted by: Dredd on 30 Sep 09

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