This course on planetary boundaries and human opportunities is in fact the first time we summarize the latest science on our understanding of our human impacts on the Earth system, and combine it with the story of redefining sustainable development and a future where humanity prospers within a safe, just and resilient Earth system.
And I’d really like to congratulate you for taking yourself through all the scientific updates, the insights, and all the work that we have been sharing, myself and my colleagues, during this intensive period. And I really hope that you feel that you have received a broad, comprehensive overview that also gives you the confidence that you’re standing on huge amounts of knowledge to move forward towards sustainable development I this very challenging era of the Anthropocene.
In this lecture I’d just like to give you a little bit of a wrap-up of what we’ve covered during these weeks.
And the first part is clearly the evidence that today there’s no virgin spot of untouched nature anywhere. So even though the Holocene interglacial era over the past ten thousand years that has enabled civilizational development as we know it, our modern world, has been an Eden’s Garden of stability, of beauty, of nature enabling economic growth and development, there’s no doubt that today we are in the driving seat. This is a biosphere shaped by humanity, for good or for bad. We often portray ourselves as the big culprits of environmental change.
I would like to argue that let’s rather see ourselves as not those who consumed the planet, we’re now those who are stewards of the planet. We’re in the driving seat, we have a choice, if we want to thrive in the future it’s now time to recognize that the Anthropocene is the story of great risk, but it’s the story of the privilege of having this knowledge. And I hope you really feel that you’ve received all the evidence that we’ve tried to really load on you, that this is the case and therefore we need to act accordingly.
To summarize that in a very simple way, which we’ve tried to convey based on the science, is that just up until 20-25 years back you could actually argue that we were a relatively small world on a big planet. In fact conventional economic growth worked quite well, subsidized by the planet, meaning at we could have good economic growth, which could occur at the expense of biodiversity loss, eutrophication, fresh water pollution, air pollution, and destruction of the climate system, but the Earth system was not sending any invoices back. In fact, Mother Earth was very forgiving thanks to her remarkable resilience. So the model worked, in fact it worked remarkably well for a minority of the world that actually have been thriving tremendously well on this unsustainable growth model.
But now, over just the last 20 years, we’ve shifted into having a large world on a relatively small planet. It means we are in [at] saturation point; we’re hitting the ceiling of ecological capacity of the Earth system to support human development. And of course when Mother Earth starts sending her invoices it is time to react, and that’s the shift in paradigm. And often it’s said that well, you know, but environmental scientists have been warning for 50 years that this is something that will occur.
And I argue, and I hope you’ve received the knowledge to convince you, that yes, the warnings came early but they came well, well before we had empirical evidence that we really were facing problems. In fact, Rachel Carson was a tremendously insightful person who well before the dangers warned humanity.
That was a proactive warning to help humanity. Now we’re reacting to the evidence we’re standing on. And that’s a very different situation.
Now why are we in this situation? Well we have mapped out the fact that it’s not only population growth, it is certainly affluence and well being in unsustainable lifestyles. We have a climate crisis that you wish would occur on a resilient planet, but unfortunately we’re undermining the ecosystem services and functions that build the resilience and the capacity of the Earth system to deal with a shock such as the energy disturbance we’re causing through climate change.
So we have this multiple, complex interactions of global scale changes not only in the climate system, but essentially all the components of the Earth system. And upon, on top of, all this we need to recognize that nature’s not behaving as we always thought, in an incremental and predictable way. No, nature has long periods of huge ability to dampen and even hide change, and then suddenly it can irreversibly shift abruptly when crossing tipping points when we push ecosystems too far.
And this quadruple squeeze creates the reality of the challenges we’re facing. Moreover it’s not as if the big, big changes occurred in the past.
No, I would argue what we’ve seen so far may just be the aperitif, the first course. We’re entering the main course now because it is now, right now, that two giants collide. The first giant being the fact that so far it’s a rich minority that has caused the major environmental problems we see, but we’re now having a future where we will most likely have not one but four, five, six billion co-inhabitants on Earth with an average income equivalent to the rich nations of today. This is a tremendously positive story, the right to development among all is now at reach. We can eradicate poverty in the world. But if we follow an unsustainable pathway this will take us much, much more rapidly and accelerate even further a journey in the wrong direction.
The second giant is that so far nature actually has responded relatively in incremental and predictable ways. But it is now we start seeing the first signs of abrupt tipping points. It is now we see the first evidence of potentially irreversible melting in parts of Antarctica, irreversible and accelerated melting in Greenland, the real risk of collapse of large parts of tropical coral reefs, the real risk of a flip in tipping point from rainforests to savannahs.
This was not in the past. It’s a giant wakening up right now. So this is the juncture where we need to urgently move towards a safe operating space. That’s why scientists stepped forward and gathered all the knowledge we have to ask this biggest of all questions, what is our desired state for the planet?
And if we can answer that question what are the environmental processes that regulate that stability? What are the planetary boundaries that can enable us to stay safe? And that led to the planetary boundary framework.
And as you’ve seen in the lectures we’ve given here, science can answer the first question, what’s our desired state, which is defined by the Holocene equilibrium that is the interglacial period we’ve had over the past ten thousand years which has enabled civilizational development and our modern world as we know it.
