Planetary Boundaries – heading for a crash

Ten years ago, the Johan Rockström assembled the world’s leading researcher on biophysical systems to map out the Earth systems that are necessary for our civilization. One well known system that is fundamental to our way of life is the ozone layer. With a thinner ozone layer, radiation levels make life much less interesting, and at a certain point disastrous. The result was the concept of the Planetary Boundaries, which was published in the top scientific journal Nature in 2009.

I only got to know about this in 2014, and it has had a major impact on my world view, and guided much of my life since. It was shocking to learn that we threaten our civilization in numerous ways, of which climate change is only one, and that all indicators but one are getting worse every year. In this post, I will try to explain the concept and the conclusions I draw regarding my own life and some speculations for the future.

The Planetary Boundaries is a model of global biophysical systems that support our life on the planet. For each system, quantitative models and indicator metrics have been developed to indicate the health of the system.
For each system, these indicators have four numerical values:

1. pre-industrial value of the indicator
2. current value
3. safe zone value (try to stay inside this value – marked in green in the figure below)
4. catastrophe value (if we pass this, we are doomed – marked in red in the figure)

For some systems, we do not yet have quantitative models, e.g. pesticide/toxic substance use (called “novel entities”) is so complex that we maybe never will have enough knowledge to know how much we can “safely” spray of every chemical. The un-quantified systems are marked with gray in the diagram below.

The most common illustration of the model is a pie-diagram, showing all eleven biophysical systems in one picture:

Updated levels of the “Planetary Boundaries”, Science 2015.


Positive example – Ozone layer

Let’s look at the positive example of the ozone layer.
This global system is measured in an obscure metric called “global average of ozone concentration in Dobson Units” and the pre-industrial value was 290 DU. The safe zone is when we reduce the ozone concentration a little bit, but not below 276 DU.
Today we are on 285 DU, so we are in a safe zone, and it is slowly improving. (read more on NASA’s page on this).

Predicted recovery of the ozone layer. Image NASA.

The ozone depletion problem was caused by certain molecules (chlorinated organic compounds) that leaked into the atmosphere, mainly freons in cooling agents and spray-can gases. Fortunately, this was identified on time, and we got together to fix the root cause. The 1987 Montreal protocol banning the use of these chemicals was a huge success and 197 countries worked together to solve the problem. Civilization survived.

The ozone layer story is interesting from many perspectives.
First of all, it shows that it is difficult to address slow systems with large storage/stock.
We are 30 years later, and it is only now starting to improve. The first 20 years after the agreement, the ozone layer was still depleting, due to all the chlorine that was already emitted to the atmosphere. (It will likely take until 2075, almost one hundred years after the Montreal Protocol until the ozone layer is back on pre-industrial levels.)

Another interesting point is that it was a minor part of the economy (cooling agents) that was threatening our civilization in a way that was identified almost by mistake (by Paul Crutzen, who later got the Nobel Prize for his work on atmospheric chemistry).
It was therefore relatively cheap to switch this part of the economy to an alternative technology. That is in stark contrast to the conundrum of fossil fuels as a base for our energy production.


The chilling story: Biodiversity loss, phosphate and nitrate eutrophication, erosion, climate change

Five of the biophysical systems have already passed the safe boundary, and they have done it during my lifetime. Three of those are already in the catastrophe area. If we continue like this we know that civilization is toast. The only thing we don’t know is exactly when.

Peculiar and worrying is that the top three catastrophic failure areas are not much discussed in the media:

  • Biodiversity loss
  • Nitrate eutrophication – nutrient overload in surface waters
  • Posphate eutrophication – nutrient overload in surface waters

The other two systems that are on the way to become lethal are:

  • Climate change
  • Erosion (‘Land Use Change’)

Out of these, only climate change is discussed in the daily news.

I will come back to each of these five systems in future posts, to detail out a bit more about what it means and what I think we should do about it.

What do I care? Après nous le deluge?

I really want to leave a better world behind, or at least as good as I came into it. It is my main moral imperative – I pick up my own trash and I don’t destroy for future generations.

However, now I realize that this is not really the case.

I found the terminator and he is me. The way I live, is wrecking the planet in so many ways. I am a driver of biodiversity loss, of eutrophication and climate change. I only realized this when I already had lived 40 years in a grossly destructive lifestyle with intercontinental travels and a Volkswagen diesel car.
It hurts every time I start the engine.

Most of the biophysical systems were in okay shape when I was born, but have been deteriorating ever since. Most are getting worse every year. Still we don’t talk much about this.

I didn’t even know. I lived in the bliss of ignorance.

How come I did not see it?

I am not sure why I did not realize this before.
I guess that part of it is the brainwash of our culture; encouraging consumption as self-expression and the blind faith in technology and growth. (More about the technofanatsy religion of my youth in another post…)

Another reason is that we have moved the problem out of sight. Here in Western Europe, many environmental indicators have improved in the last thirty years. The Ruhr Gebiet is clean and green, compared to the grayish smokestacks of my youth. The polluting factories that produce all our stuffs have moved to Asia.
Our of sight, out of mind…

A third factor is that only a fringe of society is talking about these problems, while the main stream is focused on jobs, cars, growth and this year’s budget deficit. Even though I briefly was a member of Greenpeace, I never really understood the magnitude and urgency of the problem. Technology would fix it, right? Just around the corner is a breakthrough that will make everything perfect…

Slow awakening

I am slowly facing my own consumerist addiction. (“My name is Göran and I have a problem.”)

More and more I can look at my own behaviour and acknowledge the destructive habits I have. Slowly I learn to make other choices, even though I still have a long way to go.

A fantastic realization is surfacing; that it is possible to live a good life in balance with Nature. The myth of stuff is not true. I meet more and more inspiring people working in tune with the soil, producing healthy food in regenerative systems.  Fantastic pioneers like Wouter van Eck, who is living off a beautiful agroecological system in Groesbeek (a.k.a. Voedselbos Ketelbroek).
Even in Sweden, there is a growing movement of back-to-the-landers like David Jonstad. And in our town Soest, Joop and Corrine Wantenaar use their diverse smallholding to improve the health of their land. They improve the state of the planetary boundaries, by working in tune with ecology.

Inspiration to take the next step, and the next one after that.

Wouter van Eck on his “Food Forest”, with guest John D. Liu, 2016.
Farmer Joop in our town, the first (and until today the only) organic farmer here.



Klarien Klingen and Janneke Steenmans, inspiring young Dutch agroecological farmers.

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