Breaching our planetary boundaries, one by one

Below, my article, as it will appear in the latest Village magazine:

BACK IN 2009, some months before the ill-fated UN climate conference in Copenhagen, an Earth system framework was proposed by an international collaboration of environmental scientists. Their aim was to establish a measurable set of ‘planetary boundaries’ with a view to identifying a “safe operating space” for humanity.

The research team, involving scientists from a range of disciplines, developed a set of nine key boundaries, beyond which lay the risks of “irreversible and abrupt environmental change”. In January 2015, the team published an in-depth update on their investigations in the journal Science, and it was discussed in depth at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos. The findings took even seasoned environmental commentators and observers by surprise.

The paper confirmed that humanity has already breached four of the nine key boundaries, namely biodiversity loss, deforestation, atmospheric CO2 levels and the flows of nitrogen and phosphorus used in agriculture into the world’s waterways and oceans.

The era known as the Holocene began almost 12,000 years ago, just as the last Ice Age was in full retreat and climatic conditions favourable to humans led to our exponential surge. Human expansion was marked throughout this period with spasms of extinctions, as well as major changes in land cover and use. Our mastery of fire in particular allowed humanity to radically alter entire ecological systems thousands of years before the industrial revolution. We have been a significant force on the planet for millennia; what has so profoundly altered in the modern era has been the rate and scale of change.

In the last two centuries, human numbers increased more than seven-fold. In the 20th century alone, we consumed more energy than used by all humans in the preceding 10,000 years. And in the first decade and a half of the 21st century, the exponential surge in human numbers and impacts has continued unabated.

Growth, expansionism and the meeting of human needs and desires primarily by consumption is the dominant ideology of this era in human history, and it essential to the ever-expanding engine of globalised capitalism. In this paradigm, the entire natural world is both a quarry from which we can extract an unlimited supply of ‘resources’ to fuel the Age of Man and a dump into which we can quietly excrete the toxic by-products of this whirlwind of activity.

To downscale the biosphere into a single human body, you could also identify nine key systems which operate both independently and as part of a closely integrated biological system. The heart, lungs, liver, endocrine system, brain, nervous system, kidneys and digestive system are all ‘boundary’ systems, and each in turn support a myriad of sub-systems, as well as combining to define our overall health and well-being.

The ‘planetary boundaries’ report is the planetary equivalent of the doctor informing an individual that his heart is badly damaged, his lungs are diseased, his liver is barely functioning and his kidneys are showing signs of acute organ failure. The good news is that his brain is still functioning well, his digestive system is in reasonable shape and his neurological function appears normal. After the initial shock, how would you expect the patient react to this news? Humanity’s collective response thus far has been to call the doctor a quack, accuse him of faking the x-rays and lab results and head out the hospital door with a bottle of scotch in one hand and a cigar in the other.

While all nine boundary systems are important, by far the most critical are biosphere integrity and climate change, as these are what are known as overarching systems, upon which all other systems depend, and “operate at the level of the whole Earth System, and have co-evolved for nearly four billion years”.

Prof. Will Steffen, lead author on the ‘Science’ study describes the pace of change as the most striking aspect of their findings. “Almost all graphs show the same pattern; the most dramatic shifts have occurred since 1950”. It is, he added, “difficult to overestimate the scale and speed of change. In a single lifetime, humanity has become a planetary-scale geological force”. This is genuinely new, he pointed out, “and indicates that humanity has a new responsibility at a global scale”.

In a masterful piece of understatement, the study authors advise: “The precautionary principle suggests that human societies would be unwise to drive the Earth System substantially away from a Holocene-like condition. A continuing trajectory away from the Holocene could lead, with an uncomfortably high probability, to a very different state of the Earth System, one that is likely to be much less hospitable to the development of human societies”. That is scientist-speak for a future that looks somewhere between Mad Max and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Another of the report’s authors, Dr Steve Carpenter argued that the study’s findings mean “we’re running up to and beyond the biophysical boundaries that enable human civilisation as we know it to exist. It might be possible for human civilisation to live outside Holocene conditions, but it’s never been tried before. We know civilisation can make it in Holocene conditions, so it seems wise to try to maintain them”, he added wryly.

As one of 18 experts in the group which completed this study, Carpenter’s main focus was on nitrogen and phosphorus, elements which attract far less headline attention than they actually merit. “We’ve changed nitrogen and phosphorus cycles vastly more than any other element. The increase is of the order of 200–300%.” In contrast, he pointed out carbon has ‘only’ been increased 10–20%.

Nitrogen and phosphorus are the inevitable byproducts of the ‘Green revolution’, in which global agricultural output increased dramatically as a result of the massive input of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. In the short term, this bought humanity several decades reprieve from the risk of widespread famine, which had been predicted in the 1950s and 1960s, as world population boomed.