This is the period where all the nature, all the ecosystems, the climate system, rainfall systems, everything that we nurture, love and depend upon from nature for human well-being, settles in in the Holocene.
This leads to a very simple but very dramatic conclusion, that the Holocene is the only state of the planet we know that can support the modern world as we know It. That is the basis upon which this transition to a new sustainable development paradigm evolves. But it’s so helpful because we know the Holocene. We have a lot of knowledge on the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorus cycle, hydrological cycle, how the biosphere, the cryosphere, the atmosphere, the stratosphere, and the hydrosphere all interact and processes that help regulate the resilience of the Holocene, so we can use that knowledge to define boundaries.
Planetary boundaries, though, I want to emphasize in this summary also is different to earlier historic concepts of how we deal with rising environmental risks. We have talked through the lectures, of the concepts around limits to growth, carrying capacities, different analyses of tipping elements, tipping points, which are all tremendously important. In fact, so important that the planetary boundary work stands upon the shoulders of these advancements.
But the difference is distinct and very important to move forward on seeing the usefulness of planetary boundaries. Because most of these concepts in the past were based on efforts of trying to not only assess the resources and ecosystem capacity of the planet, but also made assumptions on human innovation capacity, basically our ability to develop technologies and practices to develop and exploit nature, but also on human needs. And the analysis of limits basically based on an assessment of when human needs exceed the capacity of the planet to supply those needs, we are in a situation of overshoot, and thereby a situation of great, great risk.
The planetary boundary analysis changes that profoundly by simply taking away humanity for a little while, not making any assumptions on our ability to be more efficient, more clever, and have technological breakthroughs, we even avoid making an assumption on human needs. We simply try to answer the question for the planet to stay stable what will it take? And once we’ve defined those biophysical boundaries we put humanity back into the safe operating space.
A quite simple way of understanding this is that it’s equivalent to playing football or soccer. You know, that game you would never, ever think of playing if you wouldn’t have a line that shows exactly what the playing field is. You put a line and then you have a referee that says very clearly when the ball transgresses the boundary and the ball is out of game. You’re not allowed to play outside of the boundary. But inside the playing field, inside the safe operating space, you can actually play like Zlatan, you can play fantastic economic growth or football. Or you can play as lousily as I would do in that safe operating space. Nothing hinders you to prosper inside the playing field.
And that is the challenge and opportunity with a framework like planetary boundaries. It means we’re shaping sustainable development, it means moving towards a paradigm where the economy serves society, which evolves within planetary boundaries. It means recognizing that the biophysical ceiling actually has a social floor where we need to now, for the first time ever, recognize that we’re in the wrong of sharing absolute global budgets with carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, fresh water, biodiversity, which means a true equity dimension to the planetary boundary analysis in terms of distributing in a fair way the remaining ecological space on Earth.
So this is an enormous challenge for humanity, but also provides large opportunities. And we’ve been discussing quite profoundly in the course whether this is in contradiction with economic growth. Our conclusion is that that is certainly not the case. Rather it’s an opportunity to now explore economic growth within the safe operating space of our planetary boundaries. And we’ve been illustrating that in form of this planetary soufflé where the growth of the economy can occur within a space, and we have to be careful to avoid collapses in that economy.
So all this knowledge, all the different, new concepts we’ve been discussing during this course; from planetary boundaries, to resilience, and tipping points; can actually be condensed down to one very nice statement put forward by my dear friend and colleague Carl Folke who’s been lecturing on the course, and our Science Director at the Stockholm Resilience Centre that “people are embedded parts of the biosphere, and now shape it in the Anthropocene, from the local to global scale, today and in the future, and at the same time, we need to now recognize, that people, we are fundamentally dependent on the capacity of the biosphere to sustain human development in the future.”
And this to me is an operational strategy for our economy, for our businesses, and for our policy, and for communities in the future. It also has a very profound philosophical dimension, ethical dimension.
The ethical dimension we’ve have been discussing so profoundly, that we’re now one interdependent connected world, community that needs to share the ecological space on earth.
But the philosophical side, to me, is that is all boils down to they very, very simple recognition that if we can become truly successful stewards of the remaining beauty on Earth, we will be very successful also in being able to secure economic growth and development.
Because everything that matters for the economy resides in the nature around ourselves. Outside our window, locally where we live, to the large systems that regulate Earth resilience.
So when we say that a fundamental strategy is to reconnect our selves, reconnect our societies, reconnect our economies to the biosphere. That’s not just rhetoric. That is truly the core and the new paradigm of development within a safe operating space on Earth.
And I really hope that you feel that during this course you not only received the tools to go out there and act towards this endeavor, but that you have also been able to get the knowledge where you feel that, yes, science now tells us a profoundly important story based on empirical evidence, which gives us the confidence to move forward along these lines.
Of course, it is tremendously challenging, it’s an enormous project to start changing the course of world development, but I will also end by reminding us that the situation is urgent. We just have 5-10 years to transition towards a safe operating space if we want to avoid the unacceptable risks that science is now showing clearly that we face.
So the knowledge that this course provides needs to be shared and discussed, so that we can all as a global community start the pathway towards a safe future for humanity.