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Planetary boundaries as millenarian prophesies


10 Apr 2013



The idea that we are collectively on the brink of overstepping “planetary boundaries” that will render civilization unsustainable has been prominently propounded by a group of scholars around Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. In common with other scientific catastrophists, Rockström et al make much of the claim by Nobel prizewinning chemist, Paul Crutzen (2002) that the earth has entered a new geological period, the Anthropocene ‘in which human actions have become the main driver of global change” that “could see human activities push the Earth system outside the stable environment state of the Holocene with consequences that are detrimental or even catastrophic for large parts of the world” (Rockström et al 2009:472). A few sentences further on they assert that:

Many subsystems of Earth react in a non-linear, often abrupt, way and are particularly sensitive around the threshold levels of certain key variables. If these variables are crossed then important subsystems, such as a monsoon system, could shift into a new state, often with deleterious or potentially even disastrous consequences of humans…. Most of these thresholds can be defined by a critical value for one or more control variables, such as carbon dioxide concentrations.

The authors go on to identify nine such planetary boundaries, two of which, the nitrogen cycle and biodiversity loss, they claim have already been transgressed with climate change rapidly approaching the point of no return.

Subsequently, 18 past winners of the Blue Planet Prize published a report warning that civilization faces a “perfect storm” of ecological problems driven by overpopulation, overconsumption, and environmentally damaging technologies (Bruntland et al 2012). These ideas echo the Malthusian arguments of the Limits-to- Growth, Small-is-Beautiful movements of the 1960s and 70s. The notion of impending cataclysmic events with dystopian outcomes is frequently invoked not only by environmental NGOs but also by policymakers in highly public forums. Examples include the UNFCCC, the World Economic Forum in Davos, the European Parliament, and recently at Planet Under Pressure, a major conference in London designed to feed into the 2012 Rio Plus 20 summit, which opened with one of the Blue Planet prize winners setting the catastrophist tone. “Reality” and “nature” were frequently invoked as the impetus for radical action. In the words of Anne Glover, the Chief Science Advisor to the European Commission, “The facts just are.” All the while, “society” was blamed for failing to respond to the urgent messages of scientists and campaigners, and social scientists chided for failing to market the natural scientists’ warnings effectively.

The rhetoric employed in the plenary sessions was especially striking in its efforts to establish the present as a uniquely defining moment for the future of humanity requiring urgent action on a global scale which seems slow in coming. Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom declared that, “We have never faced a challenge this big.” Johan Rockström drove home the point claiming that “We are the first generation to know we are truly putting the future of civilization at risk.” Apparently, those who lived through the Second World War or the prospect of mutual nuclear annihilation in the 1960s were deluded in their estimation of the challenge they faced or the consequences for civilization, to say nothing of Old Testament prophets who only had the authority of God that destruction was imminent if people did not mend their wicked ways. Lest there be any doubt that behavioural change was the goal, Dutch political scientist Frank Biermann spelled out the imperative that “The Anthropocene requires new thinking” and “The Anthropocene requires new lifestyles.”

Indeed, the rhetorics of the Anthropocene, tipping points, and planetary limits have all three characteristic features of traditional millenarianism that I identified in an early study of the credibility of millenarian prophesies among small Marxist splinter groups, long before I turned my attention to environmental issues (Rayner 1982). These are the foreshortening of time (the claim that catastrophe is imminent), the compression of space (the assertion that the earth is a closed system), and an egalitarian concern for the plight of the weak and vulnerable.

In keeping with egalitarian advocacy, a radical redistribution of certain key resources is needed: the dramatic cut in the use of fossil fuels upon which industrialised economies are based. Moreover the advocates’ preferred strategy is presented as the only course of action that will let humanity avoid its fate.

At first sight, the contemporary resurgence in catastrophist thinking might be understood as a response to improvements in our understanding of critical earth systems resulting from research-led improvements in scientific understanding. However, I have not been able to identify any new empirical studies to justify the claim that, “Although Earth’s complex systems sometimes respond smoothly to changing pressures, it seems that this will prove to be the exception rather than the rule.” (Rockström et al 2009:472). Leading ecologists have long suggested that the general assertions of systems theorists that “everything is connected to everything else” and “you can’t change just one thing” are actually less robust than is often claimed. It seems that most species in many ecosystems are actually quite redundant and can be removed without any loss of overall ecosystems character or function (e.g., Lawton 1991, but for a contrasting view, see Gitay et al 1996). While it is doubtless the case that there are many non-linear relationships in natural systems, it is another matter as to whether non-linearity dominates and whether we should, as a matter of course, expect to find tipping points everywhere. Indeed, a recent review challenges Rockström et al.’s claims, arguing that out of the planetary boundaries posited, only three genuinely represent truly global biophysical thresholds, the passing of which could be expected to result in non-linear changes (Blomqvist et al, 2012).

The same report also challenges the idea that the planetary boundaries constitute “non-negotiable thresholds”. The identification of the planetary boundaries is dependent on the normative assumptions made, for example, concerning the value of biodiversity and the desirability of the Holocene. Rather than non-negotiables, humanity faces a system of trade-offs - not only economic, but moral and aesthetic as well. Deciding how to balance these trade-offs is a matter of political contestation (Blomqvist et al, 2012:37). What counts as “unacceptable environmental change” is not a matter of scientific fact, but involves judgments concerning the value of the things to be affected by the potential changes. The framing of planetary boundaries as being scientifically derived non-negotiable limits, obscures the inherent normativity of deciding how to react to environmental change. Presenting human values as facts of nature is an effective political strategy to shut down debate.

This blog, which first appeared  on Roger Pielke Jr.'s Blog, is from a forthcoming book chapter that Steve has co-authored with Clare Heyward, James Martin Fellow, Oxford Geoengineering Programme: S. Rayner and C. Heyward, 2013 (in press). The Inevitability of Nature as a Rhetorical Resource, Chapter 14 in Kerstin Hastrup (editor),  Anthropology and Nature (Routledge, London).