Out of Bounds

earth 1There is an urgent need for a new paradigm that integrates the continued development of human societies and the maintenance of the Earth system (ES) in a resilient and accommodating state. The planetary boundary (PB) framework contributes to such a paradigm by providing a science-based analysis of the risk that human perturbations will destabilize the ES at the planetary scale.

~ Steffen, et al.

With the threat of climate change possibly sending us back into the stone age (pre-iPhone), I was curious what real science had to say about human existence. It turns out that all kinds of scientists have been looking into the issue and they have defined ‘planetary boundaries’ that, if violated, run the risk of destabilizing the Earth’s systems.

These global systems have been relatively stable since the Halocene Epoch, roughly the last 12,000 years (or ‘Recent’ according to some geologists), and have allowed modern human civilization to develop. Several studies have approximated this boundary framework, as identified by Steffen, et al:

  • Climate change,
  • Stratospheric ozone depletion,
  • Ocean acidification,
  • Biosphere integrity (earlier “biodiversity loss”),
  • Biogeochemical flows,
  • Land-system change,
  • Freshwater use,
  • Atmospheric aerosol loading, and
  • Novel entities (defined as new substances, new forms of existing substances, and modified life forms that have the potential for unwanted geophysical and/or biological effects).

So, basically, if we screw with any one of these systems too much, we create potentially catastrophic change in the global environment. And, as we can see, it’s not just climate change that is a potential threat. Skewing any of these systems out of whack could cause a cascading effect in other systems.

Naoko Ishii has looked at this problem from an economic standpoint. Centuries ago, we dealt primarily in local economies, sharing and exchanging resources within a finite community. The commons were the property of all, even if controlled by a feudal lord and not by community values. The commons concept tended to drive sharing and management of the resources so as not to deplete them. Ishii notes, “These communities realized they relied on a finite, shared resource. They developed rules and practices on how to manage those resources, and they changed their behavior so that they could continue to rely on those shared resources tomorrow by not overfishing, not overgrazing, not polluting or depleting water streams today.” The modern economy and community are not local, but global. We have interrelated economies and share resources across the globe, not nearly as visible and not always with an eye towards sustainability or protecting the commons. Of course, it’s possible that up to now it hasn’t mattered much. There are still trees in the forests, fish in the oceans, air to breathe and water to drink. However, we can see the boundaries from here, and some are closer than others. Ishii notes, “The global commons had still enough capacity to take the punches we gave them. In fact, the fish were still plentiful, the fields for grazing were still vast. Our mistake was to assume that the capacity of the earth for self-repair had no limits. It does have limits.”

So, what’s to be done? Do we sit and wait for the tipping point that triggers catastrophic change? Again, Ishii has some ideas: “First, we need to change our cities. By 2050, two thirds of our population will live in cities. We need green cities. Second, we need to change our energy system. The world economy must sharply decarbonize, essentially in one generation. Third, we need to change our production-consumption system. We need to break away from current take-make-waste consumption patterns. And finally, we need to change our food system, what to eat and how to produce it.”

Hmm, sounds familiar. Green cities, decarbonize, embrace sustainability, create less waste. Nothing new here; pretty much what every environmentalist has been saying for decades. What’s different is that this approach is based on global economics, not a perceived “save the whales” mentality. If we don’t want to return to the pre-Holocene earth systems, we need to act.

As Ishii points out, “We all share one planet in common. We breathe the same air, we drink the same water, we depend on the same oceans, forests, and biodiversity. There is no space left on earth for egoism. The global commons must be kept within their safe operating space, and we can only do it together.

We need to save ourselves from the tragedy of the commons.”
Additional information:

Garrett Hardin,“The Tragedy of the Commons” Science, 1968

Naoko Ishii, An economic case for protecting the planet, TEDTalks, September 2017

Steffen, W., K. Richardson, J. Rockström, S. E. Cornell, I. Fetzer, E. M. Bennett, R. Biggs, S. R. Carpenter, W. de Vries, C. A. de Wit, C. Folke, D. Gerten, J. Heinke, G. M. Mace, L. M. Persson, V. Ramanathan, B. Reyers, and S. Sörlin. “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet,” Science:Vol. 347, 13 Feb 2015

SteveTarlton, Our Only Planet, Writes of Nature, 2/22/18

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