Planetary Boundaries: A Framework for Staying Cool, Calm and Connected

By Sean Crawley

There’s a time and a place for thinking outside the box, as they say. However, when it comes to sustainability, the finite nature of planet earth ought to strictly limit our thinking and subsequent actions to stay within certain boundaries.

If you didn’t pay too much attention in school, especially in science and geography classes, you may find some of the discourse on sustainability flying straight over the top of your head. Even if you do fancy yourself as bit of a nerd, the bullshit, selective filtering, furphy-throwing and the politico-economic agenda of much of the media can confuse and dumb down even the hardiest students of life. The ‘planetary boundaries framework’, a joint initiative between the University of Copenhagen and the Australian National University, provides a solid home base to return to when your bullshit meter is redlining off the dial.

The framework has identified 9 ‘planetary boundaries’ that define the ‘safe operating space for humanity’. The complex systems that make Earth so comfy – for both us and all that other stuff with DNA – have been self-regulating in a very stable manner for the last 10,000 years or so. That is why when you wake up in the morning you pretty well know that even in the middle of summer you aren’t likely to just spontaneously burst into flames, and similarly in the middle of winter your blood won’t snap freeze like the peas in the frozen food section of the local supermarket. Some recent weather events, though, should be scaring the pants off even the most fervent growth-at-all-costs addicts.

The overview of the nine boundaries below is designed, at the least, to save you from bamboozlement, and, at best, to help you to liquidate the know-it-alls who want to keep trashing our one and only home, aka Earth.

1. Biodiversity

If you ever had to draw a food chain for a science test in high school you would have scored something for grass –> cow –> man, a simplistic take on a complex reality. For those in the know it is complex food webs that are needed to keep ecosystems balanced and sustainable. It isn’t rocket science: start replacing the smorgasbord of nature with monocultures to feed the masses and extinction rates start heading to the moon. Replacing forests and grasslands with industrial farms, mines and malls is effectively playing Jenga with the web of life. You may have heard of the sixth mass extinction – it’s happening now; we’ve overshot the biodiversity boundary by a large margin already. For a slightly more eloquent version of this message have a look at David Suzuki’s Declaration of Interdependence.

2. Climate change

Yes, here it is – the big one, the buzz-phrase on everyone’s lips whether believer or denier, whether potential victim or opportunistic capitalist with a penchant for turning disaster into a quick buck. The dissonance in the average person’s mind when the mercury falls while the scientists say that the planet is warming is deviously nurtured by the sceptics. So the planetary boundaries folks have kept it simple by looking at one easily measurable parameter: carbon dioxide in the air. If, like me, you were educated (if you could call it that) back in the last century you may have learned by rote that the percentage of CO2 in the air was 0.03% – oh the good old days! If you’re memorising data today to get a place in university or just trying to pick up at pub trivia, I suggest you get up to date and commit 0.04% to the memory bank. And if you don’t think that seemingly small proportion of CO2 can have a warming effect on the atmosphere, then you’re in for quite a ride.

3. The Nitrogen & Phosphorous Cycles

Nitrogen and phosphorous act as fertilizers to massively boost the growth of plants that we like to eat. This increases the carrying capacity of the land we toil for food. When we run out of fossil fuels to produce the mega tonnes of this magic stuff, the supermarket is going to look more like Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard than the cornucopia of gluttony presently on offer. Maybe the payoff will be that we can feast on a soup of the blue-green algae that we have been concocting in our waterways for so long now thanks to run-off from industrial agriculture. More likely we will have to settle for playing zombies as the oceans and land become dead zones if we don’t address the problem.

4. The Ozone layer

If you were around in the 1980s it would have been hard to miss the hole in the ozone layer. As Duran Duran were singing “this is planet earth” a bunch of scientists were observing that the stratospheric layer of ozone (O3) was thinning out, and that a bald patch had formed over Antarctica. CFCs, used by the new romantics in their hairsprays to defy gravity, were the main culprits. Maybe we were a bit better at getting our shit together back then and the Montreal Protocol, drawn up in 1987, was an international agreement that was well adopted, and use of the ozone depleting chemicals was phased out. The success of this effort – go humans – is encouraging, and can to some extent counter the current mood that we humans are so flawed that, no matter what we do, we are destined to destroy ourselves and everything else. The problem with not having an ozone layer is that UV light causes much more than a nice suntan. It mutates DNA faster than evolution can cope with and not even SPF factor 2000 applied liberally to every life form on earth will prevent a mutant uprising that will be make the best horror movies look like fairy tales.

