Sustainability Research, Reviews and Signposting
In 2009, Rockstrom et al published a paper entitled ‘A safe operating space for humanity’. The paper defines planetary boundary as: ‘the safe operating space for humanity with respect to the Earth system and is associated with the planet’s biophysical subsystems or processes’.
But what does ‘safe’ mean in this definition? Whilst in principle it means the range of effective functioning of all earth systems and processes taken together, it is probably inferring the upper or lower limit of magnitude of unacceptable change or damage to a particular earth system or process affected by human activities that is irreversible and usually co-detrimental to one or many other systems or processes.
The definition refers to humanity specifically, but I consider that it also means:
1) Not just the safe operating space for humanity but all species and earth systems and processes affected by human existence owing to the close linkages between one system/process and another, and
2) More colloquially, the range within which humanity can continue to function as it wishes and continue growing and expanding before those systems mean we must begin changing our ways if we wish to carry on at all.
If we have not yet transgressed a boundary – i.e. we are in the safe operating space – should we not worry? Perhaps it might be possible that much of modern society, if not most, wouldn’t worry about the effect of human activities on the environment if we weren’t causing a problem, whether temporary or permanent. Conceivably, people only started taking notice, and therefore gaining audiences, when someone decided that the damage outweighed the benefit, and others agreed (I’m thinking of people more recently like John Muir and Rachel Carson).
It is probably true that no-one would take notice if the transgression of planetary boundaries didn’t create some kind of “deleterious/disastrous consequences” or ‘calculable damage’ (that bore proof) to matters of import to us socially, economically or politically, like livelihoods, property, or life itself, where the damage outweighed the benefit.
Unfortunately we are by nature a fairly selfish species and one that currently finds itself in an almost world-wide economic system (capitalism) that usually bases a great deal of decision-making on some manner of cost-benefit model.
There is much written about the interconnectedness of all sorts of systems on our planet. And it is for this reason that we must worry about transgressing planetary boundaries. In social systems, if a boundary is crossed there are usually consequences: physically, temporally, spatially; geographically, strategically, etc.… war, politics and business are three examples that immediately come to mind.
Unfortunately, when one boundary is crossed it can have consequences for other systems or processes, albeit not immediate or not immediately recognisable. Furthermore, the human population continues to grow and is expected to do so until at least another three billion people arrive to share the planet with the seven billion already here. Combine that with the current economic model of unabated growth at whatever pace and it doesn’t take a genius to recognise that something has to give. No system is infinitely sustainable.