Embracing the Limits

Find the boundary

Find the boundary

In several recent posts I made reference to Herman Daly’s insight that ours is a “full world,” where human numbers and activities have grown to such an extent that our planet’s natural systems are struggling to support them. More evidence of this came last week in a new study of “planetary boundaries”—natural, global-level thresholds that humans should not cross for fear of environmental catastrophe. Atmospheric carbon concentrations, for example, should not exceed 350 parts per million because of the grave risk of destabilizing the planet’s climate.  

The new study identifies nine areas for which it believes thresholds should be set: climate change, biodiversity loss, changes in the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, stratospheric ozone depletion, ocean acidification, global freshwater use, changes in land use, chemical pollution, and atmospheric aerosol loading. It proposes boundaries for seven of the nine: cropland, for example, should be limited to 15 percent of the world’s ice-free land surface. Notably, the study shows that three of these thresholds have already been crossed: climate change, biodiversity loss, and changes to the nitrogen cycle.   

The study is the latest in a long series of cautionary signals to humanity, from the  Limits to Growth study of the 1970s to the Ecological Footprint, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and other more recent initiatives. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the problems they warn of are already emerging. In August, the International Energy Agency warned that oil production will peak within a decade—much sooner than predicted by national governments and an unusually sober assessment from the normally conservative IEA. Countries in the Middle East and Asia have attempted to lease farmland in Africa, fearing that future land shortages and insufficient food supplies could become the norm for them. And the Chicago Mercantile Exchange predicted in July that increasingly scarce water will one day be traded as a commodity, just as pork bellies and wheat are today.    

What to do in the face of the latest storm warnings? The comprehensive, global nature of the threats suggests that mere tweaks to business as usual cannot change humanity’s course to the extent needed. The world’s societies need to wrap their collective minds around new ways of operating—which makes this historical moment as exciting as it is sobering. New ideas, such as the notion that economies may not have to grow perpetually, for decades the province of academics, are now being considered by governments—see, for example, the UK’s Prosperity without Growth. Also from the UK comes the Happy Planet Index, which suggests that the goals of our economies need to be rethought to focus on wellbeing, rather than ever-increasing incomes per person.  

Dematerializing our economies, so that they deliver what people need using progressively fewer resources, is a radical shift in the way economies are organized that is being pushed by the Wuppertal Institute, the World Resources Forum, and even the government of Japan. And some of the boldest thinkers take seriously the idea that we can banish poverty using tools like microfinance, cell phones adapted to serve the poor (including some of their banking needs), and trade rules that give poor nations access to wealthy country markets. 

The “planetary boundaries” study is the latest contribution to a new global consciousness that will result in the birth of a new world. Whether it will be born in violence, chaotic upheaval, and mass suffering, or in a thoughtful remaking of the world’s economies, is the great question for our civilization this century.

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