Thursday, September 20, 2012

Human Development within Planetary Boundaries

Back home after a very long trip all the way from Jeju, South Korea and I am still trying to put together all the experiences, interesting people I met, and information absorbed during the IUCN World Congress. One of these experiences I just have to share – because it is shocking that this has not gone viral. It was a presentation by Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre followed by him being joined by a panel of some of the most forward-thinking people you will ever meet: Cyrie Sendashonga, Anders Wijkman, Matthias Klum, James Griffiths and Ashok Khosla. Google these people. You will be amazed.

Anyway, let me give you a gist of what was discussed. And before I do that – this information is published, I give the publications list at the end of this post for those who want to go check them out.

So. Basically, we have been very lucky for a very long time. Or should I say, since the industrial revolution. “They” say this because Earth has been our friend during our very destructive path - it has been absorbing a lot of our crap. But apparently the year 2012 will be a monumental year to remember for future generations.

Because the end of the year will mark the arctic spiral event for the first time in millions of years. The Earth will become our Foe. The Arctic polar cap will be completely ice-free. Let me explain: all that ice up there will not be there anymore....that means that what was white will now be black. And as we know, white reflects sun’s rays. Black absorbs. That white cap at the top is our cooling system. You can figure out the rest. If and when you do – you will realise the enormity of the situation.

So, that it just a teaser. Feedback from the current system we have created. We have moved, quite a while ago, into the Anthropocene. That means that this geological timeframe we are in now is named after our species’ actions and influence on Earth. We are having such an impact on our Earth that we are in the 6th Mass Extinction as a result. Due to one species. Us. Humanity is reaching Planetary Saturation Point. A great transformation to global sustainability at this point is not only necessary, but it is possible and desirable. We need to be resilient and transform in the face of crisis.

This is not news. The book “Limits of Growth”, written yonks ago, warned us that growth is limited in a closed system. And many of the things they predicted are happening. Unfortunately, the book was heavily criticized because it made assumptions about human innovations – they underestimated them – as a result some of the predictions did not come true. Which of course Economists used to jump on the entire nay-say bandwagon.

But, Johan Rockström and his friends have developed a new concept.

Planetary Boundaries.

It does not make assumptions about human innovation. It does not make assumptions on growth. All it does is say: Here is the playing field. This is the safe operating space for humanity. It encompasses three strands of science: resilience theory, scale of human action, Earth system and sustainability. The boundaries are made up of 9 processes:
1. Climate Change
2. Ozone Depletion
3. Ocean Acidification
4. Global Freshwater Use
5. Chemical Pollution
6. Land System Change
7. Rate of Biodiversity Loss
8. Bio-geochemical loading: Global Nitrogen and Phosphorous Cycles
9. Atmospheric Aerosol Loading

Now. Imagine the catastrophic event, i.e. when Earth’s system has reached tipping point with all of the above boundaries, as an analogy of the human fever. At 42°C you die. But before that, at around 38°C, you take something to prevent your fever from rising. You take action. The Earth, at the moment, is at that point. 38°C. We have reached the tipping point of seven out of the nine boundaries.

Okay. So now we have the context in which we realize that the global transformation needed is not only massive, but fiercely urgent. What do I mean by this transformation? Read two or three of my posts which came before this one. Johan puts it into good perspective by saying…So…what do we need to do?

1. We need a new type of Science – one which integrates social, natural (etc) science, looking at innovation, solutions, and so on.

2. We need a mindshift in Economics. (Value systems)

But then, he says, that these things will take too long and we cannot, a this point, wait for these – it will take too long. We need to fast-track some things,

3. (a) Agriculture and (b) Energy. These two things can help us drastically within Planetary Boundaries.

So we know the “who” (Government, Business, Consumers) must act, we know the “what” needs to be acted on. Everything moving forward now is HOW.

Now you have this information. Are you going to be a by-stander? Or are you going to make the changes that YOU can?

(List of publications – apologies, they are not exactly in a standardized citation system…but then again this is my blog….so I don’t need to be formal about it: Steffen et al. 2007; Hansen and Sato 2011; “A safe operating space for humanity, Nature, 461:472-475; Rockström et al. 2011, Ecology and Society; Science, 2010:329; Gerst et al. 2012, etc.)

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