Planetary Boundaries & sustainability


written by Dinali Devasagayam

I have been mulling over how to present the Planetary Boundaries framework and the underlying concepts without being too scientific or making it too overwhelming an issue to address. Yet I do think it is an important framework to understand as it, like the ecological footprint concept, gives a good outline of the impacts we are having on our planet. It also highlights how crucial it is that we understand that climate change is not the only pressing environmental issue of our times and that we need to be looking at more than just reducing our carbon footprint.

It is now generally accepted in science that the planet is a single complex, integrated system. For the whole of human existence, the planet has been in what geologists call the Holocene epoch. We have evolved and adapted to the current conditions including the climate, atmospheric composition and plants and animals (our source of food) of this epoch. Yet these conditions were not always present on the Earth and some scientists are suggesting that current human activities may have such a large impact on the planetary system so as to severely disrupt it and push the planet into a different state that may not be viable for humans.

The Planetary Boundaries is a framework that has been developed over the past decade to define certain boundaries that should not be passed if we are to maintain the current human friendly conditions of this Holocene epoch. The boundaries are:

  • Biosphere Integrity – Rate of biodiversity loss measured by extinction rate
  • Climate Change – measured by atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration
  • Nitrogen cycle – measured by amount of N2 removed from the atmosphere for human use
  • Phosphorous cycle – measured by quantity of phosphorous flowing in the oceans
  • Stratosheric ozone depletion – measured by concentration of ozone
  • Ocean acidification – measured by global mean saturation state of aragonite in surface sea water
  • Global freshwater use – measured by consumption of freshwater by humans
  • Change in land use – measured by percentage of global land cover converted to cropland
  • Atmospheric aerosol loading – measured by overall particulate concentration in the atmosphere, on a regional basis
  • Chemical Pollution – measured by a number of measurements including the concentration of organic pollutants, plastics, endocrine disrupters etc.

Read full description of planetary boundaries in my previous blogs (Planetary Boundaries  and Planetary Boundaries: defining safe operating space for humanity)

Of these identified boundaries it is thought that we are in the danger zone with current rates of species extinctions (see previous blog A wilder world  for more on the sixth great extinction period we are experiencing) and changes in flow of Nitrogen and Phosphorus (both used in synthetic fertilisers). We are also pushing acceptable limits in changes to the levels of carbon in the atmosphere (climate change) and use of land.

While this may seem overwhelming, the point is that we still have a planet that we can live on and so it is not too late to act. What this framework highlights is there is more than one environmental issue that needs to be considered for our future sustainability and that these issues are all interconnected. For instance, stabilising the climate system requires not only a reduction in carbon emissions but also conservation of forest and ocean ecosystems. We need to move away from the single problem-solution mindset of classic reductionist scientific thinking and start looking at the connections and interactions of the various environmental problems we face.

With a stronger understanding of the interconnectedness of everything (including humans) on this planet then perhaps we can begin to move away from human societies that value profit making and individualism above all else to societies that value the connections to each other and the larger connected web of life on this planet and accordingly take responsibility for our impact on our home planet. Perhaps a way to start would be to consider possible impacts of a proposed solution to the problem we are working on be it climate change, food security or conservation etc, on other planetary boundaries.


Steffen et al. Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 2015

Stockholm Resilience Centre





Why have we stopped talking about climate change?


written by Beth Mylius

This 25 minute talk on the BBC programme Inquiry on Sunday 5th April titled “Are we tired of talking about climate change?” is worth listening to.

Part I outlines the change in media coverage from 2004 with a build up through 2007 to the 2009 Copenhagen Conference. Following the Conference the coverage has dropped globally by36%. The mainstream outlets are not responding. (It is worth remembering that Sustainable Communities was formed in 2008 following the Rudd election in 2007)

Part II: The Trauma is the failure of the Copenhagen Conference when 190 countries met with great anticipation. They failed to get the agreement with people left feeling exhausted and defeated. Politicians avoid the subject and it dropped off the agenda. (Perhaps it is rebuilding with most countries taking action on renewables as we approach the Paris Conference)

Part III is called “Our Ancient Brain” . Environmental psychologist Robert Gifford has worked over a number of years to describe the barriers to people taking action on climate change. Number 4 of 31 is “the ancient brain” describing people who live in the here and now with a need for immediate responses. There is an environmental numbness so we need new messages. There is a perceived behavioural control with people feeling that our contribution is too small to count. And there is feeling of uncertainty about the data for example the size of the increase.

Part IV: An inconvenient story. Jo Smith examines the messages that will get through and those that have failed. He suggests that the boundary between science and policy has been blurred; the Al Gore film “The Inconvenient Truth” was wasted effort as people cannot be mobilised with fear; and it is a mistake to present science as complete as that allows the sceptics in.

So, we need to make the science more exciting with more compelling positive approaches for example energy security for business; health of our children; positive stories about renewable energy, management of food waste and free cycle.Jo Smith says that the polar bear story doesn’t work as it is too far away.

Our psychological makeup is such that we need to be kept switched on.Thinking about Sustainable Communities SA it would seem to me that both individual members and those who meet in Community Groups are on the right track keeping positive action before us. And we can add a lot more action to Jo Smith’s list.

Have a listen and discuss the ideas in your group or with your friends.

Are we tired of talking about climate change? BBC 2015.

Food Security?

by Peter Croft

Many of us grow some of our own food: in front and back gardens, on porches and balconies, and on verges.

It’s a great feeling doing this. The food is fresh and we know what’s gone into it. And it’s food metres rather than food miles.

sideThere’s a broader issue though: we are heading for a food crisis. At the moment, we have about 7 billion people on the planet but, on current trends, 9 billion by 2050. The apparent productivity gains of the green revolution of the 1970s, involving high-yield plants and intensive use of fertilisers and pesticides, have been overtaken by population growth. Poverty is now on the increase and many people in future will not have enough to eat.

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Climate Change, Capitalism & the World People’s Conference

In looking for solutions to the ecological crisis we face it is important that we do not perpetuate further social injustices. It is easy to assume that everyone is living or wants to be living in our capitalist economy. The internet with its ready access to vast troves of information gives us the illusion that we can now access all the known information in the whole world with a simple google search. Yet the information we access is firstly limited to what is written in the language(s) we can read and to that which has been recorded by people with access and knowledge of such technology. Which means that many voices from peoples living in radically alternative ways are effectively silenced or marginalised. Amongst these peoples are groups who are living a much more sustainable lifestyle than we are, and have been doing so for a very long time. So wouldn’t it be sensible to let them continue living in the way they have devised for themselves over many generations?

banner-56Yet over and over again we see groups of people being displaced from their lands or having their access to ancestral lands curtailed, to make way for mining, agriculture, and other infrastructure projects that are conceived to feed the voracious needs of our ever growing capitalist system.

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