One of the most important messages of sustainable development is that we’ve become a threat to ourselves. Economic production has become so large, our productivity in many ways so high, and the numbers of us on the planet so vast, that the effect of all this economic activity on the physical Earth itself has become overwhelming.
For the first time in human history, for the first time in the planet’s history, one species, that would be us human beings, are threatening the fundamental parts of the Earth’s own dynamics: the climate system, the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the ocean chemistry. Think about the basic arithmetic.
There are 7.2 billion of us on the planet now. On average, each individual is producing around $12,000 of output per year, rough number, averaged over the whole year. But with 7.2 billion people, an average of $12,000 per person, it means that the world economy as a whole, has an output of between 80 and 90 trillion dollars per year.
Many times larger than ever in the past and continuing to expand rapidly. And the result of all of that, in the water we are using, the energy that we are burning, the land that is being devoted to feeding the planet, the chemicals that are being produced, and the pollution that results from that poisoning the air and the waterways, it’s leading to an unprecedented environmental crisis. One of things that’s notable about this crisis, is that it’s felt by rich and poor alike. Have a look my own city, swimming for survival during this super storm that we experienced in October and November, 2012, what we called Hurricane Sandy. But halfway around the world the same year, Beijing experienced massive flooding. Or take a look at Bangkok, in the astounding floods of October, 2011: again a major world city underwater, deluged by unprecedented rains and as in all of these cases, a huge setback for the economy, loss of life, massive loss of property, billions or tens of billions of dollars of damage, and an unsettled global economy, because a disruption in one part of the world, in a world of interconnected production of supply chains that stretch across the world. Mean that a flood in Bangkok can disrupt automobile production, or computer production, all over the world, because of components or factories that can’t get to market during these disasters.
The kinds of disasters that are being felt are varied, but what is clear, is that they’re rising in number. What we call hydrometeorological shocks or disasters: water, and weather related, whether it’s deluges, extreme storms, hurricanes and typhoons of, huge, impact, storm surges and floods, as swept over Manhattan or Beijing, or, Bangkok, massive droughts, droughts that lead to, the remarkable and shocking phenomenon you see here, of, terrible forest fires that spread across the American West in 2012.
These kinds of varied storms, shocks, heat waves, droughts, floods have become the new normal for the world. In fact, it’s part of a world that is so new, and so tark that the scientists notably the geologists, have given our age even a new name. They call it the Anthropocene. A new word that comes from its Greek roots, anthropos and cene, anthropos meaning human Cene meaning epoch or age of the Earth. And what the scientists are telling us is that this is the human age of the planet. They don’t mean that in a good way. They mean it in it’s uniqueness and in a very dangerous way that humanity is changing the water cycle, the climate is warming the temperature is melting the glaciers is threatening the great ice sheets over Antarctica and Greenland, is causing the oceans to become more acidic, is threatening other species with survival in such a fundamental way that the planet behaves differently now, even from a geologic point of view, hence, the Anthropocene.
One of the main drivers of these changes is humanity’s massive use of coal, oil, and natural gas, the three energy sources we call fossil fuels. When we burn coal, oil, and gas to move our cars, heat our buildings, drive our industrial production, produce electricity, we end up with carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. And carbon dioxide in the atmosphere changes the climate. This stark graph, which we will revisit, later on, shows the cycles of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, shown here, over the last 800,000 years.
Well, by natural processes mainly changes of, the earth’s, orbit, and the effects that that produced, carbon dioxide in the Earth’s history has gone up and down in kind of a wave like manner. But look at the recent few years, the, the blink of an eye in terms of the Earth’s history. Carbon dioxide has suddenly soared to levels of 400 parts per million in of CO2 in the atmosphere, something not seen on the planet, not for 800,000 years, indeed not for 3,000,000 years. And this is causing massive disruption of the climate system, global warming, and more extreme events like droughts and floods. We’ll be talking a lot about this and what could be done about it.
But it is a stark illustration of how humanity is changing the basic Earth processes. A group of scientists got together a few years ago. And noted that it’s not only the carbon dioxide in the air, but many other things that we’re doing. The way we’re using water the way that we’re putting nitrogen based fertilizers into the soil to help crop productivity. But putting it on in such large amounts that the nitrogen cycle, itself, is effected. The way that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere affects the ocean chemistry, making the ocean more acidic. The way we’re chopping down trees to make room for new pasture land and farmland. In other words, all the varied effects of a big crowded planet and a lot of economic activity, threatening the planet systems. And so this group of scientists said we are trespassing, boundaries that are safe for humanity. So these scientists said we need to identify the safe operating limits for the planet, we need to understand what those planetary boundaries are.
And around the circle you see here is their visualization of those planetary boundaries. Have a close look: climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorous cycle, global fresh water use, changes in land use, loss of biodiversity, driving other species to extinction, that is, aerosol loading, the particles we’re putting into the atmosphere through industrial processes, and chemical pollution, poisoning air and waterways. These are planetary boundaries that we trespass at profound risk for ourselves and for our children.
A core goal of the science of sustainable development is to understand these risks and most importantly to determine what we can do so that we stay within the safe operating limits of humanity, we honor and respect these planetary boundaries, as we continue to improve our well being. It’s the combination of economic prosperity, social inclusion, ending poverty, and ensuring environmental sustainability, that is the holistic objective of sustainable development.