Beyond Planetary Limits

here is increasing concern that the rapid growth in human activities is placing further pressure on the planet.

This could destabilize critical biophysical systems and lead to abrupt or irreversible environmental changes that would be damaging or even catastrophic for the welfare of human society.

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There is increasing concern that the rapid growth in human activities is placing further pressure on the planet.

This could destabilize critical biophysical systems and lead to abrupt or irreversible environmental changes that would be damaging or even catastrophic for the welfare of human society.

Determining the extent to which human society has exceeded the planet’s natural limits is nothing new. In 1972 The Limits to Growth predicted the consequences of rapidly growing world population and finite resources for the future of humanity.

A recent review of the accuracy of the Limits to Growth’s predictions over the last 30 years discovered that changes in industrial production, food production and pollution are all in line with the prediction of economic and societal collapse in the 21st Century.

Other studies have shown that we are currently in ecological overshoot. In 2009 we used approximately 40 per cent more than nature can regenerate. We are currenlty living beyond our ecological means.

It is only recently that human activities have begun to affect the functioning of the Earth’s system. Since the industrial revolution human activities has progressively been pushing the planet outside the range of variability for many key processes which sustain life on Earth.

A 2009 study on planetary boundaries has attempted to quantify the safe biophysical boundaries outside which the Earth System cannot function in a stable state. Human pressure on the Earth’s ecosystem has reached a point where rapid global environmental change is possible. There are critical climatic, geophysical and ecological thresholds we must respect if we are to have a sustainable future.

In total nine planetary boundaries have been identified. These are climate change, stratospheric ozone, land use change, freshwater use, biological diversity, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans, aerosol loading and chemical pollution.

Three of these planetary boundaries have already been transgressed: climate change, biological diversity and nitrogen input to the biosphere. Since the boundaries are strongly connected crossing one boundary may seriously threaten the ability to stay within safe levels of the others.

The extent to which human societies will be affected by transgressing these planetary boundaries will be dependent on their ability to cope with rapid environmental change. It is often poor communities with weak infrastructures and social support services which are most at risk.

The notion of planetary boundaries provides a first attempt at defining the limits for humanity. However, there are a number of uncertainties and gaps in knowledge that need to be addressed to improve this concept.

If we are to minimize the negative effects of human activities and ensure a safe space for sustainable human development, we need to take action to prevent crossing these planetary boundaries and avoid major human-induced global environmental change.

Planetary boundaries are further evidence that human society cannot continue business-as-usual. There is a need for a fundamental change to the structure of our society and way of life.

A transformation to a new “ecological age” where we live within planetary limits will require a change of the scale achieved in the industrial revolution. However, this time it will be drive by clean, efficient and renweable energy technologies and will be sustainable.

Assessments of the current state of the global environment and scientific predictions of future human and societal collapse provide the evidence on which to base policy.

We know the ecological consequences if we do not fundatmentally change our way of life. The big question is does anyone really care?

© Gary Haq 2010

The Global Ecological Credit Crunch: The Elephant in the Room

HAVE you noticed everyone is talking about the credit crunch and the global recession these days?
Not a day passes without hearing further news about job losses, banks going bust, well-known companies folding-up and attempts by global leaders to implement measures to stop the global financial meltdown. This is all very well but no one seems to be interested in the elephant in the room – the global ecological credit crunch. An issue that will have catastrophic consequences for the future of humanity.

World EconomyHAVE you noticed everyone is talking about the credit crunch and the global recession these days?

Not a day passes without hearing further news about job losses, banks going bust, well-known companies folding-up and attempts by global leaders to implement measures to stop the global financial meltdown.

This is all very well but no one seems to be interested in the elephant in the room – the global ecological credit crunch. An issue that will have catastrophic consequences for the future of humanity.

From the global to the local level we have stamped our footprint on the natural world. We have over-exploited natural resources, degraded ecosystems, and caused mass extinction of some species while endangering others. Our long-term survival is dependent on having access to food, water, air and energy yet we seem intent on irreversibly damaging our life support system.
Footprint

A look at the current state of the planet provides a bleak picture. A United Nations assessment of the global situation shows that over the past fifty years we have caused more ecological damage than in any other period in human history. The extent of our willful destruction is becoming ever more evident. Global warming is resulting in changes to the climate system, which could have catastrophic consequences for humanity. The hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica is now larger than ever, allowing harmful ultraviolet radiation to reach the earth endangering human health, marine organisms and food production.

Fifteen out of 24 major ecosystems are being degraded or used unsustainably. Habitat destruction is threatening more than 16,000 species with extinction. Over-exploitation of aquatic ecosystems is putting the future use of marine and freshwater fisheries at risk. Unsustainable land use is causing soil erosion and desertification while the quantity and quality of freshwater is declining, increasing the likelihood of water scarcity in certain regions of world. Our exposure to environmental pollution is responsible for nearly one-quarter of all diseases contributing to respiratory illness, some types of cancers, vector-borne diseases and emerging animals to human disease transfer.

According to the Worldwide Fund for Nature´s (WWF) Living Planet Index we are degrading natural ecosystems at a rate unprecedented in human history. The Index measures trends in the Earth’s biological diversity and enables the health of ecosystems to be monitored. Since 1970 the biodiversity fell by about 30 per cent due to pressures of population growth, economic activities and consumption patterns.

Over the past 45 years, our demands on the planet have more than doubled. In 1961, nearly all countries in the world had more than enough capacity to meet their own demand. However, the situation had radically changed by 2005 with many countries able to meet their needs only by importing resources from other nations. Ecocredit - Ecodebtor

The demands of our increasingly globalised, industrialised, high consuming society have overloaded the planet’s natural ability to absorb, replenish and restore. We are now drawing on our ecological capital rather than living off nature’s interest. Habitat destruction and permanent loss of productivity are threatening both biodiversity and human wellbeing.

If we continue with the slow, steady growth of economies and populations then by the mid-2030s humanity’s demand on the planet will be twice its productive capacity. At this level of ecological deficit, exhaustion of ecological resources and large-scale ecosystem collapse will become increasingly likely. If we carry on regardless with our current level of consumption then by early 2030s we will need two planets to keep up with the demands we place on the planet.

elephant_in_living_room1If we have any hope of addressing the global ecological credit crunch then world leaders will need to start taking it seriously. They will need to give as much attention (if not more) to the elephant in the room as they are to the current financial crisis.

© Gary Haq 2009