The father of this revolution was a gifted scientist, Dr Norman Bourlag. In his speech accepting the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in boosting food output, he warned: “The green revolution has won temporary success in man’s war against hunger… but the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed.” Failure to rein in human numbers and impacts, Bourlag added, would mean that: “The (21st) century will experience sheer human misery on a scale that will exceed the worst that has ever come before.”

It was a coincidence in timing if nothing else that as the ‘Boundaries’ paper was being debated, news came through in joint statements from Nasa and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that 2014 had been confirmed as the hottest ever year in the global instrumental record that stretches back to 1880. Indeed, 14 of the 15 hottest years ever recorded have all occurred in the 21st century. The statistical odds on that sequence being a coincidence are reckoned to be of the order of 27 million to one. What really astonished researchers about 2014 is that it occurred in the absence of an El Niño warming event.

UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon solemnly wrote in recent weeks that “we are the last generation that can take steps to avoid the worst impacts of climate change”, a theme echoed recently by Mary Robinson.

What is truly difficult to believe is that while we have the great misfortune of living in an era of unprecedented ecological and climate crisis, these extraordinary facts are in no way impinging on our national discourse, either through the media, civil society groups or our political classes. Instead, the gathering ecological storm is fenced off into an obscure corner tagged ‘environment’, where it is left to a handful of activists to try, against near-impossible odds, to draw the attention this existential crux so desperately demands.

John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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7 Responses to Breaching our planetary boundaries, one by one

  1. MP says:

    Yes, John. Well put. True and depressing.

  2. johngibbons says:

    Thanks, MP. Would be far happier to be the bearer of better news, but, for now at least, this is what we have to contend with. JG

  3. econroy says:

    Well said John. Hopefully your namesake will spell out some of this to the politicians tomorrow. Climate change is just not getting any traction in the media and political circles. I’ve seen precious little reference to the upcoming Climate bill.

  4. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    Yes, I agree with the others that this is a truly wonderful article, well done, John. However, I think an even greater wake-up call comes from the editor of Village magazine, Michael Smith, in the same issue. He says environmental NGOs singularly failed to demand that the government put targets in the Climate Change Bill and that without targets, the Bill was completely useless. I agree, he’s absolutely right, it is completely useless.

    Big Phil Hogan is largely responsible for this. He made sure the Bill would be useless and that it would have no teeth. This explains why the Bill was put on the long finger and pushed out to the touch-line, time after time after time, until it finally went to paper with no actual targets. That’s what Hogan wanted, and it’s what we got. This is what we get for electing politicians from the far right who do not have the future of the planet as an objective, and the very closely related future of their local constituencies as their main objective.

    I should add that Oisin Coughlan of Friends of the Earth Ireland made a strong case for emissions reduction targets and kept up the pressure for months, even years, so Village cannot really fault Friends of the Earth on this score. The fault lies with the Fine Gael politicians and government ministers who have failed to act on this issue. Oh, were Pat Rabbitte still in office, he was great.

    Best wishes,
    Coilin MacLochlainn

  5. CoilinMacLochlainn says:

    Folks, – I think it might be useful for people to read the latest blog from Dmitri Orlov, see –

    He is quite hard to take, very often, but on this occasion i think he hits several nails on the head and I would recommend that followers of John Gibbons read this particular essay from him, which is one of the most depressing I have ever read but does indicate that he is coming to a conclusion that we have all suspected for some years but may be about to unfold very soon, like in this year or the next.

  6. johngibbons says:

    Cheers Eric. As we’ve seen, the Gov’t is clearly uninterested in any kind of meaningful Climate Bill that could in any way alter the trajectory towards +2C and beyond. Unengaged politicians taking their cues from cynical advisors and responding to well funded pressure groups – the utter dysfunctionality and impotence of our democratic process, in a nutshell. And as for the media, to borrow a line from Bob Dylan’s ‘The Hurricane’, “the newspapers, yea, they just went along for the ride”.

  7. johngibbons says:

    Thanks Coilin. I left Michael S. to deal with the fallout from the Climate Bill, as he has some very specific ideas there, most of which I’d absolutely support. Hogan is/was a problem, but he’s also a symptom of a system that does not, cannot and is determined not to “get” climate change, even if it has to stick its fingers in its ears and sing la la la repeatedly.

    In truth, coming to terms with the implications of climate change mean folding up the growth/economy/prosperity tent and hunkering down to face some deeply unpleasant realities. This would of course be the right thing to do, but who, from the far left to the far right on the political spectrum is actually prepared to call this as it is? And maybe, the absolute truth is that the ‘fault’ is buried deep in each and every one of us; nobody wants to be told the party is over, so we desperately cast around for other, less ominous ways of viewing reality.

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