We continue to extract and consume fossil fuels — coal, oil, gas. We continue to exploit and consume natural resources. As a consequence, the atmosphere continues to warm from greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, notably carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, and nature, now called biodiversity, is greatly diminished.

We are like children, or narcissists, who have not learned that there are boundaries — psychological and physical — that have to be honored if we are all to live together in a shared and often quite crowded common space.

Where this is all heading is scary for anyone listening. The problem is learning how to talk about climate change so as to inform and move people, perhaps without scaring them, or maybe scaring them more.

One such effort is that of a group of 28 internationally renowned scientists who have identified and quantified a set of nine planetary boundaries that mark support systems necessary for human survival, like planets circling the earth. The nine “planets” are: climate change, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, global freshwater use, land use changes, biodiversity loss, aerosol loading in the atmosphere, and chemical pollution. The experts have estimated how much we have stretched these boundaries and how much further we can go before our own survival is threatened with “irreversible and abrupt environmental change” which could make Earth less habitable. They estimate that several of these boundaries, including climate change and biodiversity loss, appear to have been crossed, raising the risk of abrupt or irreversible environmental changes.









The concept is, in some ways, another way of talking about the limits to our natural resources and to the possibilities of growth without destroying our planet. Tim Jackson’s work on “prosperity without growth” is also relevant.


 Some Further Ideas to Explore on Planetary Boundaries:

Take one of the nine planets and learn how the scientists measure the boundary and what is pushing us to cross the boundary.

Determine what can be done to avoid crossing the boundary for this planet.

Do something that pulls us back from the boundary to give ourselves some breathing room.



Will Steffen, Johan Rockström, Robert Costanza, “How Defining Planetary Boundaries Can Transform Our Approach to Growth,” in the current Report section of irish environment (November 2012).

“Planetary boundaries,” Stockholm Resilience Centre: Research for Governance of Social-Ecological Systems  www.stockholmresilience.org/21/research/research-programmes/planetary-boundaries.html

Interview with Tim Jackson on Prosperity Without Growth in the Podcast section of irish environment (August 2012).









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