Learning to live within planetary boundaries

In 2009, a landmark study by an international group of scientists led by the Stockholm Resilience Centre (Rockström, et al., 2009) identified at least nine critical planetary boundaries that we will need to pay close attention to if we hope to create a more sustainable human presence on Earth.

At least three of these boundaries have already been breached. We have already caused dangerous climate change and are getting close to triggering run-away feedback cycles in Earth’s climate system that could have catastrophic effects for all of humanity and most life on Earth. We have a relatively small window of opportunity to avoid this, and the window is closing.

Biodiversity loss has reached alarming rates that are on a par with the six other major extinction events in the history of life on Earth. Our unsustainable methods of agricultural production have interfered with biogeochemical flow boundaries like the nitrogen cycle and the phosphorus cycle.

Not enough research has been done yet to understand to what extent we may also have breached the planetary boundaries for chemical pollution and atmospheric aerosol loading. Evidence is mounting that endocrine system-disrupting chemicals (hormone mimics) in plastics and cosmetics are interfering with sexual differentiation and fertility in many species, including humans.

Ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, land system changes and global freshwater use will have to be monitored closely as they are all rapidly approaching the point where safe planetary boundaries will be breached. A recent study has updated our understanding of planetary boundaries. It argues that “by identifying the safe operating space for humanity on Earth, the PB [Planetary Boundaries] framework can make a valuable contribution to decision-makers in charting desirable courses for societal development” (Steffen et al., 2015).

Planetary Baoundaries (from Steffen et al. 2015)

Many of these boundaries are interrelated. Most of them cause a loss of biodiversity, resilience and ecosystem health at multiple scales, from local to global. With each species that is lost, we weaken the complex web of interdependencies and connections that support the health of the world’s ecosystems. Each species that disappears into extinction might have held a treasure trove of biomimetic inspirations for us. It might have harboured a cure for cancer and will have played an important role in the ecosystems it inhabited. Every species plays a systemic role, the absence of which will transform the biosphere as a whole, affecting not just the future of humanity, but the future of all life.

Biodiversity loss as a planetary boundary addresses both genetic diversity, as a repository for life’s innovation, and functional diversity, as the diversity of interacting species that give a given ecosystem or the biosphere the capacity for healthy self-regulation. Both are key factors in the resilience of natural systems.

We have to go beyond valuing purely the utilitarian value of every species for human survival, the narrative of interbeing recognizes that each species is a unique expression of life with intrinsic value. As we lose biodiversity, we unravel the complex pattern of health based on diversity, symbiotic relationships, multiple redundancies, and complex interconnections, feedback loops and nested collaborative networks.

The resilience of an ecosystem or a community critically depends on this scale-linking pattern of health that connects individual health with community health, ecosystem health and planetary health. A regenerative culture is a culture that has learned to thrive within planetary boundaries. Some questions that can guide our learning:

How can we meet human needs within the limits set by planetary boundaries?

What are the most effective ways to limit, ameliorate and reverse the effects we have already triggered by overstepping planetary boundaries like climate change, biodiversity loss, the limits of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycle, and land-system change?

One attempt to answer the question of how to return to living within planetary limits was made by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers in their book Beyond the Limits (1992). They suggested a series of actions humanity will need to take. Amory and Hunter Lovins reviewed these actions, adding some of their own suggestions in How Not to Parachute More Cats (1996). Let’s have a brief look at the questions they raised and some hopeful responses.

How can we return to living within the limits?

The answers will include creating policies that enforce the pricing of resources in a way that includes the environmental and social effects of their extraction, use and recycling, along with the elimination of hidden subsidies to the fossil fuel, chemical, and nuclear industries and other major polluters. Creating regenerative agricultural practices is also critically important.

How do we best protect, restore and improve our resource base?

We will have to learn how to use the remaining fossil fuels, groundwater and mineral deposits with the utmost efficiency and only as long as we cannot substitute their use with recycled and renewable alternatives. It will require us to readdress how natural resources are managed and can be regenerated, including a more equitable ownership of them. We will have to make the protection of biodiversity, fisheries and watersheds, along with a shift towards organic regenerative agriculture, long-term reforestation programmes and agreements on the limitation of greenhouse gas emission an international and national priority.

How do we ensure more immediate feedback by tracking the right signals and improving our capacity to respond appropriately to change?

There is a clear need for more adequate indicators of progress (e.g. GPI instead of GDP). We will return to this in Chapter 7. [This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]

The planetary boundaries framework can help us to better monitor how human activity affects wellbeing, local ecosystems and the biosphere. Our ability to respond appropriately to systemic changes depends on improved education that increases our capacity for systemic and critical thinking, and our ecological literacy.

How can we slow and eventually stop the growth of the human population?

This difficult question will not only require institutional and policy changes but, more importantly, a change in awareness driven by education and social innovation. We will need to define sustainable levels of population and industrial output, based on an understanding of the purpose of human existence that is decoupled from physical expansion and consumption. We have to value the idea of ‘enough’ rather than ‘more’ (Lovins & Lovins, 1996).

There is a well-documented relationship between family size, poverty and women’s access to education (Connor, 2008; Borgen Project, 2015). By creating a more equitable system of resource-sharing and improving global access to quality education we can create conditions leading to a reduction of family sizes in the mid-term and a gradual population decline in the long term.

Depending on the language used, reports on the biophysical boundaries of our planet and population pressures tend to reinforce cultural conditioning of the mindset of scarcity and competition. This does not have to be our response. Many of the innovations, technologies and culturally transformative questions explored in this book offer collaborative pathways for the transition from growth-obsessed cultures of consumption to regenerative cultures.

The role of formal and informal education and life-long learning for all sectors of society and all of humanity is crucial. We need to educate about, and give voice to, a new cultural narrative that inspires humanity to co-create a new reality where we choose to see collaboration in nurturing whole-systems health and shared abundance as an expression of our interbeing with life. It is the most promising individual and collective survival strategy on a crowed planet.

In The Open-Source Everything Manifesto, Robert David Steele argues that to unleash the potential of collaborative abundance, human ingenuity and creativity, we need to give all humanity open access to information, education and ‘liberation technology’.

Liberation technology creates wealth, and open source technology creates wealth. In both instances the ‘centre of gravity’ for dramatic change towards resilience and sustainability is the human brain mass of five billion poor — the one billion rich have failed to ‘scale’. The human brain is the one unlimited resource we have on Earth. The potential for innovation and entrepreneurship on the part of five billion poor is the most underdeveloped and underutilized resource.
— Robert David Steele (2012: 7)

Steele argues that taking the path of open-source everything will allow us to foster citizen participation and public intelligence as the basis for a truly participatory open democracy, informed and guided by our collective intelligence (p.141; see also Chapter 7).

Together, we can learn to thrive within planetary boundaries. Rather than seeing ‘planetary boundaries’ as curtailing our freedom (and rebelling like teenagers against this imposition), we can choose to mature as a species and come to regard these boundaries as ‘enabling constraints’ that give us the context (safe operating space) within which we can apply our creativity to meeting everybody’s needs, creating abundance for all without detriment to the wider community of life.

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]