5. Ocean acidification

That gas that makes soft drink fizzy, the one that you are breathing out right now, about one quarter of all that human-made carbon dioxide ends up dissolving into the oceans. If you did pay attention in chemistry class you will know that makes carbonic acid. Yes, compared to sulphuric and hydrochloric it’s small fry, but don’t say that around phytoplankton (those tiny marine organisms that produce about 50% of our planet’s oxygen) as their delicate carbonate structures literally dissolve in the acidifying oceans. The acidification of the oceans is serious stuff – just ask any aquarium owner how important the pH is in their tank. Maybe the benefit of killing the Great Barrier Reef with acid is that we won’t feel so bad about dredging it away to make way for the super ships that will cart all that coal over to Asia for electricity, chuffing yet more CO2 into the atmosphere and further fizzing our oceans.

6. Freshwater

From the oceans to the land we all know how important that H2O stuff is. But even if we kill all the sea life in an acid bath won’t we still have rain? And therefore won’t that grass –> cow –> human food chain be safe? The scale of our use and modification of freshwater on this planet is astonishing. It takes 5000 litres of water to produce one Big Mac hamburger and only three days to die of thirst.3 The diversion of freshwater to large scale agriculture, mining, energy production and manufacturing is changing the water cycle. Desertification of the Sahara may have been a nice photo opportunity for National Geographic magazine but the reality is that it is coming now to your backyard as we speak.

7. Land Use

We like forests and wilderness areas because they feed our souls more than thousands of acres of neatly planted palm oil trees do. But even if you don’t believe in a soul, the reality is that, if every square inch of the planet that can be used is already used to feed our bellies and other physical needs, then we will not only end up searching far and wide for those old National Geographics to look at with nostalgia, but will be having to eat them as well. Land is a base for terrestrial biodiversity and other earth systems such as the carbon and nitrogen cycles, not a free for all to turn into pasture, no matter how quaint that may look to some.

8. Chemical pollution

Think DDT, lead, mercury, plutonium and glyphosate. Pretty impressive what those chemicals can do on the farm or even in the kitchen, but when humans start to use these things willy-nilly at every opportunity it’s often years before we go “OOPS, maybe we shouldn’t have used that stuff”. Even at the more banal end of the scale marine microplastic pollution is devastating the marine food web – all for the sake of takeaway coffees and fancy shower gels. When playing with Mother Nature’s chemistry kit we should perhaps be closing the lid on the no-holds-barred, mad scientist, let’s just see what happens attitude. Because the fact is we just don’t fully know what a chemical will do when concentrated, reconfigured and distributed by the free market for use by 7 billion or so people. The peeps at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Australian National University haven’t even worked out the boundaries for chemical pollutants yet; far from leaving us complacent, this uncertainty should inspire great caution.

9. Aerosols

Putting stuff into the atmosphere that can form particles will not only make you wheeze and cough but can also change the weather and the climate. Just ask any honest dinosaur. We may have had some success with banning certain aerosols such as CFCs, but the ever-increasing load of smog, smoke, and a wide array of pollutant gases are not only choking us but are fiddling around with the thermostat in ways that have even the brainiest atmospheric scientists guessing. As with chemical pollutants, we’re not fully clear where the boundary is for aerosol loading, and again, that doesn’t mean we haven’t passed it.

If life on earth was a nine hole game of golf, humans have hit three balls out of bounds (see 1, 2 and 3 above), we just got out of the bunker on the fourth (see 4 above), are facing major hazards up ahead on the next three (check out points 5, 6 and 7) and we have two holes that we are currently playing blindfolded (you guessed it, numbers 8 and 9). With that sort of form no wonder there are so many sets of golf clubs for sale on eBay. If life is a game and we wish to avoid the fulltime whistle for as long as humanly possible, we will need to have a much better understanding of the field of play and the rules that apply, and play as best and fairly as we can. Cheating will not be tolerated by that ultimate umpire we call Nature.


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