The promise and problems of planetary boundaries
`Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.
Which straw did break the camel’s back? It was, of course, the final one.
Retrospectively, this is obvious, but is it so obvious that
the breaking point could have been predicted?
In theory the answer is clear, it is logically inevitable that if you keep piling increasing burden on an ungulate or any other load bearing creature then at some point the equilibrium of its spine will rapidly transit from one metastable state (unbroken) to another (broken).
Once that happens the whole camel being useful to carry stuff paradigm goes out of the window.
So, if it is obvious that ever more straw on said dromedary is a bad idea then why is it so difficult to stop adding to the load and would it help if we knew precisely which straw was going to be the problem?
An operating space for humanity
This is a question that environmentalists must start to grasp in the context of environmental limits and their translation into fixed system and condition boundaries.
A clear offspring of the Club of Rome’s 1972 Limits To Growth, the Nine Planetary Boundaries were developed by Johan Rockström et al in a 2011 paper in Nature and are being used as the basis for campaigns and policy work by NGOs such as Forum For the Future and WWF. They are also at the heart of the popular Doughnut model developed by Kate Raworth of Oxfam, an analysis of the space (between the limits of the planet to support complex human activity and the needs of humanity) within which a sustainable world might operate.
Boundaries: useful in theory but in practice?
The concept of planetary boundaries is a powerful and seductive one, but also one that may have limited utility for driving a sustainable world for a mix of illogical and logical reasons.
Humans aren’t all that rational, especially en masse…
Normal human behaviours tend to explore and test limits. When we are told that it is unsafe to go beyond a particular point close to the edge of a cliff or a canyon, what do most of us do? We go right up to the point and peer over the edge. If we all did that at once many of us would fall. So, telling us that there is a boundary we should not cross is a pretty sure-fire way of giving us the message that it is absolutely safe to go up close, even though it might be death to cross. Humans are bloody-mindedly binary in that way.
Knowing boundaries exist doesn’t really help in a massively plural world
On a global scale, environmental and social impacts arise through the actions of billions of actors undertaking trillions of actions, each with varying implications. They are not all coordinated and not all directable. They take place within a general framework of economic and capitalist behaviour, mediated by varying legal codes and social mores.
There is no single or homogenous audience to warn about crossing boundaries. Instead different actors, be they individuals making consumption choices, governments setting legislation or corporations making production choices will tend to make these choices in isolation even if they have cumulative common impacts.
Boundaries frame the territory but don’t provide a solution
The best plan, of course, is to reconsider the whole camel/straw equation. Are there other ways the two could interact that would avoid inevitable systemic breakdowns (a cart perhaps)?
Knowing the limits to (current models of) growth is very useful but in the long term, not as useful as finding and valuing other ways to grow that do not add further burden to the Planet’s overloaded systems.
We could remove the threat posed by approaching or crossing boundaries by developing sustainable industrial and production systems and technologies that innately respect and reinforce the boundaries rather than pushing against them.
Beyond rationing unsustainable behaviour…
Rather than focusing upon rationing the amount of unsustainable behaviour that we are allowed to undertake, we would be better putting our time and ingenuity into developing modes of production and consumption that have inherently positive, restorative, ecological and social implications.
The vast majority of humanity, whilst they may or may not actively admit it, tends to share an interest in sustaining complex and interdependent modes of economics, trade, business and quality of life.
If this desire is to be met there are clearly some changes that need to be made which allow an alignment between individual choices and collective outcomes. Ecological and social problems are not actually often conscious or deliberate choices but the side effects of other (consumption) actions. It is the side effects which stand to threaten the continuing operations of global capitalism, not the natural individual intentions of citizens to buy and use things that they want or need.
Recognising the breaking points of environmental systems should spur human ingenuity and creativity; stimulating science and technologies that push at the limits of what is possible, not at the limits of what is sustainable.
This post was originally published (with a lower camel quotient) in Guardian Sustainable Business on 19/11/2012