Back in 1987 the Brundtland Report defined sustainability as how many between humans and nature and how many among people? In other words, environmental processes and social processes have to be working together for us to achieve global sustainability.
In 2009 Rockström and his colleagues defined planetary boundaries globally for biophysical processes. And what many people see is a rather abstract conceptualization of the Earth system. But human factors are really important. They weren’t dealt with explicitly in the global planetary boundaries framework, but human processes are the causes of many of these changes, and human communities and societies will feel the consequences of the changes.
We’re an important part of the Earth system, and we need a framework that helps us to deal with the biophysical changes and the social changes at the same time.
A couple of years ago at the Rio+20 conference this challenge of global sustainability was the main topic that brought the world’s nations together. We recognize that we’re increasingly pushing the world into biophysical unsustainability, but we’ve also got major social unsustainability problems too.
If we want to apply the planetary boundaries framework in practice, which really means applying it at sub-global levels, we have to address the human dimensions, the human drivers and impacts of environmental change.
Back in 2012, for the Rio+20 conference, Oxfam proposed what we now call the Oxfam Donut. Oxfam is a campaigning group for relieving problems of poverty. And they recognize the importance of the planetary boundaries as setting out the environmental ceiling for the safe operating space for humanity. But they also argued that for a fair and just world we need to recognize the social foundations of that safe operating space too.
They argued that any framework or vision of sustainable development for the world that we now live in needs to recognize that eradicating poverty and increasing justice all around the world is intimately tied to the biophysical processes of ecological sustainability too.
This focus on really linking people with planetary sustainability is an active area of research and conversation between science and policy at the moment. This figure shows some work that was done recently by the global change science community really emphasizing, that our social processes and above all our economic processes need to happen within the constraints that are presented by the functioning of the Earth system.
We have some practical experience in linking social activities and these global environmental changes. For example at the global level, the International Convention on Biological Diversity recognizes the importance of local and traditional knowledge as an important part of protecting ecosystems and preventing the loss of biodiversity.
We have many community level initiatives for sustainability. You may be familiar with the Transition Towns, for instance. That starts to recognize the importance of everybody’s action at the local level to contribute to global sustainability as well.
Businesses are also engaging in ways of reducing their environment impact, and they need our encouragement at every step.
Fairtrade products are one example and certification systems that reduce the impact on ecosystems, fisheries, forests, and so on.
These are very practical approaches where we’re trying to see how our local social activities reduce the pressures on global environmental dynamics. We need many more of these activities, and we need many more to engage in them all around the world. But these show us that we’re moving in the right direction.
Global sustainability fundamentally means recognizing Earth’s biophysical processes and, that they set the conditions for our human and social activities on Earth. We need to be constantly aware of the consequences of our choices and activities on the ecosystems on which all of humanity depends. And we need to bear in mind that the choices we make can either harm or safeguard the human values of fairness and global justice.