Nine ways to stuff up a planet

How is humanity stuffing up the planet — shall we count the ways? There are nine, according to new work by a multidisciplinary team lead by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre — full paper and supporting materials (with videos of authors explaining key points) here. The diagram above (from Nature’s coverage) shows the nine “planetary boundaries” within which humanity would be wise to operate. The good news is that on five of the measures we’re still in the safety zone. The bad news is that we’re well over safe limits for climate change, biodiversity loss, and interference with the nitrogen cycle, and we don’t know the limits for the final two factors. Here’s the full table:


It’s interesting to note that Rockström et al adopt Hansen’s 350 ppm as a safe limit for CO2, but consider that we’re still under the limit for ocean acidification. Recent newsfrom the Arctic might force a revision of that boundary.

e360 provides a good overview, and also feature Bill McKibben’s analysis:

…the perfect solution is no longer on offer, as Rockström et al make abundantly clear. They’re doing us an enormous service by attempting to isolate the bargaining position of the natural world, a bargaining position that we really might want to respect. If the planet says 350, then it doesn’t matter that the U.S. needs to get out of an economic rut, or that China still has lots of peasants who would like to move to the city. We’re going to have to find non-carbon ways to do those things, because the planet is unlikely to suddenly say, “Oh well, 450 then.” The laws of nature aren’t amendable like the laws of man.

If you’ve got time for nothing else, read the Nature summary of the paper. Climate change is a clear and present danger, but we’ll need to do more than just patch up that problem if we’re going to maintain a functioning planetary support system. There’s a big picture we need to look at…

4 thoughts on “Nine ways to stuff up a planet”

  1. Whilst I agree that the work to establish nine interlinked planetary boundaries is worthwhile and commendable I cannot but feel we are still missing the bigger picture somewhat:
    The mechanisms we use to establish “good decisions” relating to the boundaries are still not integral to our economies (hence bargaining positions).
    The limits are going to change as we understand them better, some in our favour, some against.
    The nine planetary boundaries are inevitably going to be found to be 10, then 11 etc.
    Given the first three points we’re not going to be making good, timely, decisions when we next run into a boundary (and one day we’ll really find out far too late).
    So what is also required is a philosophical (or, if you wish, moral, ethical, spiriual, etc) shift in the way we perceive our relationship with the planet. We need a viewpoint that doesn’t firstly ask how close to disaster can we go before we stuff it up. We’re not good at using that measuring stick.

  2. You make a good point, Bandersdad. Somehow we have to find a way to operate within the planetary boundaries, however many of them there are. We have to live within our means. To do that, we have to find an alternative to “growth” as the be all and end all of economic well-being, and get our leaders to buy into it. The last part is the hardest…
    There’s an interesting “guest post” at Sciblogs from George Preddy that goes into considerable (and depressing) detail on the subject.

  3. Bandersdad, if you are interested in people who are integrating ideas such as the above into a new measure for a reformed economy, see for instance this post at The Standard about Genuine Progress Indicators. It really is the way forward IMHO, it easily encompasses global warming and also poverty, inter-generational debt etc … it’s also very flexible, allowing you to include or exclude metrics that most people in a country would agree upon vs those contentious.

  4. Interesting idea and a step in the right direction. The ‘chemical pollution’ category strikes me as being far too messy and vague to be workable in the foreseeable future.

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