Tag Archives: planetary boundaries

Planetary Boundary 1 – Biodiversity Loss

What is a “Planetary Boundary” and why is it important? Link to the introduction article on this topic. 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 the biodiversity support system, the choice was to measure this as the extinction rate:  How many species disappear every year? Specifically as “species lost per million of species per year“.
Looking into the fossil record, we can estimate the biodiversity loss over time, and look at what is a sustainable/recoverable extinction rate, leading back to the a stable equilibrium with new species forming.

The Earth always loses some species every year, and new ones are formed through cross-overs and mutations. However, when destruction outpaces species forming, we have a problem.

Santa Helena ear-wig. An example of a recently  extinct species.
Not all species that go extinct are cute like the Dodo.

For each Planetary Boundary, there is an indicator with four numerical values (in brackets the numbers for the biodiversity loss):

  1. pre-industrial value of the indicator (loss of 1 species/million species/year)
  2. current value (loss of > 100 species/million species/year)
  3. safe zone value (try to stay inside this value – marked in green in the figure) (10 species/million species/year)
  4. catastrophe value (if we pass this, we are doomed – marked in red in the figure) (100 species/million species/year)

The Five Extinctions in the past

Elizabeth Kolbert has written about the five prehistorical extinctions that we know, and what is going on today. Five times, during the time of advanced life on Earth, the planetary system has been put out of balance with enormous extinctions as a result.

The most famous one was when the large dinosaurs disappeared some 60 million years ago. Science suggests it was an immense asteroid impact in Yucatan, Mexico. Small mammals and birds survived, and we are one of the species who appeared in the aftermath. (Most species that have walked the face of the Earth, or swam in the Sea are extinct. Some in the five great extinctions, some in the dull periods in between. We humans will also go extinct. It typically takes a million years, and since we have been around for 100,000 years or so, we could have quite some time ahead.)

What is special this time is that it is not a volcano or an asteroid driving the extinction. The “natural disaster” is our civilization.
We are the Terminators. We humans drive species into extinction at the same rate as the Yucatan asteroid.

Terminator Actions

We kill our fellow Earth-species, one bite at a time.
A handful we really eat away at, like tigers, but most are collateral damage in the chemo-industrial agriculture. We cut the rich forests and plant corn. We strip the prairies, spray herbicides and plant soy.
We bulldoze the creeks and plant wheat.
Mainly as a feedstock for meat factories.

80% of all agricultural lands are used to produce animal feed. On average on the planet, we eat more than 40 kg meat per person per year. [1]
Most of the feed is produced with pesticides, in devastating monocultures. Most of the feed goes into confined concrete factories where thousands of animals lead a life of misery, until butchering and ending up in our Supermarkets. (Let’s leave the moral point of maltreating animals here. And we will come back to the effluent of meat factories in the installment of Planetary Boundaries of Eutrophication / nitrates and phosphates in the surface waters.)

Meat is a fantastic food product, but we kill ourselves and the planet in our barbaric pork-and-chicken-binge.

State of the Planet

We are losing biodiversity at a staggering rate, especially since the 1970’s and it is most likely completely unnecessary. In a small and intensely industry-agriculturalized country like The Netherlands, there is not much left. 85% of the “Mean Species Abundance” has been lost.

Mean Species Abundance – Netherlands is the green bottom curve… Source is the government agency for environmental monitoring http://www.pbl.nl







Categories of species that we lose. Some disappear much faster than others… ref IUCN 2015.


In our travels in Asia we have seen bountiful forests razed and replaced with corn. Forests that have developed for tens of thousands of years, with amazing diversity. Now there are only small pockets left, like this forest in Khao Yai, Thailand:

Khao Yai national park, Thailand. Here they looked at 1 km2 of the forest and found 1200 species of trees! (In Sweden there are <30.)



Well, it is not really possible to get any extinct species back. Those who are gone are gone, despite the sci-fi stories of the Jurassic Parc. And the endangered species have very few individuals left, so the genetic robustness is far from ideal. We need to limit the damage and allow species to recover and recombine into new combinations, as has always happened.

Therefore, the first step is to reduce the area of growing annual grains for animal feed and plant trees. We need to recreate habitat. Lebensraum. To achieve this, we need to reduce meat consumption, since that is the dominant areal user.
We can go back to the situation of 2001, when average meat consumption was 15% less, as a starting point. In no time, we can rebuild vast areas of refuge (300 million hectares!). If we go down even further to a more healthy diet, we also have plenty of space for lots of healthy vegetable gardens everywhere!

The second step is to stop using agricultural pesticides. Go organic. Last week an article in Science came out that showed that neonicotinoid insecticides are present in 75% of all honey that was sampled from all over the world. The “precision agriculture” with minimal impact is a myth. The pesticides break down slowly and spread through our waters and kill/weaken wherever they come.

My proposal is that we handle chemical industrial agriculture as an “Asbestos-problem”. We in society made a mistake in the 1960’s and we should solve it together. We need to put some tax money in a pot and help farmers to switch over, and strengthen the legal limits.

Toxic maize seeds, grown in the middle of our village Soest, in the Netherlands. The seeds are coated with “Mesurol” which kills earth worms and other soil life. It also makes birds sick so that they leave the seeds in the fields.

The third stage is to produce healthy food in a circular way. Agriculture in balance with ecology to strengthen the soils – a.k.a. agro-ecology. There are innovative farmers who build rich soils using animals, trees, bushes and grasses. They develop new ways to cycle nutrients, where our participation as eaters is just one step of the nutrient dance.
(We are also a kind of earth worms.)

What can I do?

  • Eat less meat. Buy organic meat. If you can from a farmer you trust.
  • Join a political party and drive policy for a transition to organic farming and creation of wildlife refuges.
  • Support local agro-ecology projects. Find an organic nut grower, or join an agro-ecology interest group.
  • Grow a garden. (Simplest starting micro-garden: Get some compost and get started right away. Put a handful of garlic cloves in the dirt, and you will have plenty of delicious garlic greens to eat as soon as spring comes.)
  • Plant some trees. Try a vegetable tree like the “lettuce tree“!
Xavier San Giorgi, designer and planter of Food Forests. Here we plant hazelnut trees in Houten, Netherlands. Read more on http://foodforestry-development.nl/
Birkenhof Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) vegetable garden in Soest. We are members of this organic garden. Delicious and eco-friendly. Try to find something like this in your neighbourhood.





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.