Planetary Boundaries debate | June 2012 | The Economist, Scientific American

Planetary boundaries research from @resiliencesci is debated in popular press.  The Economist:

… in the autumn of 2009 … a group of concerned scientists working under the auspices of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, in Sweden, defined, in a paper in Nature, what they thought of as a safe operating space for human development—a set of nine limits beyond which people should not push their planet.

The nine areas of concern were: climate change; ocean acidification; the thinning of the ozone layer; intervention in the nitrogen and phosphate cycles (crucial to plant growth); the conversion of wilderness to farms and cities; extinctions; the build up of chemical pollutants; and the level of particulate pollutants in the atmosphere. For seven of these areas the paper’s authors felt confident enough to put numbers on where the boundaries actually lay. For chemicals and particulates, they deferred judgment. [….]

The latest criticism comes from the Breakthrough Institute, a determinedly heterodox American think-tank that focuses on energy and the environment. Among the points made in a report it published on June 11th, two stand out. The first is that the idea of boundaries does not focus enough on the distinction between things with truly global effects and those that matter primarily at a local or regional level. The second is that the planetary-boundaries group derives most of its limits by looking at conditions during the Holocene—the epoch since the end of the most recent ice age, in which human civilisations have grown up. Both of these criticisms have merit.

[…] of the nine boundaries, only three apply to systems where the boundary setters really believe there is a global threshold: the climate; the acidity of the oceans; and the ozone layer. Some of the other six may have local thresholds, but for the most part their global effects are simply the aggregate of the local ones.

Confusing the two might, in the Breakthrough Institute’s view, result in poor policy. Concern over a planet-wide nitrogen limit, for example, could lead to people forgoing the benefits that fertilisers offer the poor soils of Africa on account of harm done by their over-application in China.

The global environment: Boundary conditions | June 16, 2012 | The Economist at

The global environment: Boundary conditions | The Economist

A summary and videos on Planetary Boundaries is at “Tipping towards the unknown” | Sturle Hauge Simonsen | Sept. 23, 2009 | Stockholm Resilience Centre at

The original research by 19 authors is “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity” | Rockström, Will Steffen, Kevin Noone et al. | Ecology and Society 2009 at

The critical report is “The Planetary Boundaries Hypothesis: A Review of the Evidence” | Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger and Linus Blomqvist | June 2012 | Breakthrough Institute at

Scientific American details some of the debate:

“It would be good to define planetary boundaries at multiple scales—local, regional and global,” adds ecologist Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota and a co-author of the planetary boundaries concept. But “if there are major changes in the global environment, beyond what we have experienced in the Holocene, then this could represent a serious disruption to our civilization.”

Many of the criticisms offered by the Breakthrough Institute were raised in the original paper that presented the planetary boundaries concept, …. Blomqvist concedes that point, yet he says: “Given the sometimes naive reception of the [planetary boundaries] concept, we thought it was worthwhile pointing out.”

Other scientists have criticized the planetary boundaries as too generous (for example, allowing too much human appropriation of freshwater flows) or employing the wrong metric (atmospheric concentrations of CO2 rather than cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases).  [….]

… the present wealth and attendant short-term boost in population, consumption and technological growth may be largely founded on longer-term deterioration of the planet, including declining fish populations, acidifying oceans, degrading soils, remnant forests, polluting watersheds and a transforming climate. “Future generations will pay the price for this,” Foley argues, unless human activity is redirected. “I’m still hopeful that we can do this, but it will represent a massive shift from our current way of running the world.”

Blomqvist agrees: “We must not destroy the ability of future generations to enjoy a healthy, good life by depleting resources for short-term gain.” In addition, he says, “humans everywhere want food as well as beautiful landscapes and a rich biological heritage.”

The difference in approach comes down to how best to manage the Anthropocene: through planetary boundaries suggested by the environmental systems that allowed the epoch to come about or through local or regional efforts aimed at weighing the complex trade-offs among human resource use, ecological needs and a global push to combat climate change. “

“Walking the Line: How to Identify Safe Limits for Human Impacts on the Planet” | David Biello | June 13, 2012 | Scientific American at

Prior responses to criticism by the Breakthrough Institute have been passionate.

The Breakthrough Institute (TBI) has dedicated the resources of their organization to trying to kill prospects for climate and clean energy action in this Congress and to spreading disinformation about Obama, Gore, Congressional leaders, Waxman and Markey, leading climate scientists, Al Gore again, the entire environmental community and anyone else trying to end our status quo energy policies ….

“Debunking Breakthrough Institute’s attacks on Obama, Gore, and top climate scientists” | Joe Romm | June 17, 2009 | at


David Ing blogs at , photoblogs at , and microblogs at . See .

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One comment on “Planetary Boundaries debate | June 2012 | The Economist, Scientific American
  1. Ray Ison says:

    David, nice post. Thanks. For another perspective on this emerging critique you might like to see my recent post



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